Exploiting the dogfood factor in corporate sustainability strategy

Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

On paper, at least, it sometimes seems like big technology companies have a built-in edge over other organizations in getting with the green IT program. Of course, I deal with technology companies for a living, so that's just what I know the best.

Take IBM, which released its latest report on corporate social responsibility earlier this week.

I won't regurgitate every single piece of that update, but I do what want to key in on is a couple of things that IBM has been doing that its seems to me every business should be striving to emulate. The first is really focusing on how your own products and services can help achieve your sustainability goals and the second is looking to your business partners to play a role. I call this the "dogfood factor."

  • Exhibit 1: IBM used two of its own developments last year to cut energy consumption in its data centers. Last year, for example, it was able to consolidate operations in 19 facilities, eliminating 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity use and slashing $1 million in operating costs. What's more, it is using a new thermal mapping tool from IBM research to capture heat and temperature information that can be used in future cuts. Here's some more information about the data center consolidation from an article I wrote at a conference this spring.
  • Exhibit 2: IBM, like most companies, is converting to renewable energy sources as quickly as it can. Last year, as example, it purchased 450 million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy, which equals about 8.6 percent of its global power consumption. In this area, IBM has three highly publicly initiatives going on including solar photovoltaic research that is aimed at improving the efficiency and ubiquity of solar installations; automating smart grid technology, so that renewable sources can be added more quickly; and repurposing some of its technology cast-offs (namely scrap silicon wafers) so they can be reused in solar products. Elsewhere, the Aspuru-Guzik research group in solar energy at Harvard University is part of the IBM-sponsored World Community Grid.

Now, you may be thinking: I don't run a technology company like IBM, so how can I use my own products to aid in my sustainability goals? My answer: You can concentrate on setting an example for how you make and deliver those products. You can use that work not so much as a brand differentiation but as a brand declaration. That is, you can confidently state that your offering holds up against key environmental and ethical guideposts. This will make people feel better about being your customer.

The other major area that I'd like to focus on has to do with IBM's supply chain reengineering efforts. The company deals with more than 30,000 supplier locations in 60 countries, so this work touches a lot of people and a lot of planet, to say the least. Here are a couple of data points:

  • IBM is part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay Transport Partnership, and in 2008, the company says that 86 percent of its shipments in the United States and Canada went through SmartWay partners.
  • IBM has another software tool, called the Carbon TradeOff Modeler, that it can use to consider the effect of different factors such as transportation mode, fuel costs, load consolidation, packaging and so on.
  • At this point, the company has calculated that 91 percent of its suppliers are compliant with its environmental policies. During the upcoming year, according to its report, IBM intends to help its first-tier suppliers (the ones that it deals with directly) promulgate IBM's own policies down into the suppliers that THEY deal with. The implication is that suppliers that don't comply will be encouraged to do so, or IBM won't deal with them.

Now, you know as well as I do that it's really tough to uphold certain policies in emerging nations. That's a reasonable argument, but aside from the dogfood effect, I'm a believer in the start-up advantage. That's the notion that it's easier for newer companies to comply with a new regulation or policy because they don't have the momentum of history keeping them from getting on the wrong track.

OK, so maybe you don't have the massive R&D budget of IBM, or the overwhelming responsibility of its massive supply chain impact. But by thinking like IBM's managers do, your company can make a mark of its own, plus ensure the credibility of its sustainability efforts. I would strong encourage you to read their report but do us all a favor and don't print it out.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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