Andrea Moffat interacts with lots of people in her job as director of corporate outreach for Ceres, a Boston-based network of investment funds and public-interest groups that promotes environmentally conscious policies in the business world. It might be the chief executive who discusses “green” issues with Moffat at one company, the head of investor relations at another, and the vice president of corporate responsibility at a third.
One senior position, though, remains something of a mystery to her. “I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with a CIO,” she says. “Do most large companies have one?”
Forgive Moffat her ignorance of the corporate chief information officer. At a time when environmental concerns loom large in popular culture, politics and business, many CIOs have yet to make being green a strategic priority. It’s not that these issues aren’t relevant to information technology executives; in fact, trends such as power consumption and high energy prices, as well as stricter regulations on device disposal and recycling, have real implications for both IT performance and bottom-line results. But so far, those problems have largely been left to the folks toiling further down the org chart, or in areas such as operations and compliance.
“A lot of people are living this stuff, but at lower levels,” says Dave Douglas, the newly appointed vice president of “Eco Responsibility” at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc. Sun, like many companies that sell technology to corporations, is very focused on green issues. So is Hewlett-Packard Co., which Ceres recently cited for its diligence on environmental issues. Says Moffat, “The vendors definitely get it.”
But CIOs? Not so much.
Even companies that actively tout their green initiatives don’t link those efforts directly to their IT strategy. Consider Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is on a major eco-marketing push that includes naming a vice president of corporate strategy and sustainability in 2005, changing the packaging of its products, and announcing that it will start selling organic produce. When asked about CIO-level initiatives on environmental issues, however, Wal-Mart said it wasn’t there yet.
Ditto Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), the self-consciously crunchy outdoor-gear chain based in Kent, Wash. Feel-good green message? Check. Press release on the company’s commitment to purchase 20 percent of its electricity needs from producers using alternative generation such as solar and hydro power? Check. Environmental programs led by IT? An REI spokeswoman said the $1 billion cooperative venture couldn’t come up with much to add to this article.
This kind of disconnect is not going to be sustainable, to borrow a phrase from the environmental movement. Green issues have an impact on everything from product marketing to employee morale to profit margins, and many of them are closely interwoven with the everyday work of IT organizations.
“We are right on the cusp of change,” says Adam Braunstein, a senior research analyst with the Robert Frances Group, a Westport, Conn.-based IT consulting firm. “If you look at things that are already concerns today, like waste disposal or power consumption—heating and cooling issues—and you consider the impact on the ways companies manage their technology, well, it’s going to be a very different world for CIOs in the near future.”
Think of environmental consciousness as the next level of alignment, an enterprise-wide phenomenon that IT must support and sometimes lead. Eco-friendly IT may not be a strategic priority at your company, but it probably will be soon. The financial impact of energy costs, the legal liability surrounding device disposal, and the possible marketing benefits of being seen as a socially-conscious company are all drivers of this new reality. Plus, you know, saving the planet. The era of the Green CIO is almost upon us.