Much has been written about the cloud computing revolution, particularly about the many ways it may be an inherently sustainable move for humanity at large. And yet data centers require massive amounts of energy to run, enough to account for 1.5 percent of US electricity needs by 2020, according to the EPA. And, even as it is now, a Greenpeace study shows that much of that energy is gleaned from fossil fuels, with huge data centers run by Amazon, Apple and Microsoft sourcing only about 15% of the energy they need from renewables.
Still, there’s much about cloud computing that is green, and, with basic reforms, it has the potential to be far more sustainable than our current working model, fitting in entirely with the green business mentality.
So just what is the cloud, and why might it be right for your eco-minded business?
The cloud, essentially, is a network of pooled servers. Rather than storing your data directly on your computer or an external hard drive, or relying on a warehouse full of proprietary servers to power a business’s everyday computing needs, companies on the cloud instead outsource the storage and backup of their data to a third-party, cloud computing company that is responsible for running, updating and maintaining the servers. Users then access their data via the internet on the device of their choosing.
Why the Cloud is Eco-Friendly
1. It’s Paperless
Paper is the enemy of all green businesses. From deforestation to the carbon emitted during production and transport to the energy that goes into recycling it, paper holds a huge footprint. The cloud can eliminate a green business’s paper addiction. With programs like Google Drive and Dropbox, files are shared without the need for printing. And with mobile devices, there’s no need to take paper notes, keep track of time in a notebook, write job tickets, or rely on carbon paper to have any record of a transaction. Instead, all companies need do is give their employees a smartphone or tablet, choose their cloud computing service, and login to enter data.
2. It Pools Infrastructure and Energy Costs
When a company runs its own servers, there’s a whole infrastructure to consider. Servers require cooling mechanisms and lighting, regular maintenance, updating and more. This is as true for proprietary servers as it is for those that operate in the cloud, with the key difference being that in the cloud version, resources are pooled. This makes sense, first, on a measure of scale — it’s more efficient to power a large number of servers than it is to power many smaller pockets
— and, second, in terms of maximum efficiency. With pooled servers, there’s no wasted space. When a company no longer needs certain server space, someone else will step in for them, or the local workstation will simply stop requesting energy.
3. It Can Reduce Carbon Emissions
With reduced energy consumption comes reduced carbon emissions. One study found that large US companies relying on cloud computing instead of proprietary servers could cut their carbon emissions by as much as 85.7 million tons annually by 2020.
There is, as we’ve said, the problem of data centers sourcing their power through unsustainable means. But not all of them are. Yahoo, for instance, has situated its data centers near clean energy hubs, and only 18.3% of its portfolio consists of coal-based power. Google’s record, though not quite as strong, has started a subsidiary called Google Energy, which buys electricity from independent renewable power producers, like wind and solar. It also buys carbon offsets to power green initiatives, like animal waste management systems. The more cloud computing companies come to rely on renewable energy, the greater a cloud-reliant business’ carbon emissions will fall further down the chain.
Why the Cloud is Efficient for Small Green Businesses
First, as this excellent guide to cloud computing shows, the cloud is just generally more efficient for businesses, regardless of the eco-factor. That said, there are number of ways that the cloud can be more efficient for small businesses in a very green way. That’s because the cloud allows companies to…
1. Outsource Hosting
There’s no need to put aside a massive budget for keeping servers and infrastructure up to date, nor to pay for large energy costs, data center staff members or updates. This lowers a business’s local footprint, too. It also makes a business much more flexible in terms of scaling, as it won’t have to purchase server space and infrastructure before it’s needed. Hmm… Never using more than you need… Doesn’t that sound like a green principle to you?
2. Collaborate More Efficiently
No more sending faxes back and forth, or losing yourself in an email thread. Combine services like Google Docs and Basecamp with social media and Salesforce, and small businesses will not only have a much wider reach, but they’ll also have a much easier time sparking momentum with collaborative green initiatives. Let’s say, for example, you’d like to lobby for greater recycling in the region. Start by creating a Google Doc for brainstorming and sharing it with collaborator. Then start a project on Basecamp and easily assign tasks with due dates. Finally, using the power of social media, get the message to a wide network of people. That’s environmental and social change, all without ever printing a flier.
