Although some marketing-savvy organisations are recognising the reputational value of being seen to be environmentally friendly, look at the latest PR campaigns from BSkyB, M&S and Easyjet for examples, the harsh reality is that it will be cost savings that drive the move towards greener IT in wider enterprise.

With the latest reports claiming the information and communication technology (ICT) sector in the UK has a carbon footprint as big as the aviation industry, the responsibility for change in IT in business is increasingly falling on the shoulders of the CIO.

With CIO Connect representing more than 60% of CIOs in the FTSE 250, I can report that this subject is certainly on their radar. There are a number of key points being made by the membership:

  • Regulation, cost and reputational issues mean organisations must improve IT’s environmental credentials.
  • Since IT is a key contributor to climate change, CIOs also have an ethical responsibility to act.
  • Most IT organisations can make big improvements with little spend.
  • There are significant opportunities for those that rise to the challenges, including cost savings and efficiency benefits.
  • A key first step is to audit the organisation’s current energy use.

Members are typically beginning with the path of least resistance.

Energy is next in the sights

The size of the corporate energy bill and the amount of power that can be saved with IT-led initiatives are measurable benefits that the CIO and the board can recognise:

  • At 8 hours use a day, 220 days a year, it’s estimated that a PC costs £15 a year for electricity against £7 for a set-up with thin clients and servers.
  • A single server uses as much electricity as six domestic fridges and a medium-sized data centre of 1,000 servers may be responsible for 3,500 tonnes of CO2 per year.
  • Gartner estimates the global IT industry contributed 2% of global CO2 emissions last year.

Businesses with initiatives that promise to improve their organisation’s green posture, in terms of waste, energy, water and transport, are able to tap into the broader corporate social responsibility agenda of an organisation, tying them into ISO 14001 or BS 8555 Environmental Management Systems accreditation, or using them to help drive sustainability charters.

In my experience CIOs are also progressively introducing carbon accounting and energy metering, starting with some simple spreadsheets recording the current and target electrical requirements of technology kit.

The newly formed 92-strong vendor group the Green Grid has also set about determining how to measure the energy efficiency of all IT hardware to introduce Energy Star ratings as used in white goods. This will be another massive step forward in allowing CIOs and their teams to plan and manage their energy consumption.

Purchasing and recycling policies

Purchasing and recycling policies are typically the next step, largely because they can have a big impact with minimal affect on the end-users. CIOs can make a difference by buying environmentally friendly products that meet new standards; e.g the Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive restricts use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing.

Immediately re-specifying procurement policies, in favour of energy-efficiency hardware suppliers, and re-negotiating with suppliers over recycling costs of new hardware, to cover complying with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) legislation, can all assist in cutting costs.

Offsetting off-tilt

Offsetting has also grabbed the headlines in the green debate but activity here is patchy. Some carbon offsetting schemes have been criticised for failing to bring about real carbon emission reductions - because projects are hard to verify, reductions are only temporary or the reductions would have happened anyway.

The UK government is to set standards for carbon offsetting schemes to bring "greater clarity" to the industry but until this happens, offsetting is unlikely to grab the attention of the CIO in any great numbers.

Cultural change the nirvana

As the obvious steps are completed the last big barrier to address is cultural change. Providing the tools to allow staff to collaborate online rather than unnecessarily travelling to meetings is the next big opportunity to increase productivity whilst savings costs and the environment. But this nirvana will require more than technology alone. The cultural change in the way staff think and work will be a challenge that the CIO needs to enlist support from around the Boardroom table to address.

Nick Kirkland, Managing Director of CIO Connect, the UK’s largest membership organisation for CIOs and their IT teams.