In recent years, the environmental impact of plastic production and waste has become a topic of significant concern among businesses, governments, and consumers. As the chief information officer (CIO) of a plastics manufacturing company, I have witnessed the growing importance of sustainability in our industry. Given the rising concerns around these issues, our company has committed to making sustainability a core part of our business strategy and, as I have learned first- hand, there are several areas of opportunity for a CIO to drive these efforts.
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Technology’s Impact on Sustainability
One of my primary responsibilities is to ensure our organization adopts and implements cutting-edge technologies that not only streamline our operations but also minimize our environmental footprint. By focusing on sustainable technology solutions and initiatives, I can drive significant change in how our company consumes resources and manages waste. Here are two examples:
Digital transformation: Digital technologies can streamline operations and reduce resource consumption. As CIO, I have led the implementation of digital solutions including automation, paperless workflows, and remote collaboration tools to minimize waste and improve efficiency. Often, the digital transformation efforts that were embarked upon as a way to be more efficient or competitive have the added benefit of contributing to sustainability initiatives. For example, automating processes such as AP invoice coding and approval was an important project for us, and while the main driver for that wasn’t sustainability, that kind of automation will ultimately lead to reduced paper waste. When we implement systems like Microsoft Teams and other cloud-based technologies that make it easier to work remotely, we have also been reducing business travel and commuting, which leads to reduced carbon emissions.
Energy-efficient infrastructure: Adopting energy-efficient hardware and software, such as server virtualization, cloud computing, and energy-efficient data centers, can significantly impact sustainability goals. According to Accenture, migrating to the cloud can result in a 65% reduction in energy usage and an 84% decrease in carbon emissions. One of the biggest changes we made most recently was to move from on-premises Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) AX 2012 to cloud-based Dynamics 365 Finance and Supply Chain. Over the last few years, we have moved from on-premises email to cloud-based Office 365, as well as to cloud-based HR/payroll and expense management.
Integrating Data and Sustainability Efforts for Greater Impact
It’s also essential for CIOs to recognize that sustainability goes beyond implementing eco-friendly technologies. Leveraging data and collaborating across various departments can significantly contribute to the company’s overall sustainability goals. By focusing on the following areas, CIOs can indirectly support and enhance the company’s sustainability efforts, further solidifying the role of technology in creating a greener future:
Data-driven decision-making: Sustainability initiatives require data in order to know where the company has opportunities to reduce environmental impact. Then, once the initiatives are put in place, more data is required to track sustainability performance and identify further areas of improvement. One of my most important roles as a CIO is to drive continuous improvement in data systems: data storage and backup, data management and integrity, and reporting and analytics tools. By providing effective tools and technology in this area, I am indirectly supporting our sustainability initiatives.
Sustainability-focused applications: Develop applications and tools that help to better manage environmental impact. These solutions could track waste generation, monitor energy usage, and optimize resource allocation. At my company, we developed a cloud-based tool that our salespeople, as well as our customers, can use to calculate the sustainability impact of switching to our products versus those of our competitors. This tool’s data, which includes reductions in carbon emissions, landfill, and paper waste, help our customers see how our products help them to meet their sustainability goals.
Cross-functional collaboration: CIOs should work closely with other departments to develop integrated sustainability initiatives. By collaborating with operations, procurement, and other functions, we can ensure that our technology investments support our company’s sustainability goals. The in-house tool that we developed for our salespeople required collaboration between my team and our sales and marketing leadership.
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Cybersecurity as a Key Enabler for Sustainability
An often overlooked but crucial aspect of sustainability is cybersecurity. As the World Economic Forum (WEF) points out, cyber attacks pose a significant risk to companies’ value and societal stability. To better address this critical issue, companies should integrate cybersecurity management into their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) strategies rather than rely solely on insurance or regulatory intervention. Here are two reasons why this is important:
It protects intangible value: According to the WEF report, intangible assets, such as data, now represent 90% of organizations’ asset value. As companies grow and digitize their assets, the potential impact of a cybersecurity breach increases. To protect their intangible value, companies should focus on safeguarding their critical assets and minimizing potential losses in the event of a breach. In a manufacturing company such as mine, there are many intangible assets, including proprietary technology and trade secrets. For my company to continue to make an impact on our environmental footprint, those assets must be protected.
It moves beyond insurance: Relying on insurance to mitigate cyber risks is not a sustainable solution. As insurance coverage narrows and demand for cyber insurance increases, organizations must make it a priority to understand and manage risk. Regulatory fines alone can bankrupt an organization, a point that underscores the importance of good governance around cybersecurity. I have recently gone through the annual process of renewing our cybersecurity insurance policy, and I can attest to the fact that it keeps getting more expensive while requiring more and more proof that we are taking all the necessary precautions to protect our organization.
I have always felt that cybersecurity was one of my most important responsibilities, but before reading the WEF report, I didn’t realize it was also an important part of sustainability. It is helpful to be able to look at cybersecurity as more than just “something you have to do,” like “eating your lima beans,” and take pride in the fact that it is helping your company have a more sustainable future.
As a CIO in the plastics manufacturing industry, I have found numerous opportunities to contribute to our company’s sustainability efforts. By embracing digital transformation, investing in energy-efficient infrastructure, and providing the data and systems needed to support our sustainability initiatives, my team can make a tangible difference. Additionally, recognizing the importance of cybersecurity is essential for the success of our sustainability endeavors. By working together with other C-suite leaders and departments, we can drive meaningful change and ensure the long-term viability of our business and the environment.
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