5 IT sustainability approaches to consider

IT plays a crucial role as companies prioritize ESG efforts. These five sustainability approaches could help organizations reduce long-term environmental effects.

More companies are prioritizing environmental issues, and IT has an important role to play.

That role is multifaceted since IT has harmful environmental effects but can also be helpful in supporting corporate environmental efforts. Leaders must understand the plethora of IT sustainability approaches, as well as what works best for their organization.

That effort can also benefit the organization's competitive edge.

"Sustainability is not only the right thing to do, but it can help drive margin expansion within a company when it's done properly," said Randal Kenworthy, senior partner of the consumer and industrial products practice at West Monroe, an advisory firm headquartered in Chicago.

Reducing waste and inefficiencies not only make organizations greener, these practices also drive costs down, he said.

"Sustainability shouldn't be viewed as a must-do because we have to meet some kind of corporate target," Kenworthy said. "You should be doing it also because it actually makes good business sense."

Here are five sustainability approaches organizations should consider that can also enhance their competitive edge.

1. Reduce e-waste and device environmental impact

IT emissions continue to grow as technology factors more heavily into all aspects of personal and work life. Data centers are a much-discussed source of carbon emissions, but devices also have a profound environmental impact.

Laptops, tablets, smartphones and printers produce 1.5 to two times more carbon emissions than data centers, according to the September 2022 McKinsey & Company report "The green IT revolution: A blueprint for CIOs to combat climate change." This is, in part, because organizations not only have more user devices circulating among their workforces than on-premises data centers, but the refresh cycle for this technology is frequent.

On average, companies replace smartphones every two years, laptops every four years and printers every five, according to the report. On-premises servers, on the other hand, have a lifecycle of five years or more. What's especially concerning is that the carbon emissions generated by these devices are set to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.8% each year.

CIO and other IT leaders can take action to improve both device sourcing and usage to reduce their digital carbon footprint. Methods of greening device management include the following:

  • Sourcing more energy efficient technology.
  • Increasing device lifecycles.
  • Optimizing the number of organizational devices.

Deploying fewer devices, maximizing refresh cycles and taking actions such as reassigning older devices could reduce user device-related emissions by 50% to 60%, according to estimates in the McKinsey & Company report.

Sustainability requires solid IT asset management, for example, having robust inventory systems to understand what devices the company has.

"By having a better understanding of what's in your organization, you can better manage that and potentially extend the lifecycles of products," Kenworthy said.

Good IT asset management also includes determining what will happen with devices once they reach end-of-life, said Durgesh Patel, senior manager in West Monroe's consumer and industrial products practice. "You [need to] have a robust e-waste program so that when those laptops, servers and phones go out of service, they can be disposed of."

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2. Measure cloud-related carbon emissions

While moving to the cloud is not a one-action answer to sustainability problems, it's likely to factor into a greener strategy.

For example, selecting cloud service providers and hyperscalers that invest in greener practices, such as operating on renewable energy, can help address data center-related carbon emissions, according to the McKinsey & Company report. These organizations achieve a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.10 or less, while an average on-premises data center's PUE is 1.57. By migrating to a sustainability-focused cloud provider, organizations can reduce the carbon emissions produced by their data centers by more than 55%.

Before CIOs and IT leaders can reduce cloud-related emissions, they must have a clear idea of their current cloud footprint. This requires them to find ways to measure emissions so they can make informed decisions on where the problem areas are and how they can make improvements.

While the major cloud providers supply greenhouse gas emissions data, the collection methodologies aren't always clear, said Lisa McNally, head of cleantech and sustainability at Thoughtworks Inc., a consulting firm headquartered in Chicago.

Vendors have their own tools to calculate greenhouse gas emissions, but other tools exist, such as Thoughtworks' free open-source Cloud Carbon Footprint tool that provides visualizations of estimated emissions from major vendors such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure. IT leaders should do their due diligence on which tool is most accurate and unbiased.

Once IT leaders calculate cloud emissions, they'll see there's a lot of opportunity for shifting workloads, McNally said. Understanding cloud emissions also brings clarity to IT leaders whose organizations use multiple vendors.

"They can actually make better tradeoff decisions by seeing where they sit across the different cloud providers in their usage," McNally said.

3. Practice green software development

Sustainable software development practices are an important but often-overlooked area of green IT.

CIOs and IT leaders need to examine their organization's software development processes, and how they may contribute to carbon emissions, said Marco Valtas, Thoughtworks' technical lead for cleantech and sustainability. Organizations that develop applications for mobile phones require developers to keep energy efficiency top-of-mind, but many engineers don't take energy consumption into account.

"Bridging that gap so that [engineers] understand that the use of software will consume energy, and that the production of energy emits carbon, is one of the first cultural [changes] that you can [bring to] software development in general," Valtas said.

4. Optimize UI and UX

User experience principles can support more sustainable IT.

That's the case at Sunbelt Rentals Inc., an equipment rental company headquartered in Fort Mill, S.C.

As part of the organization's sustainability efforts, IT optimizes the UI on employee devices as a means of reducing energy, said JP Saini, chief digital and technology officer at the company.

Sunbelt Rentals has created an internal design and experience technology group that makes improvements in the following areas:

  • Screen design.
  • Screen refresh rates.
  • Screen hibernation modes.

The more intuitive user interfaces are, the more efficient they become, Saini said. Designs that demand more of a user's time and consume more energy are less sustainable than more streamlined offerings. For example, a design that has a user swipe through four menus to find needed information would be more efficient if all the necessary information was in a single menu.

"[These are] design choices that are allowing us to influence our employees' behavior on these devices," Saini said. "And the less time they spend on a device has a direct, measurable outcome on how much power they're consuming."

5. Consider adopting GreenOps

A buzzword gaining some attention in IT circles is GreenOps, which focuses on the many strategies and practices needed to decarbonize IT infrastructures.

CIOs and IT leaders should adopt a GreenOps framework to make sustainability-related decisions, Valtas said. Like FinOps, which guides organizations to make better investments based on hard data, GreenOps capitalizes on emissions data to drive critical sustainable IT decisions. Examples of its areas of concern include the following:

  • The actual server capacity an organization might require versus overpurchasing capacity in case might be required.
  • What potentially greener regions a company might select for its cloud workflows, for example, those areas that run on renewable energy.
  • The time of day cloud workflows are the greenest due to what region they draw power from.

"It's basically applying not just a financial lens, but an emissions lens to that resource usage," Valtas said.

IT sustainability approaches as a business driver

Despite the urgency of the climate crisis, sustainability isn't the only factor in IT decision-making.

"I don't think any executive -- including CIOs – [is] at a point where they can just decide based on sustainability. They are still working on that journey," Patel said.

That said, with the right metrics in place, CIOs and IT leaders can render their operations more sustainable.

"As you [examine] emission reduction, waste generation, energy usage, then you can start making wise decisions based on a holistic picture of your business and revenue cost goals, but also sustainability goals," Patel said.

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