Environmental experts have warned that fundamental changes will be needed if we want to combat some of the damaging effects technology is having on our planet. We discuss some steps and challenges that will need to be undertaken to reduce the impact IT has on our world and make some sensible and practical suggestions for how you can contribute to your organisation’s Green IT strategy.
Introduction - defining Green IT
“Green IT” can be described as making decisions and buying, managing and disposing of IT and communications equipment in a manner that maximises efficiency and minimises the overall cost to society and the environment, taking into account ecological issues in the overall decision making and management process. It recognises the negative impact technology and its use can have on the world around us, and attempts to improve upon this by factoring in sustainability at each stage of the equipment’s life-cycle.
Current environmental situation in the UK
Compared to the rest of the world, the UK is not considered to be among the worst environmental offenders taking into account the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). In fact, 2018 EPI results show that the UK is the 6th highest performing country (out of 180 countries). However, the approach to greening our IT and reducing the footprint technology has on our environment is a continuous challenge to be met by all and the trend globally is for increased use of, and reliance on, IT with all current research showing the immediate action needs to be taken – by everyone.
How technology is affecting environment
Unfortunately, technology’s effect on the world we live in happens on multiple dimensions from the sourcing of raw materials and the production and distribution of equipment to the energy consumed in their lifetime of use - and then their eventual safe and useful disposal.
At each stage there are choices we can make and actions we can take to minimise, if not mitigate, the impact our consumption of IT has on the environment, and in a wider context the communities it affects.
Raw materials and components
Many of the metals and materials that go into the production of electronic components are extremely toxic, and their mining, refining and production can have catastrophic effects on the local and wider environments. Look for manufacturers that are open about their efforts to source their components and raw materials through partners who carefully manage the process, and who also promote material and component recycling.
An example of what to look for in this regard is an ethical sourcing policy, such as Dells conflict minerals policy:
or Hewlett Packard’s sustainability impact assessments which it publishes on its site https://www8.hp.com/us/en/hp-information/environment/footprint.html
They can be toxic from a social perspective too, as their high value makes them lucrative sources of income for the wrong sorts of people and regimes, particularly in regions were there is conflict or political unrest. Avoid suppliers who obscure, or simply don’t publish, their efforts to reduce the harmful effect IT has.Sites such as the Ethical Consumer rate suppliers according to their recycling, supply chain management and attempts at power management:
The Technology Supply Chain
The vast majority of IT equipment is assembled from components and materials sourced from around the globe, and usually assembled in Asia for shipping to Europe and the US.
The carbon footprint of this distribution network is enormous. Many of the larger brands single source their components or produce the key ones themselves, reducing the miles travelled by a computer and its assembled parts. There is no getting around the fact, however, that producing and supplying electronic equipment locally is simply more expensive, and will be a long-term barrier which will be hard to overcome. Labour, taxes, land, energy and materials are cheaper in countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia, and their Governments are very keen to remove as many barriers to trade and production as possible, including more relaxed environmental regulations.
Ultimately, choosing more local producers of equipment will be a choice as to how much of a premium you are willing to pay for greener equipment, notwithstanding any other features or variables at play.
Green IT management
With some well-chosen initiatives it is actually possible to reduce costs, increase the reliability of your systems and contribute to the greening of IT. It may seem too good to be true, however reducing your environmental impact can sometimes be a side effect of a drive to reduce costs, and many of today’s emerging trends in IT service provision have been borne out of a need to reduce power consumption and to consolidate and harness the full power of today’s hardware, leading to an overall reduction in carbon emissions and resource usage.
The amount of energy that our reliance on IT consumes is possibly the greatest problem facing the IT industry today. Everything IT related depends on a steady, and vast, supply of power and the demand is growing.
The greatest culprits for power consumption are the large data centres, paradoxically hosting the cloud-based services which help organisations reduce power consumption locally by offloading individual organisations’ processing and storage and centralising consumption. These large data centres are at the forefront of the changes which reduce energy usage, such as using low-energy servers, using more intelligent power management software and systems to accurately model and shape usage to exactly match demand and who also face the double whammy of needing to design facilities to better dissipate heat – the more energy a system uses, the more energy is required to remove the heat generated. Less energy used means less energy is required for cooling, and better physical design of systems and facilities means less power consumption overall. These design improvements eventually trickle down to end users as well, maximising their benefits over time.
