Buying Green IT: The Green IT Criteria You Need to Consider

By M. David Stone  |  Posted 2008-11-07

Buying Green IT: The Green IT Criteria You Need to Consider

If your company has decided to focus on sustainability, you're almost certainly including green criteria in your buying decisions for IT hardware. Odds are you've set requirements for things such as energy use and recyclability-specifying that all new desktop systems meet Energy Star requirements, for example, or that the manufacturer provide a recycling program. That's a big step forward, but it's important to understand that it's just a start.

One of the less obvious, but potentially more important, green strategies is to add a requirement that the manufacturers you buy from are also taking sustainability issues seriously. After all, if everyone buys only from manufacturers that are making a serious effort to go green, it will only encourage other manufacturers to do the same. Here are some of the things you might want to ask the companies you buy from. Not so incidentally, if your company is serious about committing to sustainability, it might want to consider adopting some of these ideas itself.

1. Does the Company Have an Official Sustainability Policy?

As the old saw goes, actions speak louder than words.  That said, however, having an official corporate sustainability policy indicates an awareness of green issues and a stated intention to take them into account. 

Canon, for example, has had a written Canon Group Environmental Charter since 1993, most recently updated in 2006.  Among other points, it includes an intent to buy products that have a lower environmental burden and also encourages the collection and recycling of Canon's own products at the end of their lifetimes. Ask the companies you deal with if they have their own formal policies.  If they do, ask whether they're posted on the Web, so you can see them.

2. Who's in Charge of Sustainability Issues?

Having a corporate concern for sustainability is all well and good, but knowing who's in charge can tell you a lot about how much the company really cares about turning that concern into action.  For example, InfoPrint (the joint venture between IBM and Ricoh) has a chief sustainability officer.  As the company points out, putting a high-level official in charge of green issues helps ensure that both the individual and the issues have the clout internally to make a difference.

3. Does the Company Make an Effort to Educate?

Arguably nothing tells you how seriously a company takes green issues as its commitment to educating both its employees and potential customers on the subject.  Teaching employees the importance of sustainability will tend to make them sensitive to green issues on the job.  And once you've taught customers that sustainability matters, it will be hard to persuade them to buy products that don't take it into account.

Canon, for example, includes increasing the environmental awareness of its employees in its charter, as well as "encouraging environmental protection initiatives on an individual level."  Outside of the company, Canon has donated textbooks on green issues to Japanese schools and has participated in seminars and forums on the subject.  In the United States and Canada, it has sponsored an environmental competition, the Canon Envirothon, for high school students since 1997. Ask the companies you deal with what they do to educate employees and consumers about green issues.

Research, Product and Packaging


4. Does the Company Sponsor Environmental Research?

Another telling measure of how much a company cares about sustainability is whether it invests in research on the subject.  Xerox, for example, likes to point to its funding of environmentally related research at various universities around the world. 

One project, at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, N.Y., is looking at ways to create biodegradable plastics from sources such as trees, switchgrass and corn stalks.  The eventual results of research like this could eliminate both the need to use oil for plastics and the problem of non-degradable plastics clogging the oceans and landfills.  Most large companies fund research.  Ask the companies you buy from if they have a program to fund research aimed at sustainability issues in particular.

5. What Has the Company Done Internally for Sustainability?

More and more companies are taking steps to increase their energy efficiency, reduce their carbon footprint and minimize the waste going to landfills. Find out what, if anything, the companies you deal with have done.  (And consider doing some of these things in your own company.) Possibilities range from simple things such as programming lighting systems in existing facilities to match work schedules all the way to designing new buildings from the ground up-or retrofitting old buildings-to be as energy-efficient as possible. 

6. What Has the Company Done with Its Products and Packaging?

It's also worth asking what steps a company is taking to increase energy efficiency, reduce the carbon footprint and minimize the waste going to landfills from its products.  It's certainly a plus if the model you buy has, say, an Energy Star rating. But it's even better if the manufacturer is committed to having all of its future products earn the same rating. 

Also ask if the manufacturer has made an effort to minimize package size and weight as well as increase the percentage of both recycled and recyclable material in the packaging and the products. Smaller size and lower weight let more products ship in the same physical space and with less energy cost per product. And, of course, the more material that gets recycled, the less is left over to go into a landfill.

Do They Practice What They Preach and Sell?


7. Does the Company Have Any Stated Sustainability Goals?

Some companies have official long-term goals for energy efficiency or other key sustainability issues.  Xerox, for example, set a goal in 2005 to lower its worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent (from 2002 levels) by 2012, even while growing the company.  In 2007, it announced that it had already exceeded the original goal and was now aiming at a 25 percent reduction (compared with the original 2002 levels once again) by 2012.  Ask whether the company has set any goals for itself and whether it has a track record of setting and meeting goals in the past.

8. What Programs Does the Company Take Part In? 

Find out what environmental programs the companies you deal with participate in, and research the programs if you're not familiar with them.  Two that are worth keeping in mind are the EPA SmartWay and BRT (Business Roundtable) Climate RESOLVE programs.  (RESOLVE is an acronym for Responsible Environmental Steps, Opportunities to Lead by Voluntary Efforts.)

The EPA SmartWay transportation programs apply to products and services that reduce transportation-related emissions, resulting in "significant, measurable air quality and/or greenhouse gas improvements." EPA SmartWay partners include both shippers (Canon, for example) and transportation companies. You might want to ask the companies you buy from if they are SmartWay partners or use transportation companies that are.

The BRT Climate RESOLVE program is, similarly, a voluntary effort to "reduce, offset or sequester" greenhouse gas emissions.

9. What Else Does the Company Do to Encourage Sustainability?

As may be obvious, the questions here are nowhere near exhaustive and aren't meant to be. Different companies can take totally different approaches to green issues, yet still qualify as making significant strides toward sustainability. So be sure to ask an open-ended question about what else the company is doing on green issues.  And be prepared to judge each company by the mosaic of everything it does, rather than focusing on a few specific items.

Rocket Fuel