No company fails to pay lip service to environmental concerns. For tech companies, saying good things about green ideas helps to offset negative feelings over the pollutants and carbon emissions released into the environment by building and running hardware.
An apparently proactive approach to green issues also helps in lobbying against any environmental legislation that the business sector regards as particularly punitive: witness the likes of Dell, HP, Fujitsu Siemens and the other PC vendors beefing up their recycling efforts over the last 18 months in response to the incoming Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive. When, and that's a big when, the directive finally comes into force, vendors will be forced to accept responsibility for the disposal of the all hardware sold after that date. It's better to be involved in the process than to try and ignore it, even if the talk in the boardroom does not always match the PR spin.
A tokenistic and reactive approach to the environment has characterised many tech companies' response until now. Things are changing, as shown by a short interview with BT's UK chief executive in the Observer this week. Instead of the usual hollow rhetoric about environmental responsibility, BT boss Ben Verwaayen put climate change in terms that businesses can understand.
He warned that global warming was directly affecting BT's business. Damage caused by severe weather to the company's infrastructure hit the bottom line. "The gales last winter followed Scotland's wettest summer on record. This meant we experienced numerous cable faults, overhead cables down and a whole car park full of vehicles ruined by floods," he said.
It's debatable whether those particular storms were the result of climate change, but the trend is inescapable. It is also unequivocable that technology companies and businesses are quick to act against anything that starts to cost them money. So far, the only other industry sternly warning about environmental problems has been the insurance trade - a group whose revenue is directly and immediately affected by such changes. The closer a company is to the physical effects of global warming, the sooner it will have to confront reality. Most IT companies don't have the weather exposure of BT -- software doesn't care if it's raining -- so if other companies in our segment start to make similar statements to BT, it will have a very sobering effect on industry leaders who have hitherto preferred greenwash to real engagement.
An organisation already exists to push this agenda in the shape of the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change of which BT is a member along with Cisco and Sun Microsystems. The group recently met with Tony Blair ahead of the G8 conference in Gleneagles next month to discuss how business can work with the government to protect the environment. The likes of BT, Sun and Cisco are uniquely placed to showcase some of the technical solutions to reducing carbon emissions such as green electricity generation, energy efficient hardware and the benefits of remote working. Obviously, the companies are keen to ensure that no legislation too damaging makes it into the statute books, but at least they're in the game. Debate motivated by self-interest is better than no debate at all.