Know It All: The Color of Money

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 12-04-2006

Businesses are in business to make money, not to save the planet. But when environmentally conscious policies make good business sense—when being green yields green—everyone wins.

You can only win, though, if you play the game. Yet a surprising number of business people, including an unacceptably large contingent of corporate-tech pooh-bahs, are still sitting on the sidelines. High fuel prices, heavy regulation around environmental issues, and public concern about sustainability and global warming make clear the bottom-line value of eco-friendly strategies. But some folks still aren't paying attention.

The problem goes to the top of the corporate ladder: A recent report from the Conference Board, "Stopping the Profit Drain from Higher Energy Costs," says: "[E]xperts and plant managers say that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get CEOs interested in cost-saving energy programs." And this particular breed of ignorance appears to be widespread. "What a load of rubbish," wrote an anonymous commenter at my blog, beneath a post on environmentally aware companies. "Going green is yet another silly trend that businesses will look back upon with regret someday. The organizations behind the 'green' movement are hardly business-friendly so I'm rather surprised to see the business world embrace such a movement."

Nobody seems less clued-in than the average CIO. When we published our first article about the emerging green imperative, in July 2006, we found little evidence that corporate IT is paying much attention to green issues—even as data centers suck power, and computer equipment can release a witch's brew of toxins (and legal problems) if disposed of improperly.

What a shame. As Nick Carr says at his Rough Type blog, "The majority of computing capacity—and the electricity required to keep it running—is squandered." He cites estimates by journalist Timothy Prickett Morgan that put the global energy costs of running all computers at $250 billion a year, of which perhaps $213 billion is "absolutely wasted." Back-of-the-envelope calculations, to be sure, but you get the point. Says Carr, pointing to studies from Gartner and IDC: "IT's electricity costs are no longer just a hidden line item on the corporate budget. They're a problem."

Richard Edwards, a senior analyst with U.K.-based research firm Butler Group, agrees. Green IT, he says, "is no longer an option: it's a necessity." Rakesh Kumar, a Gartner analyst, says the problems go well beyond power costs—including the issue of disposing of some 375 million PCs over the next five years—and calls current IT policies "unsustainable."

There are some signs of progress. A recent study by Sun Microsystems shows that since the first quarter of 2006, more than three-quarters of executives who participate in buying decisions for data-center equipment at large companies have made energy efficiency a priority. Still, 63 percent of those executives don't know their energy costs or greenhouse-emission rates.

These are big problems, with big payoffs for companies that solve them. Seems like somebody ought to start paying attention.