Sustainable or green IT is not new. In fact, it has been a topic of discussion among IT leaders for decades. But the concept of sustainability in general, which the United Nations defines as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” is something people and organisations are prioritising more than ever — and for good reason.
Concerns about the environment and climate change are front and centre among world leaders, environmental advocacy groups, and society at large. Corporate executives and boards want their organisations to do their part — or at least be perceived as doing their part — to help.
The push for better environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives has taken a high priority at many organisations, and this encompasses more efficient uses of technology.
What is sustainable IT?
In the broadest sense, sustainable IT refers to efforts to ensure a positive impact on the environment with regard to the production, use, and disposal of technology. But as with many other terms in technology, definitions will vary depending on who’s providing them.
“Sustainable IT is an umbrella term that describes an environment-focused approach to the design, use, and disposal of computer hardware and software applications and the design of accompanying business processes,” says Matthew Bradley, sustainability director at IT services provider Capgemini.
“The term also extends to activities such as responsible mining of the rare metals used to develop IT hardware, water conservation, and the application of circular economy principles across the technology lifecycle,” Bradley says.
The terms “sustainable IT” and “green IT” might be used interchangeably by many, but experts say they are not exactly the same.
“For me, the terms differ in what they encapsulate,” Bradley says. Green IT refers to an approach where an organisation seeks to reduce the operational environmental impact of its IT estate, he says.
This is often primarily through actions that increase energy efficiency, such as optimising server usage, transitioning to more efficient physical IT assets, or by seeking to deploy more efficient coding or software.
“My preference is to use the term ‘sustainable IT,’ because it expands the remit to consider the full lifecycle of assets,” Bradley says. “The term encompasses other dimensions, such as raw materials use, social justice and human rights, and end-to-end supply chain impacts.”
Amy Cravens, research manager, Governance, Risk, and Compliance at research firm IDC, has a similar take on the two terms. “‘Green IT’ is a term that’s been used for quite a while and has probably been mostly focused on carbon emissions and energy usage,” she says.
Sustainable IT also includes topics such as waste reduction, managing end of lifecycle for products, and “social pillar” topics related to sustainable sourcing, such as human rights protection, Cravens says.
For example, sustainable IT practices might include looking at data centre energy consumption as well as enabling technologies such as software that facilitates more sustainable business practices through the functionality and insights that it delivers.
“I think ‘green IT’ has been looked at more as a nice to have, while these days there’s been the whole shift to ESG. IT buyers are making more deliberated decisions to work with an IT vendor based on its ability to help them with their sustainable transformation journey,” Cravens says.
Why is sustainable IT so important now?
Sustainable IT is something organisations need to embrace for a variety of reasons, including their ability to meet governmental regulations in many countries around the world.
Clearly some of the main incentives are related to financial impacts. Two areas of impact are business value and stakeholder value, Cravens says. “From a business value perspective, organisations are seeking sustainable solutions to create material benefit to the organisation,” she says. That benefit comes from reduced energy costs and greater resiliency.
“Stakeholder impact refers to meeting the expectations of internal and external stakeholders, including consumers, regulatory [bodies], employees, board, and investors,” Cravens says.
Technology “has the ability to positively impact many environmental issues; however, it also has unintended consequences,” Bradley adds. IT accounts for about three per cent of global CO2 emissions — more than Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal combined — according to Capgemini’s Environmental Sustainability Performance Report 2021/2022.
“This footprint is currently growing, with contributing factors including rising demand for computing power and data storage as well as the production and disposal of electronic devices,” Bradley says. “As organisations around the world look to balance their growth objectives with the need to build sustainable businesses, it is important to consider the impact of IT.”
Businesses need to consider sustainable IT approaches to help deliver on carbon reduction commitments, especially as many continue to invest in digital technologies, Bradley says. That needs to include sustainable IT procurement and the use of sustainable IT services.
There has been a massive increase in electricity needed to power digital technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) systems and cloud computing infrastructures that require more computing power and storage, says Niklas Sundberg, senior vice president and CIO at Swedish conglomerate Assa Abloy and a board member of SustainableIT.org, a non-profit organisation focused on advancing global sustainability through technology leadership.
Electronic waste “has become the largest waste stream in the world, with 57 million tons being generated each year,” Sundberg says. “Just data centres alone is on par with the aviation industry in terms of carbon emission,” Sundberg says. IT hardware requires rare earth minerals that are finite, he adds.
What aspects of IT does sustainability encompass?
