To be sustainable, businesses need to be economically viable, and environmentally and socially feasible. In creating a Sustainable Tomorrow, IT has an important role to play. Our ‘Sustainable Tomorrow’ blog discusses and invites opinions on the latest trends in sustainability and how we can rapidly adapt to the challenges of sustainable lives, run sustainable businesses and more.

August 8, 2013

What's your tipping point for action?

Last month, I was on a video conference from our Atlanta office with the Head of Sustainability of a major bank in Australia.  They are doing some wonderful things with Sustainability and are clearly focused on their community, customers and diversity, with impressive Newsweek's Green Rankings.

We approached the meeting like a workshop; in fact the client had used our 'Sustainability Maturity Assessment Model' to assess themselves before the meeting.  Interestingly, the assessment showed that while they were doing well on energy efficiency, carbon trading and offsets, there were significant gaps in waste and water. There were also opportunities in what we call Green Innovation - Sustainability products and services for their customers. We agreed that CEOs often talk about the importance of Sustainability, but when it comes to demonstrating commitment by dedicating money, people, governance structures, training and managing change, engaging employees and stakeholders, they do not always go the extra mile.

Personally, I think we will see a shift in the next 3 to 5 years, where more CEOs and Boards of the largest companies in the world will stop talking and start doing. And when they start getting a handle on what they need to do, they will realize that Sustainability is not only a profitable source of innovation but that some of the best companies in the world, including their biggest competitors, are ahead of the curve.

I enjoy having 'Sustainability Transformation' conversations with clients who recognize the need to align Sustainability to strategy and core values and then drive execution in a focused, goal oriented approach. My advice to clients is to first benchmark themselves on our Sustainability Maturity Assessment Model and when they realize where they are and where they want to be, then the conversation starts moving to action.  What do you think is the tipping point for CEOs from talk to action?

August 5, 2013

Design-Thinking, Part 3: Design for Enterprise Sustainability

In addition to manufacturing operations, design-thinking is relevant for other business systems as well. The design-for-environment (DfE) concept that is core to lifecycle analysis and sustainable product design also has a lot to offer in the design of enterprise business operations. So let's expand the 'design-for' concept:


Enterprise systems can be designed to incorporate responsible waste management and recycling programs from the inception, with e-waste take-back programs; waste exchanges for manufacturing by-products that can be bought and sold between companies within the same geographic area or within the same supplier network; and through the designing out of hazardous materials in as many production processes as possible. 

Similarly, enterprises can be designed for social responsibility, by implementing advanced procurement practices that favor suppliers that don't use substances of concern, conflict minerals, and that participate in sustainability scorecard programs. 

Just as with products, it is cheaper, easier and faster to drive change by designing systems right the first time, rather than having to go back and fix problems later. Good design has spurred so much product innovation and competition, especially in the niche 'sustainable product' categories. We can continue to push large, complex corporate systems to innovate for improved sustainability by applying these same design-thinking concepts, and build better companies from the ground up.


July 2, 2013

Design-Thinking, Part 2: Design for Social Responsibility

In my last post, I discussed how design-thinking can be applied to address the rampant problem of e-waste. Sustainability Certifications are helping to move industries in the right direction by encouraging retailers to design products to be easily dismantled for recycling and material reclamation, and by encouraging retailers to implement product take-back programs to redirect consumer e-waste from the landfill back to those manufacturers.

These same ideas can also be applied to other industrial and corporate systems to drive improved worker safety and reduced social risk.

Design for Socially-Responsible Manufacturing
In addition to an array of environmental considerations, the smartphone Sustainability Certification evaluates parameters that support socially-responsible manufacturing. Social compliance includes environmental, health and safety (EHS) programs, reduction in hazardous materials in manufacturing operations, and ensuring worker health and safety throughout the supply chain. These compliance areas can take a costly hit to a firm's bottom line when things go awry. Think Apple's Foxxconn debacle, which impacted the company's image. More recent examples (though not smartphone manufacturers) are the garment factory building collapse in Bangladesh or the explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas. If production systems are not designed for social responsibility, it is bad for workers and the communities, bad for the company, and bad for the environment.

