by Katherine Walsh

Environmentally Sustainable IT Definition and Solutions

Oct 29, 200719 mins
ComplianceGreen ITIT Leadership

Environmentally Sustainable IT topics covering definition, objectives, systems and solutions.

Rising energy prices. Global warming. Old equipment piling up in storage (and landfills). Environmental issues—and IT’s role in them—are getting more attention than ever. If you want to use technology in a more sustainable way, here are the answers you need to begin.

What is sustainable IT?

Sustainable, or “green,” IT is a catch-all term used to describe the manufacture, management, use and disposal of information technology in a way that minimizes damage to the environment. As a result, the term has many different meanings, depending on whether you are a manufacturer, manager or user of technology.


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What is sustainable IT manufacturing?

Sustainable IT manufacturing refers to methods of producing products in a way that does not harm the environment. It encompasses everything from reducing the amount of harmful chemicals used in products to making them more energy efficient and packaging them with recycled materials.

European Union regulations require computer manufacturers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo to abide by green manufacturing laws that limit the use of some toxic substances, such as lead and mercury, in their products. These products are also available in the United States.

What is sustainable IT management and use?

Sustainable IT management and use has to do with the way a company manages its IT assets. It includes purchasing energy-efficient desktops, notebooks, servers and other IT equipment, as well as managing the power consumption of that equipment. It also refers to the environmentally safe disposal of that equipment, through recycling or donation at the end of its lifecycle.

What is sustainable IT disposal?

Sustainable IT disposal refers to the safe disposal of IT assets at the end of their lifecycle. It ensures that old computer equipment (otherwise known as e-waste) does not end up in a landfill, where the toxic substances it contains can leach into groundwater, among other problems. Many of the major hardware manufacturers offer take-back programs, so IT departments don’t have to take responsibility for disposal. Some U.S. states and the European Union have laws requiring that e-waste be recycled.

What is the goal of sustainable IT?

The goal behind most green business initiatives, including green IT, is to promote environmental sustainability. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainability as an approach to economic development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What does it have to do with me?

No one seriously disputes that global warming is due to human activity. And information technology is an energy hog. Gartner estimates that power consumption by computers accounts for 2 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That’s roughly equal to the carbon output of the airline industry.

It can be hard to determine how much CO2 any single company’s computers generate, although researchers are trying to come up with better ways to calculate this. Howard Rubin, a research associate with the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, suggests that the IT operations of computing-intensive industries like financial services and telecommunications generate more CO2 per $1 million in revenue than other industries. IT may account for about 10 percent of a company’s energy consumption and 10 percent of its CO2 emissions, according to Chris Mines, senior vice president with Forrester Research.

Many companies also have to comply with regulations that restrict plant emissions or the use and disposal of toxic materials. Or they simply want to make environmentally friendly products. Just as IT improves business processes, it can improve how companies manage what goes into their products.

For example, furniture maker Herman Miller uses IT to help inform designers about the chemistry and the sustainable properties of hundreds of materials. A materials database, created using Microsoft Access, captures information on potential manufacturing materials and communicates it to the design team. “The IT function and IT support is vital to that process,” says Mike McCluskey, project manager for Product Development IT.

In a CIO magazine column, Dan Esty, author of Green to Gold: When Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value and Build Competitive Advantage, writes that “marrying information-age tools such as data mining and advanced modeling techniques to environmental challenges holds potential to propel some companies ahead of their competitors because they can ‘see’ through data where their industry is headed.”

Mines of Forrester Research says that CEOs will eventually see environmental sustainability as a better way to do business, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because major stakeholders—including shareholders, nonprofit environmental organizations and customers—will demand it. Because IT is a large contributor to the greenhouse gas emission problem, it also has an opportunity to be a big part of the solution.

Can it help my company?

There are some steps IT departments can take toward becoming green that don’t cost a lot. You can start by reminding your IT staff to turn off their PCs or shut off the lights before leaving for the day—and championing such behavior companywide.

Meanwhile, there are many IT investments you probably want to make anyway that will also reduce your impact on the environment. Virtualization technologies, server consolidation, PC power management and deployment of more efficient equipment when you do a refresh can reduce energy consumption while simultaneously improving IT operations.

Then, there are the intangible benefits. Mines says a green reputation helps with employee retention and recruitment. Employers “see the surveys that say young people are greener, and that’s a differentiator for them in the war for talent.” There’s some evidence that more people seek to do business with companies that offer green services and products, or that have a proven track record in corporate social responsibility. An October 2007 study on climate change conducted by Accenture found that nine out of 10 consumers worldwide would switch to energy providers whose products and services are designed to reduce carbon emissions, even if it meant having to pay a little extra.

Systems you need to comply with environmental regulations may cost you, and there’s not much you can do about it. But there is packaged software that can help. For example, Synapsis, a software and consulting company, offers an Environmental Material Aggregation and Reporting System, which helps companies track, manage and report the material content of their products. The application also helps with reporting on compliance with E.U. environmental regulations. Eviance offers similar tools for environmental health and safety management and compliance reporting.

