Greening the footprint of Big Data

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

What do New York, Oregon, Colorado and North Carolina have in common with Norway, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand? The answer is that all are home to ‘green’ data centres. The physical carbon footprint of virtual lives lived online and in the cloud is real and growing. In response, albeit belatedly, energy use and emissions reduction have now become the focus of significant commercial investment and intense public scrutiny.

The list of brands involved reads like a roll-call of major corporates, including: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, FedEx, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo. Performance is mixed, to say the least: For ‘Renewables & Advocacy’ in the report ‘How Clean is Your Cloud’, Greenpeace recently scored Google an ‘A’, Apple a ‘D’ (subsequently raised to a ‘C’) and Amazon an ‘F’.

Neither technology nor design are insurmountable obstacles to deeper-green solutions, as completed facilities prove: First Verne Global, then Green Mountain, have developed zero-carbon new-build data centres, in Iceland and Norway respectively, taking advantage of cheap renewable energy, plus low ambient temperatures for ‘free’ cooling.

However, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’ as they say – ‘better’ is still better than nothing. Just as population growth relies on retrofit of current housing stock to meet demand, so growth in the digital universe also calls for investment in existing operational facilities, services and software for better measurement and management of data to optimise performance. Upgrading old centres, as well as old ways, is vital to scaling and speeding progress.

The future for sustainable low-carbon business is plain to see: Data can only get bigger; so, energy must get smarter.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Are we ready to shop for a low-carbon future?

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

When political leadership on sustainability matters appears absent, uncertain, inconsistent, or insufficient, who sets the low-carbon agenda? Is it climate-conscious consumers, or planet-smart business, or both? Are we entering a new branded age of push-pull dynamic, where supply and demand drive the market, together?

Servicing brand requirements, thought-leaders in marketing and advertising sectors already see this combined low-carbon driver-mix starting to trend. BBH London is an agency that has recently committed to developing a new sustainability-related client offering, headed up by Strategic Director Kirsty Saddler, who outlines the reasons and timing for the launch:

“Rapid increase of available information and so transparency this century, in large part thanks to digital, has lead people to question the role of business much more heavily and the impact of their decisions as consumers. It has also prompted businesses to be more accountable. Simultaneously there is increasing understanding and awareness of limits to world resources.

“Now is a time when both people and business have a motivation, opportunity and need to create change. Government can create the conditions for that change through regulation, but positive lasting change will happen when people and business play a willing part too.”

In the wider global marketplace, there is already strong evidence of demand for lower-carbon goods and services, putting pressure on company performance. Recent research for the Carbon Trust has shown carbon-reduction and associated transparency concerns scored significantly higher amongst consumers in emerging economies such as China and Brazil, than the US and UK. The message to companies with (export) aspirations in these areas is clear: Low-carbon is the number one business model for future growth.

The temptation is to assume that engagement patterns are pretty much the same everywhere, for consumers and companies alike and that, effectively, all is relative. However, this is not the case.

In Australia, whilst the waters of public perception have very much been muddied by party politics, interestingly, the business community does not share the same view – as Co-Founder and Partner at Sydney-based sustainability strategists and communicators Republic of Everyone, Ben Peacock observes:

“Much of the conversation has been defined by introduction of the carbon tax. What started as a quality attempt at leadership has become a political hot potato, with the opposition blaming its introduction for raising prices on everything from beer to school lunches. This has led to confusion and suspicion from consumers. In short, carbon has become politicised.

“But it’s not all bad news. While the conversation that has become messy for politicians and consumers, it is much clearer in the business community. We’re seeing quality leadership from banking and the built environment in particular, measuring, reducing, managing and offsetting their impact as part of sustainability and CSR programmes.”

In the UK, whilst purchasing has come under pressure and suppliers under scrutiny from an increasingly aware and active consumer community, as well as from commercial buyers, the two customer groups have different demands, as Group Marketing Director at leading hard-landscaping supplier Marshalls, Chris Harrop, explains:

“Whereas our trade customers might more typically be concerned with managing risk – as associated with such high-profile supply-chain issues as child labour – the consumer really is looking for benefit: This benefit comes with knowing and feeling that through their decision-making they have done ‘good’ as a purchaser.

“Consumers have become far more discerning, exercising their right to choose the ‘best’ deal, balancing cost and benefit. They are looking at ethical, environmental, sustainability credentials much more closely than ever before. We have seen more and more using our online Carbon Calculator to estimate footprints of products and projects, with this proving a trend across the board, all geo-demographic groups. Put simply, carbon is not an elitist issue – everyone has a footprint, everyone has spending power; given the right information, everyone can make a choice.”

This ‘feelgood’ benefit, as consumer-pull-through force for reducing emissions, does not easily find correlation in cost and efficiency models on the business-push side of the counter. A successful, established market movement offers a useful analogy to help understand how the two might one day become one: Fairtrade.

With Fairtrade, reputational risk provides the company flip-side of the coin to consumer-wellbeing benefit. Historically, however, Fairtrade has worn a human face – seen as directly connected to livelihoods of people – whereas the story of carbon has been wrapped up in impersonal complexities of climate-change science and macroeconomics. The picture, though, is changing.

