Reflections on Green IT: Simple, Small Steps Add Up

Some steps to "going green" can be as simple as finding simple alternatives to paper.

by Carol Baroudi

I made my way to the 2009 Conference of the International Association of IT Asset Managers (IAITAM) in Las Vegas recently thanks to the conference sponsor, which I originally met during research for my book, Green IT for Dummies. My research into e-waste lead me to get a clear view of the critical role of IT asset management in green IT and sustainable business.

Sustainable IT, like sustainable anything, has to look at the entire lifecycle. One of the nastiest ways IT isn't green at all is at an asset's end of life. Production of most ICT assets includes many toxic compounds that make their end-of-life potentially hazardous. This is well known to recyclers -- it's why it costs you money for disposal. Many regulations, both international and local, apply to the disposal of electronic waste, yet the EPA can account for only 20 percent of the "retired assets" in the U.S.

My current research is focused on trying to determine if organizations themselves can account for their e-waste, which leads me back to the imperative for IT asset management. You can't manage what you don't know you have, so IT asset management seems like a critical first step.

The folks at IAITAM have connected those dots. At this year's conference, titled Bringing Green Together," a few of the vendors demonstrated that they definitely get it. Wednesday morning's keynote address by Argus Connection CEO and president, Allen Beach, went straight to the point: "Your retired assets are a greater liability to you than your network going down."

Clearly, Beach gets it. He tried to bring home both the business and moral imperatives of appropriately handling e-waste. "First do no harm is the creed of physicians," he noted. "Our industry has done harm." Yes, indeed, and we continue to do horrific damage, more this year than last, more last year than the year before.

I completely concur. If you need lessons in e-waste, check out, or watch the video from 60 Minutes (see ) or the one from Frontline (see ). We must put an end to it -- we must stop our despicable behaviors now.

Some kinds of practices shouldn't be too difficult to correct. IT asset managers and procurement officers complained about the over-the-top packaging surplus cables that arrive with every server. "How many cables do we need? What are we supposed to do with all this stuff?" Some say they've had positive results from calling their vendors and asking them to not include cables. Some vendors comply, some do not. "HP is the worst," the buyers complained. "They say they can't 'not ship' the stuff. We try to recycle the cables, but that's not all that easy."

Another big gotcha in the world of green IT is paper use. It's not just a problem from the clear-cutting of forests, the destruction of biodiversity, and the chemical toxins involved in paper use -- it's a huge problem when it comes to water consumption. Creating a sheet of A4 paper (similar to our 8 ½ by 11 sheets) requires 10 liters of water (2.69 gallons) (source: Imagine my dismay at finding that the conference notes (all 314 pages of them) were being distributed in bound book form. With banners, bags, buttons, and badges all proclaiming "Think Green," it's well past time we go from thinking to acting.

Consider the paper. Consider the cost in actual dollars changing hands to create these printed volumes. Consider their portability -- schlepping them back home. Consider trying to access information in them. They are an accumulation of slides reduced to three on a page with room to take notes on the side. No color, no speaker notes, indexed by speaker only with no topic index. No way to search them except by reading through page by page.

Consider the alternative. Creating and distributing the slides on digital media or even e-mailing them to conference participants. All the speakers submit the exact same thing, but the reader can see the slides in color. The cost of production plummets. The space in your luggage is not tangibly affected. You can take notes on the slides themselves and use any number of search engines to help you find slides later when you want to remember what was said.

This, of course, would mean a change in process for the conference itself. It's been a long time since I attended a conference in any way connected with IT where I was asked to leave my laptop behind. Apparently I'm supposed to take notes on, well, paper -- something I'm trying to avoid. Notes on paper are far less useful to me than notes on my computer where I can easily retrieve them.

Conferences that ban the use of laptops aren't stopping the tweets coming from smart phone texters, but nor are they taking the requisite leap to stay current in their own industry. I like the folks at the IAITAM conference and I hope I get a chance to check in on them again next year – but please, please, save yourselves some money and hassle and be kinder to the environment. Purge the paper and go digital. It's not just greener and cheaper, it's really a lot better.

Carol Baroudi is research director of green IT and sustainability for Aberdeen Group and the lead author of Green IT For Dummies (Wiley, 2009). You can contact the author at