Forrester is kicking off research on what it means to be a sustainable business and why it matters. In short, it matters because customers and investors care. But what do they care about? And, what does sustainability mean to them, and to the companies they do business with?
First stop in exploring the definition of something is, of course, a search for the term. “Sustainable” means that something can go on, and continue and “be maintained at a certain rate or level.” For consumers, that might mean their health, their environment, or the health and environment of others -- but also their budgets. The literature on sustainability often refers to three pillars: social, environmental and economic. But how does this translate into business metrics?
With budgets tight and new agendas for social, mobile and cloud, for many, green initiatives are middle to low priority, often considered but secondary to price and convenience. So why should you care about green?
Customers today are increasingly interested in green alternatives. In the recent report Why Every Online Retailer Needs To Think Green, Sucharita Mulpuru uses Forrester’s consumer Technographics® data to reveal that more than 50% of today's US online adults can be categorized as green consumers, interested in buying green products or buying from brands that engage in green initiatives, such as supply chain transparency or carbon reporting. For online retailers, this represents a significant growth opportunity, as the majority of this consumer segment is not only classified as “high spending,” but also willing to spend more on green alternatives, and more likely to advocate for these products.
Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the remote and beautiful country of Iceland. After a 5-hour flight and a brief history lesson, I was amazed to learn that in addition to its unique local attractions — geothermal springs, volcanos, aurora borealis — Iceland possesses a wealth of natural resources.
View of the run off from Ljósafoss Hydro-Power Station, located on the River Sog by Lake Úlfljótsvatn’s outflow
Straddling the North American and European tectonic plates, Iceland’s geological conditions supply its inhabitants with an abundance of natural resources ideal for renewable energy generation. Over the last century, locals have learned how to harvest these resources, constructing geothermal and hydroelectric power generation facilities and providing the country with 100% renewable, carbon-free electricity. With the current cost-prohibitive, technologically limited methods of electrical interconnection, Iceland’s public utilities have been investigating alternative ways to export their energy surplus in the form of finished products.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Meeting of the Minds 2012, a conference dedicated to urban planning and sustainability, or smart cities. The conference was a great balance of academics and nonprofit advocates, city practitioners, and technology vendors. That is to say, it was exactly what it set out to be – a “meeting of the minds” – and was refreshing for those of us who spend a lot of time in the technology world.
The event started with several walking tours of San Francisco. I joined the Arts, Innovation and Sustainability Tour of Central San Francisco. The tour started with several LEED-certified buildings, including the headquarters of the tour’s host, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), a nonprofit, public-private collaboration with a mission of promoting urban innovation in the city. Next up was the 5M Innovation Project, which is itself an example of urban innovation.
Most of the suppliers of IT-for-sustainability (ITfS) solutions that we work with have one path to finding a buyer in their customer organizations: through the IT organization. Whether giants, such as SAP and HP, or newcomers, such as Hara and ENXSuite, vendors of energy management, carbon reporting and other ITfS products are typically starting their sales motion with customers' traditional buyers of software sytems: IT.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. We have long maintained that IT organizations and the CIOs that lead them will increasingly be the owner and operator of environmental systems of record, just as they are for financial, HR, and customer data systems, among others. But, ITfS suppliers will want to develop multiple pathways into customer organizations. For most, decision-making around sustainability processes and technologies is diffuse, spread across IT, facilities, operations and CSR. Finding the buyer for sustainability is oft-times the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Over the past few weeks, computing giants HP and IBM have made significant new thrusts into the market for sustainability software and services. At first look, both companies are strengthening their commitment to "IT for sustainability (ITfS)" -- the use of information technology to help their customers meet their sustainability goals.
Both are prominently featuring "energy" in their messaging in keeping with the current customer focus on that side of the consumption/emissions coupling. And both are emphasizing a combination of software products and consulting services, the two segments of the market that we at Forrester have been tracking for some time now, as regular readers of this blog know by now.
But under the surface there are more differences than similarities in the approach that these two suppliers are taking to ITfS; differences that illuminate divergent strategies, philosophies, and experiences between them. Let's take a closer look.
