Can Sustainable IT Avoid False Accounting?

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Now the word is out: there is money to be made in sustainable IT, we can expect the usual feeding frenzy as vendors try to cash in. This time, we can’t afford to fall for phony greenwash.

On eWEEK UK we believe sustainable IT has a deeper meaning than “green”. It’s about making structures that are more efficient, and able to survive in the long term – whether that involves using fewer Watts of power, or requiring less borrowed capital.

But even in the narrow “green” sense, we have realised one fundamental thing. Sustainability is all about accounting. What makes a green data centre green is its overall environmental impact. If that is positive then the centre is green. In other words, a calculation must comes out with a plus sign – and that is accounting.

Since efficiency saves money, there’s a big financial incentive for sustainable IT, and that is often presented as the salvation of the industry. The historically wasteful IT sector has suddenly realised there is money to be made:

“Companies have now realised there is a buck in this,” said Jonathan Steel, chief executive of analyst firm the Bathwick Group.

But now vendors are motivated, are our troubles over? We doubt it. Wherever there is a buck to be made, we find accountants, cost-justifying this buck-making approach or that. In sustainability, they are already massaging carbon figures for all they are worth.

We don’t need to look at today’s economic situation to see how it goes – the IT sector has plenty of examples of gravy trains. Remember how business process re-engineering projects were always costed out to show massive benefits to the lucky companies investing in them? Remember OSI networking? Client-server computing? And absolutely any public sector IT project in the UK?

Sustainability is already full of such dodgy practices, and we guess the recession might bring more of them out of the woodwork – playing on corporate desperation like the spurious “work-at-home” scams already plaguing the newly redundant.

Or it might go a different way. Previous IT gravy trains relied, to some extent, on there being some actual gravy. This time round, gravy is in very short supply, and the banking crisis is still visible enough that we can hope no IT professional is going to be suckered into believing in gravy futures, or gravy derivatives.

This time round, sustainability will have to be justified in cold hard terms. For the energy part of the sustainability puzzle, at least, this is good, because the green and financial incentives are lined up (there are other issues, of course, where there may be conflict between profit and green credentials – such as waste disposal and pollution).

In the data centre, last year’s greenwash could be a cost-centre, paid for from the PR budget . This year, any green initiative will have to contribute to the bottom line.

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