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Get the most out of green IT

By Pierre Berthon, Victoria Crittenden, Philip DesAutels and Leyland Pitt

Executive Summary
Companies in the 21st century accept and acknowledge their responsibility in protecting the environment. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence for the unsustainable nature of modern living is overwhelming. Information technology and the greening thereof have led to green IT as a particularly hot topic. Green IT, however, can present itself instrumentally as a means to an end – tactical implementation – or as a revelation that leads to a new beginning – strategy formulation.

Companies in the 21st century accept and acknowledge their responsibility in protecting the environment. As a matter of fact, it is rare to find a company website that does not have sustainability wording, and many websites highlight what the company has done to contribute to a sustainable environment. The scope of sustainability is broad, and companies worldwide are being held responsible for issues such as reducing consumption of scarce resources, not harming the natural environment, ensuring sustainable supply chain management, reducing climate change/impact, sensing consumer concerns about sustainability, increasing global economic stability through sustainability, and proactively managing business processes to protect the natural environment.

Additionally, companies are becoming more and more adept at applying metrics to their sustainability efforts. For example, one year into its "going green, going forward" sustainability initiative, the CUTCO Cutlery manufacturing facility in Olean, N.Y., reported the following results:

  • An estimated savings of $41,000 annually from implementing computer power management
  • Annual paper use reduction of 27 percent when company printers were set to duplex automatically with departments switching to two-sided reports
  • An estimated savings of $7,500 annually from turning off center row lighting on one floor of the company’s administration building
  • A major recycling effort that resulted in a 26 percent decrease in trash from all CUTCO facilities
  • Only two bags of trash were collected when 75 employees brought their own reusable plates, cups and utensils to a holiday lunch.

Efforts such as these highlight the savings from implementing green strategies within the organization. However, companies also have been successful at green strategies outside their organization by collaborating with their supply chains. According to a report in the Environmental Leader in 2009, 85 percent of respondents in one study said that they were involved in new programs to drive sustainable efforts via operational efficiency, corporate social responsibility and cost savings up and down the supply chain. For example, Wal-Mart is placing new demands on the supply chain to support its sustainability strategy:

  • Manufacturers must certify compliance with social and environmental standards set by the government.
  • Suppliers must work with Wal-Mart for a 20 percent reduction in energy efficiency.
  • The company plans to source 95 percent of its production from factories receiving the highest rating on environmental and social practices.

Yet years of industry-funded programs notwithstanding, the scientific evidence for the unsustainable nature of modern living has become overwhelming. There are differing opinions as to the causes of our ecological crisis, but there are many symptoms. On the abiotic front, we are faced with rising temperatures, decreased rainfall, desertification, rising sea levels, vast toxic wastelands and acidification of the oceans. On the biotic front, we encounter overpopulation,
despeciation, extinctions and decreasing biodiversity in terms of both species and ecosystems. More than a decade ago in his seminal 1997 Harvard Business Review article on green strategies for a sustainable world, Stuart Hart argued that humans have contributed to this ecological crisis by a growing population with an environmentally destructive lifestyle that has been enabled by technology.

According to the National Academy of Engineering, “Technology is the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants.” There are many artifacts of technology — from engines to semiconductors to computers to software to paper maps to eating utensils. Thus, technology is ubiquitous and generally viewed as anything that solves a problem. Information technology is the multiplier effect for every human action. To date, our IT has been focused on human needs without thought for the environment. However, the ecological crisis is forcing us to change our myopic views of both the environment and IT’s interaction within the environment. Just as it has been the instrument for our plight, IT may be the mechanism for our salvation. With that said, green information technology (green IT) is a hot topic; to be glib, it has warmed in tandem with the planet.

Green IT

Green IT encompasses a wide range of environmental challenges: efficiency, recycling of materials, reduction/elimination of toxic compounds in manufacturing, renewable energy and a variety of management systems (such as managing energy consumption in an airline fleet or managing traffic flow and systems to optimize information streams over the Internet). However, green IT is actually a paradox in and of itself.

To say that we still are learning about our relationship with the environment is palpable. However, what is less obvious is that we still are learning about our relationship with technology. Indeed, we have been as unconscious in our relationship with technology as we have been in our relationship with the environment. We tend to think of both the environment and technology as "other" — something out there, something separate from us. The difference is that we find the former and create the latter, but we treat them both the same — instrumentally. That is, we use both the environment and technology for our own ends. Unfortunately, the ecological crisis has alerted us to the fact that our use of technology is causing us to consume and alter the environment in unsustainable ways. While our ecological awareness has increased, our relationship with technology is more ambivalent. Indeed, our use of technology for instrumental purposes is plagued by paradoxes of intent and result.