HP is going broad; IBM is narrowing its focus. With its initial "Energy and Sustainability Management Services" entry, HP is leveraging its data center design and implementation expertise into buildings and other assets across the enterprise. It is stressing a holistic, top-down approach, starting with assessment workshops and other methods to help customers get their arms around the size and shape of the energy/carbon/resource issues.
Let me start off this post on a downbeat note: Improving sustainability is not a high priority for companies, according to data from the recent Forrester survey of business decision-makers. The survey, part of Forrester's Forrsights research, was fielded to 2,600 executives with budget authority at companies in Europe, North America, and Asia during the fourth quarter of 2010.
When we asked these corporate decision-makers about their company's top business priorities, revenue growth was #1, customer retention #2, and cost-cutting #3 (see Figure 1 below). Improving the corporate sustainability posture? Oops, it's down at #10, with just 10% of respondents indicating that sustainability is one of their firm's high priorities for 2011. When we cut those numbers by industry grouping, utilities/telecoms and public sector/healthcare are highest, with 15% prioritizing sustainability, compared with a low of just 7% in financial services.
Now, I'd like to contrast that eye-opening data with a much more optimistic set of figures from our recent research about the growth of sustainability consulting services. My colleague Daniel Krauss and I have worked with many of the large consultancies over the past few years and seen their sustainability practices grow from practically nothing to very substantial businesses.
Among 21 consulting firms that we surveyed late last year, 17 have a dedicated sustainability practice, and five of those count more than 1,000 practitioners (see Figure 2).
My travels last month took me back to the Bay Area for client meetings and a chance to spend some time at the Autodesk Gallery, a very cool space near the ferry building in San Francisco. Autodesk uses it to show off its customers' design innovations, not coincidentally created using the company's design software. The event in January showcased how customers are using Autodesk visualization software to improve the sustainability of their product designs and implementations. This is tackling sustainability right at its core: making products that are more energy- and resource-efficient, easier to manufacture, easier to reuse and recycle, right from the start. The products we saw at the event included:
A new research facility at NASA Ames down the peninsula. This super-green building is aimed at "beyond" LEED Platinum standards, incorporating a variety of innovative design and engineering elements all captured in building information modeling (BIM) software. The Feds will use it as a laboratory for energy efficient buildings, spreading its best practices and learnings across the broad portfolio of US government buildings and research facilities. NASA is also working to make the design blueprint a working model for efficient ongoing operation of the building.
My work at Forrester is focused on helping strategists at IT suppliers (vendors) align their development, positioning, and messaging with the big trends and disruptions in the industry. Mobility, cloud computing, globalization … trends at that high altitude. Over the last 3 years or so, that has included sustainability as it has appeared on and risen higher on the strategy agenda of companies around the world.
When I meet with strategists at tech suppliers large and small, we talk sustainability both in terms of how the companies are cleaning up their own practices and processes, and what they are doing to help their customers do the same. SAP’s “exemplar and enabler” language captures these parallel efforts nicely. But it’s still a limited perspective, one that I characterize as the IT industry playing defense. “We are improving our energy efficiency!” says the collective industry voice, as if trying to deflect public criticism of energy-hog data centers, or mountains of e-waste, or PCs left running 7 x 24. And yes, absolutely, the IT industry and its customers have more work to do to make IT infrastructure and processes less wasteful and more responsible.
Yesterday, I participated in one of the regular content planning sessions for us analysts on Forrester’s IT Infrastructure & Operation’s Research team. Similar to investment managers and their portfolio of stocks or bonds, we spent time making buy/hold/sell decisions on what we will research more, continue to research, or stop researching. Among the many criteria we use to make these decisions, like client readership, inquiries, or consulting, the strategic relevancy to IT is an important factor to consider. And there was some heated debate around research themes we may phase out down the road…
Enter the discussion on IT asset disposition – or the process of reselling, donating, or recycling end-of-life IT equipment. While every organization eventually has to dispose of its end-of-life IT equipment, it’s long been an afterthought. And the data backs this up. Forrester finds that 80% of organizations globally use their OEM, third parties or a combination of the two for IT asset disposition. But when asked how important IT asset disposition is relative to other IT asset management processes, it’s far and away the least important. As an indicator of this, I recently surveyed over 300 European IT professionals where 77% of respondents ranked IT asset disposition “less important” or “least important.”
This begs the question, is disposing of end-of-life IT equipment really strategic?