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Can IT Help Companies Achieve ‘Net Positive’ Environmental Impact?

wind turbineKaiser Permanente switched to electronic medical records — and reduced transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

This, according to the Center for Technology and Sustainability, is just one example of how technology can address environmental challenges. The center, a partnership between Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and Dell, has published its first three case studies, which look at the environmental effects and benefits of information technology.

The Kaiser case study found that electronic health records helped it avoid paper use, chemical use, plastic waste from x-rays and water use. But “by far, the biggest positive environmental benefit of health IT was the fact that patients needed to take significantly fewer vehicle trips to the doctor’s office,” thus reducing emissions from transportation, it says.

A Kaiser spokesperson says that the health care provider is currently working to quantify emissions avoided by patient transportation.

A second case study looked at UPS’s deployment of ORION, a route-optimization software program for its drivers, which UPS expects to reduce operating costs by $300 million to $400 million a year once it is fully implemented in the US in 2017.

The third, an Arizona State University case study, found that ASU’s online education program saves an estimated 33.2 metric tons of carbon from being emitted for an undergraduate degree. This is from reduced student and faculty travel as well as reduced classroom construction.

Technology and Sustainability

In a blog, BSR associate director David S. Korngold writes that other companies can learn lessons from these three examples of how technology can help drive sustainability.

Korngold told Environmental Leader that as the US prepares to sign the Paris climate agreement on Friday, it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to integrate sustainability into business decisions. Technology, he says, will play a role in this.

“Companies should recognize that the Paris agreement reflects the reality of enhanced stakeholder expectations, increased regulatory interest, and the growing physical effects of climate change,” Korngold says. “The global response to climate change will create further opportunities for companies to develop the technology required to help governments, corporations and communities meet their climate commitments and tackle the impacts of climate change. We hope these case studies demonstrate a few of the ways technology can help reduce emissions, improve social outcomes, and build a more sustainable society — all while generating positive business impacts.”

Dell’s partnership with BSR stems from the company’s 2020 Legacy of Good plan, a long-term corporate responsibility framework, which includes a goal to identify and measure the environmental benefits of IT-based products and services.

“Our environmental footprint and impacts are not just what happens within the walls of our buildings,” Dell principal environmental strategist John Pflueger said in an interview with Environmental Leader. “What happens in our walls is just a small fraction of what happens upstream, in our supply chain, and that is just a fraction of what happens downstream, when our customers deploy our products.”

To this end, Dell and other companies have partnered with BSR, Forum for the Future, and Harvard’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) to advance a net positive economy, which BSR describes as “a way of doing business that puts back more into society, the environment, and the global economy than it takes out.” Korngold says the Net Positive Project will launch this summer.

Net Positive Project

While several companies are considering “net positive” commitments, there is no standardized approach for them to measure and report on such claims. “As a result, there is a risk of companies investing in redundant, fragmented, and unaligned approaches to net positive that waste resources and sew stakeholder confusion,” Korngold says.

The Net Positive Project aims to develop a common set of principles and develop resources, such as best practices and tools that companies can use to achieve net positive goals. Net positive efforts can also increase innovation and investment, Pflueger says.

“From a business point of view, when we have measured data that says this technology solution in this city had these outcomes and these benefits and the benefits were net positive, it boosts the case for additional investment in those solutions,” he says. “Over time you can start to make decisions about what are the most effective types of solutions to invest in with respect to addressing environmental and social issues.”

Other member companies include AMD, AT&T, Capgemini, The Crown Estate, Dow, Eaton Corporation, Fetzer Vineyards, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Kimberly Clark Foundation, Kingfisher, Kohler and Owens Corning.

“The ultimate vision is to shift the role of companies in society towards powering Net Positive outcomes for companies and stakeholders,” Korngold says. “By promoting this potential for companies to positively affect the world and holding them accountable for their actions, we hope to create a race to the top — rather than just reducing negative impacts.”

Photo Credit: wind turbine via Shutterstock

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