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Green tech is hard work. Here's how to find more support

Technology providers have taken some steps in the right direction, but business leaders still need more help.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: Maskot/Getty Images

Sustainability is rising up the agenda in many businesses, but when it comes to tech it's still a challenge to find support and get started with projects.

Tech analyst Gartner says sustainability measures will be among companies' top three priorities during the next few years, with pressure from consumers (80%) and regulators (55%) seen as major factors in this shift

One of the key areas where companies will need to act is to make technology use more sustainable: estimates suggest the IT industry accounts for about 4% of global carbon emissions, with data centers being the most significant contributors of greenhouse gases in the IT sector, making up as much as half of that total. 

Any attempt by business leaders to act on sustainability will require detailed insight into how IT resources are consumed and how this use affects compliance with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets. 

Also: Tech and sustainability: How companies are getting started

However, while that data-led insight is critical to taking affirmative action, the message from digital leaders is that it can be hard work to develop an in-depth understanding of how IT companies are striving to provide their resources in a sustainable manner. 

Take Mark O'Brien, senior platform manager at Leeds Building Society, who says his organization is undertaking a range of programs -- from sustainable asset disposal to IT resource consolidation and onto the application of Dynatrace AIOps technology -- to help with the move towards more efficient and effective technology operations.

All these steps are a move in the right direction. Yet O'Brien also recognizes organizations can't strive to hit these targets in isolation -- and technology vendors could be more proactive when it comes to helping the businesses they serve to act in a sustainable manner. 

"I think there is more that the IT industry could be doing," he says. 

"There are some quite good areas that I've seen popping up. But that is largely in hardware and peripherals, asset disposal, and things like that. I also recognize that it's quite difficult from a sustainability point of view for a software-as-a-service provider to demonstrate what they're doing in terms of sustainability."

That's something that resonates with Athina Kanioura, chief strategy and transformation officer at PepsiCo, who suggests IT vendors aren't doing enough to help businesses understand how the technology resources they use impact carbon emissions. 

She believes the explanation for this deficiency is that many providers are also trying to work out what to do.

"And that's not because they don't want to -- it's because they don't know where to start," she says. 

"We've talked with all the big companies, and asked, 'what do you have in terms of offerings?' They are often at the beginning of the journey. They don't have out-of-the-box infrastructure or platforms that they can offer." 

PepsiCo's answer is to take sustainability monitoring into its own hands.

Kanioura's team is building a bespoke data platform to create a consolidated source of information that makes it easier to track regulatory compliance across the organization and ensure ESG factors are part of every business decision.

However, while some IT leaders feel progress towards achieving sustainable technology practices has been slower than they might have liked, advances are being made -- slowly. Looking further out, business leaders should expect tech-led innovations in other areas of sustainability monitoring. And innovative technologies may offer new ways of looking at the problem, too.

Geoff Uyleman, security analyst at GigaOm, says blockchain -- which has received much criticism because of the power-intensive efforts required to power cryptocurrency and NFT generation -- could help advance how the IT supply chain works together to track and trace progress toward ESG goals.

"Sustainability is the ideal use case to solve because decentralized collaboration is the only way blockchain can succeed," he says.

Also: This giant geothermal plant could help solve tech's energy problem

Uyleman gives the example of India-based 5ire Chain, which is focused on monitoring economic and environmental sustainability by using open-source distributed ledger technology and programmable ESG ranking services. 

He says professionals should keep an eye on the market for other pioneers in this area, perhaps by working alongside other organizations in their sector.

That's a sentiment that chimes with Andrew Briggs, strategic manager for sustainability and green infrastructure at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, who says partnerships are crucial to success.

"Business leaders should look for opportunities to collaborate with industry peers on common objectives in the field of sustainability," he says. 

Also: Tech for a sustainable future: The challenges and opportunities ahead

His organization formed a strategic collaboration with Siemens in April 2017 to deliver a series of energy-saving projects from lighting to heating.

Briggs is keen to work with other public sector organizations, such as schools and colleges, universities, and hospitals, to develop an integrated approach to energy use. 

"We're trying to take something on and do the right thing. It's taken us 10 years to get from a nice idea to delivering stuff. It's not an easy thing to do," he says.

Briggs says business leaders who want to boost sustainability efforts must find ways to work with like-minded organizations -- and the role played by forward-thinking vendors is critical.

"There's only so much we can do, but there are different ways we can approach it," he says. "I think there is a requirement for software and hardware manufacturers to talk to us more about how these different strategies should integrate."

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