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Sustainable IT strategy drives socially responsible business practices

As businesses confront a world with rising energy costs and shrinking resources, a sustainable IT strategy can be a key enabler for change.

Among the few news items that came out of this political season's presidential debates (outside of who "won") was this nugget: There was no mention of climate change for the first time since the 1984 debates, according to those who watch such things.

Scot PetersenScot Petersen

This fact was not lost on the organizers and attendees who gathered in New York City late last month at the BSR 2012 conference, during which representatives of such leading global companies as Nike, Target and AMD shared their ideas on how to run more socially responsible businesses, from smart energy consumption to sustainable IT strategy to risk management.

"Politicians seem to have lost their nerve, by and large, and climate change has gone missing in the presidential campaign," said BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer. "The mainstream media are not paying attention to the kinds of topics that are being discussed here, which I think are so central to the state of the world and the fate of the world."

Linking IT with sustainable IT strategy

What does this have to do with CIOs and IT strategy? Plenty, when you consider that how businesses are run sustainably for the long term has a major impact today on how they manage risk and how they appeal to customers and investors.

[Climate change issues] are not extraneous issues that companies should think about when it's convenient. These actually are directly relevant to anything companies do every single day.

Aron Cramer,
president and CEO, BSR

That still begs an important question. Should the issues of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability, then, necessarily be tied to climate change rather than just be about running your business better and smarter and more efficiently? Cramer takes the long view: Sustainability, energy efficiency, climate change are not "extraneous issues companies should think about when it's convenient." he said. "These actually are directly relevant to anything companies do every single day," he added. "Climate change is disruptive to populations, to the availability of important commodities, to the price stability of those commodities. Those are all things that businesses have to think about every single day. And they [businesses] are affected by climate change, by human rights, by rule of law."

It's a good thing, then, that some enlightened businesses aren't waiting for the government to lead the way on corporate social responsibility and sustainability. In fact, there were many examples at the conference of businesses pushing and pulling government to enable them to be more responsible about energy.

Take eBay, for example. It's well known that eBay is a leader in green data center development. The story told at the BSR conference, however, detailed a deeper commitment toward using renewable energy sources. EBay wanted to expand its existing data center infrastructure in Utah, where the company's PayPal organization is based. But there actually were laws prohibiting companies from producing and using renewable energy in Utah -- a state whose economy has strong ties with the coal industry.

It took a concerted effort by eBay's IT leaders, green-initiative directors and government relations experts to find partners within the state government and energy industry in the state of Utah to create legislation that allowed eBay to use renewable energy sources. That legislation was passed earlier this year.

Climate change as culture war?

Cynics will say this is politics. Utah did not want to lose the jobs and revenue that eBay generates and eBay also has certain financial incentives to use alternative fuels. But the point is that the effort was there -- driven by collaboration inside and outside of eBay -- to create an option that wasn't there before. If more state and local governments and energy consumers (businesses) can make similar efforts, the world will be a better place.

More on sustainable IT strategy

Energy efficiency and carbon are driving sustainable business development

The right business strategy for corporate social responsibility

Connecting GRC, sustainability and corporate social responsibility

Of course, the BSR, which has about 300 corporate members, is not representative of the thousands of multinational corporations who couldn't care less about being socially responsible and sustainable, and who are the force behind efforts to turn climate change from a scientific and economic discussion into a culture war.

Nevertheless, "there is a world that is represented and described by the people here at the conference, over 1,000 people from 34 countries, who see reality and see the importance of the sustainability agenda and are really driving it forward. I think we have a clearer and better understanding of the world from within this hotel than those outside this hotel," Cramer said.

Cramer also is not blind to the realities of the conflicts at the intersection of energy use, sustainability, and smart business: "Every form of energy comes with tradeoffs," he said. "People do see IT as being 'clean,' but that does not mean that it is without impact. Clearly, data centers are creating more emissions, and that's why you've seen Google and Facebook and others make efforts to reduce the impact of all that. And the issue we get into with different forms of energy is 'peak energy,' which is generally covered by things like coal and not so much by wind. But the industry is now aware that everything we want in terms of continuous information flow needs power, so there should be an interest in seeing cleaner forms of energy to power the cloud."

We have seen plenty of examples how IT leaders are taking the time to look at IT energy consumption -- from consumption on a small scale on up to the "data center writ large," as one person described the eBay project. There's an opportunity to make a difference in IT, to be more socially responsible. And when each company makes that move, they will find that their business is more efficient and more sustainable, which is good for everybody.

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