Because workers can access the cloud through their mobile devices, there’s no need to come into the office unless absolutely needed. This may not make much of a difference for the person who lives around the block, but if a small business has a high percentage of commuters, this will cut down on transportation-related carbon emissions as well as the amount of lost time spent stuck in traffic. It is this same feature that powers outsourcing of mundane or expert tasks to the best person for the job, even if that’s a freelancer halfway across the world.
The cloud is a great option for small businesses regardless of the green benefits, as it increases efficiency, productivity, flexibility and mobility. But the cloud increases a small business’ green profile, as well, and problems with data center energy consumption speak to larger issues with our energy grid. As we switch in greater numbers to a clean energy society, the cloud will become ever more the green solution for working. And it’s already pretty great now.
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About the Writer
April 10, 2009 by Joe Hennager
Filed under Blog, Business, Consumer Spending, Economy, Front Page, Homes, Natural Resources, Recycling, Slideshow, Surplus Materials, Surplus Purchases, Sustainability, Tips
I’ve learned a lot from 30+ years of being a waste stream management consultant.
We all have stuff, most of us have clutter. Whether it is in our home or at work, things slowly appear around us, filling the open spaces. It’s a mysterious wind that blows chaos into our lives, like snow drifting in around our feet. It leaves us wondering, Where did all this crap come from?
At work, we create a thing I call “cold clutter.” Our clean, organized, work surfaces, like our desks or workbenches, become covered by the day’s business. Then, because time is short, we create another archaeological layer of the next day’s work on top of the previous one. And so on, and so on. It’s like this paper creature multiplies by itself, asexually. At some point, we open our eyes and realize we have lost control of our desks. Like a scene from cheap monster movie, “It’s alive!”
We do the same thing at home. But here, we keep the “warm clutter,” the things we’re emotionally attached to. If we tend to be insecure, we keep everything. We love stuff. In return, it accepts us, unconditionally. It doesn’t talk back. It’s non-confrontational. It’s dependable, always there when we need it. Our clutter becomes an extension of ourselves.
We Help You Clean Up Your Act
As an energy and waste stream consultant, I enter homes, businesses, and factories that are stifled almost to a halt by stuff. I see the investment that has been made to buy it, and the lack of investment in controlling it. Storerooms and closets are so full, no one knows what’s in there. No one can find it. No one can get to it.
So, we invest in buying more. We over-buy. We waste more energy. We waste more space. We waste more resources. The equipment in our storerooms has to be heated and cooled. We move a hundred things to get one thing out. We buy containers to put stuff in. We move stuff from one container or shelf to another, handling each piece over and over again. Every time something is moved, it risks getting damaged. We inventory it. We keep it on the books, filling computer space and ledger entries. We hire more people to manage the tonnage, or the data, or we rent more space to store more stuff. We spend money to waste money.
So, what do you do when you have to walk sideways down corridors of stuff packed to the ceiling in your home or business? (If you haven’t seen it, trust me; it happens.) That’s when families and CEOs call me. By the time I get involved, things are usually out of control. It’s time for an intervention. When you wait this long, it costs a lot more than if you had just controlled everything from the start. By this time, most of what you have stored is no longer an asset, it’s a liability. Adding up all the costs through the life of a single stored item, you easily may have spent ten times your original investment.
A common practice of old school management was to just “dump it all,” and start over. Managers who practice this autocratic “flushing the toilet” mentality should be flushed as well. Nothing should be thrown away. Dumping does not correct the problem, it makes the problem worse. Every item I pull out of storage needs to be evaluated to see if it is recyclable, reusable, or resalable. Every electronic item needs to have its memory erased, and every item needs to be evaluated for toxicity. “Dumping” places your company at a huge liability risk.
Avoid the Landfill Like the Plague
The key term here is “Landfill Avoidance.” Someday, it will be the responsibility of every manufacturer to take back everything it produces once the buyer is done with it. This will force designers to create simple, cost effective ways to separate materials for recycling. If a manufacturer is forced to handle everything they build from “cradle to cradle,” less oil will be needed, less ore will be mined. And we’ll be that much closer to achieving sustainability.