How can I cut my energy bills?

There are two ways that IT managers can help to reduce their companies’ energy consumption: run data centers more efficiently and manage desktops more efficiently.

How can I make my data center more efficient?

An August 2007 EPA report on data center efficiency concluded that unless U.S. companies change the way they design, build and operate data centers, annual data center electricity costs could reach $7.4 billion in 2011. That means your costs are headed up, too.

The first step for IT managers who want to cut data center energy costs is to get to know their data centers in detail. A good place to start is with a True Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) assessment, which accounts for the cost of building and owning a data center facility, along with the usual hardware purchase and maintenance costs that go along with operating it. (The term True TCO was coined by The Uptime Institute, an IT research organization, which provides a tool for modeling it.)

It’s also a good idea to get to know your facilities managers. According to Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the facilities department usually pays the power bills, and therefore, IT generally is unaware of how much energy it consumes running servers and air conditioners. “Traditional IT metrics like response time and uptime are what they are measured on, not energy efficiency,” says Mines. But without an understanding of the data center’s energy consumption, IT managers have no starting point for improving energy efficiency. “Without an integrated budget for these things, you will end up spending much more than you need to,” says Koomey.

Some improvements don’t cost much money. For example, says Mines, you can remove obstructions to airflow, such as blocked cabling, piping or air-conditioning ducts.

Before you invest in new servers, examine whether changing the layout of your equipment can help you use air conditioning more efficiently. Thermal mapping tools (sold by vendors including IBM and HP) can help you pinpoint hot and cold spots by how densely your equipment is populated and the flow of hot and cold air through the space. Traditional energy-efficiency assessment services are also offered by vendors such as EYP Mission Critical, Syska Hennessy and APC.

Once you have the data, you may decide to implement in-row, on-rack cooling systems, which allow you to bring cold air just to hot spots, or to rearrange server aisles so that air conditioning is aimed at hot aisles. Sealing gaps on server rack cabinets with blanking panels and placing ventilated tiles away from equipment exhaust areas also helps maximize air-conditioning efficiency.

Finally, there’s your hardware. By reducing the number of boxes you operate through virtualization or server consolidation, you’ll use less power. And turning off servers you aren’t using can cut power consumption by between 10 percent and 30 percent, says Ken Brill, executive director of The Uptime Institute. A large company can save as much as $250 million, Brill says, by improving airflow, maximizing air conditioning and optimizing servers.

Next time you upgrade your servers, you can look for more energy-efficient models, although currently, there are no standard benchmarks for comparing energy efficiency between products by different vendors.

The EPA is working with vendors to develop new energy-efficiency specifications for enterprise servers by 2008.

Meanwhile, says Lawrence Berkley’s Koomey, vendors have been improving server efficiency through more efficient chips and power supplies. Someone purchasing many servers could go to the manufacturer and ask it to provide a power supply that is well above 80 percent efficient, Koomey suggests. “It doesn’t matter what the processor is; if the power supply is more efficient, you are going to save energy,” he says. Koomey adds that it’s cost-effective to spend extra money on a more efficient power supply because it now costs more to run the data center than it does to purchase the equipment.

How can I reduce my electricity consumption on the desktop?

If you want to know what your PCs are made of before you buy, you can use the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) developed by the Zero Waste Alliance to evaluate your purchases. Products that meet EPEAT’s voluntary standards have smaller levels of mercury, cadmium and lead, are more energy efficient, and are easier to refresh and recycle.

The EPA recently recognized six organizations for their use of EPEAT, including the city of San Jose, Kaiser Permanente, the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the California Department of General Services, healthcare services and IT provider McKesson, and the city of Phoenix. Together, these organizations have saved more than $5 million buying greener equipment.

PCs and laptops that meet EPEAT standards also carry the EPA’s Energy Star 4.0 label. Such computers use half the electricity of other computers and automatically go into sleep mode after a period of inactivity (they use 75 percent less energy in sleep mode). Energy Star certification also requires that equipment use more energy-efficient internal and external power supplies. If you purchased an Energy Star-labeled computer on or after July 20, 2007 (the date the newest requirements took effect), your machine complies with the new standards.

According to the EPA, if all businesses were to purchase only Energy Star-certified equipment, they would save $1.2 billion over the life of the computers.

You can also deploy PC power management tools. Vendors like Verdiem and 1E offer products that you can use to customize en masse when PCs shut down or enter sleep mode. “In call centers or universities, or anyplace that has many desktops running, PC management products are no-brainers that pay themselves back quickly,” says John Davies, vice president of green technology research with AMR Research. Verdiem estimates that its Surveyor product saves $15 to $40 in energy costs per PC per year.

Is the government forcing me to be green?

