Computing IT's Give-and-Take Role in Sustainability -- Part One

April 09, 2008

The dramatic growth of the past half-century has led to higher living standards in much of the world, but has also resulted in urban sprawl, choking pollution and global warming. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, information technology (IT) has been at the heart of the transformation -- driving change, infusing almost every aspect of life. Even in an economic slowdown, global purchases of IT goods and services will equal $1.7 trillion in 2008, up by 6 percent from last year, Forrester Research predicts.

So it's hard to ignore IT's role in sustainability, which is commonly defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In fact, according to experts at the W. P. Carey School of Business, IT is both the hammer and the nail -- the problem and the solution. Just as IT is now part of nearly every aspect of our daily lives, so too should it be considered as a crucial topic in the sustainability conversation.

"I don't think anybody is saying, 'In order to make IT more sustainable we should stop using computers.' Rather the question is: Given that we're using them and we're going to continue using them, how do we keep that value but also reduce the environmental impacts and improve the sustainability aspects?" asks Eric Williams, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and sustainability in ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

In Part 1 of a two-part series about IT's role in sustainability, Knowledge@W. P. Carey looks at how IT is the problem. In Part 2 we'll explore the solutions IT offers.

Operating expenses

IT has made us mobile with laptops, PDAs and smart-phones, but we haven't yet cut the most basic of tethers: the power cord. Salespeople may sip coffee in cafes for an hour or two without needing to plug in, but there's no getting around IT's inescapable dependence on the grid.

Simple math reveals the issue: a laptop computer running for only eight hours per day uses about 134 kWh of electricity per year. By the end of this year, Forrester Research says a billion computers will be in use worldwide. Those machines will consume more than twice the electricity generated by Duke Power's seven nuclear plants in 2002 (using 134,000,000 mWh from conversion of 134 billion kWh). That's without considering the IT industry's other power needs.

There are solutions. One is as simple as turning off computers when they're not in use (except for the all-day, every-day computers in datacenters that cannot be shut down), and using settings to improve power efficiency, including hibernation when idle.

"These little things just scale so much; small decisions really add up," says Michael Goul, a professor of information systems at the W. P. Carey School. He emphasized that the computer sitting on an employee's desk is only the tip of the iceberg. Today, Goul says, technology "is embedded into darn near everything."

And then there are issues that are in the hands of manufacturers. Car companies are beginning to emphasize the fuel efficiency of their vehicles, but IT companies haven't focused on the energy-efficiency of their machines. For the most part, IT marketers are still pushing horsepower in the form of processor speed and memory.

IT companies may be coming around, though. A recent ad campaign from Dell highlights the power efficiency of its machines. Intel, whose chips lie at the heart of a computer's innards, also appears to be staking out an energy-efficient image with its new products, says Goul. And anyone who has ever bought two ounces of cyan ink, which costs more than fine wine, understands the value-proposition of recyclable printer cartridges.

These changes may be attributable to growing awareness of sustainability. But, says Williams, they must also make economic sense for consumers. People may feel good saving the environment one kilowatt at a time, but doing so becomes easier when it also puts money in their pocketbooks. That's compounded when it comes to companies.

Kevin Dooley, a professor of supply chain management at the W. P. Carey School, did a study on corporate annual reports and found that companies are pursuing sustainable practices for three basic reasons: meeting legal regulations, aligning their brand with social responsibility, and profitability. No surprise, Dooley observed, the biggest motivation was money.

"The primary driver I see here is economic. They think that it's a way for them to save money, both in the long run and the short run," says Dooley.

The switch from CRT monitors to LCDs, for example, is really about the bottom line -- at least in part.

"Initially people simply liked the LCDs better, but that didn't result in a lot of replacement," says

Robert St. Louis, a professor of information systems. "But when you could show that you could save more energy by replacing [CRT monitors], then CRTs were history, even if they were still functioning. It comes back to saying that it's nice to talk about being green but it really isn't going to happen until the economics are there."