Until then, it is our responsibility. We buyers have to make sure items get to licensed de-manufacturers, that everything gets reused, and nothing, or very little, goes to the landfill. It’s not just because the landfills are filing up; it’s not just because using raw materials produces much more carbon dioxide; it is simply because our planet is running out of resources.
At home, it’s the responsibility of every shopper to evaluate the full life of what you buy. How am I going to recycle this when I am done with it? How many years will I be able to use this? Should I buy cheap or spend more and have it last longer? Or better yet, can I do without this item all together? Essentially, stop buying so much crap. One good thing about this new failing economy is that it is making us all live more simply. You can stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. The Jones are unemployed too. The old adage, “Shop till you drop” is reserved for executives at AIG.
Imagine what it takes in energy and materials to produce something. I apologize that I cannot find the reference source of something I recently read. It stated that it takes 2,000 times the volume, in weight and mass, in resources, to make a single car. And that over the life of that car, it will take 4,000 times its volume in weight and mass to operate it. Remember, everything you buy exponentially takes away from the earth.
This is most true of businesses. The purchasing agent for your business should begin requesting “End Cycle” terms in the purchase contracts for everything you buy. More and more producers are going in that direction. Dell, Apple and IBM will all be offering return programs for their computers next year. When I approach a business, I suggest that the Inventory Specialist keep a running tally of the resale values of every item their company is depreciating on its books. This can be done in a few seconds by going to eBay.
Most accounting formulas do not take into account that electronic, medical and research equipment is outdated almost the day you buy it. If your business is, say a hospital, and you are required to use only the most up-to-date medical and research equipment, you need to have a full-time staff person checking the daily resale values of that equipment. Three of my rules are: “Buy Quality,” “Sell before it costs,” and “Never store electronic equipment.”
The only products that an average business office should store are toilet paper and typing paper (and maybe some janitorial equipment). Space is too expensive to waste on anything else. “People space” is more valuable than storage space. And data should not be stored on paper, it should be stored digitally.
This also means businesses should look seriously at what they are storing. Today, “Out of Sight, Out of mind,” means “Money Out of Pocket.” I inevitably run into managers who say, “Don’t sell that, I might need it.” I ask them how many dollars could be made from that same square footage if it were put into production.
A few years ago, the rule of thumb in storage was, “If you haven’t used it for a year, get rid of it.” Today, if you wait a year before you sell it, it may not have any value at all and may even cost you to get rid of it. I’ve recently consulted with manufacturers who were still storing equipment from the 1980s. Because they didn’t sell valuable equipment while it still had value, and because they kept equipment “they might need someday,” some of that equipment became too costly to get rid of. They stored their businesses almost into bankruptcy.
Evaluate Your Options
With the economy the way it is, no home, business, or factory can afford to waste a thing, especially space. At your home, sell or recycle what you have not used or worn for a year. Yes, you have to pull everything out of your closets and separate the things you know you can live without. But nothing gets dumped. Take good clothing to resellers. Have a yard sale. What you can’t sell, give away on Freecycle or the charity of your choice. If nobody wants it, put it on the curb with a $100.00 sign on it; odds are, it will disappear. If you haven’t waited too long, the ratio of what’s resaleable-to-reusable-to-trash should be 50-45-5%.
At your business, evaluate the resale value of electronic equipment every six months. Evaluate desks and furniture every year, and manufacturing equipment every two years. Go to e-Bay and see how much those things are selling for. Check out LabX for scientific equipment. If the cash gained from selling your stored inventory will help you buy something you actually need, you’ve gained twofold.
If you’re storing enough to fill a room, check the cost per square foot for the space you are using against the cost of a storage facility. If you really need to keep that stuff, a storage facility is likely to be less expensive than the prime business space the stuff occupies now. But don’t forget to add the cost of moving and retrieval. In general, storage facilities are a money drain. It’s almost always more cost effective to sell what you are storing. Capitalize your unused equipment; don’t store it.
During hard times, people tend to hoard. It’s a security thing. But, this is also the time when people are looking for bargains. New stuff isn’t selling. Used stuff is. This is the time to stay very aware of what you have, what you need to keep, and what you can liquidate. Every dollar counts. Live lighter. Clean out your your closets and your storerooms. Shop conservatively, and sell wisely.
