Why we need to move away from technology companies telling us to “buy more stuff” to be green
Rarely does the world of IT look back to the 14th century for advice and guiding principles, but perhaps, in difficult times, it should. William of Ockham (1287–1347) proposed that when choosing between alternate solutions, the one with the fewest assumptions and components was likely to be the best. “Occam’s Razor”, sometimes summarised as meaning that the simplest or most obvious answer is most likely to be correct, provides us with some interesting tests for IT sustainability.
How do we strip out the complexity (components, assumptions and greenwash) in favour of simpler solutions that deliver actual, measurable sustainability improvements?
In this post we look at what customers should demand from their strategic partners in terms of actions and commitments, not words. We also challenge the assumption that those making bold sustainability statements are actually the ones making a difference and provide three areas where a careful check of their credentials may be required.
Complexity, Costs and Carbon
Our first concern should be whether any IT solution adds complexity (through additional infrastructure, management, support and processes) that isn’t balanced by tangible benefits? Closely linked to the complexity question, does it add cost (through licenses, subscriptions, services and staff costs) that is greater than an alternative and isn’t more than offset by savings elsewhere?
These are not only fundamental business case questions, they have very real implications for sustainability. Complexity not only directly increases carbon emissions it makes measuring and reducing them significantly more difficult. Ever increasing costs swallow budgets that could otherwise be used to promote the use of more sustainable technologies.
IT vendors seeking to sell on green benefits will often stress that their solution enables different ways of working or allows the use of more sustainable technology. As an example “Cloud” undoubtedly helps to alleviate some of the issues, particularly cloud provided at scale by vendors with verifiable green energy pledges, but not everything purchased on a cloud license is actually hosted and delivered there and not every pledge is as green as it reads. Complex “hybrid” solutions on the other hand may end up with sustainability compromises around both device choice and infrastructure in less energy efficient on-prem datacentres.
So the challenge to anyone considering an IT investment should be: “what do I want to achieve and how else could I do this which would be simpler, with lower cost and lower carbon?” and the challenge to every vendor should be twofold “is what you propose actually the simplest, lowest cost way possible to meet my needs?” and “what steps have you taken to objectively measure and minimise (not just reduce) the carbon footprint of your products and services?”.
The New “C” Word – Consumption
Our second consideration is the fundamental problem with any industry driven by upgrades of which IT is a prime example – that of excessive consumption. We’re all familiar with urge to have new devices and new functionality. We’re also aware that if we fail to “keep up” then we face risks. Perhaps we’ll suddenly be unable to use the apps we depend on. We may be increasingly vulnerable to security threats such as malware.
The issue is that the constant manufacture, shipping, replacement and disposal of devices creates huge amounts of carbon emissions and e-waste. So how do we move away from the churn of three to five year replacement cycles and towards something more sustainable?
The best case for replacement is to get rid of obsolete, inefficient, power-hungry infrastructure. Legacy software remains a progress blocker for many organisations, but technologies now exist which allow problem applications to be run on modern, supported platforms, whether physical or virtual, strengthening the case for moving such workloads to the cloud.
When considering replacement, critical areas to examine are the sustainability of materials sourcing, manufacturing and shipping, together with support for upgrade, repair, re-use and the reclamation / repurposing of components. Cutting consumption applies to energy efficiency when in use, as a new generation of devices enter the market with innovation in processing and battery technology driving lower power consumption and less frequent charging.
The consumption questions for suppliers and partners covers three significant stages; firstly how can you help me extend the life of my device within my organisation by as much as possible? Secondly, when the device is no longer fit for purpose how can you help me put it to good use elsewhere and finally how can you prove to me that your proposed replacement device is as sustainable and efficient as possible?
The Three “Ps” – Planet, People and Productivity
Having designed, managed and advised on enterprise IT for over a quarter of a century I may not have quite achieved William of Ockham’s level of historical perspective, but I can share one certainty that has prevailed over all of that period – that effective IT is about a focus on results rather than platforms, technology or product features.
Px3 originally proposed our “three Ps” mission based on Planet, People and Profit to recognise that as part of that “results” equation most organisations needed to balance cost against the other factors, but the third P never sat comfortably with us.
Firstly there are many organisations which are not driven by a profit motive. Secondly the drive to maximise profit is exactly the thought process and priority which has caused the global climate issue in the first place. And finally, perhaps most crucially, while we certainly don’t have an issue with companies making a profit, we cannot put maximising profit on an equal footing with protecting the planet and its people.
On that basis we changed our third P to productivity, recognising that the primary role of green IT should be to enable people to be productive in their role, without damaging the environment unnecessarily to do so.
So our final challenge to IT vendors and service providers would be to check their green credentials at a strategic level – “what are your top five priorities as a business and what genuine, measurable sustainability improvements have you made in the last 12 months?”
Conclusion – Using Science to Clear the Green Fog
At Px3 we’ve undertaken extensive testing of devices from a wide range of vendors and using a variety of operating systems – in fact our research director recently calculated that he had already spent 14,400 hours just on device testing as part of his PhD research into the sustainability.
This has allowed us to identify and quantify opportunities for substantial emissions reductions, by choosing devices designed (and proven) to consume less energy or by using alternative operating systems to ensure that devices last longer.
To be clear – this is genuine, academically validated research carried out for a purpose. That purpose is to reduce carbon emissions from IT worldwide. By working with major vendors we can influence priorities and product design. By working with customers we can help make sustainability part of every procurement decision.
So next time you see sustainability as a marketing message, be sure to check for the genuine science, metrics and actions behind the warm words.
About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3
Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies. Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.