Is The ‘Green’ In Green IT Dead? No, because it is what keeps us alive.

Posted on December 4, 2008


The one where Sam disagrees with Doug Washburn who has confused lean and greenwash with sustainability.

Doug asks “Is The ‘Green’ In Green IT Dead? No, Because It Was Never Really Alive” (also on Environmental Leader).  He argues that 

 corporations…make decisions to effectively manage risk, costs and revenues to deliver profits which ultimately drive shareholder value.

Doug argues that “First and foremost, technology is not green and never will be”.  He links to several stories, mostly concerning e-waste.  From this narrow perspective he is right, but he ignores the potential of technology to contribute positively.   It seems he is stuck on the “less bad” without looking at the “good”.

Secondly, Doug argues that 

the ecological benefits of Green IT take a backseat to the business benefits – namely cost reduction. In other words, IT leadership’s driving motivation for Green IT is financial, not environmental. This shouldn’t be a surprise. At the end of the day, corporations – even those with the greenest of intentions – make decisions to effectively manage risk, costs and revenues to deliver profits which ultimately drive shareholder value.

I don’t agree at all with this “take a back seat”.  If it is in the back seat then it is merely greenwash.

Because corporate IT operates within the realm of the corporation, financial obligations come first.

While green is entirely secondary to financial concerns then it should not be considered sustainability. 

Doug gives some examples where lean happens to equal green (see my earlier post), but what about where sustainability doesn’t deliver such obvious benefits (say buying a more expensive brand that doesn’t use child labour or has high environmental standards, for example).  So, yes you’re right “green IT never was” if your approach to triple bottom line is really financial with a bit of greenwash. 

Perhaps the problem in Doug’s article is timescale, mixing the short term financial savings with longer term economic impacts.  While the cost savings (lean IT) Doug describes are indeed beneficial from a less bad perspective, they don’t really address long term strategy – the corporation operating in a sustainable system. This takes a long term understanding and integration of environmental/social/economic factors. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describes impacts on economies of degradation of ecosystem services (the Australian drought being a prime example).

So Doug concludes: 

when setting Green IT strategy – especially in volatile economic times – I suggest IT leadership take a similar approach to Google’s Commitment to Sustainable Computing which explains: “Sustainability is good for the environment, but it makes good business sense too… It is this economic advantage that makes our efforts truly sustainable.”

and I agree (but not really with Doug), we need to look beyond short term financial savings to the long term economic advantage, and recognise that sustainability is crucial to this economic position, even if it may cost financially in the short term.