The Reputation Green IT Doesn’t Deserve

Green IT is suffering from a disconnect. Although people say they are pro-environment and will look for this in their products, in reality their spending behavior paints a different picture.

"For the rays, to speak properly, are not coloured" - Sir Isaac Newton, 1730. What Newton was talking about is our perception of color. The reality is that visible light is electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths. So that rays of 400nm are perceived by people as blue, 540nm green, and 700nm as red. The point is that the rays themselves do not contain color; it’s people that create this perception in their brains. So, our ‘green’ will be perceived differently by a turtle or a bee. I like this observation because it demonstrates the fundamental disconnect from reality and perception. Green IT is suffering this disconnect at the moment.

In a recent article in The McKinsey Quarterly, the authors describe a survey of almost 8000 people worldwide, 87% said they "worry about the environment and social impact of the products they buy" ("Helping ‘green’ products grow", McKinsey & Company, Bonini and Oppenheim, 2008). However when they looked at the market adoption of green products such as hybrid cars or green laundry detergents, these products comprised fewer than 2% of market share. It seems as though people say they are pro-environment and will look for this in their products, but in reality their spending behavior paints a different picture.

It makes sense that such a large portion of the population is pro-green. How many people do you know that would go on record saying the environment is overrated and should be destroyed? The McKinsey article goes on to postulate that the hesitation to put your money where your mouth is stems from a number of factors that have hurt the adoption of green. Namely that there is a general lack of awareness of green products, a belief that green products are less effective and of lower quality, there’s distrust in a product’s green claims, that green products carry a premium price, and that these products are unavailable. It’s not that these issues are unwarranted given the early green consumer products. Take compact fluorescent lights (CFL) for example, yes they cost more than regular light bulbs, they take a little longer to fire up, and the light they give off can be described as harsh. Fair enough. Initial hybrid cars were pricey, unavailable, and didn’t provide the performance consumers could get from regular vehicles. OK, so the reputation was substantiated. Maybe that’s why initial adopters made their purchases for more altruistic reasons. It’s this same reputation that has tarnished Green IT. This reputation is completely unfounded.

While Green IT is focused on environmentally sound practices in IT, Green IT only suffer from one of the consumer’s claims highlighted above. That is there is a general lack of awareness of IT and business professionals of all the green choices and options they have. The technologies that can provide green benefits such as virtualization (running many operating systems virtually on a single physical server) have been around for years and can provide every bit of quality or performance as alternative solutions. The environmental benefits are clear and can be directly tracked back to a reduction in CO2 emissions through a reduction in power use. The benefits are substantial and impactful. With IT causing 2% of the global greenhouse gas released and doubling every 5 years (US EPA Report to Congress, 2007), Green IT can cut these emissions by greater than 50%-70% in most cases. These solutions are largely based on software and process changes so there is no issue with availability. Perhaps the biggest misperception Green IT needs to overcome is the one that Green IT programs will cost a lot of money to put into place. The truth is that this is the biggest reason Green IT will grow. Green IT programs often save so much money on power, cooling, administration costs, space considerations, and hardware costs that they have a return on investments (ROI) of about 12-18 months. That is the entire cost of the program has paid for itself in about a year to a year and a half. After that, all the financial benefit is enjoyed and the carbon impact is reduced into perpetuity. If the real challenge is to change the behavior of businesses to adopt Green IT principles, then I will put my money on the ability of money to drive that change. Let’s see Green IT for what it really is – the right way for organizations to treat their customers yet stay healthy and competitive.

Toby J. Velte, Ph.D.

Avanade Inc | Minneapolis

My Fast Company Profile

Co-author of Green IT: Reduce Your Information System's Environmental Impact While Adding to the Bottom Line.

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