Green IT and IT for Green: Digital can be environmentally responsible
by Leslie Robinet
Services Director, MEGA International
When it comes to the environment, there are many initiatives we can take to change our current trajectory. There are lots of great concepts and plans out there, but sometimes it can be confusing for organizations trying to go green. In the realm of technology, for example, “Green IT” and “IT for Green” approaches are often thought to mean the same thing, even though they are very distinct ideas. Their objectives are convergent, but their scopes are different.
The invisible but real impacts of digital
Computers, smartphones, the Internet, applications, and other connected objects: digital technology is everywhere in our daily lives – with its practical advantages, like its potential for accelerating productivity, but also its growing environmental impact. Responsible for 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the world, IT generates waste and consumes non-renewable resources and fresh water.
The solution is obviously not to get rid of digital services and devices, but to understand how to consider them in an era of ecological awareness, where the substantial impact of human activity on the planet is no longer a marginal issue. This is indeed reflected in the uses and expectations of most consumers, as well as in legislation, with, for example, many governments aiming to reduce the environmental footprint of digital technology.
A pain point to overcome with information technology, for environmental approaches, is the “virtual” aspect of the internet and the cloud. Digital is not limited to computers and smartphones, which are only the tip of the iceberg. Behind each service used, there is a whole network of physical infrastructures, requiring materials and resources, notably energy.
Green IT vs. IT for Green: Different yet complementary approaches
Among all the good green initiatives, it is not always easy to find your way around. Even more so when the terminologies are similar, as is the case of “Green IT” on one hand, and “IT for Green” on the other. Despite their semantic similarity, these practices are not the same.
Green IT, or eco-responsible computing, aims to minimize the negative impact of IT operations and equipment on the environment. This consists of designing, manufacturing, and operating in a way that best respects the environment. It’s also about maximizing the lifespan of products through the repair, reuse, and recycling of materials. This dimension is far from negligible because more than half of the environmental impact of IT equipment comes from the production phases alone.
IT for Green is a sub-set of “IT for Good” which is a more global concept of using digital technology with the aim of reducing the economic, ecological, and social footprint of an activity. In this case, it’s about IT serving the environmental cause. This is the case, for example, of the Ecosia search engine, which plants trees upon internet searches, or of the Carbo application, which establishes organizations’ carbon footprint, or of the Microsoft Sustainability Calculator which monitors the impact of cloud platforms, or of the web browser add-on The Great Suspender, which no longer refreshes inactive web pages.
Small streams make big rivers
A drop in the ocean: this is often the impression felt when it comes to our day-to-day actions in favor of the environment. However, it is these individual gestures added together that count and make a big difference. There are so many activities that can have a significant impact, like the limitation of the number and extension of the lifespan of devices (recycling, second-hand or refurbished purchases), shutdown rather than putting devices on standby, deactivation of functions not permanently used (geolocation, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth), and rational use of streaming (including in low definition).
For their part, organizations – especially those with a strong digital activity such as banks, insurance companies, services, and software editors – also have a major role to play in responsible digital technology. Just some examples of changes organizations can take include fostering employee awareness of best practices (shared files vs. attachments, extension of the lifespan of devices), use of labeled equipment (EPEAT, TCO, EnergyStar, European eco-label), equipment recovery (for donations, recycling, and reconditioning) and choice of cloud service providers with optimized data centers, using clean energy.
In other words, companies are to assume their share of responsibility by defining and applying a more sober, virtuous, and carbon-neutral digital strategy. Each employee also has a role to play in accelerating the green transformation including staying informed, raising awareness among others, and even getting involved in non-profit environmental associations.
Much added value comes when IT specialists use their strengths to imagine and build useful solutions for the preservation of the environment, the reduction of the impact of human activities and other actions favorable to sustainable development. It is also up to companies to direct at least part of their innovation capacities towards green initiatives. For example, an SME active in Green IT will have an impact on a few hundred people, while the same SME that pioneers IT for Green may affect thousands of organizations and individuals.
About the author
Leslie Robinet graduated from Virginia Tech with a major in Industrial Systems Engineering. After working for US companies in process optimization with a Lean approach, she moved to France in 2005 and joined MEGA International as a Solution Engineer to oversee clients’ Enterprise Architecture projects. In her current role, Leslie is MEGA’s Professional Services Director and leads the engineering department in Paris.