There has been a corresponding growth in innovations in information technology and the recognition that companies of all sizes and types must reduce their impact on their environment by adopting so-called green practices. For micro-businesses with just one or a few employees, this may mean something as simple as recycling aluminum cans and paper, but for larger enterprises, going green may mean the investment of significant amounts of resources up front with the expectation that the payback on these investments will be worthwhile, both in terms of energy savings as well as through an improved corporate image. To determine how companies can benefit from going green today, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature to provide a definition of going green with information technology, an analysis of the impact of going green with information technology on the environment, and a discussion concerning the pros and cons of going green with information technology. Finally, a description of some ways to go green with information technology is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
What Does "Going Green with Information Technology" Mean?
Faced with impending peak oil around mid-century, it has become downright patriotic -- and pragmatic -- for consumers and businesses alike to search for alternative energy resources to replace the dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. These efforts have been characterized as "going green" by many researchers. For example, Morey (2012) emphasizes that, "The world today is hooked on the idea of 'going green.' From installing solar panels on homes and businesses to driving hybrid cars, the efforts to be more environmentally friendly are becoming more and more visible" (p. 119).
There is nothing especially complex or mysterious about "going green" since the term simply means improving business performance in ways that contribute to the natural environment in which companies compete and information technology can facilitate the process in a number of ways. In this regard, Huang, Ding and Kao (2008) report that, "Green innovations are new technical improvement or administrative practices for improving natural environmental performance and competitive advantage of an organization" (p. 9). The technical innovations that characterize green practices are those that contribute to the improvement and refinement of product/service development and manufacturing technology; by contrast, administrative innovations affect managerial activities directly and influence the design of organization administrative processes indirectly (Huang et al., 2008).
The Impact of Going Green with Information Technology on the Environment
Although every business setting will be unique, the impact of going green with information technology on the environment will directly relate to the extent that any adopted practices supplant or replace practices that were environmentally harmful. In this regard, Schiller (2011) reports that, "There were an estimated 592 million PCs in use in 2002, but this will rise to four billion by the end of the decade. Any company that cares about climate change therefore has an incentive to consider how IT equipment is designed, organized and bought. Moreover, many have found that there are substantial cost savings to be made from adopting green IT principles - reducing energy and equipment costs and driving greater efficiency in working practices and procedures" (p. 15). This analysis, though, can quickly become inordinately complex when the entire supply chain of products and services is taken into account and many smaller companies in particular must be satisfied with informed estimates without further empirical research being conducted. Larger companies, though, have realized significant reductions in their carbon emissions through improved fleet management and supply chain management practices using information technology (Basile, 2008). According to Basile, "Companies of all sizes are realizing the enormous economic potential of being green. The latest wave of environmental awareness and the existence of a growing number of green technologies have placed within reach the possibility of being a good environmental steward while growing the bottom line" (p. 22). Despite the potential for being perceived as engaging in greenwashing, a growing number of business leaders concede that it is their intention to do good while doing good and that their bottom line is the most important overarching factor in considering the effects of information technology on green initiatives. Therefore, an examination of the respective pros and cons that are associated with going green with information technology is in order, and these issues are discussed further below.
The Pros and Cons of Going Green with Information Technology
At first blush, going green with information technology sounds like a win-win approach to using innovative methods to improve environmental practices; however, there are factors all along the supply chain that must be taken into account when formulating the cost-benefit analysis of adopting green business practices. For example, on the plus side, Huang and his associates report that green business practices can help companies of all sizes and types achieve and sustain a competitive advantage by:
1. Publicizing a positive corporate image;
2. Setting precedents for regulatory decisions;
3. Reducing compliance, cleanup and tax costs;
4. Increasing trading partner collaboration; and,
5. Realizing substantive improvements in key performance indicators (Huang et al., 2008).
Moreover, businesses can expand their green practices beyond the minimal legal requirements in ways that can add further value. According to Huang et al., "These innovations offer a solution to balance corporate natural environmental responsibility and profit maximization by enabling their adopters to move ahead of regulation and competition" (p. 10). In reality, though, there are also some downsides to going green that may not be immediately discernible but which will ultimately affect the efficacy of any green practices that are deployed. For example, if computer-based technologies are used to replace manual methods, it is unlikely that there will be any reduction in paper usage unless this is a goal of the initiative and the benefits that are achieved may be related more to the improved efficiency of administrative processes that can be achieved (Morey, 2012).
In addition, computer-based technologies also carry a significant downstream disposal problem and so-called "e-waste" is becoming an increasing environmental threat, especially in developing nations where workers typically do not have the protections needed for recycling these toxic materials (Chen, Dietrich & Ho, 2011). For instance, according to Chen and her associates, "In developing countries where most informal and primitive e-waste recycling occurs, environmental exposure to lead, cadmium, chromium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is prevalent at high concentrations in pregnant women and young children" (2011, p. 37). Although components vary, the toxic materials entering the waste stream from computer-based technologies include waste cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions, desktops, laptops, CRT monitors, liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, cell phones, keyboards, computer mice, printers, and copiers (Chen et al., 2011). Currently, IT represents about 2% of all global carbon dioxide emissions and this level is projected to increase to 3% by 2020 (Schiller, 2011).
Ways to Go Green with Information Technology
As noted above, every business setting is unique but there are some common features that characterize the use of information technology in the workplace that have been used to green business practices. For example, educators are increasingly using smartphones and supporting apps to reduce and even entirely eliminate the use of paper in their courses (Morey, 2012). Likewise, significant energy savings can be realized by optimizing information technology data centers. In this regard, Schiller (2011) reports that, "Most experts agree that the greatest potential lies in the data center -- the collection of servers companies use to store and distribute data. Many data centres have ballooned in size as computing requirements have grown, leading to significant over-capacity. One server in ten is a 'zombie' machine, essentially redundant, and that there may be as many as 4.4 million such computers worldwide. Companies, on average, use only six per cent of their servers' capacity" (p. 11). There are three primary causes for this overcapacity:
1. Departments make decisions based on their own needs, without reference to a wider procurement policy;
2. Companies worry about satisfying new IT needs, sometimes forgetting the equipment they already have; and,
3. IT staff fail to design networks for efficiency, building in applications that share information but place few limits on storage (it is common for companies to have huge amounts of unstructured duplicate data sitting on their systems - for example, years of emails) (Schiller, 2011, p. 11).
Furthermore, a number of companies have opted for overcapacity to support their mission-critical functions and services and these trends have resulted in inordinately high energy usage rates and concomitant increases in the carbon footprint associated with information technology use (Schiller, 2011). By optimizing their data centers and eliminating redundancies, larger companies can reduce their carbon footprint and smaller companies can likewise search out third-party providers that focus on this optimization (Schiller, 2011).
Computers and their peripherals have made it possible for consumers and companies alike to interact in more efficient ways, but the paperless office envisioned when these devices emerged has not been realized. Nevertheless,…