Corporate social responsibility is all very well, but a company has to answer to its bottom line, even when it's thinking about going green. Brid-Aine Conway asks if there's a way to save the planet and save on costs with IT.
Phrases like "carbon footprint", "climate change" and "corporate/social responsibility" are ones we are all now familiar with. There are some in fact, such as the managing director of EcoVentures, Shezan Amiji, who consider climate change to be "the defining issue of our generation".
EcoVentures is a company based in the UAE which advises on innovations in greenhouse gas reduction and the development and use of renewable and sustainable energy and water resources.
The industry of which it is a part is still a small one, but entrepreneurial companies such as recycling enterprises and environmental consultancies are seeing that saving the environment could be a profitable business.
The datacentre’s kind of interesting because to a large extent, for many organisations, it’s not even a green issue.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale are enterprises that are still ignoring the tide of popular opinion, missing the obvious signs in the fact that governments are beginning to issue environmental regulations, and failing to see any profit at all in going green.
According to a study by the Gartner group in 2007, ICT accounted for 2% of global carbon emissions - to put that in context, PCs, datacentres and telephony are affecting the environment as much as the aviation industry is, the analyst firm pointed out.
The hue and cry about how badly flying is damaging the environment has been loud and long and eyes are also turning to the similarly heavy carbon footprints of other industries - including ICT.
"Given that it's obviously a sizable chunk of the global carbon footprint, that makes it very important to examine and address," says Amiji, "Per square foot, datacentre energy costs are ten to 30 times more than that of a typical office building.
So given their relative footprint vis-à-vis other types of business environment, I think there's a large responsibility.
Datacentres are a good place for enterprises to start if they want to go green. A lot of talk has centred on energy efficiency, power conservation and smarter cooling, not to mention virtualisation, and most of the marketing is focused on two things - it'll save money and save the environment.
"In order to make people do good, you sometimes have to make it as easy for them as possible," according to Amiji, and in the case of datacentres, the math couldn't be simpler.
"The datacentre's kind of interesting because to a large extent, for many organisations, it's not even a green issue. Whether they're concerned about the environment or not, they simply can't build datacentres that aren't power efficient, because you can't get enough compute power out of that datacentre.
Building datacentres these days is really about trying to get as much compute power out of as little space and as little electricity as possible," says Stephen Kleynhans, analyst and vice president at Gartner, and author of the March 2008 paper ‘Cutting Back on Green PC Initiatives Leads to False Economies'.
Everyone - vendors, CIOs, environmental activists - wants to talk datacentres to businesses because they're an easy sell. If datacentres are using less power and are more energy efficient and if they need less rented space because servers have greater capacities and are virtualised, the savings for the IT budget and the business are obvious.
The fact that they also reduce carbon emissions by increasing energy efficiency is a happy bonus for businesses and the environment alike.
This is not a bad thing - bringing cost-saving and the environment together is something that benefits everybody. What many enterprises don't seem to realise as readily as in the case of datacentres, is that there are other areas in the IT industry that have seen this happen.
Another example is e-waste, in particular the disposal of unwanted hardware when an enterprise (or individual) is done with it, which with IT happens fast. Kleynhans notes that this too is an area where environmental objectives were attained somewhat accidentally.
Vendors started takeback programmes not necessarily for green reasons. It was a lot like what happened in the car industry many years ago, where car manufacturers realised if you wanted to sell somebody a new car, you needed to make it easier for them to get rid of their older car.So a lot of the PC manufacturers realised if you're trying to sell somebody a new PC, you've got to make it easier for them to get rid of their old PC," he says.
However, many of these existing takeback programmes, where the PC or other hardware is returned to its manufacturer, have turned into methods to ensure the safe disposal of computer equipment.
PCs can be refurbished and given to charities, schools, etc, while other hardware can be recycled into new technologies, as Mohammed Amin, regional manager of EMC MENA, explains.
A lot of the PC manufacturers realised if you’re trying to sell somebody a new PC, you’ve got to make it easier for them to get rid of their old PC.
"EMC has a product takeback programme that is designed to maximise recovery and reduce the need for virgin materials," he says.
Old hardware is returned to EMC and the company takes from it any materials which can be reused in its newer technologies, and then recycles or disposes of the remaining parts responsibly.