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BPGL: What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?
- Education is the key to a better future. Information is what we need now to minimize current problems, but future generations must carry with them the concept of preservation, as it is a civil matter.
- Individually, everyone should start the day thinking, “What am I going to do today to help preserve the environment?” Single actions, every day, from everyone, will make a huge positive difference in society’s impact on the environment.
- We all need to question ourgovernments more about what they are doing to regulate pollution and enhance conservation. Governments have the tendency to only work hard when elections are getting closer, but they also get things done when there is a popular commotion about some specific subject.
- Every one of us must always refuse to use harmful products, and always opt for green products whenever possible. It may sound a bit too “activist,” but in fact it can create an impact on companies’ profits. If the harmful products are in less demand from the public, the green products will get more attention from manufacturers. Besides, store shelves act as a meter for store owners about what to sell and what not to sell. If green products run out quickly, store owners will request more frequent replacements from the manufacturers — and in higher quantities. Harmful products will lose space on store shelves.
- Everyone should join an organization (any organization) and help them to move their projects forward. Regardless of the organization, it is important that everyone participate. For you who are reading this message, I invite you to surf the Internet and find some organizations that have messages you believe in and missions you can support. Regardless whether the organization you choose to support is SIP Global — or any other — the important point is for you to participate in the process. After all, we are all working to save our planet, and when we succeed, we will all be enjoying a better future. If you like our message and agree with the SIP Global mission, we will welcome you and everyone else who wants to become a member and help us with our challenges. In our case, it has no cost and no obligation. But as a member, anyone is able to follow everything we are doing and even interact with the whole process.
Julio Marchi, CEO
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“When something goes wrong, a company has an accident or a mistake, we immediately blame that company for not doing things right. And then, inside that company, it goes down from the plant manager, whose neck is on the line, and he starts looking for somebody he can blame,” says Molly Long. “There’s a hierarchy of blaming that occurs. It’s the picture of the two-story outhouse. No one wants to be on the bottom floor.”
As president of A.W.E. Consulting, Long audits compliance with ISO 14001, which, she describes as, “an international standard that helps people coalesce their environmental management into something that’s meaningful and trackable.” When a business seeks ISO 14001 certification, it enters into a process that changes that blaming mentality by putting responsibility where it belongs: at the top.
In Part 1, we interviewed Long about the abundance of laws, rules, and regulations surrounding environmental management. In Part 2, we talk with her about about her role as an ISO 14001 auditor. In Part 3, we’ll find out about Long’s role as an environmental consultant. — Publisher
BPGL: What is ISO 14001, and why should businesses care?
LONG: ISO 14001 guarantees the community in which the business operates that they are doing what they can to meet their environmental commitments: pollution prevention, compliance, and continual improvement. It sets up a framework for businesses to interact with their community, to comply with laws, and to make sure that the business is sustainable.
The primary purpose is to protect the environment, but businesses also can use ISO 14001 to help them innovate. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards so that everybody can be safe and healthy, and no one blows things up and kills fish and so on. But, if a business wants to, they can take it further and do what is environmentally correct and, at the same time, innovate a benchmark for other businesses to follow.
The ISO standards are created by the International Organization for Standardization. It’s a much broader group of people than if you just had legislators who were affected by their local issues. And there are lots of people who submit comments on the standards, too.
BPGL: As an ISO 14001 auditor, what are you looking for in terms of environmental management?
LONG: A lot of companies already do environmental management. They have to, because of all the regulations, but they don’t have a systematic way of doing it, and they’re not very good at collecting data about performance.
The way most companies interact with the environment is, “The EPA tells us we have to do something, so we’re going to do it this way.” They’re not necessarily doing it the best way, the way that’s the most efficient for them. They’re just doing it because they have to do it.
But the best environmental management involves three basic things:
- Defining what needs to get done
- Defining who needs to do it
- Identifying the things that will tell you whether it’s been done properly
A lot of people do the first part, or maybe the second part, but when it comes to measuring whether it was done properly or effectively or in the best way, they don’t do a lot of that. So ISO 14001 sets up a system that is driven by the top management in an organization. Top management uses this data on performance to help them meet three basic commitments:
- To comply with laws and regulations that apply to them.