There are several changes that smaller organisations can make as well to optimise power consumption:
- Configuring systems to power down when not in use, most usually overnight and quite periods. These systems can be configured to power back on again as needed
- Implementing 3rd party power management software across the network to centrally manage computers and servers power consumption
- Carefully specifying and choosing computer systems to ensure they are not more powerful than necessary, and selecting systems which have been tested to have high energy efficiency. For example, many end user systems ship with video and graphics capabilities which consume more power than the rest of the computer combined – which many never use
- Moving appropriate services to cloud providers - moving some or all or your data and processing power to more efficient online providers reduces the need to have expensive hardware (and software) in your offices, often doing not much a lot of the time. Often these service providers use a “pay for what you use” model, meaning that when the systems aren’t in use you don’t incur any expenditure, invaluable for some systems which have only light to moderate usage
- Virtualisation. Consolidating many logical servers onto fewer physical devices as “virtual servers” saves on materials, power consumption and gets the most out of your hardware investment
- Looking out for industry certification in energy efficiency during procurement such as Energy Star https://www.energystar.gov/ , EPEAT http://www.epeat.net/ or the EU’s ENERG labelling ensures the equipment has been tested to be efficient
- Upgrade outdated equipment – old IT equipment often does not run as efficiently, and therefore draws unnecessary power. This needs to be balanced against the benefits of updating, below.
Other ways to combine saving money with reducing environmental harm:
- Extend the life cycle of equipment: many organisations replace their equipment on a strict 3-4 year rotation, usually in line with accounting and depreciation practices rather than any actual need to replace the underlying computers or infrastructure. Extended warranties are available from most suppliers, and with careful monitoring and management many quality products can last well beyond this lifespan.
- Upgrade rather than replace: If you feel you need more computing power, its is usually trivial to add extra memory chips to computers, and upgrading older machines to SSD drives gives a profound performance boost. It can be very inexpensive to make meaningful changes to your infrastructure, again prolonging their usefulness. Look for modularity and upgradability at the outset when purchasing your equipment – some computers, for example Small Form Factor computers, intuitively look like they should consume less power but often consume more, and can’t easily be upgraded later
- Print only when needed: printer accounting software and sensible policies can discourage unnecessary printing. Many people print documentation out of habit, not necessity.
The green disposal of IT equipment and computers
At the end of the useful life of your IT equipment, current regulations (the WEEE directive) stipulates for electrical and electronic goods, in this case your IT equipment, that “Reduction is achieved through various measures which encourage the recovery, reuse and recycling of products and components” in order to reduce the amount of potentially hazardous waste that is sent to landfill. There is plenty of information available online.
When your ICT reaches the end of its useful life, make sure you securely remove or erase any data from its storage media and then check for an authorised (and reputable) WEEE collection organisation to collect and dispose of your equipment responsibly. Its a tricky area, as producers try to avoid the sometimes high cost of collecting and recycling equipment, but check with your supplier that you may be able to have old equipment (and packaging, another source of problems in the IT industry) taken away when new equipment is delivered.
Challenges of Green IT
Whilst it is easy enough to say you can make some of the above changes in the workplace and “hey presto, we’re green!” it isn’t often as easy that. There are a number of challenges that need to overcome before a green-friendly approach can properly embed itself:
- The switch can be expensive. There is no doubt that replacing old PC’s and servers in order to ensure they run as power efficiently as possible is going to cost money in the short term, and migrating to the cloud or virtual systems comes with costs too
- Companies that use resource intensive applications (such as 3D modelling software like Autodesk) are always going to need highly specified, and power hungry, workstations. Sometimes there is no easy way to reduce the footprint of your IT requirements
- Going paperless or cloud based comes with privacy risks. Whilst reducing the amount of paper used in the office can have many benefits, storing data online instead can risk hackers gaining access to it illegitimately and thus potentially sensitive data can be breached.
- Product prices could rise. Ethically sourcing materials as well as improving designs for better power efficiency all come with a cost, and replacing old equipment with new may encounter a premium from suppliers as they capitalise on the new environmentally-friendly product market
- Getting employees on board. Having an eco-conscious strategy and policies in place is worthwhile, however ensuring everyone thinks it is a good idea, and adheres to the policies and plan, may be difficult. It will inevitably involve some change and inconvenience, and some will take some convincing that it will have any impact at all. Educating individuals is invaluable as it will help them understand the importance of taking care of the environment, not just for yourself, but future generations, however some hold deep seated beliefs (or disbeliefs) about the environment and whether “Green technology” is even a worthwhile reality
- Overcoming the futility perception. There is a common misconception that only big companies and global enterprises can actually make a difference, and that at the SME level any efforts are just potentially expensive box-ticking exercises. Nothing could be further from the truth – in the end demand drives change, and if everyone scrutinises the services they receive and make informed procurement and management choices that factor in environmentally considered issues then over time every enterprise, small and large, contributes to a better overall picture for our and future generations.
Choosing to spend more time and potentially money to play your part in making your organisation’s IT greener can be a difficult one to make a business case for, however it can be offset by sensible choices in asset management policies and power consumption management. Overall, we should aim for a net positive on all fronts, including monetarily if planned well, and in the longer-term aim to minimise and mitigate our impact on the planet. Eventually it may become a more forceful matter for regulatory compliance anyway, as the restrictions and obligations placed upon larger enterprises trickle down to others in the commercial ecosystem.