Thursday, November 01, 2007

Don't forget to switch off the lights

"Have a green day," said BT Global Services CEO Francois Barrault as he introduced The Green Bank event at the Tate Modern in London yesterday. His remark is perhaps an indication of how far industry CEOs have come in embracing the environmental sustainability agenda.

After all, Barrault conceded when he first met environmental campaigner Al Gore, who proceeded to show him pictures of Arctic ice caps melting, he thought he was a little "crazy".

John Williams, head of group sustainable development at HSBC, which lays claim to being the world's first "carbon neutral" bank (whatever that means), said he was perceived initially as being somewhat of a "hippy", which is how the corporate world has always liked to portray those that express concern about business' impact on the environment.

One would have hoped that the so-called "Green Debate" had moved on from such redundant stereotypes, but it appears that the corporate world, while on the hand it is waking up to it environmental responsibilities, does not want to be associated too closely with the 'hippies' and 'tree huggers' who do not need a cost/benefit analysis, brand protection or new business opportunities to justify their passion for the environment.

So when a CEO of a major company says, "Have a green day" or HSBC says it is a "carbon-neutral" bank, what does that actually mean? There is no question that HSBC is a major investor in renewables, has project financing guidelines based on environmental principles and has constructed solar-powered buildings.

Yet they have also been accused of being one of the myriad number of banks that leave their office lights on all night at Canary Wharf, and they do not totally rule out providing project financing for environmental "dinosaurs" such as the coal industry.

So does being 'green mean saying one thing and doing another, or being 'green' part of the time and not for the rest of the time. There is no question that the industry has come a long way in terms of its support for "sustainability", but business and banking by its very nature contradicts a lot of sustainable principles.

After all banks are in the business of making money, and if it did not make business sense, win them customers or save them money, then they wouldn't 'green' their IT or use recycled paper, just for the sake of environmental sustainability.

At yesterday's event, HSBC and Morgan Stanley spoke about the dilemma of what to do about executives that need to travel. Both are looking at telepresence and the latest videoconferencing technologies as a way of reducing executive air travel, but I am dubious when banks say that for those carbon emissions they cannot reduce easily, they can merely offset it by buying carbon credits.

In that sense the "carbon-neutral" title is somewhat misleading as it appears to suggest that the bank has a zero carbon footprint, which is not entirely true.

A lot of yesterday's debate at the Tate Modern was spent showing graphs and theoretical proofs of concept around what is sustainability and what does it mean, when the reality of why banks and industry should be doing this was more succinctly put by the CIO of Morgan Stanley who said that if oil and commodity prices continue to rise, reducing energy consumption and their data centre footprint, was pretty much a 'no-brainer'.

A guy sitting next to me from Barclays Capital said he was a bit disappointed by yesterday's presentation. He wanted to hear what other banks were doing when it came to "greening" their IT and data centres, and thought the industry debate had moved on to more concrete tangibles rather than debating the vagaries of what sustainability means.

After all there are things firms can do now that will cut costs and save energy; turning office lights off, printing on both sides of the paper, using teleconferencing, virtualising servers, grid computing; without having to debate what sustainability means. That is just good business sense.

Yet while there certainly is an impetus amongst banks to sign up to being "green" for whatever reason, once they ascribe that label to themselves, it is not merely something that you can throw money or technology at and say you have done your bit.

"Being green" is an ongoing responsibility, after all if you are reducing the carbon footprint of your data centre, but then continuing to issue paper bank statements and faxes every day, forgetting to switch your office lights off or project financing major oil and coal projects, doesn't that mean companies are only being 'green' when it suits them?

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