IT is thinking green but not yet acting it

Most survey respondents unclear on vendors' environmental commitment

Information technology is going green. At least IT systems vendors are, with announcements of new energy-efficient servers, datacentre power and cooling products, and device recycling initiatives coming thick and fast these days.

But what about IT buyers? Are they listening and do they care? After all, it’s users’ procurement processes and operational and asset management practices that will ultimately determine whether green IT is for real or just another passing fad.

To find answers to those questions, Forrester Research surveyed 125 operations and procurement professionals in enterprise IT shops in the US and Europe.

What did we learn? The survey results showed fairly broad awareness of green IT, an interest in energy-efficient IT systems and a strong desire to hear more from vendors on these topics. What our survey did not find was broad-based activity by user firms to translate their green awareness and concerns into tangible action in IT procurement or operations.

For example, 85% of respondents told us that environmental concerns were “somewhat important” or “very important” in planning IT operations. As with the vendors, this awareness is driven by regulatory requirements and corporate responsibility, but even more important are growing concerns about power availability and costs. A number of companies considering changing their purchasing or operations practices will be driven solely by a desire for greater efficiencies and the resulting cost reduction. Green benefits like reductions in carbon dioxide emissions may result, but these are seen as by-products of hard-headed, ROI-driven business practices.

A few companies told us that their green IT efforts were driven from the top of the company. Acting more environmentally responsibly is a high priority, especially for European companies, US energy or recreation businesses, and government agencies.

For them, green IT is part of a strategy to improve how they’re perceived by customers, investors, regulators and employees.

But awareness has not yet been translated into action. Only a quarter of companies surveyed have written recycling, energy efficiency or clean manufacturing criteria into their IT procurement processes. When we asked their procurement and operations people what vendors could do to increase their green purchasing, the resounding response was that they’d like vendors to give them more information. Only 15% of the companies surveyed said they had a “high level of awareness” of IT vendors’ green initiatives, and most told us that they were hearing little or nothing from top-tier vendors on this topic.

When I read that, I got an image of someone waving a red cape in front of a herd of snorting bulls. Get ready for the IT vendors to charge. The best of their efforts to educate customers will have these characteristics:

• A CFO perspective. Green development and marketing by IT vendors to date has been a geekfest. The smart ones will stress the business benefits of green policies — not just cost reduction, but risk reduction, brand enhancement and growth opportunities. All of these appeal to the CFO and other executives.

• A “hard green” emphasis. User organisations are clear about this: green is nice, but it’s the long view that matters. Vendors will break through the messaging clutter with tangible ROI, complete with calculators and cost studies to mitigate customers’ doubts.

• A holistic approach. The most effective vendors will take a wide-angle view of green IT rather than getting mesmerised by one aspect like energy efficiency or product recycling. Weaving together the disparate elements of a green IT strategy — and practising what they preach in their internal IT operations — will bring credibility and punch to vendors’ marketing efforts.

• A well-tuned set of messages. The best messages will resonate with various customer motivations for going green. Customers’ receptivity will differ by industry, geography and individual role.

Green IT is no bubble. Companies’ awareness and interest will only slowly translate into concrete actions to lessen the environmental impact of their IT operations.

Vendors can speed up that translation by recognising that for most companies, it’s business first and green second.

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