As the global focus on climate change continues to gather momentum, IT professionals have a unique opportunity to lessen negative environmental impact on our planet through a thoughtful application of technology. As a company, Cisco has been setting and achieving goals to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions since 2008, and within Cisco IT we have mirrored these efforts with many of our own initiatives such as recycling old equipment, optimizing our workplace, and looking at ways to make our data centres greener.
When Cisco announced its commitment to net zero in September 2021, we wanted to approach the activities within Cisco IT more systematically — both to ensure we prioritized the areas that would have the biggest impact and to align with the company’s strategy to reach net zero. To do this, we went through a three-step process to create our own Cisco IT Sustainability Framework, resulting in a living document. While our journey will change and evolve, we are excited to share how we have gotten started.
Step 1: Research industry viewpoints and standards
We started by looking at the latest research on greenhouse gas emissions and modeling of the paths to reduce emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We then read reports on the carbon emissions specifically from digital technologies (which includes IT) to understand their relative impact size and composition. There is quite a bit of variability in size estimates based on scope, calculation methodologies and assumptions, and some factors have changed over time due to product efficiency gains and the greening of the electric grid. However, most estimates predict that digital makes up around 2-4% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
IT clearly has a responsibility to reduce its emissions, and there is well-documented research on how to reduce these following science-based targets. However, IT has a second responsibility — there is research on the potential benefits that IT can have to reduce emissions in other verticals through things like smart buildings, smart grid, hybrid work, etc.
While reviewing the literature, we recognised there were challenges to overcome along the way to avoid rebound effects and manage emissions from newer technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things. However, research suggests that if the industry is thoughtful, IT could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 15-20%.
Step 2: Understanding corporate emissions and reporting
After understanding the industry’s role in a global journey towards sustainability, we dove into Cisco’s own emissions. We looked at our annual report on the ESG Hub (Environmental, Social, and Governance), the industry standards we follow to produce that report, and the third parties we submit our data to for independent analysis. Through this research we found that, in addition to Cisco’s net zero target, we have a number of public near-term goals, including shifting use of electricity to renewable sources, reduction in foam used in packaging, and reduction in scope 3 emissions from our supply chain.
To understand these near-term goals better, we spoke to each of the teams involved: supply chain, product engineering, reverse logistics, procurement, and facilities. We focused our efforts on initiatives we felt IT could partner more closely with (increasing our use of renewable energy), programs we felt we could take more advantage of (Cisco Refresh), and ideas we felt we could replicate in IT (establishing Circular Design Principles and the way Supply Chain manages their suppliers).
Step 3: Creating the IT strategy
In our final step, we talked with each IT Service function to understand what they were doing already, shared what we had learned, and built our Cisco IT Sustainability Framework. Once constructed, we reviewed the framework with sustainability experts inside Cisco, with market analysts externally, and with several customers who wanted to develop their own sustainability strategy. We looked at a few frameworks published by other organisations, but after several rounds of iteration we felt our framework fitted our needs the best. We have now piloted this framework within our IT Data Centre team, and showcased the results in a whitepaper.
As we move to execution, our goals are initially around climate change and circularity. However, we recognise the importance of other areas — for example, water conservation — so there will no doubt be iterations. A summary of our framework is given below, and we would love to hear from you about any similar work you are doing.
As pictured, our Cisco IT Sustainability Framework is organised in three layers. The top layer of the framework shows IT’s alignment to the broader company initiatives – Cisco’s commitment to net zero, the five strategies the company has outlined to reach that goal, and the work IT can help with around collecting data for reporting. IT is more involved in some of these strategies than others. For example, we test new Cisco products and services internally through our Customer Zero and Cisco on Cisco programs. Through this, we will be testing more energy efficient products and features as they get developed.
The middle layer has four pillars in blue. These pillars show how we are embedding circularity principles in our service lifecycle — focusing on how we design, procure, operate, and decommission the products and services we provide. The fifth pillar in green calls out near term goals we have kept a special focus on. At the moment, this focused goal is around Energy Management, given the short timeframes Cisco has set itself to reduce Scope 1 & 2 emissions specifically.
The following breakdown provides a bit more detail on each of these five pillars:
- Sustainable by Design – Considering sustainability during design is important whether you are developing an application, designing a data solution, deploying infrastructure, or managing end user devices. With this in mind, we are developing sustainability design principles to help IT architects consider the full lifecycle and take a system thinking approach.. As mentioned previously this approach is mirroring work that has already been done to establish Circular Design Principles for the products and systems Cisco sells to customers.
- Responsible Procurement – Engaging our suppliers on sustainability is essential to ensure we understand the impact of the services we offer, drive improvement within our supply chain, and understand any risks due to misaligned net zero ambitions. Our Global Procurement Office has used scorecards for many years for the suppliers we use to make the products and services we sell to customers. These scorecards measure and manage suppliers’ conformance to Cisco’s requirements on environmental stewardship and human rights. We’ve now extended this same scorecard to the spend IT has with its suppliers. Having these ESG metrics reported alongside cost, quality, and service delivery allows IT Service Owners and Procurement Managers to make more informed decisions when awarding business to suppliers.
- Optimization of Operations – As Cisco continues its transformation, some IT services may shift to a hybrid cloud architecture or SaaS offering, some may change to support new work patterns, and some may be redesigned to offer new services to customer and partners. Reviewing services holistically on a regular basis is important to look for opportunities to be more sustainable. Maintaining assets at their highest and best use for as long as possible, monitoring asset utilization, and looking for opportunities to repurpose excess capacity are all important to optimize our operations.
- Increase Asset Recovery & Reuse – Cisco has a long-standing commitment (with programs in place for more than two decades!) to facilitate product returns from customers for reuse and recycling, to offer comprehensive service and repair, and to remanufacture used equipment for sale through Cisco Refresh. Cisco IT leverages many of these same programs internally, alongside its own processes to reuse equipment inside IT and in our labs. As part of our focus on circularity we’ll continue to look for ways to optimise what happens to equipment when it’s retired from production, and increase our own internal use of remanufactured product.
- Energy Management – Cisco has a near-term target to reduce absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions 90% by 2025 (compared to a fiscal year 2019 baseline). Scope 2 includes electricity use and today approximately 80 percent of Cisco’s operational electricity is used to power and cool equipment in our labs and data centers. Today, Cisco IT partners with our GEMS (Global Energy Management & Sustainability) team to implement energy efficiency and onsite renewable energy projects. Our goal is to continue to drive energy efficiency in all our buildings globally, reducing or eliminating underutilized space, ensuring sustainability in the way we operate these facilities, and putting in place monitoring to enable accurate baseline and trending data.
Culture of Sustainability
Finally, the bottom layer of our framework recognises the important role that culture plays in driving sustainability into everything we do. There are a lot of existing programs across Cisco that our IT employees take part in already. Additionally, we have started to educate IT employees on our IT Sustainability Framework, how it supports the company commitments, and listen to their ideas on what else we can do.
We’ve been excited to share our IT journey so far in this blog. We recognise that Climate Change is a huge challenge, and that no single IT organisation or company can solve it on its own. Within Cisco — and within Cisco IT — we are committed to do our part. We hope that, working as a broader IT industry, and working with all our customers, partners, and suppliers, we can do more to protect our planet for future generations and help drive a more inclusive future for all.