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The initial push for sustainable corporate initiatives has given way to a longer view that leverages the value of digitized information, IoT analytics, and optimization via environmental monitoring.
The ISO 14000 series of standards issues a framework for companies that provides guidance on how to systematize and improve their environmental management efforts. The latest version of ISO14000, now referred to as ISO 14001, was released in late 2015.
By applying ISO14001 standards, companies ensure that they are adopting best practices to enable compliance with government and regulatory standards related to environmental safety and performance. Companies also improve their brand reputations when they can publish positive outcomes from their environmental efforts, and they reduce costs of operation by eliminating paper and reducing energy consumption.
IT has been a central focus point for many of these corporate sustainability initiatives, since they constitute an area of low-hanging fruit. Companies initially went after them to quickly demonstrate to regulators how they were improving their environmental performance and reducing waste.
"We could immediately see a new data center coming online because of the spike in energy usage on the grid," a West Coast utility energy manager told me several years ago.
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The impact of data centers on power wasn't lost at companies, either.
Eight years ago, Highmark, a major health insurer in Pennsylvania, decided to build a new "green" data center. "A significant percent of our IT costs are driven by actual computing systems—the hard drives, servers, and storage appliances," said Mark Wood, Highmark's director of data center infrastructure at the time. "At Highmark, we are always looking for opportunities to reduce our power footprint."
In itself, reducing power consumption was a great environmental gain, but it was also a phenomenal cost saver. I spoke with Highmark's Mark O'Gara, vice president of infrastructure management. He estimated that by virtualizing every physical server that was capable of being virtualized, the company's data center would save $200,000 to $300,000 per year in energy costs.
This isn't small potatoes. And although the days of virtualization and immediate gains on data center carbon footprint reductions and energy savings are largely behind companies now, a new set of corporate priorities for sustainability has emerged that continues to put IT in the spotlight.
The new priorities
Among the new sustainability pushes are paper reduction, with many companies already implementing initiatives to reduce paper. The enabler of paper reduction? IT, which helps digitize, categorize, index, and analyze information troves with the help of object-oriented databases, analytics, tiered storage management, and integration with commonly used office systems.
A second IT sustainability area is harnessing the emergence of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that can track and trace activities inside and outside corporate walls. If you're a logistics provider or a shipper, you want to know that your transporter is taking the most direct routes to your warehouses and retail outlets and that its vehicles are fuel efficient. IT again is the enabler. It must deploy technology to collect IoT data from remote sensors, compile and analyze the data, and deliver actionable analytics reports that detail key environmental and cost drivers, like fuel consumption.
A third focal area for IT is environmental monitoring in the data center, as well as throughout all corporate facilities. This begins with automated security/access to physical facilities and the continuous monitoring of HVAC. It extends into analyses of whether facilities are optimizing energy and providing safe work environments for employees.
The takeaway for IT executives
Sustainability is not going away, even with what appears to be a retreat from regulated business environments in the short term at the federal level. Instead, the drive to sustainability is morphing into new directives, such as eliminating paper from company operations, enabling IoT monitoring and real-time intervention, and automating more business work processes, like environmental and security monitoring.
Sustainability will continue to matter to companies because it saves money and it promotes brand strength. It is also an area where IT can really shine by leveraging its technology expertise throughout the company.
The matter was succinctly summed up by Rajiv Saxena, head of supply chain solutions for APL, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing.
"Saving money or going green is not the 'either-or' proposition that people think it is," Saxena said. "When you become lean and green, you create operational efficiencies that have both environmental benefit and cost reductions."
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