The welcome return to in-person events means I’ve recently attended a number of industry shows, such as the 7x24 Exchange Intl. conference, and, as always, I’m intrigued by the conversations that are taking place. Post-pandemic, I’ve been particularly encouraged by the continued focus on sustainability.

Sustainability is not just the latest trend or buzzword — it has officially become a mainstream topic in dialogue amongst the data center professionals. Executive and corporate boards have been discussing financial strategies, resiliency, efficiency, speed to market, and other key business drivers for years. Now, they must also address the sustainability strategy of their organizations.

I have listened to speakers describing challenges with their design or construction constraints. Some industry experts even address the elephant in the room: the cost of taking the initiative and operating in a sustainable manner. Many agree that sustainable designs and operations require significant financial investment with sometimes longer payback periods than the chief financial officer would like. But that really shouldn’t deter organizations from adopting and embracing sustainability considering the overall cost of not doing so may end up being far greater.

Tumultuous times

These times have been described as tumultuous, and, during tumultuous times, there may be reluctance from senior management to invest and commit to a solution, project, or change. Economic downturn, the cost of borrowing money, and demands on cash reserves can lead any business to hit the pause button on future investments. However not acting can also present a significant risk. Companies need to change and adapt to the demands of the consumer to ensure they remain competitive.

The onus falls on the shoulders of senior management to ensure sustainability is clearly understood and accepted across the entire organization. Many companies have recently appointed a chief sustainability officer and allocated an appropriate budget for them to achieve environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. Creating a sustainability team provides ongoing focus within an organization to find solutions. But, sustainability must also be evaluated on an external basis with a view on partners in the supply chain and outsourced resources.

A journey, not a destination

As with everything in business, senior-level commitment is an absolute necessity for sustainability to flourish. As important as this is, success cannot occur with only senior-level management commitment alone. The entire organization will need to be engaged, and everyone from the executive level to direct line managers will need to fully appreciate and understand the shift is here to stay, and sustainability is going to be embedded even further throughout each department and division.

Management teams may be asked to review their day-to-day operations or purchasing policies to conduct an assessment of what their teams do and how they do it, analyzing the impact processes, procedures, and practices have on the company’s carbon footprint. Further exploration of vendors and suppliers, and what their contribution to the footprint is, will need to be evaluated. Internal and external stakeholders need to explicitly understand the impact of the entire business and its operation on the natural environment.

This sounds tedious and time-consuming because it is. The larger the organization, the more complex it will be. It is, after all, a journey, and a long one at that, which is why it’s important to establish a starting point. This starting point will represent the baseline from which strategic plans can be formed, to work toward the desired goal and identify the options that exist to achieve it.

Let’s not kid ourselves — assessments, audits, self-reflections, introspection, and taking the time to look inward to see where improvement can be realized is not only difficult but also very subjective in nature. Despite that, this exercise is necessary to begin the journey and determine a clear road map for ongoing sustainable operations.

So, how do successful management teams help their organizations succeed in sustainable operations with a focus on continuous improvement?

Engage those that do the work.

Top down and bottom up

No strategy will be successful without full-throated senior-level management support. That point must be driven home. Their directives are the classic top-down approach. Senior-level management and their teams provide board members with the critical data needed to make necessary decisions for corporate direction. Most corporate charters specifically detail that the directors have an obligation to the organization to keep the company profitable. This approach has long been case law for all for-profit organizations.

However, true sustainability results in streamlining processes and procedures to minimize environmental impact, which requires companywide momentum for continual improvement. That’s where the other essential part of this equation comes in — the bottom-up approach.

Personally, I prefer the term “bubble up” versus “bottom up,” because the concept and visual context of those words makes a statement. Much like putting a pot of water to boil, it is going to take time for the water to boil and get those bubbles up to the surface. The same applies in motivating employees to engage in the corporate sustainability policies.

How does the bubble-up effect occur?

Once management has committed to a sustainability strategy, communication is critical.

Regardless of the industry, company, or market, most employees want to feel as though the work they do is part of something bigger than themselves and that they are in the position to make a difference.

Engaged employees will understand that enacting sustainable changes will impact generations to come. When sustainability is framed as a win for all — the business, suppliers, vendors, community, individuals, and the environment — it’s easy to get employees behind the change.

The bubble-up effect promotes out-of-the-box thinking. Managers should encourage participation from all employees to think about making small changes in their departments to contribute to the overall sustainability of the company. Their practices will start to spread outside of the company to other local businesses, schools, and community centers.

This not only results in more sustainable operations but also increased employee retention and satisfaction — today’s workforce wants to work for companies that are committed to making a better tomorrow for future generations.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

An ongoing communication plan will be essential. Teams need to know how the organization is progressing with the initiatives that have been enacted. When employees see continued transparency in reporting — the successes and failures — it demonstrates the company’s commitment. Setbacks will happen, but the lessons learned give way for future remedies and continued success.

Transparency develops trust between internal and external stakeholders. It shows that, despite a few road blocks, the journey continues.

A little help from our friends

External suppliers want your continued business, and, when you succeed, they succeed. The same applies when your suppliers begin to address the sustainability of their own operations, and can report on their scope emissions as well as the environmental impacts of their business.

Other local or similar organizations may want to understand the success and challenges you may have experienced in an effort to move towards sustainability and the solutions that were available for consideration. Sustainability is relatively new for many industries, and not every initiative or idea will succeed.

Companies are looking for partners to collaborate with in order to minimize or share expenses incurred while executing a sustainability initiative. Partnerships can provide new opportunities — the ability to share the successes with others advances the organization as a corporate leader in sustainability.

Final thoughts

Sustainability is not a “one and done” initiative to check the appropriate boxes. It needs to be enshrined in the company ethos, policies, and organizational structure. It will take time, money, and effort. It must start at the top, but it will take the entire organization to fully integrate sustainability into the day-to-day operations.

The United Nations Sustainable Development report indicates that organizations that do not adapt and adopt sustainability into their operations will not be in business by the year 2050. And, despite these tumultuous times, analysts suggest that now is not the time to sit tight and do nothing — now is the time to act, take initiative, change course, and encourage change throughout the company.

Sustainability is a win for everyone, especially future generations. And, as the industry grows, so too will the culture for sustainable data center designs and operations. But we must continue to beat the sustainability drum to maintain the rhythm of change.