With environmental issues gaining pace, corporate social responsibility rising inexorably up the commercial agenda, and industry under ever-increasing pressure to keep up, are some businesses mistaking greenness for naivety?
The world has gone not so much environmentally friendly, as enviro-friendly mental.
Green is the new black and woe betide the unwitting business that doesn't realise it. Especially with the rest of the world busy nodding sagely along with Bono and chums, and trying to make all the right carbon-neutral noises.
The problem is that thinking and sounding green is rather easier than actually being and going green.
For a start there's a whole myriad of acronyms flying about to confuse things, like WEEE (the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) and RoHS (the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment), and they're just the common ones.
Then there are all the software, hardware, and electronics firms pressing their green claims, and all sorts of other interested parties – savvy consultants, canny vendors, tenacious taxmen, et al – trying to make sure they get their cut too.
Suffice to say it's very quickly all become very perplexing. Indeed, it can difficult for businesses to know which direction to turn for the best. And unfortunately, in the absence of something more definitive, many businesses are favouring the opposite approach. i.e. sitting on their hands or, worse, sticking their fingers in their ears and going: "La, la, la, la, la, la… can't hear you… la, la, la, la ".
Here then, while the big Green monster continues to dominate in the media and at the ballot box, it clearly hasn't been quite such a hit in the boardroom.
The study found that the business leaders in two thirds of UK companies with over 50 employees take no responsibility for energy management within their organisations, leaving it instead to less senior personnel like facilities and operations managers, and health and safety officers.
In other words, whether we're in the office or at home, it seems we're all a bit too keen to pass the buck where going green is concerned.
Jillian Frantsen is a director with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) specialists, Flag Communications. She is one among a growing lobby of commentators who suggest that the responsibility for an organisation's environmental impact now lies increasingly with its board, and that environmental initiatives must therefore become more prominent on senior management agendas.
Adopting such a ‘top down' approach is, she argues, key to creating the internal drive and support required for the kind of company-wide initiatives that will have a significant impact on the organisation's environmental footprint.
A second challenge, she says, is that environmental initiatives often require up-front investment. Enterprises often baulk at these – hardware like energy efficient heating and air conditioning systems rarely comes cheap – but it's important to remember that there is a trade off and that there will be an ROI in the form of cost savings.
"In this instance a business case can be made for the environmental initiative both on the ground of decreased environmental impact and cost savings," she adds.
And yet there lies the $6 million question. Is it really possible to go green and positively impact your bottomline? At the same time? And if so, how do you do it and where on earth do you begin?
"The simplest change any company can make is to recognise the issue," says Mike Dinsdale, CSR Director with Brother. "Everything else flows from that point." For Brother, this happened as far back as 1992, when the company first looked at the closeness of the connection between environmental stance and business efficiency.
"Reducing energy consumption, eliminating waste, [and] improving supply chain efficiency not only has a very positive impact on the bottomline, but also brings reductions in carbon footprint too," he adds.
There are many approaches, but perhaps the most sensible is to begin with getting the best out of what you've already got. And that often starts with the most obvious things. Switching lights, PCs, monitors and printers off when they're not in use can have a major impact on power consumption and CO2 emissions for instance.
"Companies of any size can look at all aspects of their businesses and find ways to reduce their energy use", says Steve O'Donnell, Global Head of Data Centres and Customer Experience Management at BT.
"(But) being a more environmentally friendly company begins with making energy efficiency and a green approach to IT core to the company's practices".
O'Donnell believes that companies need to mandate that a concern for reducing energy and carbon footprints be built into everything they do.
"Very often companies are not organised to make ‘going green' a natural outcome", he explains. "For aspects such as using energy and disposal of waste across the organisation for instance, employees do not have direct accountability for non-adherence".
Here, he says, BT has tried to ensure a succinct approach through engineering a cultural change within the business itself.
"For example", says O'Donnell, "when we design a new program we spend a great deal of time thinking about the most energy efficient way it could be implemented."
This means talking energy efficiency with vendors. Points to consider include the full life cost of a piece of hardware and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) factors such as its energy use and its refrigeration needs. Ask these questions (and others) of all your vendors and go only with those that have the right answers.
BT, for instance, has replaced traditional cathode ray (CRT) monitors with LCD screens when implementing desktop refreshes. While the LCDs were more costly than the CRTs, they only use 20 per cent of the energy and so paid back the initial capital investment within just 6 months.
It's also important to take an end-to-end rather than a piecemeal approach; with the Carbon Trust estimating that wasted energy cost UK businesses £570m last summer, every little bit counts.
Not that the IT department appears to need convincing about any of this.
In a survey of 100 IT managers carried out by Neoware in June, 82 per cent felt their IT infrastructure's impact on the environment was either ‘extremely' or ‘very' important, with 71 per cent of respondents citing a preference for IT products and systems that are more environmentally friendly or energy-efficient.
Why should the IT function be apparently so much more receptive and aware of green issues? Partly it's because IT is so often the department responsible for compliance with legislation such as WEEE. But there's also another reason. A company's social policy is an increasingly important factor in its broader strategies and standing – its reputation, its brand values, its employee recruitment and retention. IT is also a key part of those strategies. QED, IT and environmental concerns must go hand in hand if they're not to fall foul of one another.
"Any investor worth their salt will be well aware how these factors equate to pence on the share price," says Rob Cameron, director at Flag Communications, which designs annual and sustainability reports for clients including Ford, Shell and Friends Provident.
He believes businesses should focus more on financial savings rather than environmental measures. Profit isn't just the bottomline, he argues, you have to make it the topline too. And this means challenging the assumption that green initiatives cost green backs.
"Often, what's good for the environment is also good for business," he comments. "It can take a fresh pair of eyes, looking for environmental wins, to spot new ways of doing things which result in resource savings, reduced utility bills, and less waste – all good for the bottomline."
Spotting these environmental "wins" often involves looking beyond the data centre however. At facilities management and travel for example – where everything from energy efficient heating and lighting systems to collaborative technologies such as teleconferencing can replace more traditional business methods.
A good first bet is to measure the environmental footprint, which can be done using one of a number of not-for-profit companies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
Companies should also consider things like using DC rather than AC supplies within their datacentres. (BT estimates to have shaved 30 per cent on power consumption using DC, contributing towards an overall £3.8m saving in electricity costs over the past 6 months.) Fresh-air cooling and technologies like document management, IP, and virtualisation are also worth thinking about.
In this way, says Frantsen, corporate responsibility is nothing new. "It is about taking accountability for a company's non-financial risks."