The U.S. government has been urging green IT practices in its operations, consolidating data centers and offering telecommuting. Now it wants to go a step further and use its formidable buying power to encourage IT vendors to go green.
The federal government spends about $80 billion annually on IT. If that amount of spending was counted as revenue, federal IT would rank around No. 21 on the Fortune 500 list.
This spending gives the federal government clout in buying IT goods and services. Vendors that have adopted green, or sustainable practices, in pursuit of IT may improve their chances of winning a government contract, according to Shyam Reddy, a regional administrator at the U.S. General Services Administration.
The U.S. spends about $20 billion on IT commodity products annually, although the GSA only controls a fraction of it.
"Imagine what you could do if sustainability is part of your DNA," said Reddy, speaking at a Green IT Council forum Wednesday.
Sustainability is a catch-all term for approaches that don't hurt the environment, reduce energy use and cut carbon emissions.
To cite one example of a role the federal government could play, Reddy pointed out that more than 150 million mobile phones are discarded each year with heavy metals and other dangerous materials that "pose a significant health risk to people, not to mention their adverse impact on landfills.
"What if we gave telecom companies extra points for being good corporate citizens on the e-waste front when evaluating them for contract awards?" Reddy said. "Wouldn't this incent them to work with manufacturing partners to address the problem?"
The GSA recently created an IT commodities buying group to handle all purchasing. This group will also consider materials, manufacturing, distribution and disposal in buying decisions, Reddy said. Sustainability "is not a high priority for most companies," said Chris Mines, research director at Forrester Research, who also spoke at the conference.
Mines sees interest in systems that help users gain control of physical assets and that could drive a new wave in IT spending. Forrester calls it "smart computing," and it involves using things like RFID sensors, pattern recognition, and business intelligence to identify an anomaly and develop a course of action to either mitigate the threat or capture the opportunity.
Despite a bunch of well-known exceptions, such as the GSA and Wal-Mart, "most companies do not prioritize sustainability as one of their corporate goals. They just don't," Mines said.
Mines said sustainability is not about saving the planet but about saving money and reducing operating expenses. Forrester believes that this market is on the cusp of a change and the research firm is forecasting that spending on sustainability consulting services will increase from $2.7 billion in 2010 to $9.6 billion in 2015.