9 ways IT leaders can impact sustainability initiatives

Companies across industries are committing to maximizing sustainability within their operations — and IT is at the heart of most of these efforts.

In its Worldwide Sustainability/ESG 2023 Predictions, analyst firm IDC sees digital and sustainability transformations converging. “Decision makers are realizing that technology is essential for reaching their ESG goals,” noted Bjoern Stengel, IDC global sustainability research lead, in the report.

As such, CIOs are taking center stage in sustainability efforts, working closely with business partners on enterprise sustainability initiatives, while tackling the carbon footprint of IT itself —all new territory with few established best practices, frameworks, or standards. And the opportunities for tech-enabled sustainability solutions are wide ranging.

“Many CIOs don’t know where to start,” says Brian Kirkland, CIO at Choice Hotels and founding board member for SustainableIT.org, a nonprofit launched to help create frameworks and standards around sustainability.

Now is no time for sideline sitting, however. If sustainability isn’t already on the IT agenda, it will be soon, says Bryan Muehlberger, CIO at Vuori Clothing. “It’s coming — and anyone not already in the game is going to be left behind.”

Leading CIOs are making strides — individually and in collaboration — by identifying key areas where technology can make a difference today and create a foundation for more sustainable operations moving forward. Following are several ways CIOs can move the needle on sustainability initiatives.

Secure executive support

There are some non-negotiables when it comes to taking on the mantle of sustainability as a CIO, says Kirkland.

“You need a leadership team that is supportive, and a board that will back them up. You need a champion and leader who has the job of driving ESG within your company. You need engineers and technology team members passionate about innovation and change,” he says. “Without any of those three, you will face an uphill battle.”

Most business leaders understand the importance of sustainability, but that may not translate to buy-in when it comes to IT’s role. To secure executive support, CIO’s must first demonstrate value and need.

“The big thing we need to do as CIOs is to show the business value [of sustainability] and give our business partners information to help them understand the levers they have as well,” says Morgan Stanley CIO Katherine Wetmur. “This should not just be a discussion about costs; sustainability should be considered as a business outcome.”

Maximize the cloud

IT has a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. A team of researchers from Lancaster University, along with sustainability consultancy Small World Consulting, published a 2021 report indicating that IT contributes to as much as 1.2% to 3.9% of global greenhouse emissions — much higher than previously estimated and greater than the aviation industry. That has the potential to increase dramatically as organizations embrace AI, the internet of things, blockchain, and other resource-intensive emerging technologies. Thus, most CIOs see the greatest benefit focusing on their own function’s contribution to improving sustainability.

Cloud migrations have been on the rise in recent years for a host of business reasons, but CIOs serious about sustainability are pulling out all the stops. On-prem data centers have an outsized impact on carbon emissions and waste. Public cloud data centers, by contrast, are 93% more energy-efficient and produce 98% lower GHG emissions than on-premises datacenters, according to Microsoft and WSP Global. Analysis performed by 451 Research for the Amazon Web Services Institute found that moving IT workloads from on-premises data centers to the cloud could reduce energy consumption and associated carbon emissions by nearly 80%.

At Vuori, everything is in the cloud. Muehlberger is also investing in a serverless environment whereby cloud providers allocate resources on demand to further eliminate computing waste.

Choice Hotels’ Kirkland, who will close the company’s last data centers next year, insists any CIO focused on sustainability should go all-in on cloud. “There’s no way any smaller company can compete with the sustainability impact of the big cloud providers,” Kirkland says. “Let them do the job of efficiently running data centers.”

Minimize consumption

Greater cloud use addresses some of the supply side impact of IT on sustainability, but controlling demand for compute is equally important for CIOs seeking to reduce technology’s carbon footprint.

“When you are in the cloud, you can adopt technologies and approaches that minimize consumption,” Kirkland says. “This will drive down your cost and have a positive impact on sustainability at the same time.”

CIO Wetmur is taking things a step further at Morgan Stanley with a more sustainable approach to application development. How IT organizations build applications impacts their usage, power consumption, and overall impact on sustainability. Traditionally software development has focused on functional requirements, and few IT organizations have a culture in which developers consider the environmental impact of their code. Wetmur leverages her role as CIO to integrate sustainability throughout the development process.

