Sustainability: The role of information technology

Sustainability has emerged as a key social issue due to the broadly accepted reality that environmental resources once believed to be limitless are increasingly seen as limited and the heightened expectations for socially responsible investing. 

Sustainability has emerged as a key social issue due to the broadly accepted reality that environmental resources once believed to be limitless are increasingly seen as limited and the heightened expectations for socially responsible investing. 

The relationship between information and environmental resources has changed over the years. While we used to live in a world where environmental resources were cheap and information was expensive some decades ago, information is now a resource that is becoming limitless while energy and other environmental resources are becoming constrained.

In embedding sustainability in an organisation’s operations, IT is playing an important role in the transition from compliance to market leadership. Technology is accelerating the use of sustainability as a driver of growth, particularly information technology, as it allows greater monitoring, independent verification, transparency, and accuracy of resource usage and its impact.

In an increasingly digitised world, the sustainability journey is about using the limitless nature of information to become better at managing constrained resources. IT is accustomed to managing the flow of materials in enterprise resource planning, supply chain management, and other systems.

What has been missing is the flow of sustainability-specific information about those materials across the full value chain. Over the long term, the role of IT is to provide information to help strike the balance between the availability of resources and the demand for resources. Achieving such balance has the potential to eliminate volatility in the supply or prices of necessary resources, avoid the unintended consequences of business operations, and address many of the grand challenges facing the world today.

Embedding sustainability in operations is achieved by tagging resources with sustainability-related information and providing information at the point of action to drive sustainable choices and behaviours. The integration of operational information with sustainability impact enables employees to make decisions that weigh the environmental, social, and economic concerns with the long term ability to sustain the business.

Much sustainability activity today is driven by the need to reduce the environmental footprint. While there is an economic basis to do so, the underlying metrics are unlikely to be adequate for a future in which sustainability is strategic and drives the top line and the bottom line. Industry specific metrics are needed to integrate economic, environmental, and social dimensions across the life cycle of products and services. Examples abound around the globe where leading organisations have developed such industry sustainability indices.

Sustainability performance depends on individual actions taken by all employees. Raising awareness to drive employee engagement is essential to embed sustainability values. IT plays an important role here. For example, many people are now using e-mail signatures that promote awareness for reducing printing and paper usage. A number of local companies have defined rules on what can be printed and what cannot be printed.  Some printers are now set up to prompt employees on whether a particular print job is necessary and are able to track print costs and allocate them to individual employees. This enhanced accountability on use of resources is an effective tool in reinforcing sustainable practices as part of daily work routines.

Embedding sustainability in operations can go much further when the metrics and desired sustainability impact results are known across the value chain. Acting sustainably at a corporate and at an individual level becomes part of a daily routine when entities sensitise their employees to understand and control the impact of their choices upstream and downstream on all stakeholders.

Samuel Kariuki is a Manager with PwC Rwanda 

samuel.g.kariuki@rw.pwc.com