How green is the IT industry?

Green has been a buzzword for a couple of years and the IT industry has had a chance to evolve...

Green has been a buzzword for a couple of years and the IT industry has had a chance to evolve its green credentials. So how are IT companies doing, and how easy is it to develop a scorecard to evaluate their environmental efforts?

According to Simon Mingay, research vice-president at Gartner, measuring progress is not an easy job. In November, the analyst firm presented an assessment of 24 IT companies to give CIOs and IT directors a better understanding of their green credentials. It rated them in five different areas.

Gartner's five segments were broken down into internal and external environmental approaches. The internal segments tackled environmental basics (how well a firm understands the essential environmental impact of its business operations), supply chain basics (managing the environmental effects of its service and product supply chains), and basic steps to execute a climate change strategy. The external segments looked at how well companies deliver products and services to help their customers cut carbon emissions, and how well they are championing carbon reduction more generally in the public sphere.

Reducing carbon emissions

One of the most significant rankings for businesses will be the delivery of products and services to help reduce carbon emissions.

So how does the IT industry's rhetoric match what is in the product portfolio? Fujitsu Siemens achieved the best rating, with 75%. Ericsson, which is well-known for its work on evaluating carbon emissions during the upstream manufacturing process, came in at 74%. Google, Hewlett-Packard and BT came in third, fourth and fifth respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, Lenovo, Wipro, Nortel and Dell sat between 20% and 30%.

Fujitsu Siemens, fed up with what it sees as an inadequate Energy Star benchmark from the US Environmental Protection Agency, came out with its own green IT benchmark in November. HP also launched an environmental information labelling system, called Eco-Highlights, for its own products earlier in the year.

Supply chain

Delivering products that help customers reduce greenhouse gas emissions is one thing, but many people forget the effect that operations further up the supply chain can have on a company's carbon footprint.

For companies to truly call their IT green, it is necessary to talk about the extent to which suppliers audit their supply chains for environmental standards.

The problem is that supply chains are so complex that the industry must work hard to achieve visibility beyond the first tier of outsourced providers, warns Mingay. They must look at the providers that the first tier companies outsource to in turn, and so on down the chain.

"IBM scored well on the supply chain. It was going further than the first tier," he says. HP, too, scored relatively highly, although Nokia and Ericsson beat them both.

Green companies

As large companies with a hand in software, hardware and services, the likes of Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun are worth a look.

IBM showed that it was serious about green IT with its Project Green initiative, launched in June 2007. The company embarked on a series of changes to its own IT infrastructure involving virtualisation of its equipment and the creation of green datacentres. It also started services and consulting initiatives designed to help its customers reduce the environmental impact of their IT.

Christopher Mines, senior vice-president at Forrester Research, worries that the company is missing a critical piece of the puzzle, however.

"The challenge for IBM is translating its vision into products. A lot of it now lives in the services part of the company. It is among the best, if not the best there is, but it gets [stung] by customers who think it is always a services engagement," he says.

Beyond the rankings

The rankings for companies that participated are significant, but just as important are the companies that did not respond to the Gartner/WWF survey. Accenture, Acer, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, EDS, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and TCS declined to take part in the study.

Gartner believes that all of them bar the German telco would have scored below average as a result of immature, marketing-led approaches to corporate social responsibility.

But lack of participation does not necessarily mean lack of action. "Sun was the first company I met that took the supply chain issue seriously," says David Tebbut, an analyst at technology advisory firm Freeform Dynamics.

He says he was impressed by the way Sun took time to understand the effects of its supply chain activities and was trying to address the issues.

The company has also taken steps to work on energy-efficient servers, and has been instrumental in driving the forthcoming server version of EPA's Energy Star standard.

Green initiatives

Mingay warns that initiatives such as the Green Grid, which focuses on datacentre efficiency, and Climate Savers, which concentrates on making computing equipment more environmentally friendly, are great in theory, but membership is not necessarily a sign of greenness.

Most members sign up and send someone to sit there and listen, he says. "By no means all, but the majority contribute relatively little. But they will all cite the membership of these organsisations as evidence of their green credentials," he says.

So next time a salesperson comes calling, wave aside the feel-good green logos they present you with, and ask how the company is translating its membership of this month's worthy green consortium into action.

You might ask about their supply chain activities, as Tebbut does. And you might use Gartner's five-segment model as a framework for your own request for proposal. The results might surprise you.

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