At first glance, this might not seem like an activity that can save enterprises money, particularly when some takeback programmes require the company to pay for shipping costs when returning the hardware.
However, fluctuations in the commodities markets over the last year or so have shown that the price of raw materials is anything but stable. Demand from developing markets, the global growth of the IT sector and the growing costs of mining as deposits become scarcer and run deeper (as well as global economic unrest) are combining to drive commodity prices up.
It doesn't make business sense for vendors to bear these extra costs alone; those costs will be passed on to customers in the form of higher hardware prices. Allowing vendors to reuse materials from older hardware in new technologies saves them money, which will in turn keep the price of hardware down, albeit in the long run.
Hardware shouldn't just be a concern when disposing of it, but also when buying it. Power consumption and energy efficiency are obvious issues when building a datacentre, but they also now apply when outfitting companies with their desktop PCs, printers, laptops and so on.
"Sun has been actively involved in working with the US Environmental Protection Agency on an Energy Star specification for energy-efficient computers," says Deena Habib, MENA marketing manager for Sun Microsystems,
We collaborated on the specification that exists today, and played a crucial role in creating and defining a workstation category within that specification.
Gartner's Kleynhans says: "We're recommending that if you're in the PC purchasing area, that you're looking for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) Silver or Gold as sort of the base entry point.
And then beyond that you can start looking at other things like the 80-plus power supply initiatives and also then examine the kind of disposal programmes that the PC manufacturer, or other third party, makes available to you and not just taking them at face value but actually looking a little deeper into those programmes.
Here again, the initial outlay may be higher than if a company opts for PCs that have none of these standards, but power efficient PCs will eventually lead to significant cost savings, according to Kleynhans.
"Typically the cost difference between an energy-efficient PC system and one that's a little less energy-efficient is pretty small and this will be paid back fairly quickly in just the savings on power these days," he says.
There are some who feel that Middle Eastern enterprises have less cause than most to worry about the cost of energy, but whether or not that was true in the past, it certainly no longer is.
Power suppliers in the region, such as DEWA in Dubai, have upped their prices and eventually the rising cost of energy worldwide will have its effect on the region as it has elsewhere.
"Businesses have been slow to embrace energy savings because of a perception that energy efficient technology may cost more, or that it might impact on performance. In fact, energy efficient products offer performance and pricing comparable to their standard counterparts.
Further, energy efficient products can save users a significant amount of money over the long term. Recognising this, many regional businesses - large and small - are embarking on strategies to ‘go green' within the workplace and to reduce energy costs," says Stephane Rejasse, MEA managing director for Fujitsu-Siemens Computers.Running alongside and through all the new environmental awareness is the concept of responsibility - corporate/social responsibility. Quite apart from whether the board of directors' feels that responsibility or not, the concept of it is starting to affect what consumers purchase and, perhaps more importantly, it is putting pressure on governments to impose regulations.
So far, the Middle East as a region has more or less escaped from strict regulations on environmental manufacture or use of IT (although countries are taking steps in that direction) but if the trends elsewhere, particularly in Europe, are anything to go by, regulations will probably come.
On top of that, if regional enterprises want to expand and compete in global markets, the regulations of their target markets are going to be a concern.
There are times when the government does need to step in and find the spots when market forces aren’t driving us and put in some constraints.
"I think it is government's responsibility to oversee the processes and identify places where the partnership between buyers and sellers isn't working and put in the appropriate legislation, like some of the legislation we've seen around e-waste, which may never have found its way into the market otherwise.
There are times when the government does need to step in and find the spots where market forces aren't driving us and put in some constraints to encourage the right movement," says Gartner's Kleynhans.
In addition to meeting regulations, showing corporate social responsibility can, once again, increase a company's profits. Put simply, consumers are beginning to care and if being environmentally-friendly can increase an enterprise's share of the market against others in its industry, profits will go up.
As much as enterprises may wish to shoulder corporate responsibility and be environmentally friendly, they have their bottom line to think of. The good news is, with IT, they can get the best of both worlds.
"It's all about talking about reducing your impact on the environment and impact especially in carbon, about reducing or negating your impact on climate change. And I think climate change is rapidly becoming the defining issue of our generation.
Not only does it make commercial sense to embrace this, because your employees and customers demand this, but also we all have a responsibility to make sure we do something to deal with the issues that we're facing," EcoVenture's Amiji concludes.
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