(43) Sustainability

Has Sustainability Lost its Relevance?


Information Technology: How to Save Energy, Reduce Waste and Facilitate the Transition to a Low-Impact Operation

 Because it operates behind the scenes in most organizations, we tend to neglect the contribution that information technology makes to operations. Most of us come to work, sit at our desks, flip on our computers and start work without thinking about all that goes into running and supporting our transactions. Today, however, information technology (IT) is getting more and more attention not only for its contribution to our productivity and efficiency but for its negative environmental impacts as well. As we look behind the screen in our data centres, we find tremendous opportunities for improving the environmental footprint of our operations.


Information technology has offered up the biggest boon to productivity since the advent of mechanized production. Computers and related communications technologies have enabled us to produce more with fewer resources and less hazard and sweat. These technologies have also contributed to globalization, linking people to markets and enabling instantaneous transmission of information, images and currency. Information technology is erasing borders and boundaries, enabling the smallest businesses to operate at a scale and distance historically limited to large corporations. We can instantly share ideas without leaving our offices. Information that used to take weeks or even months to amass is now available within minutes at the click of a mouse. There is a dark side to IT as well, however. All the progress and economic development that computers and communication devices have brought us have come at a price. Information overload. Instead of simplifying our lives and creating more leisure time through its efficiencies, IT has contributed to an increased pace of life and an expectation to continuously produce more. IT has enabled us to create and distribute more information; so we do! The result is that we are inundated with more data than our brains can process. And the increased connectivity means we never have to be away from work. Raise your hand if you check your emails at the weekend.

Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Another aspect of IT that is getting more and more attention is the energy required to run this proliferating equipment. Currently, information and communications technology account for about 2 per cent of global climate emissions. Growing demand for information technology, principally in India and China, is predicted to result in a doubling of this impact, even taking into account the trend in equipment efficiencies.1 The energy consumption comes not just from plugging in your PC. Think of all the data centres around the world that house the big servers that connect intranets in organizations and power the global use of the internet. These centres not only use electricity to run the servers, but require energy-intensive mechanical systems to keep the equipment cool.

Toxic exposure. This frenzied demand for immediate output has an environmental impact as well. The equipment that drives all this activity is made from a whole host of nasty and toxic materials. Since much of the manufacturing of electronic equipment takes place in developing nations with minimal environmental protection, people who live downstream from these manufacturing plants are exposed to the flame retardants, phthalates, plasticizers, chlorinated solvents and heavy metals used to construct computers, cell phones and other electronic equipment.

Waste accumulation. Then, of course, once we are finished with our equipment - which is at an increasingly frequent rate due to its rapid obsolescence – we are faced with the problem of disposal. The conversion to digital TV in the US next year will itself take over 25 million otherwise functioning television sets out of service. More relevant to business are the statistics regarding office equipment. According to a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 30 to 40 million personal computers will be at the end of their useful lives in the next few years and looking for a place to go. When taken collectively, TVs, VCRs, monitors, cell phones, computers and another equipment amount to about 50 million tons of trash a year - 70 to 80 per cent of which end up in a landfill, where we are once again exposed to the same toxins released at their manufacture. What doesn’t end up in a landfill is often exported for ‘recycling’. While there are responsible recycling programmes, a disturbing amount of this waste stream ends up back in developing nations in Asia and Africa, where the poor burn the plastic parts to salvage the valuable metal in the circuits and wiring putting toxins into the air and heavy metals in their water supplies. Even software is not without its impacts. Consider the CDs and packaging involved in every software program you buy. Even greater are the indirect impacts software creates because a new program frequently requires updated hardware perpetuating the cycle of continuous replacement. The digital divide. IT has a social impact as well. Without intending to do so, technology (including telecommunications, internet access and computing) has contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor. Just as access to this technology has an equalizing and democratic effect, lack of access contributes to the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Current estimates put the number of people online at about 333 million, but 72 per cent of those people live in Europe and North America. This digital divide is not only huge; it’s growing. A World Bank study reports that even in East Asia where we see rapid economic growth and acquisition of technology, it will be more than 40 years before they catch up with the fast-moving Western countries.

IT also enables the export of jobs around the world. Following the lead of manufacturing, which seeks out low-wage countries for cheap labour, organizations are increasingly offshoring call centres, technical support and other computer-based jobs. There is both an up and downside to this phenomenon. Whichever way you view it, it is one more illustration of how IT contributes to globalization.


There are two broad aspects to consider when planning your strategies for making IT more sustainable: the operation of the system and its equipment and the opportunities for IT to facilitate energy and resource efficiencies throughout your organization’s operations.

Manage your equipment purchases

The first and easiest place to begin is with the equipment that supplies your IT function. IT managers will need to coordinate with purchasing managers to assure that purchasing guidelines and vendor contracts contain appropriate IT-related criteria. The City of Portland, Oregon, for example, screens vendor bids for the thousand or so computers they buy each year with a list of 20 IT purchasing criteria. The criteria include issues like end-of-life disposal, packaging volume and hazardous materials. Portland expects to add new criteria as the field evolves and will probably soon include some of the European standards such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives. They also require manufacturers to sign an agreement that they will guarantee proper disposal of their old equipment to assure that the city does not contribute to the growing e-waste problem.

The Green Electronics Council has made sustainable purchasing even easier. In partnership with members of the electronics industry, they have created the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). This tool designed to facilitate both the design and purchase of electronic equipment by establishing performance standards for components and energy consumption. Currently, over 600 desktops, monitors and notebooks from manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Dell, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba and Apple have been ranked by EPEAT. The EPEAT standard has already made a big difference. In 2007 alone the Green Electronics Council reported that EPEAT purchases resulted in a reduction in the use of toxic materials like mercury by 3220 metric tons and prevented the disposal of 124,000 metric tons of hazardous waste. And because EPEAT includes energy reduction requirements, EPEAT purchases will save 42 billion kWh of energy over the lives of their equipment and eliminate the release of 3.1 million metric tons of carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of removing 2.6 million cars from the roads for a year. The immense volume of EPEAT registered products sold worldwide in 2007, and the very significant environmental and financial benefits resulting, confirm the EPEAT system’s success as a driver for environmental change in the electronic products market.


The EPEAT website, www.epeat.net, offers a registry of products that conform to environmental performance standards for electronics products, from IEEE 1680 to IEEE 2006. You can take an e-waste ‘IQ’ test at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2008-01/high-tech-trash/carroll-text.html

The Climate Group (2008) SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age. A report by The Climate Group on behalf of the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI).

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