IT and the greening thereof have promised the world. But, more soberly, researchers have found that green IT is beset by numerous "promise" paradoxes:

The promise of efficiency:

  • Ironically, advances in IT have contributed to a massive explosion of the use of paper and concomitant deforestation.
  • While IT has increased energy efficiency, it also has increased overall energy consumption. One report even suggests that IT installations are one of the highest consumers of energy per unit of space occupied.
  • IT was envisaged originally as a way to reduce work, a labor saving device. However, automation may have increased the actual hours humans work each week. Critically, rather than increasing leisure time of individuals, the flexibility that IT enables has blurred the distinction between personal time and work time. Think about this when taking a PDA on vacation.

The promise of cleanliness:

  • Despite the promise of clean technology, the disposal of IT equipment has become a major environmental problem with toxic material harmful to many forms of life.
  • IT products require resources, many of which end up as waste. Plus, IT products are designed for obsolescence — and the belief is often that the shorter the product lifecycle, the better. Obsolete products turn into waste.

The promise of education:

  • More information can equal less knowledge. As information has become more widely available, people have become less informed and possibly even more ignorant.
  • There actually may be a rewiring of the human brain with workers becoming addicted to the Internet and online gaming activities.
  • Information overload could be destroying the ability for employees to focus their attention. Nuanced thinking may be replaced with black and white thinking. Reflective, creative thinking could be replaced with distracted, shallow thinking.
  • Today’s younger workers are renowned for multitasking electronically. However, some studies suggest a drop in IQ with electronic multitasking.

The promise of satisfaction:

  • The efficiencies associated with IT were supposed to deliver higher customer satisfaction. Yet, despite accelerated technology investment in service industries such as banking, both productivity and customer satisfaction have deteriorated.
  • IT offered the promise of a better and easier life. Unfortunately, as the rate of technological change in modern life has increased, happiness and societal health have decreased.

The promise of community: IT has delivered the dream of instant communication among people across the globe. We live in a hyper-connected, socially networked world where contact is only a click away. Yet it is precisely this technology of connection that is resulting in increased isolation. As people spend more time in mediated interaction, unmediated interaction is declining. Unfortunately, today’s worker is unlikely to know how to engage in a telephone conversation.

The point here is not to present some dystopian, Malthusian picture of technology but to highlight the fact that intention and manifestation are often at odds. It is the acknowledgement of this that is critical if we are to use information systems to help us out of the ecological predicament in which we still find ourselves. Companies need to develop a broader view of the relationship between the environment and technology.

Toward a broader view of green IT

Sustainability is generally considered to be a strategy of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Unfortunately, this somewhat ambiguous definition tends to privilege society over the environment and leaves a high degree of latitude for interpretation. While companies can list a variety of green IT initiatives, what does it really mean to produce efficient, effective and sustainable IT? As seen with the "promises paradoxes," IT does not necessarily have a strong ecological track record. What has been lacking in the discussion about green IT has nothing to do with the technology or the systems themselves but rather with society’s naive and overly simplistic view of technology and what it means to be sustainable.

By default, IT has two important elements: how we think about technology and how we think about the environment. Essentially, there are four models of IT: traditional, efficiency, simplify and transformation. Viewing the world through the lens of predominantly one model is insufficient in today’s boundless world. There has to be a deep understanding of each model and an enactment of features of all models for society to reap the benefits of green IT.

In the traditional model of IT, technology is a neutral object produced by people as a means to an end, and the environment is a resource to be utilized in some way. The environment is subjugated to a resource that technology can unlock, transform, exploit and preserve for future use. For example, emerging nations tend to use technology naively as the engine of growth to enable rapid industrialization. Through this industrialization, there is movement toward a more developed nation. In this view, technology is merely a tool for growth, a means to achieve the end goal of development.

While the ecological impact of the world’s emerging economies is evident (deforestation, desertification, massurbanization), it is the ecological footprint of the developed economies' post-industrial consumer cultures that imparts the predominant environmental impact. While the importance of the environment is evident, society and nature still are separate. It is the responsibility of society to manage and exploit nature but to do so responsibly. The realization of the finality of nature has shifted the human-nature relationship to one of stewardship in order to maintain the status quo of life and the environment. Technology holds no more than a neutral role in achieving this goal. The predominant mechanism employed is relentless technocratic efficiency — doing more with less, reducing and reusing waste and minimizing the impact that technology has on the environment. In this efficiency model, IT is an end unto itself while facing demands for sustainability.