However, a sustainability certification alone cannot guarantee that a product reflects socially-responsible design. The Samsung Galaxy S4 was certified as Sustainable by TCO, but just a few weeks later claims surfaced about abysmal working conditions at Samsung factories and documented cancer clusters at the company. TCO is investigating and the results have not yet been released, but this episode highlights the complexity of the global electronics supply chain.The point of good design, however, is that when it is properly followed it should scale  with the organization. This will not happen organically - it must be reinforced with policies, training, and ongoing stakeholder engagement for continuous improvement. But if the foundation is built on social responsibility at the core, it will be much more difficult for the organization to devolve.

Social compliance (and CSR in general) is not usually considered a design problem. But it is. If systems and operational processes are designed for sustainability, the risks of exposure to liability from non-compliance (and risks to the environment, workers, and communities) are all minimized. By designing in processes for stakeholder engagement and sustainability governance that drive accountability, systems can be redesigned to transform the organization towards sustainability. It will move corporations from a reactive compliance-driven stance into an industry-leading position that can attract and retain top talent, reduce exposure to risk, and capture innovative ideas from key stakeholders.

June 6, 2013

Design-Thinking, Part 1: Design for Elimination of e-Waste

Here's a simple answer to our global sustainability challenges: better design.

An oversimplification? Maybe. Or maybe better design is just the reframing that is needed to solve a bevy of modern industrial problems plaguing businesses across the globe. 

Some companies get this, and are taking proactive steps to apply design thinking to large sustainability challenges. Samsung recently announced that its new Galaxy S4 is the first smartphone to receive a Sustainability Certification from TCO Development, a non-profit that certifies electronics for sustainability. A sustainability certification is not just another 'nice-to-have' feature in the race for global smartphone market share. It can provide measurable business benefits through encouraging better design across the enterprise, not just within the product. 

Design for Elimination of e-Waste
An important aspect to the Sustainability Certification is that is requires the design and implementation of an electronics take-back program. Samsung already has a robust e-waste collection program in place, through partnerships with Universal Recycling Technologies, Electronic Recyclers International, and Walmart. Samsung provides an interactive tool on its website that directs consumers to locations where they can bring their old smartphone (and other e-waste), including Walmart stores, Goodwill, Best Buy, and in many cases the local municipality's Public Works locations. 

The proliferation of consumer electronics such as smartphones is expected to skyrocket in the coming years. This will mean exponentially increasing amounts of e-waste, for which the most common solution seems to be shipping it off to developing countries where it poisons children and workers, ruins the environment, and will impose public health and environmental costs on those communities for years. According to the International Labor Organization, this is the fate of 80% of our e-waste. However, take-back programs remove these materials from the waste stream by recycling them into new products.

In the US, the federal government has largely left e-waste regulation up to the states, and they vary greatly from place to place. Sustainability certifications can encourage a design-based solution, making products that are taken back by retailers easier to dismantle and recycle by manufacturers. 

  • Retailers win by having additional foot traffic as consumers come back into stores to recycle their electronics (and will often buy something new).
  • Manufacturers win by reclaiming materials that can be reused at a lower cost than purchasing virgin materials.
  • The environment benefits from not having additional tons of toxic materials seeping into soil and waterways.
  • Communities in developing countries benefit from not being the recipients of dumped toxic e-waste.

In my next post, I'll explore how design-thinking through Sustainability Certifications can be applied to socially-responsible manufacturing systems.

April 17, 2013

Will it be a triple triumph for Infosys at the Green IT Awards 2013?

Infosys has made it to the finals of the prestigious Green IT Awards 2013 in all the three categories for which we had applied:

  • Sustainable Design Project of the Year
  • Team of the YearGreen IT Awards 2013 Finalist
  • Company of the Year

Making it as a finalist in three categories this year is a great validation of our sustainability credentials. What makes me especially proud is that the judging panel selected the finalists based on an all-round excellence in sustainability including ethical management practices, environmental performance, employee engagement, commercial relevance of offerings etc.

We have been designing new ways to make enterprises more sustainable. Our Internet of Things Center of Excellence, a part of Infosys Labs, has built technology solutions for enterprises to make the use of resources such as energy and water more efficient and thereby save money. The technology empowers the operations staff and management to monitor resource consumption, identify usage optimization opportunities and aids decision making. The first two award nominations recognize our application of this technology to build a sustainable campus at Infosys and achieve substantial cost savings.