Virtually every aspect of IT falls under the sustainability umbrella. For example, think of all the components that make up an IT infrastructure. There is data centre equipment including services, storage systems, networking, and power systems.
For many organisations, the cloud is a growing part of the infrastructure. And while the shift to cloud services is often touted as a way to reduce data centre energy consumption, the vast infrastructures of the giant public cloud service providers need to be powered, as do private and hybrid clouds operated by organisations.
Networks and communications systems, including all the networks that enable remote users to gain access to corporate systems, are also part of the sustainability picture. The emergence of edge computing and the Internet of Things has greatly expanded demand for connectivity.
Then there are all the end-user devices, including desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and others, and the applications they run to support the business — not to mention a host of peripherals such as monitors, keyboards, printers, and more.
Benefits and challenges in implementing sustainable IT
Implementing sustainable IT practices can lead to significant benefits for organisations, Bradley says. A survey of 1,000 worldwide organisations conducted by the Capgemini Research Institute found that enterprises saw improved ESG scores and brand image, improved customer satisfaction, and financial savings.
“The greatest opportunity for businesses is that once an organisation has a sustainable IT estate, this can be used to unlock greater sustainability outcomes,” Bradley says.
“For example, this could be by making it possible to realise positive sustainability outcomes within a company’s operations, such as by using a technology-based solution to reduce fuel consumption through optimising logistics planning.”
With sustainable IT, enterprises can create a more resilient business by offsetting ESG risks, Cravens says. Specifically, from an operational standpoint they can offset energy, weather, supply chain, and other potential impacts, she says.
Another possible benefit is enhanced reputation, Cravens says. Having a sustainable IT strategy in place can improve a company’s standing with customers, employees, and business partners.
And then there are the cost savings that can come from migrating to energy efficient solutions, which in turn improves financial performance, Cravens says.
A key challenge facing organisations implementing sustainable IT practices is a need for greater understanding of the environmental impact of the digital world, Bradley says. For instance, among the global organisations surveyed by Capgemini Research Institute, less than half (43 per cent) said they are aware of their organisation’s IT footprint.
Other challenges include determining which solutions will have the most material impact on sustainability and identifying metrics to track the impact of sustainability investments, Cravens says.
Best practices for successful sustainable IT programs
One of the best things a company can do when launching or renewing a sustainable IT initiative is to evaluate what it has in place in terms of IT infrastructure and determine where improvements can be made.
Part of this assessment includes figuring out which new sustainability tools to invest in. “Conduct a materiality assessment and invest first in those solutions offering the most impact to the organisation,” Cravens says.
Then, track the impact of the investment by leveraging data management platforms to collect and analyse data related to sustainability, such as energy usage.
When looking to accelerate a sustainable IT approach, Capgemini recommends a three-stage effort that looks beyond technology and operations to also embrace the need to consider consumption habits and ways of working, Bradley says.
“First, companies need to set the foundation for sustainable IT by assessing their environmental footprint and creating a sustainable IT strategy that aligns with the business’s global sustainability strategy,” Bradley says.
“Second, they need to create effective governance procedures that support the strategy, and third, they need to operationalise their plan by, for example, embedding sustainability in software architecture and by developing a sustainability culture among employees.”
Spreading awareness about the need for IT sustainability and a comprehensive strategy is vital. Half of the organisations surveyed by Capgemini said they have defined an enterprise-wide sustainability strategy, but only 18 per cent said they have a comprehensive sustainable IT strategy with well-defined goals and target timelines.
Only one third of organisations have established policies mandating the reporting of the enterprise IT carbon footprint, the report said. In addition, most organisations do not extend disclosure requirements to their vendors.
Tools to help sustainable IT efforts
Organisations can choose from a number of technology solutions to support their sustainable IT plan.
One is ESG management software. These products collect data and enable companies to track, manage, and report on areas such as energy and water usage, waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions, workplace safety, and compliance metrics.
ESG management software automates the process of gathering and analysing data, potentially saving time and reducing errors. Data is collected from users via their devices, or from connected systems, sensors, devices, and other components that play a role in any of the areas being tracked. Data that’s gathered is aggregated and made available on dashboards and reports to help with decision making.
Another tool is advanced grid management software, which includes supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), utility energy management systems, and operationalised real-time capabilities that leverage physical and machine learning models, according to research firm Gartner.
The software is used by electricity system operators to monitor and control energy resources across the electricity grid, to maintain system stability, and defer capital investments, the firm says.
By deploying tools such as these and implementing best practices, organisations can enhance their IT sustainability efforts — to the benefit of their own business and the world at large.