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The Wrong Rub of the Green

The golf expression "It's the rub of the green" means the equivalent of "them's the breaks." It refers to the fact that you're going to have your share of good luck and bad luck when your ball is on the green. Every so often you'll hit a divot or other irregularity -- and sometimes the results will be good, other times not so much. It's the rub of the green.

Today, I want to refer to the expression in a rather different sense: when green rubs people and IT the wrong way. The world today is so prone to over-marketing, so accustomed to rapid cycles of surging popularity followed by a precipitous descent into oblivion that, at times it feels like the only sane way to deal with new trends is to tune them out.

This applies even to green. Let's not forget that the current cycle of eco-interest is by no means the first. Professional ecologists can regale you with stories of similar surges of genuine interest that petered out a few years later as inexplicably as they arose. Fortunately, each of those cycles brought about a somewhat heightened sense of eco-responsibility, such that even before the present wave, we already had widespread use of recycling in businesses and homes.

The current green fixation appears to be much broader-based than previous cycles, and unlike those, it seems to be grow, even several years on. This widening acceptance exposes it to a challenging threat: meaninglessness by over-use. Today, just about everyone and every company is touting its "green-ness," even if doing so means relying on empty gestures and meaningless shibboleths. I want to give a few examples and then move on to the problem this aspect poses in IT.

A common gesture that targets a very small problem, but is the current fashion of appending reminders such as these to e-mails:

  • Before printing, think about the environment.
  • Consider the environment. Please don't print this e-mail unless necessary.

The problem with these kinds of so-called "green" messages is that they don't address a real problem in a meaningful way. Most commercial offices I've been to don't print emails unless they need a hard copy, so the problem of thoughtless printing seems to be a rather small issue. Plus, most offices today recycle. In fact, paper recycling at both commercial and consumer levels is one of the true triumphs of environmentalism. So these exhortations create noise about a very small problem with little or no real benefit, but with the risk that people begin to tune out green altogether.

A more substantial problem is the promotion of new products as green replacements for existing technology. For example, the concept of replacing a current PC with another more energy-friendly model. Here the facts and the dollars do line up, but do they make sense? Consider that a new PC for a knowledge worker costs roughly $500. How much energy would it have to save for you to actually save money on it? At 10 cents a KwH, it would take 5000 KwH. Most energy-efficient $500 PCs today save at most 80 watts per hour compared with their forebears, about one-twelfth of a KwH. Hence, it would take 60,000 hours to recognize any savings on power consumption alone, or almost seven years. That is far longer than the average life of a PC.

As to the green aspect, replacing a working PC with a new one generally means a large consumption of resources for the new machine and, unless you recycle your PC, a landfill problem at the other end. Of course, you will eventually have to replace the PC, but the longer you delay the replacement, the greener your decision is. Green is rarely served either ecologically or economically by upgrading early.

When marketing zealousness moves aggressively into the IT sphere, it becomes very difficult for managers to determine what's green and whether they should care. The ubiquity of green claims makes it impossible to decide what's useful and what's not. A recent survey by Aperture Research Institute [PDF] shows the magnitude of the problem: Forty-two percent of surveyed data center managers said they had no way to verify the green claims made by vendors. And 26 percent of managers dismissed green claims altogether. Personally, I am surprised the former number is so low. Most data centers, it seems to me, are unable to measure green-ness at all.

So, let's spiral backwards, and look at what green has to be in order to be valid:

  1. It must lower consumption of a key resource (power, commodities, space, etc.)
  2. It must demonstrably deliver its green benefit. This is demonstrated by the use of neutral industry-acknowledged benchmarks or simple tests that buyers can run for themselves. Specifically excluded are numbers arising from vendor surveys of customers or lab results obtained by the vendor that are not easily reproducible at your site.
  3. If there is an industry certification for this category of product, the product should provide its certification status. (Energy Star and EPEAT are two important certification groups in this regard.)
  4. The measured green benefits must translate into a precise ROI. This is perhaps the most important criterion long-term. Green has to make sense economically, or it has to solve some other problem that trumps the ROI issue, although such cases should be viewed as a rare exception rather than a common option.

Anything failing these tests should be rejected in terms of the green qualification. The products might be the right choice, but there should be no deception that they are right because they are green. In my next column, I will examine the standards to which to hold products, what are the meaningful benchmarks, and accreditations. From there, good green decisions will be possible.

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