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‘If We Don’t Find Ways To Deal Effectively With Data, The Cost To The Planet Could Be Huge’: Why CIOs Are Making Sustainable IT A Top Priority

Engineer at a data center in front of server racks. getty

Against a backdrop of growing investor attention to environmental, social and governance issues (ESG), a group of CIOs and other top tech leaders recently launched a new U.S. nonprofit called SustainableIT.org.

One of its goals, says Chris Gates, the chief technology officer (CTO) of $37.5 billion market cap insurer Allstate and a member of SustainableIT.org’s 14-person board, is to help clarify what benchmarks tech leaders should follow when it comes to gauging progress on various ESG dimensions. “There’s not really a single version of the truth out there about how you define and drive sustainable IT.”

Corporate technology leaders have long played something of a peripheral role in sustainability efforts at many businesses. But as the stakes keep rising—ESG scores now affect everything from a company’s share price to its brand image—CIOs are being drawn ever more deeply into boardroom debates about how to boost sustainability efforts. Yesterday, the SEC endorsed a rule that will require public companies to report to shareholders and the federal government on their climate-related risks and greenhouse gas emissions. This marks the first time the financial regulator has insisted on mandatory reporting of businesses’ environmental impact. The rule is due to come into effect after a 60-day comment period.

CIOs will have a significant influence on what appears in those SEC-mandated reports, given IT’s growing carbon footprint. Companies’ heavy reliance on software and online channels is driving up demand for energy-guzzling data centers and, according to some academic studies, these now account for between 1% and 2% of global electricity consumption. That figure is set to rise as digital strategies become ever more ambitious. If CIOs can press suppliers for more eco-friendly ways to power data centers, triage data more carefully and tap virtualization (which involves spreading workloads over multiple servers) and other techniques to get more out of existing server capacity, they can help keep this growth in check.

Data gatherers

There are other obvious steps tech teams can take to boost sustainability, such as embracing programs that cut electronic waste. There’s a less obvious one, too—and it’s the other reason CIOs are now playing a more central role in sustainability discussions. Tracking progress on ESG issues requires monitoring data from across many different corporate activities and tech leaders are ideally placed to set up companywide collection systems and to analyze the data generated by them.

That information isn’t limited to things such as energy consumption trends. ESG programs also need data on workforce diversity, cyber risks, fair labor practices and a host of other issues. “You need a unified view of what the most important processes and metrics are, and what [companies] are willing to share transparently,” says Jedidiah Yueh, the CEO of Delphix, which helps businesses automate their management of data and which is financing SustainableIT.org’s operations.

“There’s not really a single version of the truth out there about how you define and drive sustainable IT.”

Chris Gates, CTO, Allstate

Ralph Loura, chairman of the nonprofit’s board and the CIO of $6.7 billion market cap Lumentum, which makes high-performance lasers and other photonics products, stresses that although it has an IT vendor as an underwriter, SustainableIT.org is a grassroots initiative. “This is driven by the CIO community,” he says, “not by a company or someone with a particular research agenda.” Other directors include Katherine Wetmur, a senior tech executive at Morgan Stanley, Brian Kirkland, the CIO of Choice Hotels International and Amir Desai, the CIO of Molina Healthcare.

Loura says he’s seen a similar approach pay off before, citing the example of the Technology Business Management Council, a nonprofit founded in 2012 that brought together tech and finance leaders from companies to foster widely used standards for measuring the value IT investments create. While Delphix is providing initial underwriting to get SustainableIT.org off the ground, the nonprofit hopes to sign up more financial supporters as it grows. It also plans to promote its standards and best practices through things such as PR efforts, training and certification programs.

Greener software

Other organizations are highlighting the importance of CIOs’ role in sustainability initiatives too. A notable example is the Green Software Foundation (GSF), which launched last year with backing from companies such as Microsoft and Accenture. In emailed comments to Forbes, Asim Hussain, the GSF’s executive director and chairperson, says it was born out of the recognition that software-led emissions are large and destined to increase exponentially with the widespread adoption of machine learning and AI, which often require models to be trained on vast amounts of data.

The GSF published its first software standard during last year’s COP26 climate summit and aims to produce many more. Although its membership includes chief sustainability officers, engineers and academics as well as tech leaders, an article on its website entitled “Sustainability Superheroes—CIOs Are Pulling On Their Green Capes” emphasizes the key role tech leaders play in championing digital investments that can bolster energy efficiency and other goals.

Delphix’s Yueh also underlines the importance of CIO leadership on climate impact and other ESG issues, pointing out that more information is projected to be created over the next three years than in the entire history of mankind. “If we don’t find ways to deal effectively with data,” he says, “the cost to the planet could be huge.”

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