In his book Slow-Tech: Manifesto for an Overwound World, author Andrew Price argues that we should all go slow-tech by making things that last. He starts with an interesting question about whether modern efficiency is inefficient. For example, if selling a three-year-old car to buy a hybrid car means that more cars are being junked and more cars are being produced, are we doing the right thing since a large percentage of emissions come at the beginning and end of a car’s life? The proponents of this simplified model champion a more natural way of living by reducing our dependence on high-tech solutions in favor of simple, appropriate technology. Technology, while serving as a possible positive enabling tool, is treated with distrust and seen as the primary cause of society’s ecological and social problems (pollution, conflict, poverty).

The transformation model of IT rejects the efficiency model as misguided and the simplify model as untenable. The transformation model is epitomized in movements such as Viridian Design. The perspective here is that what we think of as the "natural" world is a myth, for there is not a drop of water, a grain of soil or a molecule of air that is unaltered by humanity. An altered climate, such that we live in, reshuffles the ecological deck for every creature. The transformation model embraces the fact that humans are an intrinsic part of the environment but inverts the relationship by arguing that the environment is now fundamentally human. Nature thus has transformed itself into a product of humanity rather than an entity unto itself.

IT is no longer a tool to be leveraged but is fundamental to our culture by enabling a transformation of both society and the planet. Each of these models brings value to the marriage of the environment and IT. There is a divide between our current technology-driven lifestyle and our call for sustainability. Yet technology growth is fueling the business world and is possibly the most dominant force for change in today’s markets and society. Clearly, the next generation of green IT needs to adopt a holistic view of the environment and technology.

While the triumvirate of environmental integrity, social equity and economic prosperity is the rationale for firms to act sustainably, firms need to understand better the true motivation behind green IT. Companies should not shy away from viewing green IT along a continuum from “technology as a means to an end” and “technology as a new beginning.” As the means to an end, IT serves a strong implementation role. As a new beginning, IT is in a formulation role. Strategically, companies need both formulation and implementation, and it is often difficult to discern which comes first since, ultimately, successful companies formulate based on what can be implemented.

Following the four models of IT described here, companies need to categorize their sustainability efforts. This categorization then should be expanded to include the target group (i.e., stakeholder) for the efforts. For example, energy conservation (e.g., power management) encompasses a broad group of stakeholders. But customers are unlikely to be in that category unless, of course, the conservation reduces product prices. Energy conservation likely would be considered green IT in the traditional or efficiency framework. This is the low-hanging fruit that likely occurs in the early stages of green IT and is a means to implement a sustainability strategy. Energy conservation that creates new markets or new products, however, would have customers in the relevant stakeholder group and likely would fall under the transformation framework. In this way of thinking, energy conservation is the formulation of a new emergent strategy.

By undertaking a broader view of green IT, companies worldwide will begin to differentiate between the implementation of sustainability initiatives, such as those offered in the CUTCO Cutlery example, and the formulation of strategies of sustainability, such as those offered in the Wal-Mart example. Companies likely will see that they are implementing a lot of sustainability initiatives but have not engaged in the formulation of sustainability strategies. While sustainability initiatives are a great start, green IT also should be at the heart of all that companies create (strategy formulation) and not just a means to an end (strategy implementation).

Pierre Berthon is the Clifford Youse Professor of Marketing in the McCallum Graduate School of Business at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. He has a doctoral degree from Brunel University. Berthon has held academic positions at Columbia University, Henley Management College, Cardiff University and the University of Bath. Before joining academia, he worked for Lotus Engineering and Lotus Sports Cars as a development engineer.

Victoria Crittenden is a faculty member in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and earned her Ph.D. in business administration at Harvard Business School. She is a Global Scholar in the D.B.A. program at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. Crittenden is president-elect of the Academy of Marketing Science and co-editor of the AMS (Academy of Marketing Science) Review. Crittenden’s research encompasses strategy implementation, sustainability, ethics and technology.

Philip DesAutels is a Ph.D. candidate in the McCallum Graduate School of Business at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. DesAutels serves as Microsoft’s director of academic evangelism. At Bentley University, he is building on Bentley’s long history of work in ethical and socially responsible enterprises to understand the implications of sustainability on business in the 21st century.

Leyland Pitt is a professor of marketing and the Dennis F. Culver Executive M.B.A. Alumni Chair of Business at the Segal Graduate School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Pitt also serves as senior research fellow of the Leeds University Business School in the United Kingdom. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, and, in addition to a vast publication list, he has won many awards for teaching excellence in the classroom and educational scholarship. In 2005, Canadian Business magazine listed him as one of Canada’s top M.B.A. professors.

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