Sustainability: how green will you go?

disclosure: this post was written with the help of external contributors under the supervision of Edwige Cottigny and the Orange Business Internet and Digital media team

Everywhere you look, there's a lot of talk about corporate social responsibility and sustainability. But how many companies are actually turning these buzzwords into action plans and incorporating these ideas into the way they work? If the results of a McKinsey Global Survey in February 2010 are any indication, the answer is not many.

There appears to be a major disconnect between what businesses are saying and doing. More than 50% of executives surveyed consider sustainability "very" or "extremely" important. Yet, only 25% say sustainability is one of their top 3 priorities, just 28% actively seek opportunities to invest in it, and a mere 29% say that it has been integrated into their business practices.

The good news

When companies do make the effort, they reap the rewards--along with the rest of us. Businesses that take sustainability seriously are more likely to see their reputation improve, to save costs, and even to uncover new growth opportunities.

Broadly speaking, companies have 2 options when it comes to sustainability. They can either enact small measures to make their existing operations marginally "greener" or go one step further and incorporate the latest in green technology ("green tech") as part of a corporate strategy founded on the principle of sustainability.

Scratching the surface

The 1st option includes a number of offices practices that have become almost commonplace in the past decade:
  • Reducing paper waste with electronic communication, double-sided printing, web-based annual reports, electric hand dryers in toilets, etc.
  • Reducing energy use by dimming lights and turning off equipment at night, etc.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by encouraging employees to walk, cycle, carpool or take public transport to work, etc.

And the list goes on.

There's no doubt that these initiatives are steps in the right direction, that businesses will see a reduction in their carbon footprint. Things get even more interesting, though, when companies move beyond merely adapting how they work to completely rethinking their business through a sustainability lens.

Digging deeper

That's where green tech can play an important role.

In the past, green tech was less about "greener" technology and more about people using existing technology in a greener way. For example, you may be printing fewer emails, but that laser printer wasn't necessarily designed with the environment in mind.

In recent years, however, there has been growing interest in a lifecycle view of technology that takes into account not how it is used, but its design, manufacture, storage and, ultimately, disposal. This principle spawned the idea of green IT design, whereby manufacturers incorporate reuseable, recycleable and interchangeable components into hardware design in order to minimise landfill waste at the end of its useful life.

At the same time, concepts like server and application virtualisation are enabling companies to consolidate and optimise their IT hubs across fewer physical servers. This technology reduces space and energy (both to power and cool the equipment) requirements immediately and landfill waste in the long run.

Finally, thanks to advances in teleconferencing and videoconferencing technology and the proliferation of sophisticated mobile devices and the networks that support them, telecommuting is a much more realistic possibility today than it was 10 or even 5 years ago.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. With an open mind and a bit of ingenuity and up-front investment, businesses can use green tech to turn sustainability into opportunity, in the form of cost savings, efficiency, brand equity and customer goodwill.

related links
Choosing the right projects for green data centers

The downside to carbon emission monitoring

Green IT server virtualization and mega data centers back to the future

Edwige Cottigny

Within the digital team of Orange Business, I lead content and special projects.