Green IT flies high

12th April 2012


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Becky Allen finds out how suppliers and users are broadening their understanding of sustainable IT

Earlier this year, sizeable crowds descended on Apple stores in Washington DC, San Francisco, London, Sydney, Bangalore and New York’s Grand Central Station. They were not, however, seeking the latest iPad. Instead, they were protesting about labour standards in the company’s component factories in China. But the fact that protesters could have targeted any number of manufacturers of information communications technology (IT) highlights the need to take a more holistic approach to the impacts of computers and other communications devices.

Many technology experts say it’s time to consign the term “green” to the waste bin and focus on “sustainable” IT instead. According to Dr Gerard Briscoe of the systems research group at the University of Cambridge’s Computing Laboratory (CCL), green computing tends to focus only on reducing e-waste, and not on wider sustainability concerns such as the economic impacts of the precious “rare earth” elements included in the technology, the social impacts associated with the health risks to third-world workers and the long-term environmental impacts attached to disposal.

Matthew Bradley of Capgemini’s sustainability team agrees. “The term ‘green’ is associated with ‘greenwash’, so for me it’s about sustainability,” he says. “Sustainability includes ethics. It’s around environment but includes people and community as well. We need to understand the wider implications of IT and not just the carbon emitted while running a PC. It’s also about mineral extraction, for example. Whatever you think about climate change, you can’t dispute that we only have one planet and we’re using finite resources at an unsustainable rate.”

Environmental concerns

The environmental impact still matters though, not least because the carbon footprint of IT is set to equal that of aviation by 2020, according to research by consulting firm McKinsey, and IT accounts for 15%–30% of the electricity that offices consume.

As energy costs rise, environmental and economic arguments are converging. Tracey Rawling Church of Kyocera argues: “Sustainability is no longer about altruism, it’s about costs, and organisations recognise that if they use less energy it will cost them less.”

The cost savings can be considerable. A recent assessment by Externus for cruise company Carnival found that 36% of its office’s carbon emissions came from IT and that by implementing all the recommendations Externus made, Carnival could halve the building’s carbon emissions and see a return on investment of more than £1.4 million after five years.

But as Apple’s experience shows, customers want businesses to do more on several fronts. According to Fraser Muir, director of information services and the Learning Resource Centre at Queen Margaret University (QMU), where the introduction of thin client technology – computer systems linked to external servers – has saved about £47,000 a year thanks to reduced power consumption and heat output: “Our general strategy is to make the campus as environmentally sustainable as possible. That’s what our students want.”

And as our love of IT increases, tackling these issues will become more and more important. “As the environmental, social and economic impact of IT continues to grow, its importance to the global sustainability agenda will increase,” claims Briscoe.

Government strategy

Given such a complex and often confusing set of issues, how should businesses best approach making their IT more sustainable? The new “greening government” strategy launched in 2011 has much to say about IT, and demonstrates the importance of taking a strategic approach.

It’s a way of operating that many businesses think is important, but most are failing to act on, a 2008 survey found. Although nine out of 10 IT managers surveyed said the environment was important for their operations, only 38% had any environmental IT policies, let alone a strategy.

Divided into two parts, the “Greening government: IT strategy” sets out its approach to greening IT from manufacture, design and use to reuse and disposal, and also examines how IT can help make government operations more sustainable.

“The approach taken recognises the dual role of IT in respect of environmental issues. On the one hand, IT is part of the problem with the resources and energy it consumes generating significant greenhouse-gas emissions. On the other, IT is an enabler to change the way government operates and provides services, and thus to realise efficiency and environmental improvements on a much wider and larger scale,” the strategy explains.

Remembering that IT is part of the solution as well as part of the problem is important, says Briscoe: “Sustainable computing is concerned with both the use of computing in achieving sustainability aims, and the sustainability of the computing itself, the latter being necessary in achieving the former. Computing for sustainability can take many forms.”

One example is his own research for the EPSRC-funded C-AWARE project – on enabling consumer awareness of their own carbon footprint through mobile service innovation – that is using the CCL as a test-bed for developing new business models that use sensor networks integrated with smart phones applications to help reduce environmental impacts.

