Transparency, Tools and Tech Companies

I’m the first to admit it: When it comes to the intersection of green and IT, I’m often a little fixated on “smart technologies” that can help squeeze inefficiency out of our systems, whether we’re talking smart grid, smart appliances (coming by 2015!), virtualization and cloud computing, demand response or even smart trash. But this week, I started thinking about another role that IT plays in developing sustainable businesses — facilitating transparency.

In sustainable business circles, it’s generally agreed that transparency is a key metric for corporate social responsibility (CSR). That’s the impetus behind many of the CSR reports published by companies, and it’s the logic behind the Global Reporting Initiative. But there were a couple of pieces of news this week that made me consider the critical role that technology plays in expanding transparency.

First, Google announced that it finally finished buying carbon offsets for its energy use in 2007 — in large part because it’s not easy to trace carbon offsets back to particular projects and verify their carbon-reducing properties. The biggest challenge, according to Bill Weihl, Google’s Green Energy Czar, was finding projects that truly went beyond “business as usual.” While Google is vocal about a need for stronger policy to ease this process, startups like Carbonflow are aiming to solve the issue by developing what is, essentially, supply-chain software for carbon credits.

Lean, efficient companies have long been obsessed with their supply chain — Trader Joe’s and Toyota are some famous examples — but a growing emphasis on economic and social impacts of business is bringing new scrutiny to the supply chain, whether for carbon credits or cotton. Technology can help all along that chain: UK-based Historic Futures uses RFID tags and the Internet to help its clients track commodities back to the source.

But transparency is more than just knowing that information — it’s sharing it, as well. While companies have long used web sites for this — Nike discloses information about its supplying factories, and global carpet maker Interface publishes a suite of EcoMetrics data on its web site — some companies today are marrying real-time information about performance to real-time dissemination tools. For example, the founder of EnergyCircle, a Maine-based startup offering energy monitoring devices, publishes a feed of his home’s real-time energy use on the company web site — and he and his wife tweet about what sends the graph up in spikes.

This kind of transparency is becoming a hot topic. The Empire Club of Canada hosted a panel discussion this week on the impact that social media is having on CSR communications and reporting. Intel and ING Direct participated — and Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct Canada, tweeted some thoughts: “If culture incl. innovatn, customer focus, simplifying, challange stat quo – then social media is a place you belong.”

That sounds like most of the Green IT companies I can think of.  Maybe it’s time for you all to make like Oprah and get Tweetin’!

Question of the week

Does social media play a role in your company’s CSR strategy?