Working for the earth 5 til 9

Posted on July 29, 2008


I swim regularly with a triathlete who is also a policeman. He works strange hours, some weeks he’s on days, others he calls in for swim on the way home in the early morning. These strange hours are because “crime never sleeps”. Something else that never sleeps is environmental and social degradation. The fight for sustainability needs to be a 24/7 business. Except that it isn’t. It seems that for most of us, sustainability isn’t business at all.

I’ve been re-reading the IBM/NZBCSD report released earlier this year.

Most of the earlier commentary focussed on comparisons of NZ IT business to their non-IT counterparts and to IT businesses in Australia. Looking now, I think there’s a more startling finding – the comparison between what people do at home compared to what they do at work.

The survey reports 94% of people recycle at home “for environmental reasons”.  At work, however, only 11% of the same people recycle.  The same applies in environmental transport decisions – at home: 40%; at work only 6%.

At home, it seems we are starting to care. An encouraging 72% of us report environmental considerations affecting purchasing decisions. Yet, at work only 28% report any environmental consideration in purchasing at their workplace.

We seem to have gotten to a position where caring for the earth is something that is acceptable, even expected before school, the evenings and weekends, but is not something we do from nine to five.

Why is this? Presumably people know that any hope we have to make the world a better place to live and work depends on making changes at home and at work.

And these changes at work will have so very much more impact that those we can do at home. While I applaud people who recycle their compost at home it starts to pale into insignificance if they spend their days driving 1000s of kilometers primarily focussed on selling more cheese than a competitor (who is doing exactly the same). There has to be a better way.

Even if people try to make an artificial distinction between living in the world and working in the world, surely people also realise that sustainability affects business. The Millenium Ecosystem reports considered “ecosystem services” and their effect on society, cultures and commerce.

Does this suggest a significant change in the way we do business? Possibly.  It is certainly why Otago Polytechnic has developing “Sustainable Practitioners” as a core strategy.  It suggests, that while every bit counts, sustainability in the workplace needs to be more than recycling in the lunchroom.

This opens a window for computing. As Forum for the Future argued (Connected ICT and Sustainable Development)

If we apply ICT well, the rewards could be enormous. It could help to enhance creativity and innovation to solve our problems, build communities, give more people access to goods and services and use precious resources much more efficiently.

What the computing community needs to do is to wrench that window open. As we’ve seen in the report from IBM/NZBCSD, people are not making the connection between work and sustainability. They’re not going to come asking for us.

We do, of course, need to get our own house in order (following the subject of this post, house here means workplace!). The IBM/NZBCSD report states that of the 21% of businesses with a sustainability strategy only 39% (or a pathetic 8% of the total) had made IT a key component of that strategy.