IT inputs

A glowing "power" light is an obvious indicator that resources are being consumed, but IT's resource drain manifests itself in other, less obvious ways. In the past, Williams says, most consumers never gave a thought to the resources required to get the computer to their desks, but that's changing. Consumers now consider how and where their food is grown and if their clothes are made in sweatshops. Now they are also looking at IT with new eyes, too. "People are starting to pay more attention to supply chains," says Williams.

Williams found that producing a desktop computer with a 17-inch CRT monitor required an estimated 6,400 megajoules (MJ) of total energy, equivalent to 260 kilograms of fossil fuels (building the average PC requires 10 times its own weight in fossil fuels). In a recent journal article, Williams notes that, "The high energy intensity of manufacturing, combined with rapid turnover in computers, results in an annual life cycle energy burden that is … 1.3 times that of a refrigerator. In contrast with many home appliances, life cycle energy use of a computer is dominated by production (81 percent) as opposed to operation (19 percent)."

It turns out that finding operational energy savings such as setting an idle machine to hibernate without considering the energy cost of manufacturing is like plugging a small leak while ignoring a burst levee. Williams suggests that computer buyers consider extending the usable lifespan of their computers by reselling them or upgrading them (allowing users to keep a machine for three years, for example, instead of two) versus replacing them outright.

Unlike appliances such as dishwashers and water heaters, computers are not festooned with big stickers with their estimated annual energy cost, but Goul envisions a time in the near future when they will be. Arriving at these energy-use numbers is fairly easy and straightforward because it only requires testing one number: the amount of power needed per year.

While basic compliance programs like EnergyStar are a good step, Williams advocates a more holistic label. He points to the Ecoleaf program in Japan which measures many more aspects of computer production. For example, a label for a Fujitsu LifeBook laptop computer runs to two detailed pages full of sustainability data. The label shows an executive summary of "Life Cycle Impacts" and a breakdown of "Global Warming Impact."

Developing a standard scale for the full matrix of inputs would be a complex task, Williams says. "[Ecoleaf] is an exception and it hasn't really been broadly adopted yet but I wouldn't be surprised if 10 or 20 years down the line, that's also on the table."

IT outputs

Of course, in addition to operating a computer and manufacturing it, there is also the cumbersome issue of disposal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 30 to 40 million PCs will be discarded in each of the next few years. These tons of trash are different than the usual "coffee grounds, potato peelings and brown bananas" that Shel Silverstein mentions in his poem, because much of what goes into a computer is toxic when it gets out.

"Computers have a number of substances of concern that are put into them. They fall into two categories. One would be, basically, heavy metals like lead and mercury … and the other category [is] brominated flame retardants … In order to make electronics more fire-resistant, they put in materials that are very similar, chemically, to PCBs and they're, to an extent, bio-accumulative and are thought to be endocrine disruptors," says Williams.

Monitors, modems and CPUs -- many but a few years old -- litter landfills around the world. This is becoming a serious problem, especially in developing countries that lack the regulation and enforcement to ensure that dangerous chemicals are disposed of properly.

If consumers start thinking years ahead to disposal when buying new computers, Goul says, then businesses and their employees will have to radically shift their IT thinking. Evaluating IT -- from manufacturing to operational use to disposal -- will become a far different process than simply buying a computer (or setting up a data center, for that matter) and comparing technical specs.

Goul hopes business leaders will soon "learn to discern the 'greenwash' from what's a reality" and will become "good decision makers [who] weigh the pros and cons of all different options."

Tune in for Part II: "IT as Part of the Sustainability Solution" in the next issue of K@WPC.

Bottom Line:

  • Although not typically part of most sustainability discussions, IT must be part of the conversation because of its pervasive role in the world today.
  • In the face of commoditization, IT manufacturers may turn towards quantifying the sustainability of their products as a point of differentiation in the marketplace.
  • While home appliances like dishwashers estimate how much energy (and thus cost) a machine requires per year, IT equipment has yet to use such labeling.
  • Turning off a computer that is not being used is a good step; however, the life cycle energy use of a computer is dominated by production (81 percent) as opposed to operation (19 percent), so the biggest sustainability gains will likely happen before it gets to end users.
  • Consumers of IT must now look at more measures than just performance or price as IT and sustainability become intermingled. Yet, when sustainable measures are also economically better than the alternative they will catch on faster.