The Company of the Year award winner will be selected based on public voting. Here are my top 5 reasons for why you should vote for Infosys:

  1. Publicly committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2017
  2. Exceeded our 2012 target of 20% savings in all three environmental areas - 33% reduction in energy consumption, 23% reduction in water consumption, and 26% reduction in carbon emissions
  3. Winner of numerous corporate governance awards and recognition including India's best company for corporate governance by Asianmoney, ranked No. 1 at the 2011 IR Global Rankings in India, etc.
  4. Give 1% Profit after Tax to  the Infosys Foundation for social and environmental projects, have over 500 volunteers as part our employee engagement, and even offer sabbaticals for community service
  5. Dedicated Global Sustainability business unit partnering with Infosys Labs to bring innovation, best practices and technology to our clients and make their business sustainable

We are helping our clients build tomorrow's sustainable enterprise and thereby, a sustainable tomorrow. One such example of the work we did for a client won the Green IT Award for Best Cloud/Virtualization Project of the Year last year. You can read more about the work we are doing around sustainability in our sustainability report, which has been evaluated at GRI Application Level A+.

If you think Infosys should win the 'Company of the Year' award, please click here to vote for us.

Voting will close on April 26. Please use your official email id for voting.

March 29, 2013

Conflicting Priorities For the Do-Good'ers

In my previous post about aligning a sustainability and corporate strategies I used an example of how an organization might be getting pressure from external stakeholders such as consumers to address an issue (such as toxic components in toys) while the internal stakeholders are focused on other sustainability initiatives such as changing light bulbs.

This challenge of competing priorities is tough, but it can actually get worse! 

How many of us have seen our offices upgrade from the fat, desk-hogging CRT monitors to the sleek, energy-efficient LCD displays? And our companies get brownie points for upgrading to more energy efficient IT assets, but what happened to those old CRTs? Well, as a recent NY Times article uncovers, they are sitting in massive stockpiles of e-waste, quickly becoming a monumental environmental disaster!

There are also systemic challenges to this problem. Let's take another example, this time from a consumer product perspective. Retailer XYZ is trying to be a good corporate citizen by implementing a consumer product take-back program. Lots of sustainability professionals (myself included) have advocated these programs because they reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills, and valuable resources can be extracted from reclaimed products. These types of take-back programs can range from simple product returns for unwanted purchases (that weird gizmo your Aunt Edie got you for Christmas - yeah, you know what I mean!) to e-waste and Household Hazardous Waste collection events. 

However, when retailers implement these programs, they find themselves in a quasi-waste management business, collecting items for recycling or refurbishment, and shipping them back to the vendor. And, as recently happened with several big box retailers, if these products have any sort of toxic component (and you would be SHOCKED at the number of household products that do!) this makes them subject to hazardous waste laws and opens them up to being sued by federal or state environmental protection agencies. Since 2006, several of these retailers including TargetWal-Mart, WalgreensCVS, and The Home Depot, have been subject to almost $80 million in penalties due to improper handling of hazardous materials in their "reverse logistics" operations.

This is no longer just a strategic alignment problem, it is a systems thinking problem, where making changes in one place in a larger system (like the office or your house) has ripple effects and unintended consequences in other parts of the system. No single company can solve this type of problem on its own. It requires the coordinated thinking of product designers, manufacturers, advertisers, retailers, consumers, regulators and waste experts, just to name a few.

So try an experiment, the next time you find yourself thinking about a sustainability program that you like or want to implement - ask yourself, what is the bigger system at play here, and is this program going to be a net gain for the environment or society all the way through the broader system?

March 27, 2013

Mobile Technology and Women's Security

Mobile technology and Women's Security

How can technology be applied toward raising awareness and changing behavior around the issues of women's security?  The widespread use of mobile phones even in remote and rural villages in Africa and Asia provide a great vehicle for reaching communities and to catalyze the needed behavior change.  This is an arena where businesses can pool their financial and technological resources as part of their CSR efforts to bring the issue to the forefront and to enact meaningful change.  This is not only the right thing to do but also a smart business strategy.  Empowering women and assisting them to live up to their potential strengthens communities and increases their ability to contribute to the economy in direct and indirect ways.  To this effect, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn have turned their book "Half the Sky" into a movement that aims to put an end to the oppression of women and girls worldwide.  One of the ways they are spreading their message is through mobile games.  According to the site, out of 3.5 billion users of mobile phones in the world more than 65% of them are in developing countries.  The games aim to provide education and awareness to issues that women face in their daily lives.  There is also a Facebook Game that aims to draw millions of users around the theme.  These powerful tools could be employed by businesses to educate and reduce social risks in their supply chains particularly around the security of women.  These tools could be particularly useful to businesses planning on entering frontier markets and post-conflict countries.  Incorporating such innovations into CSR initiatives are strategic ways of employing technological solutions to solve complex age-old societal issues and need to be embraced by businesses on their sustainability journey. 

