As IT&C vendors reinvent themselves to cater to a more environmentally aware customer base, the pressure is on for resellers and their staff to provide more accurate, unbiased and customer specific advice.
We’re rapidly moving beyond greenwash marketing to the point where companies with environmentally sound ethics, who deliver eco-friendly IT&C products and services, rate highly on the business and consumer tick list.
Customers care more about how and where a product was made, its carbon footprint, ergonomic design, sustainability, power use and environmental impact than ever before.
And with buyers engaging in online research before committing, the "green” element increasingly represents the deciding factor, whether they’re acquiring a printer cartridge, a fleet of PCs, storage or software-as-a-service.
Getting it wrong can be costly as Cadbury found when its use of palm oil sparked a social media campaign that went viral virtually overnight. By the same token, getting it right is good reason to trumpet eco successes, but if the message doesn’t match the reality it can backfire badly.
Kath Dewar, Managing Director of KD Consulting and GoodSense marketing, says businesses need to be straight up with their customers, presenting information that is relevant and easy to understand.
"At the moment we’re still caught up in this fashion or trend with consumer advertising which is very rich in feeling and imagery, but quite light on relevant and factual information.”
Dewar, who is running a Marketing for Sustainable Business course at the Auckland University Centre for Continuing Education in August, says people want the ethics of the businesses they deal with to be transparent "rather than having to look up some sustainability report.”
She says we all have to take responsibility for the inputs and outputs of what we create in the world which presents massive challenges to the marketing industry and businesses generally.
The Colmar Brunton Better Business Better World 2010 research showed 88% of consumers wanted to buy their products and services from environmentally and socially responsible businesses. Of those surveyed 46% planned to increase their spend on environmentally friendly goods and services and 40% were considering whether they would pay a premium for the privilege.
However, only 31% of consumers thought businesses gave them enough information about their social and environmental policies, and 76% said those who did often made it confusing and hard to understand.
Ian Green, owner of Auckland-based Green IT, says part of the reseller’s job should be to help the customer step back from constant hardware upgrades and look at the options without flaunting their vested interests.
If resellers offered relatively independent advice he says this would be seen as an important point of difference. For a start Green says salespeople need to be asking the customer the right questions. "What are their needs, what do they have, where do they want to go, what is the future going to look like in 5-10 years?
"If they get incentives from certain vendors to sell products then they’re going to favour that product rather than talk about what the opposition is offering, and if they’re not technically knowledgeable they’ll just pitch what they know.”
In May last year Vernon Turner, IDC’s senior vice president of research, told New Zealand’s Intelligent Green Conference that much more could be done to reduce our carbon emissions, particularly through greener investment in telecommunications and networking technology.
He said the country generated about 600,000 kilowatts per hour per year and created about 600,000 tonnes of CO2, a situation that could be vastly improved through replacing or virtualising old IT infrastructure.
Turner believed we could make improvements through using telepresence, high definition video conferencing and reducing our base of server hardware.
Infrastructure provider EMC NZ believes virtualisation will open up increasing opportunities for resellers who have an intimate knowledge of how their customers work, so they can customise and tailor solutions.
Chief technical officer Arron Patterson says the majority are no longer interested in building their own IT infrastructure, preferring to do the minimum and hand over management of these systems to others.
He agrees the ICT industry has an important role to play in reducing energy use and managing climate change. EMC recently announced 40 new products that raised the bar on energy efficiency in its storage devices and data centre technology improving power and cooling architectures and the ability to dynamically balance loads.
Patterson says EMC technologies such as virtualisation, data deduplication, fully automated storage tiering and solid state drives create huge energy savings, improve efficiency and assist companies on the journey to private cloud computing where IT is delivered as a service.
"With these technologies and services there is an opportunity for businesses to manage their information assets with the same rigor and efficiency they manage other critical corporate assets, leading to environmental and financial savings,” says Patterson.
For example, Turners and Growers recently virtualised its data centre by replacing 120 physical servers with seven Dell machines partitioned into 120 virtual machines. "They’ve been able to reduce data centre rack space requirements and energy consumption due to reduced power and cooling costs with an estimated saving to date of $450,000.”
Breaking physical addiction
Green suggests one of the problems in moving to the cloud or virtualisation is that many businesses are strangely comforted by seeing the lights of their often not insignificant IT investment flashing away "in the broom cupboard”.
Some cite memory and CPU constraints and the cost of fibre optic connections for holding on to physical servers, but Green says technology has moved on and IBM, HP and Dell for example have all the grunty hardware necessary.
He recommends companies start looking at the options more closely once they reach the three-five year replacement cycle of their physical hardware.
And a protective and parochial attitude toward databases hasn’t helped. "This is their business they’ve built up from nothing and they’re not keen to have it hosted from a data warehouse somewhere.”
Green suggests the mindset that "physical is better” usually comes from those who don’t understand virtualisation, and resellers should be able to help make that business case clearer.
