Why the CIO Should Be Your Sustainability Champion

Why the CIO Should Be Your Sustainability Champion

A recovering economy, rising energy costs and increased energy consumption are driving the need for a more environmentally conscious organization. But who is the best qualified person to lead the charge for a greener, more sustainable business?

While some of the world's largest companies have established the position of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), many companies have yet to identify a point person for their sustainability efforts. When these companies look to fill the CSO role, they might want to consider looking in an unlikely place: the office of the CIO.

Across many industries, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) may be a natural choice to lead corporate-wide sustainability initiatives. And for those companies that already have CSOs, CIOs are well positioned to partner with CSOs to ensure their success.

As green IT has expanded from buying more energy-efficient servers and data centers, to finding ways to optimize lighting, monitor green house emissions and even implement new technologies to improve business processes, the CIO's role has expanded to encompass innovative strategies that deliver cost savings and energy efficiencies across the company.

The CIO is ideally positioned to work on corporate sustainability initiatives. The CIO already works with every department within a corporation and understands how to optimize the business processes that make the organization work. IT is tasked with eliminating waste and inefficiency within these everyday processes and, in turn, can work to eliminate waste and inefficiency in energy and resource use.

IT is often equipped to do address enterprise-wide change initiatives, such as launching a sustainability program, having built that experience leading transformational initiatives such as ERP and CRM implementations.

Technology such as online portals, video conferencing and remote, mobile access make telecommuting feasible and reduce the need for business travel, thus minimizing the company's carbon footprint. Efficient use of technology can also dramatically reduce the use of paper, which is both costly and a drain on staff time.

Additionally, application portfolio rationalization reduces the need for servers and associated hardware, further minimizing the organization's carbon emissions. This broader view of green IT goes far beyond data center operations. By leveraging IT capabilities to streamline business processes and reduce waste, it can deliver maximum environmental and cost-reduction benefits.

But sustainability encompasses much more than just the environmental impact of a business. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), considered to be the gold standard in sustainability reporting, defines sustainability as a triumvirate that not only encompasses the company's environmental impacts, but also its economic and social impacts.

In addition to environmental performance indicators, the GRI framework addresses how a company treats its employees, addresses customer needs, impacts local communities, and acts in an ethical manner on dimensions such as its competitive practices, anti-corruption, human rights, child labor, and diversity. This triple play of sustainability balances the needs of the people, planet and the company's profits to create long-term shareholder value.

The idea of operating in a sustainable way, and being able to report on it, is becoming increasingly engrained in the way companies conduct business. In 2010, the number of companies with corporate social responsibility (CSR) information on their websites jumped to 81 percent from 75 percent the previous year. In 2010, nearly 1,800 organizations used the GRI's framework in a published sustainability report.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of organizations are publishing company rankings based on their sustainability measurements, including the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the CRD Analytics Global 1000 Sustainable Performance Leaders and FTSE4 Group's FTSE4Good Index Series.

As a result, sustainability reporting has become a key differentiator for businesses.

This trend towards increased disclosure and reporting leads to one of the most important roles for the CIO and IT in a company's sustainability journey: implementing new frameworks, strategies, technologies and tracking and reporting tools to help measure and manage a sustainability program.

IT has a vital role in gathering information, creating capabilities and tracking progress against these goals. Through developing the integrative technology that can monitor and collect data and analyze the company's sustainability performance, IT has the ability to chart performance and make recommendations in order to maximize efficiency.

No matter the motivation behind companies beginning to look at the sustainability efforts of their organization, the growing trend of setting sustainability goals and tracking against them has undoubtedly led to more sustainability conscious organizations worldwide.

Using the tools and expertise of this naturally tech-savvy department, companies can appeal to the needs of all its stake-holders, enhancing their social impact while minimizing their environmental footprint, and driving down cost and inefficiency.

The CIO can often help organizations broaden their sustainability efforts to cover the environmental, economic and social impacts, leveraging cross-functional relationships across the company to ensure the success of these initiatives. So the next time your organization thinks about who's going to lead the sustainability charge, consider looking to the office of the CIO.

For more information, please see the Cognizant paper "Beyond Green" The Triple Play of Sustainability." [PDF]