WASHINGTON -- 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 controls only 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 reduce energy use, cut carbon emissions and don't hurt the environment.
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 that contain 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.
Since most sustainability efforts involve software tools, IT departments will be at the center of the sustainability push, said Mines said. "We think it's because they are at the center of buying all the other software."
Robert Amundsen, director of energy management at the New York Institute of Technology, said the GSA's effort to encourage sustainability "can give an extra push" to the overall effort.
Interest in sustainability is growing, Amundsen said. He runs a graduate program in power management, one of only a half-dozen in the U.S., and over the past several years its enrollment has doubled to about 100 students.
Amundsen said he sees more companies moving to improve energy efficiency and agrees with Forrester that IT will play a central role in it. "The rates of return from energy efficiency are very high and very low risk," Amundsen said in an interview.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.