Along with using IT to cut consumables such as paper, the government is looking to technology to promote flexible, remote working and reduce travel via teleconferencing and collaboration tools. Environmental gains are already being made at Capgemini, according to Bradley: “Travel reduction is one of the biggest issues. At Capgemini we travel very little. I have softphone [VOIP software] on my laptop, and because I can whiteboard and share through my laptop, I can have collaborative meetings across the globe without travelling,” he says.

Life-cycle approach

Assessing the flip-side – the impact of IT – what lead can the government strategy give the wider business community? The first thing to do is take a life-cycle approach, as the strategy explains: “The environmental impact of IT is more than just the energy it uses in operation, it spans from design, manufacture and procurement, through operation to eventual reuse, recycling or disposal. It is essential that the government IT infrastructure is operated in a green and cost-effective manner, but also designed, procured, and reused in a way that embeds green IT principles across the life cycle.”

Although not the first, the most straightforward stage to tackle is the operational phase of IT, and one where in-house monitoring and measurement can yield valuable information. According to Muir: “It’s easier now than it was in the past. We measure power consumption using a £15 power meter for all desktops and something slightly more complex for the server room. This means we can look at power supplies and work out energy consumption per user.”

Although some of QMU’s 450 staff and 5,000 students still require PCs for video editing, most computing is done via thin clients. “They consume less power during their lives, have fewer parts so cost less to manufacture and, because they last between 1.5 and two times as long as a PC, they have less environmental impact,” explains Muir. “The big selling point of thin clients is how long they last – we hope to get seven to eight years’ life out of them.”

Modern thin clients consume 5W–9W, compared with 40W–60W for some PCs, which can use as little as 5% of their capacity at any given time. “Our calculations comparing thin clients and PCs – even taking server energy consumption into account – suggest the numbers stack up. It’s about making better use of the resources you have,” Muir adds.

While buying less and making it last longer sounds like good practice, it may not always be the case. “This highlights the need to balance the different natures of sustainability and computing, specifically the long-term perspective of sustainability with the innovative and transformational nature of IT,” says Briscoe. “Computing technology innovation needs to embrace sustainability concerns as a potential source of, rather than a constraint on, innovation.”

Sustainable working

As well as what sits on desks, server rooms are also a key consideration, not least because of their cooling needs. One widely quoted study by US researcher Dr Jonathan Koomey estimated that, in 2005, the total power used by servers amounted to 0.6% of total US electricity consumption. When cooling and auxiliary infrastructure were included, that figure jumped to 1.2% – equivalent to five 1,000MW power plants.

Unsurprisingly, QMU is working to make its data room more energy-efficient. “We’re making nuts-and-bolts changes, like adding partitions and physical separation so that we’re only cooling what needs to be cooled rather than a whole load of air,” says Muir. “We’ve increased the air temperature in the room to 25°C, and when we get new kit we get stuff that can run at higher temperatures.”

Peripherals, too, need to be taken into account, Rawling Church points out. Using its ceramics expertise, Kyocera launched its first cartridge-free printer 20 years ago. “Most cartridge-based printers are a very wasteful design – you’re binning several components that have consumed energy in manufacturing and transport simply because the black ink has run out,” she explains. “[Our design means] when the toner runs out all you replace is a plastic cassette of toner. The other components remain there, often for the printer’s lifetime.”

Improving technology, however, can only achieve so much. “Research on printing commissioned by Kyocera suggests that 60% of what businesses print or copy isn’t necessary,” Rawling Church says. “However energy-efficient we make our products, we still have to rely on users to use them responsibly, so we invest a lot in communicating with them.”

Demonstrating how to use print-preview functions in text documents, set print area functions in spread sheets, and reducing font size and margins all save paper, as can more coercive approaches, such as restricting access to colour printing, diverting large documents to specific printers, and using “print and follow” technology.

“The best way of cutting printing is removing people’s personal devices. If you have to get up to retrieve documents you tend to print less,” she explains.