The more the world comes to appreciate the human cost of climate change, the more carbon becomes a people and a personal issue; the more high-carbon lifestyles and consumerism appear ‘unfair’ to others. Is it possible to conceive of low-carbon business as the Fairtrade of the future? If so, the sustainable revolution may well be brought about by putting a face, not a price, on carbon.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Tackling the Problem at Source

Article on Responsible Sourcing for UK-GBC supplement ‘Building for the Future’, published in The Times, 6 September, 2010


Contracts a-changing: £7M iCon building in Daventry is the first completed using new sustainability guidance introduced by the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT).

As well as being complicit in acts contributing to global warming and water poverty, plus exploitation and waste of natural resources, could you also be guilty of environmental discrimination and exporting pollution, plus human rights abuses including benefiting from child labour? Are you personally and professionally responsible?

Failure to ensure responsible sourcing of products, goods, services and materials for specification and procurement on the part of a decision maker in the construction industry could leave that person answerable on all counts. Some wrongdoings are more likely to result in accusations of engendering economic greed, environmental harm and anti-social behaviour, than actual charges on legal, ethical or moral grounds, but all are effectively crimes against sustainability. All are bad for business. Most are, however, commonplace. So, what is Construction doing to clean up its act?


Well, to manage it, first you have to measure it. Sadly, this is not as straightforward as it sounds, even for resource use and efficiency.

London 2012 set out to be “the most sustainable Games ever”, with targets and objectives that are unprecedented for major construction projects, driving forward innovation. Do the Games showcase the industry’s thorough understanding of its resource impacts? Unfortunately they do not, as Shaun McCarthy, Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, frankly explains: “The discovery that 67 per cent of the 3.4Mt carbon footprint for the Games is embodied in construction was a shock and a revelation. I was also surprised to see that the Aquatic Centre has three times the embodied energy of the Velodrome. The construction industry does not know how to manage embodied impacts and the UK sustainable construction strategy is silent on the subject.”

In response to the industry’s obvious frustrations with traditional evaluation tools, a new methodology called Carbon Profiling has been developed by Sturgis Associates, combining both operational and embodied carbon emissions. On Ropemaker Place, a recent case-study project in London, profiling showed that over half of the building’s CO2e impacts are attributable to embodied carbon.

So, does quantifying embodied energy and embedded carbon hold the key to unlocking the secrets of energy-responsible construction? No, it does not, according to Dr Miles Watkins, Director of Sustainable Construction, at Aggregate Industries Europe, who argues for an altogether more joined-up assessment: “Embedded carbon in isolation is not really that helpful. Performance of materials in use has to be taken into account. It is simply not sustainable to build a building with the lowest embedded carbon possible and then have to add crazy levels of renewable bling to make it work properly.”

Standards and Labels

Whilst the industry grapples with assessment methods and  measures for energy and carbon, other formal standards and sector-wide initiatives abound.

Construction contracts themselves are changing: The £7M iCon building in Daventry is the first project completed using the sustainability guidance newly introduced by the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT). British Standards are also multiplying: In addition to the existing BS 8902 for Responsible Sourcing, this autumn will see the launch of a brand new standard for Sustainable Procurement, BS 8903.

On the materials front, representative bodies are addressing issues of responsible sourcing. The concrete sector, as well as working to ambitious 2012 waste targets, has warmly embraced the requirements of the BRE standard BES 6001 for Responsible Sourcing of Construction Products. The Steel Construction Sustainability Charter, as advocated by the British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA), operates to objectives of economic viability, social progress and environmental responsibility. Plus, for timber, long-touted as the only truly carbon-neutral (or better) building material, advanced certification systems have been developed, involving chain-of-custody standards, plus product labelling, lead by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). These have helped distinguish the sustainable from the merely legal, with the prospect of further EU legislation on due diligence set to raise the bar still higher.

In addition, mainstreaming of natural and renewable building materials, featuring use of such as hemp, straw and lime to provide low-impact construction methods, is rapidly expanding the range and application of responsible solutions.

Ethics and Social Responsibility

Less responsible sourcing of products and materials from parts of the world where emissions targets may be more lenient (creating so-called ‘carbon leakage’), pollution more poorly policed and resource depletion more tolerated, often causes harm and creates risk indirectly, as a seemingly faceless crime. Sourcing that carries a direct cost to human life and wellbeing is different.

Ethical supply chain management is not, however, easy. In 2007, hard landscaping company Marshalls was the first in its sector to become a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), but says initially, the company had met with a lot of resistance and cynicism about the serious issues facing the stone industry in India. Group Marketing Director, Chris Harrop says: “So many disputed the fact that child labour was still in existence. It was only by being in India we saw it for ourselves, and decided to do something about it.”

Responsibility as Opportunity

Whilst details may be complex and sometimes conflicting, the business case for responsible sourcing is nevertheless clear. Or, at least it is to clients, as Diane Booth, Head of Environmental Policy at Network Rail, explains: “Once baselines and the cost/benefit are well understood, it is relatively easy to design specifications and contractual incentives to drive improvement. However, gaining detailed understanding of the opportunity can only be done in conjunction with contractors and suppliers, some of whom seem reluctant to engage. They are not seeing this as a differentiating factor, when clients do.”

In short, for Construction, the future is lean, green and responsible, as Paul Toyne, Head of Sustainability at Bovis Lend Lease, concludes: “The age of austerity could become the age of sustainability as both are about efficient resource use, which if we get it right allows the industry to offer affordable solutions, here in the UK and abroad. Companies need to position themselves ready for the upturn in the market.”

To view the full Supplement online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

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