March 21, 2013

CSR and Women's Security

UN Women's webpage states that violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights.  Women's security is still an issue in a world where 49% of women are in the workforce.  In this climate the role and responsibility of businesses pertaining to community involvement and stakeholder engagement must consist of making women's security a priority.  In December 2012, a gang rape in New Delhi, India, gained wide spread attention in the media and the outrage expressed by people not just in India, but all over the world, takes us back to the basics of issues that women face. 

Businesses with global reach have a prominent role to play in this arena through education and training initiatives to increase awareness on the issue.  There is a greater urgency for businesses to incorporate some elements of women's security issues into their code of conduct documents as well as into those used to train their supply chains.  Some good frameworks exist in this space.  The UN Secretary General's UNiTE to end violence against women campaign's framework for action is one that could be applied in this context.  In the US, laws such as The California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, which came in to effect in 2012, to "eradicate slavery and human trafficking from business supply chains by informing consumers of information which may influence their buying decision" have implications on women's security issues. 

So is it time for businesses to move to the next level in their CSR journey by looking at issues regarding women's security and violence against women affecting communities that they operate in? 

March 19, 2013

Is gender diversity a sufficient measure of corporate social responsibility?

International Women's Day was March 8th and here in the USA, March is also Women's History Month.  It is encouraging to see so many businesses acknowledging this day with various programs and I was delighted to note the week-long activities planned by Infosys, the company I work for.  Fittingly, there has been a lot of chatter about women in power and specifically in technology recently.  Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, has a book coming out this month titled "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" on women and the need for them to stay active and ambitious in the work place.  Her proposed Lean In circles are aimed at starting a social movement around this concept.  Another prominent woman CEO has come under fire in recent weeks for announcing the end to telecommuting at her organization.  Many media pundits have accused her of lacking empathy and as someone who does not identify with the issues normal women face balancing work and home life.  Most companies while touting their CSR credentials showcase their workplace diversity and inclusion efforts, especially the percentage of women, particularly in middle management.  But according to a study released in 2012, it will be 2085 before women will equal men in leadership roles in the US.  Underemployment is another concern that women in the work place face.

So what is the responsibility of an organization towards women, not only in the workplace, but within society at large?  Are women considered important stakeholders by multi-national corporations with global supply chains? What is the social contract respective to women that businesses need to consider in a 21st century world fueled by technology?  Is just having diversity programs and reporting the percentages of women in middle management enough?

March 15, 2013

Alignment Is Key for a Sustainable Brand Strategy

Even companies that embrace large scale sustainability reforms, what we call Sustainability Transformation, often miss out on maximizing sustainability value through lack of a brand management strategy. 

A quick survey of brand management consulting firms validates that there is still no mature approach to integrating sustainable value into brand management services. Companies either damage consumer confidence by greenwashing or if they are truly sustainable, they fail to communicate it.  

So how do you create this sustainable brand management  strategy?

The key is alignment - alignment between what your company's sustainability values and what your customers value; alignment between marketing, product development goals, and enterprise sustainability goals for your company. 

For example, your company makes baby toys and your consumers are demanding that the company reduces or eliminates toxic chemicals used in the production process. 

However, if the company ignores this insight,  the product development team might not given any wiggle room in time or budget to explore more benign options because they are focused on other conflicting priorities such as better water management.  The CSR team might be asked to focus on a lighting retrofit in the corporate headquarters.  

Meanwhile, these siloed departments have no idea that their eco-conscious parents care less about water and energy used in the production of their baby's toys and more about whether that toy is leaching toxic chemicals when the baby sucks on it!   

This is an alignment problem that will hinder the development of a sustainable brand management strategy.  And this is tough for managers and executives to wrap their heads around, because they will point to that lighting retrofit or the lower water bill and say, 'Hey, we're working on sustainability initiatives, so we don't understand why we're getting accused of not being sustainable!'

The issue is not that the company isn't addressing sustainability; it's that they are not aligning their sustainability initiatives with what the customers care most about.