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How tech leaders can support sustainability targets

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

Gone are the days when individual business functions could operate successfully in siloed parcels.

For companies to meet the demands of today, from heightening regulatory pressures to changing consumer expectations, all internal facets need to be aligned and pulled in the same progressive direction. This is particularly critical in the context of sustainability.

If net zero targets are to be reached by 2050, then enterprises and businesses will have a huge part to play. For many, aligning with national and global climate goals will require a dramatic change in mindset and a holistic operational overhaul to ensure every process, from property management, to accounting, to manufacturing, is accountable for an organisation’s carbon reduction ambitions.

Numerous companies have already embarked on this journey, placing all aspects of their business under the sustainability microscope to view it through a distinctly green lens. A Coeus Consulting survey published in February 2022 highlighted a recognition of the need for more eco-conscious IT operations.

The report found that 90% of IT leaders see sustainability as a key IT objective within their organisation, while 88% of organisations already have an IT sustainability strategy in place.

Further, 85% agreed that their organisation needs to be doing more when it comes to IT sustainability, and 80% noted that IT and sustainability are intrinsically linked and that IT has a large impact on sustainability. 

This is incredibly promising, yet turning sentiment into impact is often easier said than done.

Indeed, the fact that half of respondents said their formal strategies were not defined in IT but elsewhere in the organisation, and seven in 10 agreed that IT sustainability is often viewed as a tick box activity to improve company reputation and justify government tax savings, is worrying. 

Despite the positives, there is clear room for improvement. Critically, firms must move away from viewing sustainable IT practices as a burden and recognise it as an opportunity, addressing it more proactively and comprehensively.

We outline three ways in which this can be achieved:

  1. Broaden the scope of sustainability activities

In our survey, around 90% of respondents already considered IT sustainability to be a high priority. Interestingly, for over half of them, this was only a recent change, driven by a combination of IT leaders ensuring it is covered within IT leadership strategy, increased awareness and demands from senior stakeholders.

Organisations are taking the right steps towards IT sustainability by building strategies and investing in technologies like cloud platforms. However, IT has the potential to facilitate an organisation-wide shift to sustainability, which will require aligning the IT and business sustainability strategies. 

Teams must therefore look to expand the scope of their sustainability activities, allowing IT to contribute significantly towards sustainability targets.

This can be achieved in a variety of ways. Extending sustainability to the operating model using IT can increase efficiencies in energy consumption, resource utilisation and waste management, for example. Further, IT systems can also be used to measure current consumption levels, set sustainability baselines and targets, and monitor progress through the use of key data. 

Promoting sustainability culture within the organisation will enable employees to be engaged with the strategy and support the sustainability drives introduced by the stakeholders. IT can again help here by working with the business to foster sustainable customer and provider behaviour, promoting sustainability outside the immediate organisation.

All these ambitions will of course need planning and buy-in from senior leadership. However, succeeding here can help to elevate IT as a sustainability enabler instead of just a target for isolated sustainability activities.

  1. Prioritise ‘sustainable’ over ‘lower cost’

For IT departments to help drive the sustainability agenda across the wider company, technology teams must be given the freedom to prioritise ‘sustainable’ solutions over ‘lower cost’ ones at every possible turn, including making decisions about which technology products to invest in.

Responsibility for sustainability within IT should be formalised to ensure it is a key consideration in every technology-related purchasing decision the company makes. Within larger organisations, it may be suitable to have a specific role devoted to this, such as a Head of IT Sustainability. At smaller organisations, someone within IT should be made responsible for checking that sustainability is given due consideration in all IT initiatives. 

By assigning a champion for such initiatives, organisations can ensure time is dedicated to considering the best options, enhancing best practices, measuring impact and developing accountability in sustainability initiatives.

IT has most of the data required at its disposal today; by stepping up as a business partner, IT leaders and CIOs can help drive the pace of change. For more ambitious organisations, there is evidently a large opportunity for IT to work with the business to develop new sustainable products and services and potentially spearhead a true ‘sustainable transformation’, providing digital and technology solutions to support changes in customer consumption and business needs.

  1. Embed sustainability within the supply chain

Companies should also kickstart the process of embedding sustainability within the supply chain. Existing agreements should be reviewed to understand what additions may need to be made to cover certain sustainability criteria. 

Service credit regimes should reflect these measures so that there are clear service-level agreements (SLAs) applied around sustainability that both penalise under-performance and reward over-performance. When drafting requests for proposals, there should be an explicit area that refers to required sustainability targets and their relative weighting when scoring a potential supplier. SLA targets should be both realistic and present stretch targets that show measurable increases in sustainability across the term of the contract.

Overall, those who are proactive in embedding sustainability in their supply chains will be viewed positively, whilst those that treat sustainability as a low priority run the real risk of suffering reputationally.

Greater action is needed

While there is encouragement to be found in the acknowledgement of the importance of IT sustainability among organisations, it is vital to note that this is still a work in progress. Indeed, significant focus and action is needed if businesses are to move the needle in any meaningful way.

Thankfully, innovation in this arena is advancing rapidly, and there is therefore significant untapped potential for organisations to use technology proactively to reach their sustainability goals, from taking the early steps of recycling and transitioning to the cloud, to reconfiguring their operating model along more sustainable lines.

Critically, IT must align with wider business sustainability goals and step up to the challenge of providing the solutions that drive digitalisation and efficiency. This isn’t simply a case of delivering reports and showcasing charts. It is about delivering measurable benefits both internally and throughout the supply chain.

If CIOs and IT leaders get this right, they have a massive opportunity to take a leading role in furthering the sustainability agenda for years to come, adding value to organisations in ways that would otherwise be unattainable. 

Kerry Osborne
Kerry Osborne
Sustainability Lead at Coeus Consulting

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