- To prevent pollution wherever possible. So even if a law or regulation doesn’t tell their business they have to do something, but they know that it will prevent pollution, they pledge to do it.
- To continually improve. They try to make their business better, more efficient, and more effective at preserving the environment, at the same time making it more economically feasible and more sustainable.
Everything each employee does must be in line with those three commitments, which are stated in the organization’s environmental policy. The standard recognizes that the ultimate responsibility lies with top management to meet these commitments and provide the necessary resources to get the job done — it breaks the blaming cycle.
BPGL: How does a company get certified as ISO 14001 compliant?
LONG: The pathway to certification is through an independent body. If somebody wants to register their system to the ISO 14001 standard, they have to go to an authorized registrar. The business’s relationship with the registrar is as auditor and auditee. We differentiate between compliance and conforming, because compliance refers to laws and regulations, but the ISO standard is voluntary. Also, unlike most legal requirements, the requirements of the standard can be implemented in a variety of ways and still be considered conforming.
An audit is similar to an EPA inspection, except that instead of assessing compliance to a few environmental laws and regulations, the auditor is looking at the organization’s approach to environmental management holistically, all the ways their operation can affect the environment, both positively and negatively. The auditor for the registrar visits the facility to determine if they’re meeting the requirements for 14001, or whatever standard it is that they want to become registered for, so they can recommend that the organization receive certification for their efforts.
But certification is just the start. In a systems audit, we’re looking at the management of all media — air, water, and land, as well as effects to the community and natural resources use. We also look to see what positive impacts an organization is having on the environment. When a business has met the baseline for compliance, we want to take it a step further and help them make improvements to their management of environmental issues. We have to see evidence of that improvement in order for them to keep certification.
BPGL: Is ISO 14001 certification voluntary or a requirement for all businesses?
LONG: It depends. ISO 14001 is a requirement for companies that want to do business or sell things overseas. But for companies that just do business in the US, it’s not a requirement, yet. Many automotive companies require their suppliers at various levels to be certified, as they are themselves.
In some states there’s an environmental award issued by the governor or by a state agency, or even by the EPA, which has an environmental performance track. The award is a special type of recognition that has benefits that go along with it. And, often, one of requirements for getting into those programs or awards is that a business is a 14001-certified system. That’s as far as we’ve taken it in this country.
I think we place too high a value on compliance with laws and regulations. Our focus on compliance skews the metrics for performance by equating compliance with doing what is best for the environment. ISO 14001 requires the focus to shift to efficiency and sustainability, but many do not understand this. Also because it is voluntary, ISO is seen as less stringent, so businesses, regulators and the community at large still view compliance as the gold standard for environmental stewardship. We’re really missing the boat here.
Think of driving your car within the posted speed limit — you are complying with a law, but it doesn’t mean you are a good driver, or that you are committed to improving your driving skills. Lets face it: Many drivers focus on avoiding getting caught speeding more than they do driving as well as possible. It’s no different with environmental regulations.
Sure, obeying the laws is important, but our laws aren’t always the best option for environmental protection. Plus, laws don’t require you to improve or be more efficient — the EPA doesn’t care if businesses operate efficiently, their primary concern is for the public welfare. But as we talked about before, using laws to eliminate businesses because of environmental concerns is no more sustainable than allowing businesses to pollute as much as they want.
BPGL: Are many US businesses opting for ISO 14001 certification?
LONG: The US lags far behind the rest of the world in putting ISO 14001 systems in place. Any kind or size of operation you can think of can implement the standard, whether it’s a mom-and-pop grocery store or a not-for-profit organization, an office building, or a major industrial facility. And it’s an international standard, so it doesn’t just mean that the US can do it.
BPGL: Is a lack of efficiency something the environmental manager should be watching for?
LONG: Of course. Businesses want to be as profitable as possible, but you can’t maximize profits when you operate inefficiently. In ISO 14001, we have to look beyond compliance and understand the metrics that indicate good environmental performance as well as the context of the business, in order to make a judgment about whether they’re actually being successful at protecting the environment, being efficient, and becoming a sustainable business.
