You’re not going to be measuring “ecological friendliness” just by watching the power meter

Posted on March 2, 2009


TV mast Ever had that nagging feeling that something is missing?  YesterdayI wrote about Michael Healey’s The Eco-Enterprise And The Reality Of Green IT.   I thought his premise that many  green IT initiatives are really just ROI-based business decisions wrapped in green packaging was timely.  His quote is  judicious: “Virtualization isn’t about being green, and we all know it”.

But I was left with a nagging doubt and it took a while to figure out what it was.  The title.   Specifically the “Eco-Enterprise” bit.    The enterprises described aren’t Eco-Enterprises, not even nearly.  On Willard’s scale of organisational sustainability maturity these are probably all around the compliance stage:

• Pre-Compliance: ignoring sustainability and opposing related regulations

• Compliance: obeying laws and regulations on labor, environment, health and safety.  The business manages its liabilities by obeying the law and all labour, environmental, health, and safety regulations.  It reactively does what it legally has to do and does it well. Emerging environmental and philanthropic social actions are treated as costs, projects are end-of-pipe retrofits, and CSR is given lip service.

• Beyond Compliance: recognizing the opportunity to cut costs mainly through higher resource efficiencies and reduction of waste, leading to both financial and ecological gains. Sustainability is still separated from core business development.

• Integrated Strategy: Sustainability is integrated in the company’s vision and informs key business strategies to be more successful than competitors through innovation, design, and improved financial risk

•  Purpose and Passion: This is actually not a next stage of development for most companies but rather a special type of companies, being originally designed to ‘help saving the world’.

It’s not surprising that Healey reports that 

A mere 12% of the 419 business technology professionals we surveyed for this report say they’d be willing to pay more for a greener product

Healey asks, are  “our vaunted green IT initiatives really just ROI-based business decisions wrapped in environmentally friendly packaging?”  In such compliance organisations the answer seems obvious, Healey’s results exemplify  sustainability being separated from core business development.

There’s lots of great graphs in Healey’s report.  One near the end  is telling.  It is titled “Measuring ecological friendliness” and asks “How do/will you measure your green initiatives?”.  The answers given (presumably from a supplied set) are power savings, cost reductions, carbon footprint and carbon credits.

To progress to Eco-Enterprises, or “integrated strategy” will take a much wider incorporation of sustainability into the business, and a much wider understanding of sustainability.    This means a focus on holistic thinking rather than checklists.   You’re not going to be measuring “ecological friendliness” just by watching the power meter. 

One description of sustainable thinking is that we need to think about drivers and impacts of our actions across multiple scales (spatial, temporal, cultural).   Healey goes some of this way,  suggesting five “Green Evaluation Criteria” that attempt to widen the ROI to include measurable green(ish) impacts.   Hence, he includes Productivity ROI, User Receptiveness and “Environmental Impact” (which he admits is a “soft metric, but worth including”).

Yet in the attempt to concretise sustainability and make it accessible to business,  we’ve lost the connections – reducing everything to simple dollar equivalents blows away the inherent complexity.   Sophie Hallstedt, for example, points out that sustainable decision making requires a consideration of  a decision’s impact in degrading the social system.  This includes abuse of authority (e.g. enforced labor, undermining labor unions, etc) and abuse of economic power (e.g. non-livable, wages, exploiting investments, etc).   To put this in terms of Healey’s technology decision makers:  if it was shown that your preferred supplier was using enforced child labour, would you be prepared to change suppliers? (and how much more would you be prepared to pay?).     Now, this is not as simple as adding child labour to a checklist, the point is that there are many many factors that could come into play for any given decision.   The bigger question is whether you would be aware of the (hypothetical) child labour in the first place.