by Elana Varon

Where is IT on Green Innovation?

Jan 18, 20084 mins

I have on my desk a bottle of Poland Spring water that I picked up at a meeting. It touts a new “eco-shape,” that uses less plastic, and, as a result, the company claims vaguely, produces fewer carbon emissions in the manufacturing process.

As innovations go, this is small, and Poland Spring (which is owned by Nestle) has gotten some flak for it from environmentalists since it introduced the bottle a couple of months ago (blogger Joel Makower says it’s mere greenwashing when you think about the entire carbon impact of the bottled water industry—go here for the discussion). Nevertheless, it suggests a side of the climate change challenge that doesn’t get a lot of attention: the opportunities available to innovate and find profit in cutting emissions.

Think about it: Carbon emissions come from energy consumption. Oil is $100 a barrel. Who—as we teeter on the brink of recession—isn’t trying to cut their energy costs? Not everyone can switch to hydropower, but most companies can revamp their business processes to optimize energy use. This qualifies as low-hanging fruit in the war against carbon consumption, perhaps. But it’s a good place to start because the savings go pretty much straight to the bottom line. And it’s right in IT’s sweet spot.

IT is so good at applying technology to optimization problems that I have little doubt once carbon regulation is firmly upon us, technologists will be at the center of the action. Measuring and managing carbon emissions is at its heart a data problem; what’s scariest about it right now is that not all companies have the data or the tools in hand to analyze it yet. (I know there are tools out there, but they’re not in as widespread use as they will need to be. And in many companies, the only person who has the data needed to get a handle on energy consumption is the one who pays the electric and heating bills.)

There’s a lot of gloom and doom about the economic dislocation that awaits us, and the sacrifices that will be required to save the planet. But I’m not convinced that it’s going to be any worse than any other economic transformation we’ve been through.

No doubt companies will have to make investments in new technologies and new business processes, and they’ll have to retool their products. That may mean prices increase for some goods, and it may mean consumers buy less, at least until the costs of compliance are incorporated into the economy. Some jobs—and some companies—may disappear. But that would happen whether we had a climate crisis or not. Climate change is yet another business reality, like globalization and the subprime mortgage fall out, that we have to deal with somehow (preferably, for the sake of my kids and yours, in a way that leaves the planet better than we found it).

Meanwhile, as Adam Stein, the CEO of TerraPass, (a company that sells carbon offsets—yeah, there’s debate about this, too) wrote on Gristmill, it’s not clear at all that individual consumers will have to sacrifice that much; we’ll all make choices about what we want to buy, how much we want to spend, and how we want to live. The market should respond (and has already started responding) with appropriate products and services.

That Poland Spring bottle is a step. It’s clearly not the only step (do the bottles have to be plastic? is there a more earth-friendly distribution model?) I buy

bottled water myself only sometimes; I’m basically a cheapskate, and gallon for gallon, what comes out of my tap is way cheaper, and, filtered, tastes just as good. I’m trying to buy even less of the stuff. But that’s my choice. I assume there’s going to be a market for bottled water for the foreseeable future, and I think companies should be looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact.

I’d love to hear about more from companies that are engaging IT to cut carbon emissions from their manufacturing processes. What are you working on? How do you prove that it’s worth doing?