Green IT: Clever Marketing or the Real Thing?

Al Gore preaches it. HP, IBM, Sun and other tech giants sell it. And a good number of businesses are buying into it.


"Green IT" lets companies put on their eco-friendly faces and proclaim their love of the environment. It is also a bean counter’s dream, in which innovative uses of hardware and software drive down energy and infrastructure costs. But is the former just clever marketing to wrap around the latter, which includes initiatives businesses would be taking anyway?

So far at least, much of the payoff from the green concept centers on lowering power consumption in data centers. That idea is anything but new: Companies were consolidating data centers via blade servers and virtualization long before the green rubric jolted the corporate world. Skyrocketing energy costs–a barrel of oil was going for more than $70 in early September–boosted the momentum in recent years, along with crusades from prominent politicians like Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Saving money is supposed to be in corporate executives’ DNA. You don’t have to be a tree-hugger, or for that matter even mildly environmentally conscious, to react to skyrocking electricity bills. While business decision-makers may want to be eco-friendly– and to appear as such–it all starts with the bottom line, says Michael Maoz, a vice president at IT adviser Gartner. "They like the fact that they can point to being greener, yet internally, it’s been all about techs to reduce cost," he says. "If they get a cost premium and a PR boost, then why the heck not? It’s a derivative that they have a green IT dividend."

Companies that have caught the green bug now are looking strategically across their operations at other areas where they can replicate the savings found in their data centers. Maoz, whose research areas include customer relationship management and field service technologies, says he’s seen a number of clients save money, for example, by automating fleet and transportation logistics, cutting down their need for fuel.

And more companies are starting environmental analyses of their global operations, looking into places where they can rein in their carbon and cash outputs. IT’s overall contribution to global emissions is low, Maoz says–only about 2 percent of the total. But lowering it further still would be a plus, and if corporations can do their part in that effort, they deserve a pat on the back.

At the same time, increased attention to corporate environmentalism is making it harder for companies to get away with "greenwashing": boasting a pro-environmental stance that’s purely superficial. A business can cut its energy use and emissions, but that doesn’t mean much if it ships its hazardous trash to third-world nations instead of complying with local landfill regulations. "In the past, it was easier for companies to say, ‘we’re doing our best,’" Maoz says. "But now they’re being called out."

So newer examples of green IT are beginning to thrive in places far beyond the data center, and the trend seems likely to continue. Like their energy-conscious precursors, these fresh initiatives are in large part driven by interest in a different kind of green, with ecofriendliness just a happy byproduct. But in the end, that’s not a bad thing or even a cynical ploy. After all, doing good while doing well is a worthy goal for any company.

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