“This will help us address the carbon footprint of our applications as part of the software development lifecycle, by improving measurability and transparency, reducing unnecessary or excess cycles, and better leveraging our hardware,” she says.

Pursue small wins as well

The opportunities for technology-enabled sustainability improvements are vast. That can be daunting for CIOs just starting to explore IT’s role in furthering sustainability goals. The key, say CIOs who have been doing this a while, is to begin with some easy wins and to not ignore these opportunities even as your ambitions grow.

“Everything doesn’t have to be big. Small decision make a difference and they add up,” says Wetmur, noting that helping a business partner make the case for moving from paper cups to reusable containers, for example, can have a significant impact.

“Think about the small baby steps you can take now to play a part,” advises Muehlberger. “That could be as simple as pledging to move a certain percentage of infrastructure to the cloud over the next six months or committing to writing new code that can be leveraged in a serverless manner.”

Harness data for ESG transparency

As a recent Deloitte Insights article points out: “Investors, regulators, customers, and supply chain partners are demanding greater transparency into climate and sustainability reporting and results. So, too, are business leaders. They are looking for data quality and accuracy to measure carbon footprint, supply chain optimization, and green revenue in real time.”

CIOs can help the business find, collect, validate, and analyze the appropriate data and help develop a sustainability reporting platform. Lesley Salmon, senior vice president and global chief information officer at global food manufacturer Kellogg, is one such CIO doing just that.

“Data management, automation, analytics is critical to reviewing our progress in ESG,” she says. “As data is a key pillar in IT, we play a significant role in influencing what we can report and how we report it. Through data governance and analytics, we can also improve the timeliness and accuracy of information reported by all functions.”

Empower business users to uncover opportunities with data

Beyond reporting, CIOs can also employ data and analytics to help the business uncover new opportunities to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint. Here, IT can become a critical partner to the business, providing data and insight to illuminate opportunities for change.

“The advice I give to everyone in IT is the most important thing to do is give people information to make better decisions,” says Morgan Stanley’s Wetmur. “The biggest thing we need to do as CIOs is help our business partners understand the levers they have available to make change.”

Look beyond organizational borders

An organization’s impact on sustainability extends beyond its four walls — and there may be opportunities to improve sustainability beyond the confines of the business.

For example, IT leaders could provide expertise and insight to help suppliers or other business partners in their sustainability efforts. Morgan Stanley’s IT department, for example, is helping nonprofits as part of its Technology Change Makers program. While not all of these organizations have an environmental sustainability focus — the IT organization helped the Child Mind Institute deploy machine learning to examine the impact of COVID on children’s mental health, for example — some do. Morgan Stanley’s IT employees built a digital platform to manage the restoration of oyster beds and to speed oyster growth in New York Harbor.

Pro bono efforts such as these can give nonprofit organizations digital tools to increase their impact and also give the company’s IT professionals additional experience using technology to increase environmental impact in a tangible way.

Learn from vendors

Technology providers are equally focused on mitigating their environmental impact and improving sustainability. Working closely with key vendors can give IT organizations great insight and data for sustainability efforts.

“A lot of our tech partners are very helpful, from hardware vendors who are focused on e-waste, to cloud computing providers,” says Wetmur. “There’s a lot of information we can get from companies in this space.”

Collaborate with peers

While the big tech players take sustainability seriously and have stated goals for carbon neutrality, there may be limits to what they can share for competitive reasons. Other IT leaders can play a key role in sharing acquired insight and coming up with new solutions.

For example, many high-profile CIOs this year signed on as founding board members for SustainbleIT.org. The nonprofit organization, led by technology executives, seeks to define sustainable transformation programs, create best practices and frameworks, set standards and certifications, and provide education and training for IT leaders focused on sustainability.

“It’s not about competition,” says Muehlberger, adding that the goal is to come up with common solutions to help all IT leaders better manage and advance their sustainability efforts.

Green IT