Future-fit tech leaders must make sustainability a top priority

Tech leaders must include sustainability within today's strategies and key decisions to be truly future fit. Sustainability is not just about what we must do to protect the environment but has socioeconomic considerations.

The most encouraging message from David Attenborough's documentary "The Year Earth Changed" is that even a small change in our habits can make a big difference to our planet. Within the first weeks of lockdown, with very few people commuting and traffic significantly reduced, we started to see cleaner, bluer, and quieter skies. 

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Perhaps every cloud does have a silver lining? Not yet. Coronavirus lockdowns may have slowed carbon emissions and driven down pollution worldwide, but that does not mean CO2 levels are dropping long-term. In fact, it is unfortunately the opposite. In May 2020, the world reached record levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 417 parts per million compared to 414.8 ppm from the previous May. 

Putting Sustainability On The Tech Leader's Agenda 

This got me thinking about the role tech leaders have in driving the sustainability agenda within their organizations. Some may be skeptical that IT can make an impactful difference or that there are too many other priorities to deal with. But there are benefits beyond just ticking the boxes of the corporate ESG goals (environmental, social, and corporate governance). 

The classic definition of sustainability is "addressing the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations." Tech leaders must include sustainability within today's strategies and key decisions to be truly future fit. Sustainability is not just about what we must do to protect the environment but has socioeconomic considerations. With renewable energy undercutting costs compared to fossil fuels, there is an economic benefit. And the empowered customer demands brands to be green. Organizations should balance the needs of people, the planet, and the company's profits to create long-term customer and shareholder value. Tech leaders can lead the way for their firms to achieve this. 

  • Think and plan beyond the obvious cloud benefits: It is now widely accepted that cloud services are more sustainable, with the hyperscaler public cloud providers using 100% renewable energy. But there is a lot more to sustainability in IT than just a "green data center" and thinking that if your IT services are predominantly on the cloud, you are doing fine. Tech leaders must develop sustainability strategies across the full tech lifecycle, covering procurement, operations, and IT equipment retirement -- Forrester's technology sustainability framework provides guidance on how to manage this. 
  • Make your future digital workplace a sustainable workplace: Post COVID-19, many IT leaders are developing updated remote working and digital workplace strategies that will contribute to their organization's sustainability agenda. The opportunity to adopt internet-of-things solutions to integrate smart heating, lighting and environmental controls extends the potential for the digital workplace agenda to finally achieve the smart-building reality. 
  • Adapt intelligent automation to eliminate waste: Technology has the power to eliminate organizational waste -- unproductive processes, inefficient use of systems and resources, and wasteful ways of working. All waste leads to green waste -- paper-based processes, dormant or underutilized systems, and manual workflows that can all be better automated through intelligent automation and artificial intelligence solutions. 

What Goes Around Must Come Around 

Tech leaders must also understand their technology as a "circular economy." This goes beyond stipulating green requirements in procurement contracts or setting policies for zero-landfill asset disposal. That should be a given. Instead, it is about truly evaluating, challenging, and seeking out innovation in the entire "cradle to grave" of every tech investment. 

Our ever-increasing use and dependency on technology places huge demand for the rare Earth metals needed for computing power. Mining for rare Earth metals is also notoriously hazardous to the environment and to the health of mining communities. With China dominating the market, there are broader economic and political concerns for the impact to the supply chain. These rare Earth metals are a critical part of the future of clean energy. They are an integral part of wind turbines and the batteries and technology needed for electric vehicles, for example. We must therefore protect this valuable resource without inadvertently continuing to damage the source (our planet and our people). 

In contrast to traditional mining, urban mining is the practice of recovering these metals from electronic waste. Making innovative use of materials already in the supply chain is an alternative that IT manufacturing organizations must accelerate through the adoption of processes such as bioleaching and other developing methods. Bioleaching is the extraction of metals from their ores using living microorganisms. Tech leaders can demand and seek out suppliers that incorporate methods to recycle their components (including rare Earth metals). Suppliers must also modularly design such components so that they can be easily taken apart and repurposed back into the supply chain. This additional small but significant change to existing IT sustainability policies could make a big difference to the future sustainability of our planet. 

To learn more, register here for Forrester's complimentary webinar, Incorporating Sustainability Into Your Tech Strategy. 

This post was written by Senior Analyst Phil Brunkard, and it originally appeared here