Eventually. Environmental policy experts say inevitably, the U.S. government will impose limits on carbon emissions. The European Union already has such limits. Since 2005, the Emission Trading Scheme has required 12,000 iron, steel, glass and power plants to buy CO2 permits, which allows them to emit the gas into the atmosphere. If a company exceeds its limit, it can buy unused permits from other companies that have successfully cut their emissions. If they are unable to buy spare permits, however, they are fined for every excess ton of CO2. Because IT contributes to the total carbon emissions in a company, carbon cap and trade or tax laws will impact how technology is managed.

The E.U. and many U.S. states also have laws that require computer equipment, which contains many toxic substances, be recycled.

For example, the E.U.’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive requires equipment manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal of their products at the end of their lifecycle. One way is through take-back programs, where the equipment is returned to the manufacturer, which then must dispose of it in an environmentally responsible manner.

According to the Computer TakeBack Campaign, several states, including Maine, California, Texas, Oregon, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota, have e-waste laws. Some of these laws apply only to equipment manufacturers; others apply to end users. In 2007, e-waste bills were introduced in 23 states. Companies that mind their energy consumption and dispose of used equipment responsibly now will be better off when regulations are imposed, says Forrester’s Mines.

The good news is that complying with e-waste regulations should become easier for IT managers due to new manufacturing regulations. The E.U. Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment, which took effect on July 1, 2006, restricts the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of certain electronics: lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ether (the last two are flame retardants used in plastics). Such requirements reduce the toxicity of electronics, and thus, the e-waste they produce.

How do I recycle IT equipment?

There are a few different ways to get rid of IT equipment without throwing it in the dumpster.

Most computer equipment manufacturers offer take-back programs through which they assume responsibility for proper disposal. For example, Dell and Sony will take back any of their products for free and Toshiba will take back its laptops. Apple charges a fee, but will waive it if you are purchasing a new product. HP also will charge you, but will give you a credit toward future HP purchases. For a complete list of recycling programs in the U.S., visit the Computer TakeBack Campaign website.

IT departments can also hire a lifecycle asset disposal company to take used equipment off their hands, although not all of these companies have expertise in environmentally safe disposal. “Most of them are very local or regional and often lack the ability to provide in-depth reporting and auditing,” says David Daoud, research manager at IDC, so you can’t review their performance. He says to pick a company that is well known and has a good track record—not just anyone listed in the local yellow pages. Some companies that offer take-back services also offer data security services to insure that intellectual property and confidential information is removed from the hardware, notes Daoud.

Start now, and you can make a dent in a mountain of electronic trash. Daoud says that in 2006, obsolete desktops, laptops and servers accounted for 18 billion pounds of electronic trash worldwide, but the major companies involved in e-waste recovery (Dell, HP and IBM) recovered only 356 million pounds—about 2 percent.

Only about one-third of all U.S. companies have an IT asset disposal policy, adds Daoud. The rest are either doing nothing or dumping them into municipal landfills. According to National Geographic‘s The Green Guide, 50 percent to 80 percent of recycled electronics end up in developing nations, where they are disassembled by untrained workers without the proper equipment. This exposes them to toxic substances like mercury, cadmium and lead. If the equipment is left in landfills, those same toxins end up in water sources.

How can IT make my operations greener?

Lots. IT can help almost any part of the business lessen its environmental impact. For example, technologists can help reduce the amount of paper employees use for printing or deploy tracking systems to measure plant emissions. Such practices can save companies money and also generate revenue.

At Sun Microsystems, OpenWork, the company’s telecommuting program, provides employees with shared office space, home equipment and subsidies for DSL and electricity, according to Dave Douglas, VP of eco responsibility at Sun. More than 56 percent of Sun’s employees are currently in the program. “In the last five years we have cut our office space by one-sixth and have saved over $60 million a year on space and power,” Douglas said in a roundtable interview about energy-efficient IT for Sun also saves an estimated 29,000 tons of CO2 per year due to reduced employee commuting. That’s equivalent to taking 5,694 cars off the road for one year, according to the EPA’s carbon calculator.

Dow Chemical’s process control automation system will shut a plant down if it is not compliant with air and water emissions requirements. Dow also uses a monitoring system to measure the air and water emissions at its plants and is deploying an environmental reporting system to manage reporting of this data to state and federal authorities, says CIO and Chief Sustainability Officer David Kepler.

IT systems can also help save energy by controlling heat and air conditioning in office buildings. Wireless sensors can be used to measure airflow and room occupancy. If the occupancy sensors (which turn lights on and off when people enter or leave a room) are networked to airflow sensors, the amount of air conditioning used when people are not in a room can be reduced, says Lawrence Berkeley’s Koomey. “The basic idea is to collect data on how the facility is using energy and use that information to define patterns that can help change what you are doing and reduce operating costs.”

How can I get executives’ attention?

Arguing that going green is the right thing to do won’t get you anywhere. The best way is to make a business case based on energy savings, operational efficiency or new revenue opportunities. In other words, you need to find a way to make going green fit with the corporate agenda. “When the CEO and the Board of Directors recognize that it’s the right thing to do for shareholders, employees, customers and the brand, that’s the catalyst,” says Mines. “Then, things start to happen.”