Reusing IT

Compared with measuring and reducing energy or paper consumption during the use phase, improving sustainability in IT manufacturing and in reuse is more problematic. For most businesses, this involves decisions about buying new and disposing of old equipment. According to computer reuse charity Computer Aid, only 20% of the total energy used during a computer’s life goes into its running; the rest has been used before it is turned on for the first time.

Since it was founded in 1998, the charity has provided almost 200,000 high-quality computers to schools, healthcare projects and charities in 100 less-developed countries, mainly in Africa and South America. “The social benefits of reuse are massive. There’s still loads of value in a working PC,” says Computer Aid’s Anja French. “We asset track every piece of equipment that comes in – everything is bar coded – so we can tell donors exactly what happened to each piece of equipment.”

While reuse makes social sense, some question the environmental impact of reuse outside Europe. According to Muir: “The challenge is what happens when these computers reach the end of their life in Africa. Are they landfilled or broken up by child labour exposed to toxic chemicals? It’s a fine balance, and we’re bound by legislation to do things appropriately.”

“It’s a real, real challenge,” Bradley agrees. “We don’t allow IT outside the EU because it’s so hard to track and at the end of three years needs to be shipped back to Europe in a container. Re-marketing and resale in the UK is better.”

Given the amount of resources used in IT manufacture – Computer Aid estimates 1,500 litres of water go into making one PC, and so-called “conflict minerals” go into IT products – similar ethical dilemmas face those making procurement decisions and their suppliers.

According to Muir: “Whenever we think of technology – procure new equipment or services – we’re aware of our environmental impact and looking at our suppliers’ environmental credentials – we’re not just looking at power consumption. We get a variable response: some firms don’t get it and are still confused about what they’re being asked, but others are better and more aware. But the only way it will change is if we keep asking.

More sustainable supply chains

There are subtleties, says Muir, in such procurement exercises. At QMU, sustainability and other criteria are weighted at the start of the process: “What we weigh most is cost but sustainability can tip the balance between two companies offering otherwise similar products or services. It’s a balancing act.”

Outsourcing is another way of tackling sustainable IT, either for certain functions, such as print services, or for larger areas of IT. The biggest shift in printing, for example, is the move from products to services that allow users to scan, exchange, annotate and archive documents, rather than print them.

“It’s changing the way people work and the way these devices are sold,” says Rawling Church at Kyocera. “My number one tip is to stop buying printers – buy managed print services instead. You’ll get a more cost- and carbon-efficient print solution. Buying printers is outdated thinking. The best way to get more efficient solutions is to allow suppliers to be creative and take advantage of all the technologies available. Have a conversation – tell them what energy, paper, environmental savings you’d like to make.”

This is what the Environment Agency (EA) has done in its £336 million seven-year deal with Capgemini, which was signed in 2009. Under the contract, Capgemini has responsibility for the agency’s IT infrastructure, and application management and maintenance services, including some key applications such as flood warning and waste management.

Through the deal, the EA became one of the first customers of Merlin – Capgemini’s new Swindon-based “greenest data centre in the world” – and the contract is designed to minimise environmental impact from purchase through to disposal, as well as reduce the agency’s carbon emissions from IT by 50%.

The partnership is described as the first UK IT contract to lay down green metrics. “With the EA we enshrined sustainability in the contract and there are 18 sustainability measures in our contract linked to [its] objectives, such as reducing our carbon footprint and having an ethical supply chain,” Bradley explains

Each target is scored from 1 to 5 quarterly and annually, and the scores translated into a bronze, silver or gold band associated with rewards. “Meeting targets is important for us as once we hit silver we can use the EA as a reference client,” Bradley explains.

It is a contract the agency hopes others will learn from, and Bradley’s top tips for those interested in outsourcing are centred on communication. “It’s about understanding what’s important and why,” he says. “Get a clear understanding of what you want to achieve over the life of the contract and in the shorter term.”

Communicating externally – and learning from others – is also crucial. “For me, it’s also about engaging with our supply chain and small businesses – the wider community – not thinking we can do it all. There’s a huge wealth of knowledge out there,” Bradley concludes. “And it’s about sharing what you can do outside work – taking sustainability home with you.”


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