The new sustainability

Like other hyped IT trends, such as cloud computing and social media, going green has often been viewed with scepticism. But the level of cynicism has started to dissipate in the wake of new economic realities

That’s the simple message for IT leaders from Ian Cohen, Group CIO at finance firm Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT).


That message about the significance of sustainability is worth heeding when it comes from Cohen, one of the most respected UK technology chiefs and a former IT head of Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times.  His experience at the coalface of business IT leads him to conclude that sustainability has moved from a nice-to-have to a business necessity.


Like other hyped IT trends, such as cloud computing and social media, going green has often been viewed with scepticism. But the level of cynicism has started to dissipate in the wake of new economic realities, where cost-constrained senior executives are unlikely to be swayed by the fashion status of a project.


“It’s no longer optional that businesses understand sustainability, it’s more a case of why wouldn’t you want to be green – the economics are already compelling,”  says Cohen.


The good news, for CIOs, is that we are slowly getting to that position. Acceptance of sustainability as an economic necessity has emerged strongly during the downturn and will continue to develop as a significant theme through the upturn.   Not that proving the business benefits of sustainability has always been that simple, of course. Cohen refers back to a green study tour he took in the United States during the height of marketing bluster in 2008, where business executives were shown some of the latest ideas and technologies.  He looks back on the tour with mixed feelings. While sustainability was undoubtedly  important, too many technologies and projects  were being mislabelled as green. In short, too many organisations were jumping on the bandwagon and using sustainability as yet another marketing gimmick.


“To be honest, I came away a bit disillusioned,” he says. “Suppliers have to put sustainability in the right context and there was too much hype on that trip. Too many technologies, whose genesis had nothing to do with sustainability or reducing emissions, were being badged up as green. But some vendors have learnt their lesson now and realise that they need to think  about how they can help the business.”


So, three years on from Cohen’s green tour and sustainability is as significant, maybe even more important, than it has ever been.  Senior executives face an ever-increasing set of carbon rules and regulations that must be considered. But what has really changed in the past few years is the economic context surrounding sustainability.


A tough economic climate means projects  either fly or fail depending on their business value. While nebulous green projects might have been accepted before the downturn as a marketing nice-to-have, technology executives must find strong business reasons to implement a sustainable approach. Going green has always been important; it is just the emphasis has now changed.  “As a CIO, you still have to create credible sustainable strategies, however now it’s less about just creating a green narrative; it’s much more about delivering business value,” says Cohen. “It makes sound economic sense to reduce consumption and emissions though more  effective technologies, so these projects can stand on their own merits.”


Cohen refers to green concerns at JLT and says sustainability forms part of the organisation’s wider approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR). The strategy is a crucial element of the finance firm’s attempts to reduce its impact on the environment, as well as supporting a positive work-life balance for employees.“Modern rganisations simply cannot be successful without focusing on all aspects of their stated CSR position,” says Cohen. “I actually hate the term green IT.  It implies that in some way IT can stand alone in this debate. There is no green IT in my book.  There is only your company’s stated position on CSR and how you use technology long with everything else to meet those objectives.


Cohen says JLT has worked hard to increase efficiency and to reduce its reliance on paperbased filing. UK paper consumption at the firm was reduced by 15% per person last year in comparison with 2009, and the figure will continue to improve as more use is made of automation and electronic delivery methods.


A dedicated campaign in the firm’s UK offices, meanwhile, has improved recycling by more than 15% year-on-year. Energy consumption is also being limited, with good business practice – such as in the area of business IT – creating a 5% drop in electrical energy per person during the past 12 months. “None of our sustainable strategies are rocket science but they do encourage good business practice and almost all have their own business case,” says Cohen.


JLT is already exploring new areas of sustainability, such as the potential installation of solar panels on UK regional offices. Cohen says the business also encourages the use of teleconferencing where possible as the preferred alternative to business travel: “We’re a global group so it just makes good economic sense,” he says.  when it comes to future sustainable priorities for CIOs, Cohen says businesses will have to find innovative techniques to help deal with the move towards power-hungry mobile devices, as well as keeping an eye out for  the opportunities that come from the next generation of grid technologies. The latter will have as much to do with new models of sharing and trust as it will with the technology itself.


The demand for novel green techniques is likely to increase given the context of the British government’s desire to set a legally binding target on greenhouse gas beyond 2020 (see later in this issue). Cohen says dealing with carbon emissions returns will soon become as standard for corporate executives as filing financial forms. And for the executives expected to deal with the future of sustainability, he has a strong concluding lesson.


“CIOs don’t create business benefits from green technology, it’s actually the other way round – sustainability is all about good economics,” says Cohen.


“Always develop the right mindset, create a strong business case and tell key people in the organisation how this approach is actually going to save money.”

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