BPGL: So in some cases you’re an auditor and in other cases, you’re a consultant?
LONG: Exactly. I play two very different roles in my career. And the two really don’t meet. They can’t meet. I could never audit somebody that I consulted and I would not consult somebody that I had audited.
Consultants and auditors aren’t miracle workers — successful environmental management is up to top management. They have to be committed and supportive of environmental management, or it doesn’t work. Something I see everywhere is that companies hire an environmental manager, and he becomes the scapegoat. He’s the person that gets blamed whenever something goes wrong. But that’s just one person overseeing the activities of many other people, sometimes hundreds or even thousands, who all have the ability to impact the environment in some way through their work. I can speak to this, because I was in this position. One environmental manager, or even a small group of them, cannot possibly know what any one person is going to do right or wrong on any one day, and cannot possibly carry out all those activities by themselves just to ensure they happen properly.
Regardless of this impossible scenario, it is the reality in most traditional compliance-based system: all the onus comes back down on one person’s shoulders, the environmental guy/gal. So when mistakes are made, there’s a blaming culture that is very much out there, and it happens at all levels. But blaming doesn’t solve any problems.
BPGL: But how do you get away from that, when it all rolls downhill?
LONG: ISO 14001 tries to change that. The first thing it asks is, “Who is ultimately responsible?” Top management. They’re the ones who need to provide the resources to be able to get these things done. And that means resources throughout the organization. So you can’t just hand it to one person and say, “Here you go, here’s your system.” I try to work with management so they can get the right information to the right people, so they can each do their own work properly. That is so key.
BPGL: How can anyone be expected to be compliant when they can’t possibly know all the laws?
LONG: Being an environmental manager in a traditional compliance-based system is almost an impossible job. There’s no one person who can know everything, every law that is out there. I don’t profess to know even close to a small decimal point of all the laws that are out there.
This is one of the things I really like about 14001. Of course, you have to know what laws apply to you. However, at the end of the day, if you’re in doubt, you have your two other commitments to fall back on: Is what you’re doing preventing pollution? And is what you’re doing helping you to get better? If you meet those other two commitments, you are usually in compliance as well. By the same token, if those two questions aren’t answered, it doesn’t matter whether you’re compliant or not.
Compliance is ultimately arbitrary, because the same laws often apply in different environments, and also because they are influenced by politics and culture. For example, who is protecting the environment better? California doesn’t allow you to dump oil on the ground, but they do exempt some other nasty stuff from environmental regulation because of political lobbying. Whereas Mexico doesn’t care too much about oil on the ground, but you have to plant a lot of trees to offset the land you took up to build a parking lot.
ISO 14001 provides the tools for moving beyond compliance to arbitrary laws and begin following the path to true sustainability. It helps its adherents make sure the right people are doing the right job, and that they have adequate resources. It eliminates the blaming cycle by assigning accountability and responsibility to those with the proper authority. It also demands cooperative effort to find solutions that address the roots of problems rather than their symptoms, and recognizes that you can’t push your problems off on someone else. These are the management concepts I try to help people grasp, not only as an auditor, but as a consultant and trainer.
BPGL: Are you seeing a decrease in voluntary compliance in this economic downturn?
LONG: It’s interesting, because a lot of people are asking, “Is this economic slowdown affecting people’s ability to comply with environmental laws, are they cutting corners, things like that?” Actually, what I’ve found in my travels, has been more that people are taking the time to focus on some things that they don’t have the time to do when they’re running full bore. They’re doing maintenance, they’re taking the time to do some projects. So actually, we’re seeing some environmental improvements.
At least at this stage, we’re seeing that people are taking some time to do the little things that don’t cost a lot of money but the kind of things they couldn’t really justify in the course of day-to-day operations. For example, they’re organizing so that parts and materials are inside or in areas where they are less likely to impact the environment. They’re getting the stuff out of the way so they can continue running their lines. Now they’re saying, The line’s down, let’s organize this area. Let’s make it neat and safe and as environmentally friendly a space as possible.
Part 2: ISO 14001: Comply with Laws, Prevent Pollution, Continually Improve (Top of Page)
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