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5 ways tech leaders can power environmental sustainability

As organizations prioritize environmental sustainability, technology leaders have the opportunity to help support success. Here are five steps that help.

Technology leaders have the potential to help their organizations meet new environmental sustainability demands. But they'll need to understand the important steps to take.

Given increasing economic and geopolitical uncertainties, customers and stakeholders are calling for genuine and impactful environmental sustainability efforts that show a grasp of rising regulations and a dedication to tomorrow's needs.

IT contributes significantly to the overall carbon footprint of an organization, according to the new Forrester Research report "The State of IT Environmental Sustainability, 2023." For example, IT has an outsized contribution to Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions in the financial services sector, which has a heavy data center backbone. Data center energy use represented 55% of Mastercard's Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions in 2021.

At a broad level, IT's environmental impact -- from carbon emissions to toxic waste -- comes from three primary sources:

  • The resources and energy necessary for hardware manufacturing as well as software development.
  • The energy consumption necessary for running and maintaining IT hardware and software over its lifespan.
  • IT's contribution to waste at end of life.

Secondary sources of environmental impact and carbon emissions include the construction of IT-related facilities, such as data centers, and the transportation of IT-related goods.

Emerging tech will aid in the observability of new data, increase efficiencies in facilities management and manufacturing, and directly reduce carbon emissions in some cases.

As a result, tomorrow's technology leaders must step up and coordinate partners, platforms and practices to advance their organization's environmental sustainability goals. This is not only to help lower the carbon footprint of IT but also to use IT to aid in the sustainability efforts across any organization and any industry.

Steps to boost sustainability

While understanding the problem can seem overwhelming, there are steps organizations can take to enhance sustainability readiness. CIOs and other tech leaders have a critical role in sustainability.

When preparing to enhance their organization's sustainability readiness, technology leaders must consider five key areas of opportunity and actionable steps:

1. Set goals and add environmental metrics to strategic plans and budgets

Tech leaders must build sustainability outcomes into strategic planning and budgeting as well as find ways to adapt or influence to enhance future flexibility. The first step is to determine the sources of energy use or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Equipped with this data, CIOs and other tech leaders can start to tackle these efforts. These may include carbon or GHG goals for technology projects or cross-departmental collaboration on an internal carbon currency or budget.

It's important to include costs for tools, services and energy audits to support transformation efforts in organizational budgets. According to a study by Forrester Research, 32% of large firms say they include environmental sustainability criteria in all technology requests for proposals (RFPs).

2. Implement tools for environmental sustainability measurement and reporting

Energy, carbon, and GHG reduction activities begin with measurement. Unfortunately, many firms hold on to their spreadsheets and estimates longer than they should.

Although collecting, analyzing and acting on data is a core capability of most technology organizations, technology leaders say they do not have the information needed to implement this type of optimization, much less replicate or automate it.

The key is to measure regularly and iteratively to improve the effectiveness of sustainability metrics, tools and processes. When tech leaders have established what they are measuring and how they are reporting, they should invest in environmental sustainability management software and tools.

Using a third-party assessment to establish a shortlist of sustainability management tools can be helpful. CIOs and other tech leaders should work with the sustainability team to adopt a framework to get started.

3. Integrate sustainability outcomes into transformation initiatives

Tech leaders have a front-row seat to appreciate the benefits at the intersection of sustainability and digital transformation.

Transformation initiatives offer an opportunity to calculate and optimize IT's carbon footprint and eliminate a portion of your technical debt. As transformation work begins and evolves, leaders should take actions such as reviewing cloud and data center strategies, revising sourcing strategies, and considering as-a-service models that may help extend the useful life of equipment and reduce e-waste or management overhead.

Advanced firms are embedding Scope 3 criteria into information requests, and sustainability proof points are showing up in proofs of concept, requests for information, RFPs and other hands-on demonstrations. Requesting information on the energy mix in data centers is a good place to start.

4. Evaluate the role of emerging technology in achieving sustainability goals

Explore emerging topics, such as carbon capture, usage and storage as well as new developments with environmental, health, safety and sustainability platforms that include technologies to measure and report on air quality, water resources and e-waste.

Tech leaders can consider new technology such as AI and machine learning as well as new technology paradigms such as open data and collaboration. It's important to balance the benefits and liabilities of the emerging tech portfolio while exploring cutting-edge technologies such as carbon capture, high-performance computing and high-efficiency code.

5. Seize innovation and partnering opportunities to enhance sustainability

Technology leaders and their teams have a coordinating and collaborative role to play in assessing innovation and partner opportunities from a sustainability perspective.

If the CIO, CTO, chief data officers or other technology leader oversees venture teams or exploration groups tasked with evaluating partners or innovation networks, they can add environmental sustainability criteria to these activities as well as consider the positive and negative impacts of new technologies on your environmental footprint.

Especially now, it's important to consider the potential partner's Scope 1 footprint will become part of the leader's organizational Scope 3 footprint. Tech leaders can challenge their innovation teams to eliminate Scope 1 emissions as well as share R&D and product innovations internally.

Finally, as leaders move toward regenerative circular operating and business models, they can get involved with communities and alliances like the Green Software Foundation or the Clean Energy Buyers Association.

Technology leaders have a critical role to play in advancing sustainability for any organization. Specific actions may include procuring green energy for data centers, developing software in a more environmentally conscious manner, greening application architecture and embedding sustainability metrics in every digital transformation project.

In taking actions that embed environmental considerations, technology leaders ensure their organization elevates sustainability to a lasting priority.

Abhijit Sunil

About the author
Abhijit Sunil is an analyst serving enterprise leaders. His research focuses on green IT, technology sustainability strategy, data centers and cloud optimization, emerging technologies and climate action, the sustainability professional services market, environmental reporting and organization, and the ROI and business value of environmental sustainability investments.

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