Sustainability Goes 2.0

Chief sustainability officers need the full support of CIOs in order for them to be able to help a company be more environmental and operate more efficiently.

Green IT, circuit board

By Samuel Greengard

Times change. IT changes. It turns out that a growing number of organizations are getting serious about social and environmental policies. They are creating the title of chief sustainability officer.

There was a time—perhaps a decade or so—when sustainability and green computing were causes best relegated to granola chomping, tree-hugging executives from companies like Ben & Jerry's and Patagonia. But a couple of recessions and a few energy price spikes later, it's clear that these concepts aren't just feel-good fads, they're ways to run a business more efficiently and cost effectively.

There's also a younger generation that deems these things important. Diss these consumers and you will have your brand reputation to defend on Twitter.

Today, the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies have chief sustainability officers and most university MBA programs have added sustainability training. Many chief sustainability officers report directly to the CEO and board.

However, the term can mean drastically different things to different people and organizations. For example, when Deloitte surveyed chief sustainability officers at 48 large companies, it found that many were using outdated definitions that focused heavily on environmental performance. In most cases, that's because these factors were tangible and measurable—particularly in terms of ROI and regulatory measures.

In some cases, these initiatives were heavily skewed toward risk management and cost savings, noted Katie Pavlovsky, a principal with Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP. She says that organization must take a broader yet more highly structured and long-term approach that resolves around environmental issues as well as social and economic issues outside the primary scope of the business. It's necessary to "really think about the value chain and the collaboration required to meet sustainability objectives," she notes.

That's where the CIOs office comes into play. It takes a free flow of information and thinking—along with hardcore data, metrics and benchmarks—to make an initiative work. It takes systems and software, including analytics, to connect all the dots.

As the concept of sustainability continues to evolve, organizations must look beyond their industry sector. It's essential to use analytics and other tools to better understand performance and measure results. It's critical to think of the overall footprint within the value chain, from buy-side to sell-side, and how customers view the company.

That's sustainability 2.0.

About the Author

Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for CIO Insight. To read his previous CIO Insight blog post, "Embrace Digital Transformation," click here.

This article was originally published on 10-28-2013
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