How CIOs Can Contribute to Developing Eco-Friendly Products

Consumers want sustainability built into the products they buy. IT can make that happen.

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A few weeks ago I played one of those online games that calculate your impact on the Earth. I fiddled a few times with the results to see which habit I could change to bring my score down. But even as a reasonably frugal, ecologically aware consumer, it seemed impossible to occupy only my sustainable share of the planet.

The game is hardly scientific, but it makes the point that sustainability requires more than superficial changes in how we live and work. The problem can’t be solved just by living more simply, as Robert Atkinson and Darrene Hackler with the Information Technology Innovation Foundation wrote recently. In a report busting what they say are 10 myths about combatting climate change, they argue that even if the global economy didn’t grow, population gains between now and 2030 would triple carbon dioxide emissions. In the United States, the Great Recession reduced emissions a mere 7 percent—far from the levels scientists say are needed to stop global temperatures from rising too high.

I don’t know anyone who wants to sign up for more economic stagnation or decline. But consumers do see the need for change. The Greendex, a survey by the National Geographic Society of consumers in 17 developed and emerging economies, found 66 percent of respondents globally—and 70 percent of Americans—believe their current lifestyle isn’t sustainable. But they want companies like yours to contribute. Asked to identify factors that discourage environmentally friendly behavior, 40 percent worldwide said their individual efforts don’t matter unless governments and industries take action, too. IT can step in here to make consumer products more environmentally viable.

Sustainable Product Strategies

At Whirlpool, CIO Kevin Summers is helping with an initiative to build smarter appliances. By the end of this year, the company expects to be able to build a washing machine capable of remote diagnostics. If it breaks down, consumers could link the machine to a home wireless network and upload data about the problem. Technicians may be able to fix the machine remotely, saving a repair call, or, if on-site repairs are required, identify which parts the servicer should bring. Within two years, a machine able to connect to a smart electrical grid could tell consumers the best time to run a load—when electricity demand is low.

“All of those appliances on a smart grid are like PCs on a network,” observes Summers. IT contributes expertise in how to collect data from this network, store it and analyze it.

David Kepler, CIO and chief sustainability officer with Dow Chemical, says customers want more sustainable—and sustainably produced—materials. So IT provides tools for managing energy and greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing plants, as well as for thinking through how buildings that use the company’s solar roofing shingles connect to the local electric utility.

Dow has also provided financing to the nonprofit WaterHealth International, which is developing water treatment facilities for places such as rural India where there’s no clean water. “We’re trying to help them connect the dots in terms of strategy,” Kepler says. That means considering how to build a supply chain that serves locations that lack modern networks.

When the business strategy is to deliver sustainable products and operations, Kepler says, “the CIO has to be aligned with that and attuned to that. It’s a lot more than figuring out how to make buildings and data centers more energy efficient.”

Follow Executive Editor Elana Varon on Twitter: @elanavaron.

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