As I See It: The Greening of IT
October 12, 2009 Victor Rozek
One of the persistent annoyances of the Do-Unto-Others-While-You-Still-Can era is polluters pretending that global warming has nothing to do with them. Not coincidentally, the loudest deniers are also pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at record levels, while their lobbyists pump record amounts of cash into congressional pockets. Meanwhile, as the world heats, hucksters would have us believe that 20 mile-per-gallon SUVs are planet-friendly, and dirty coal can produce clean energy.
The contradictions are tolerated, in part, because pollution contributes to the GDP by employing people twice: Once when it’s created, and again when it’s cleaned up. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair: It’s hard to get people to change their behaviors when their jobs and lifestyles depend on not changing them.
But as a skinny, nasal, curly-headed kid once intoned, the times they are-a-changin. Companies are discovering that green is profitable, waste is costly, and that employees genuinely want to limit the damage done to the planet’s life support systems. Many of the world’s most successful companies are also, it turns out, the “greenest;” a relative term to be sure, but one which represents both sizeable investment and serious commitment to softening the corporate footprint. Green, at long last, is in, at least among the non-delusional.
Once an idea becomes chic, it’s not long before someone makes a list to identify who is chicest. The lists are always subjective and mostly meaningless, except to the winners. The top 25 college football teams, the ten most livable cities, the richest, best dressed, and most influential people; whenever two or more are gathered, someone will indulge the irresistible urge to rank them. It’s no surprise then, that prior to the next round of do-nothing international conferences on global warming, Newsweek ranked “The Greenest Big Companies in America.” Some 500 companies were evaluated using 700 metrics, and the results of the year-long investigation were printed in the September 28 issue and can be viewed online at www.newsweek.com/green. And IT professionals can be justifiably proud that our industry is strongly represented in the dark green end of the spectrum.
But first, the disclaimers. If you think higher rankings go to companies that pollute least, you would be mistaken. Comparing different sectors of the economy to measure environmental impact is like assessing strength by likening ants to elephants. Intuitively, one would say the elephant is far stronger, but given what an ant can lift relative to its size, the ‘phant is the proverbial 98-ton weakling. Since software developers don’t pollute as much as oil and gas producers, Newsweek tried to level the contamination field by rating companies on four broad categories including intangibles such as reputation and intent.
A company’s green reputation was measured by polling CEOs, environmental officers, and “other green experts.” Intentions were calculated by undertaking a “comprehensive assessment” of the corporation’s environmental policies. Overall impact was measured by applying the above-mentioned 700 metrics to determine a company’s “worldwide environmental footprint.” And, finally, the bottom-line assessment: Newsweek calculated the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere “from operations and electricity use” measured in metric tons.
Far and away, the technology sector dominated the standings. Four of the top five, five of the top ten, and ten of the top twenty green corporations were technology companies. And weighing in at number five is none other than Big Blue-Green itself.
IBM‘s ranking was based on the esteem in which it is held, and the work it does in support of limiting greenhouse gasses. Among its achievements are helping Stockholm reduce traffic congestion with a resulting 40 percent decrease in emissions; investing $1 billion a year to double the capacity of its data centers without increasing power consumption; and being the only company to receive the EPA’s Climate Protection Award twice.
But even though IBM has had formal environmental policies since 1971, and all new employees undergo environmental awareness training, popping the champagne corks may be premature. In spite of its green pinstripes, IBM still churns out 2,834,800 metric tons of greenhouse gasses each year–which is like bragging about installing a water-saving showerhead while the pipe is leaking. In that sense, the overall results of the survey are both comforting and disturbing. Comforting because so many corporations are finally waking up to economic and ecological realities; disturbing because in spite of their efforts, huge amounts of greenhouse gasses continue to be released.
Number four is Intel, which is the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the United States, with 46 percent of the company’s domestic energy use being renewable and with energy efficiency being a major focus during product development. Intel’s chip design strategy is to increase speed while simultaneously reducing energy consumption. The strategy is more than altruistic. Reducing energy also reduces heat–the speed-bump on the performance highway. Intel also leads its peers with strong programs to reduce waste and minimize the release of toxins. Bravo. But its greenhouse gas emissions are nothing to celebrate: Intel dwarfs IBM, chipping in (if you’ll pardon the expression) with 3,700,100 metric tons of airborne yuck.
Number two, coming in ahead of Johnson & Johnson, is Dell which also made the grade by purchasing renewable energy. Fully 100 percent of its headquarters’ energy consumption comes from renewable sources. The company became “carbon neutral” in 2008 by using offsets, and “plans to maintain carbon neutrality for the next five years.” It is also an industry leader with its product take-back and recycling programs, and all its new desktop and laptop computers are designed to consume up to 25 percent less energy. But carbon neutrality is something of an oxymoron. Using offsets just means you’re preventing a mess in one place while making a mess in another. At the end of the day, you still have a big mess.
And the winner–greener than Ireland in spring, the Incredible Hulk, and Kermit the Frog combined–is. . . . Hewlett-Packard. HP was the first major IT company to voluntarily report its greenhouse gas emissions. Good for them. Like other top five finishers, HP not only purchases renewable energy and develops processes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is also the industry leader in product recycling. HP pays its customers to return obsolete machines, thus “reclaiming 1.7 billion pounds of e-waste over the past decade.” It removes and resells the gold and copper, before disposing of the parts that aren’t reusable. HP also works with its suppliers to help them get greener and to remove toxic materials from its products. Newsweek noted that its number one ranking was due in large part to “its high Reputation Survey Score,” (18 points higher than Dell) and surpassed only by number seven Nike. Go figure. However, in spite of its transparency, solid reputation, and many good deeds, HP still contributes 1,673,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the planet’s ailing atmosphere.
Still, the effort of technology companies across the board is encouraging. To put the emission numbers in perspective, IBM, Intel, Dell and HP combined release less than half the greenhouse gasses as number 59 Wal-Mart which shares 21,365,100 metric tons of airborne waste with the world each year.
Humankind has always been engaged in a race between consciousness and disaster. Sadly, consciousness often evolves only after great damage has been done. There are an estimated 200 billion suns in the Milky Way alone, and as far as we know, only one life-bearing planet. It would be more than a disgrace to ruin it.
Environmentalists, like all prophets, have their detractors. Critics argue that restraint is not necessary, or it’s too costly, or it impinges on their freedom to be irresponsible. But as the world moves on, their voices are receding. The IT sector, at least, is heeding the words of the venerable Andy Kerr, who accurately observed: “Environmentalists may be hell to live with, but they make great ancestors.”