Why CIOs Are Made to Be Environmental Sustainability Leaders

CIOs’ experience with change management makes them the perfect leaders of corporate environmental sustainability initiatives

No doubt about it: Paying attention to how your company consumes energy and uses resources can improve your bottom line. It can enable new products and services and create a competitive advantage.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always obvious to CIOs exactly what to do, any more than it’s obvious to individuals striving to live greener.

“Different perspectives paint what one thinks is green,” observes Gregor Bailar, former CIO of Nasdaq and Capital One. “You can put in compact fluorescent light bulbs but still drive two SUVs.”

Yet in a recent CIO survey, 52 percent of technology professionals said their organizations have launched green initiatives within IT, in other parts of the company, or both. Within this group, 32 percent are getting ready to roll out new programs. While 25 percent of all respondents don’t have any now, they are planning to implement green programs in the next year. Overall, a majority—61 percent—work at companies trying to lessen their impact on the planet.

When it comes to corporate sustainability, there’s a strong case for CIOs being involved. There may be an even stronger case to be made for your leading the effort. After all, you’ve done this sort of thing before.

“It’s the same kind of challenge CIOs had in the early ’90s: How to get IT embedded in the business strategy,” says CIO David Kepler, Dow Chemical’s executive vice president for business services and chief sustainability officer. “My goal is to transition [sustainability] from a functionally led activity to a strategy embedded with economic impact.” As Dow develops new products—such as roofing shingles containing photovoltaic materials for collecting solar energy—Kepler works across the company to support their sustainable manufacturing and use.

Process Thinking

Making your company greener involves changing employees’ behavior so that they make decisions and adopt new practices with the environment in mind. Facilitating such change requires “a similar set of arguments” to business process re-engineering and a host of quality and efficiency initiatives that have involved IT in the past, says Bailar. He now works independently on projects that have environmental and social benefits, including helping the embassy of Finland bring global leaders together to share ideas and best practices for energy-efficient cities.

David Barnes, senior vice president and CIO at UPS, says his company—which relies on airplanes and trucks to deliver packages—highly values energy efficiency, even for IT. “It’s not something we thought of last year or last month,” he says. Yet UPS’s energy-reduction goals “were nowhere near as robust,” Barnes says, before the company decided to measure its carbon emissions.

Having a sustainability strategy led UPS to purchase hybrid vehicles, despite their cost (Barnes say it’s an investment in an emerging technology). But the strategy also informed a new program that lets drivers skip scheduled stops when customers don’t have any packages to ship. UPS anticipates immediate fuel and emissions savings. The shipping system its customers already use to prepare their packages provides the data to execute the program.

This column will explore the various ways CIOs are reshaping their roles as the sustainable enterprise unfolds across every industry. We’ll touch on everything from data center efficiency to manufacturing and logistics to the way your company interacts with customers. Let me hear from you about the challenges you’re finding along the way.

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