In the past you may have needed an expensive storage area network (SAN) with fibre channel connections, but IP-based networks can give almost the same speed as fibre, and iSCSI and network attached storage (NAS) boxes with disk arrays perform just as well.
And he says virtualisation platforms from Citrix, VMWare and Microsoft are bringing the cost down all the time.
While a client might insist on having a physical box they should be encouraged to buy something with virtual technology (VT) built into the chip. "Once they’ve purchased a second server you can slowly build a hardware environment where you can create virtual servers for their next upgrade.”
With a staged approach Green says resellers can help a client make the transition into virtualisation and help them save money. The same challenge applies to getting people into IP telephony.
"They often only see the cost of moving from the old line calling technology rather than the savings they’ll realise once they’ve paid for the technology.”
Public good component
The Fairfax Media 2010 Shape New Zealand research revealed that 73% of business decision makers believe companies should balance making a profit with contributing to the public good. Of those businesses 38% had a sustainable business strategy in place.
KD Consulting’s Dewar says ultimately all businesses, including those in the supply chain, will be expected to prove compliance and report on their own environmental responsibility.
Those doing business offshore or international companies with local offices are likely to be ahead of the game. In the end it’s simply smart business for resellers to show where the return on investment is from cutting energy costs and using cleaner technology.
"It makes sense when you’ve got finite resources to manage the demand of those, so prices don’t escalate untenably. If you cut the amount of waste, you cut the amount of raw material you need, so it all makes good business sense.”
She suggests setting internal benchmarks, possibly taking an online assessment from the Sustainable Business Network (www.sustainable.org.nz). Taking part in the Get Sustainable Challenge (www.getsustainable.org.nz) to benchmark against other companies is another option.
Those serious about their carbon emissions and footprint from a climate change perspective can go for a Carbon Zero Accreditation (http://www.carbonzero.co.nz).
Durability back in vogue
In the consumer and business market there’s a clear shift away from the disposability and planned obsolescence epitomised by consumer electronics and business IT suppliers since the 1950s.
Customers want durable products that are built to last and can be repaired or upgraded with a new chip or new software so they don’t have to throw things away and start again, contributing to e-waste.
Overseas in particular, suppliers and resellers are starting to take responsibility for their own products, by disposing of them in an environmentally friendly way at the end of their life cycle. Many mobile phone manufacturers are setting a good example.
Dewar claims the fast movers in this "cradle to grave” approach are already reaping commercial rewards. Taking responsibility for output is half of the solution, the other half is being smarter about the way you plan the input into a product or service.
"When you make something you should ensure it has a good sustainable design and can be separated into its component parts for reuse or recycling.”
She suggests companies consider how they would innovate if they had to start again with the best possible environmentally compliant approach, and ask what those products and services would then look like?
While becoming more environmentally responsible presents great marketing opportunities, Dewar urges companies to get their own house in order before trumpeting successes. "Companies should report honestly where they are on the journey of becoming a low energy or a low toxic supplier in a way that is of benefit to customers.”
It doesn’t help the cause when businesses produce 40-page reports on sustainably produced glossy paper using vegetable-based ink to congratulate themselves on their successes when a couple of spreadsheets and a pdf might have done just as well.
Dewar says a lot of damage was done to the cause in the US and UK by companies overstating the case or misrepresenting what was going on. "The use of ‘greenwash’ and ‘greenwaffle’ simply breeds scepticism and confusion and it slowed down some of the changes in those markets.”
Locally the Commerce Commission takes environmental and carbon claims very seriously under the Fair Trading Act and the Advertising Standards authority is also keeping an eye and an ear out for anything misleading.
Consumer driven progress
In 2007 Gartner Group estimated that IT&C was responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions through the use of PCs, servers, cooling, printers, fixed and mobile telephony, networking and telecommunications infrastructure. That might not seem much, but it was up there with the airline industry.
Gartner accurately warned that over the next five years financial, environmental, legislative and risk-related pressure would be cranked up to force IT organisations to become more environmentally sustainable.
Much of that pressure would be bought to bear by consumers who wanted to know more about the lifecycle of products before purchasing.
The latest report from Gartner suggests huge progress has been made, with the claim that by 2012, PCs will be so energy efficient that 60% of the greenhouse gasses attributed to them will have been created before they get to the factory.
And the global research company says carbon remediation costs are expected to be included in most IT business cases by 2014.
New Zealand’s progress toward green IT is in many ways still full of good intentions. Like Dewar says, business and consumer audiences are looking for environmental champions who innovate and differentiate themselves.
"There’s no such thing yet as a 100% eco-friendly business, we’re all on the journey, heading toward reducing our impact, treating societies around us more kindly and the environment with more respect.”
Increasingly though, smart use of environmentally sensitive technology is being seen as an opportunity to reduce operating costs and increase profitability and efficiency.
For the reseller or channel partner, taking a lead in providing products, services, information and skills that help bring all the pieces together is starting to sound like a recipe for a more sustainable business model.