A curious phenomenon has emerged with environmental action within organisations. For once, the staff appear to be ahead of the business.

Most businesses are slow to realise that an intelligent approach to sustainability can actually benefit the organisation, in the short term as well as the long term. In our research, we discovered that a majority of employees are willing to support environmental actions. Perhaps this is because they are unfettered by the usual concerns of running a business or perhaps it's because they already take environmental matters seriously at home. Maybe through recycling or boycotting plastic bags...

Whatever the reasons, this is an interesting departure from previous behavioural change initiatives. New regulatory compliance (such as Sarbanes Oxley) involves extra work for all and, when people are already under the cosh, they resist. But, when it comes to environmental initiatives, it seems likely that management will find itself pushing against an open door.

Unfortunately, management quite often doesn't realise there's a door to be pushed. And in their frustration, staff start isolated grass roots actions. No doubt they start with good intentions, and many are very successful. But they can never work as well or as comprehensively as those that happen in organisations where the drive and the commitment come from the very top.

Last month, a very major organisation (which already has a strong environmental strategy) decided to allow its staff a free rein to take environmental initiatives of their own invention, for one day. The result was a mish-mash of initiatives, every one of which was enthusiastically adopted, but some of which did not have the desired environmental outcome. In terms of motivation and raising awareness in the minds of the staff, the day was an unquestionable success. But what happened to drinks machine cups that weren't binned, for example? They stayed out of landfill but did they really get recycled? Or were they washed and reused? Either of these measures would require energy, chemicals, and so on. In an ideal world, sustainability means reusing everything at an equal or higher level than it was used before. The caveat has to be that, in order for this to happen, we shouldn't produce more carbon or consume more raw materials than we save through the exercise.

In 'real life' we certainly need to brainstorm all kinds of measures but then put them through a scientific and business practicality filter before implementing them. If we rely on grass roots movements to bring about environmental change, then we are likely to end up with pockets of excellence led by informed people. And pockets of well-meaning but misguided actions led by people whose enthusiasm outweighs their comprehension.

Better by far, to start at the top, with a board which quietly weighs up the drivers for environmental action. Our research shows that money and regulation are the two primary drivers for change, with reputation running a close third. Very few companies will take a lead on sustainability for its own sake although some non-commercial organisations might. Having said that, they also have budgetary targets, so the opportunity for such idealism is still somewhat limited.

With internal and external drivers clearly identified, word can start to go out. And this usually means identifying champions or leaders in each operating division or department. With the commitment of the board and a clear understanding of the objectives, they can lead and act as a 'go to' person for all environmental issues. In this way, leadership cascades down the organisation to those responsible for implementation: the staff themselves.

If individuals can be steeped in environmental thinking just as they are in, say, security awareness then they will be able to apply that spin to everything they do and plan. They will naturally ask themselves things like. "Do I really need to print this?", "Is my phone charger switched off?", all the way to "Where can we usefully redirect the waste heat from the data centre?"

Actions aren't restricted to ICT, although many of them are. In fact, ICT probably represents the best way to enable the organisation to meet its overall environmental obligations. And here's a paradox: ICT may actually have to consume more energy in order for the organisation to save even more elsewhere. With the current obsession for cutting down on central computing energy use, it's easy to forget the potential leverage that IT has on the bigger organisational picture.

Our research showed that the top three (of six) ways of helping an organisation improve its environmental standing all related to travel. Home working, advanced communications and flexible working were highlighted as the most promising ways to reduce a firm's environmental impact. Other benefits included cost savings, impact on staff motivation and the acceleration of certain kinds of work.

Of course, the details differ by individual circumstance and things like the cost of heating a home worker's otherwise empty house may outweigh any gains. But such things can be weighed up locally. As long as people understand the overall purpose, they can make their own judgements or call on help if they need it. Expect to see a ballooning of 'carbon accountants' and 'carbon calculators' in the coming months.

Sustainability is not an add-on or a departmental issue. Like security and compliance, it is pervasive, creeping into every corner of the organisation. Whether we like it or not, agree with it or not, regulation will become more demanding and the cost of non-compliance will rise for all organisations. Major organisations have already started to put their suppliers under pressure to comply so they can show a clean pair of hands. This will also stand them in good stead as regulation and the associated penalties begin to bite.

The saving grace of this enormous amount of effort and cost is that it will result in a leaner running organisation which will benefit from a substantial and persistent decrease in costs and inefficiencies. And you, the CIO, will be right at the heart of its planning and implementation.

Author profile:

David Tebbutt is David Tebbutt is Programme Director at analyst house Freeform Dynamics Ltd

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www.freeformdynamics.com