Sustainability Software Takes the Spotlight

New tools help leaders preserve the planet—and increase profit.

Today’s buzz-phrases for tech proficiency in business are well known. Data drives innovation. AI is the future. The sustainability-related perils facing business are established too. Greenhouse gas emissions must reach net zero within decades. Climate catastrophes are increasing at a staggering rate, and threaten not only social contracts but the bottom line. What isn’t so obvious? How to bring the former and latter together in a way that helps solve the issues. Enter sustainability software and the emerging arena of integration within it.

Integration may sound simple, but the reality is much more complex. Gathering vast amounts of sustainability-related data across a business’ divisions is a giant undertaking in and of itself. Getting that data into a single source of record, and using sustainability-focused software and analytics that themselves are integrated to work together can yield insights that are crucial in a business world increasingly under pressure to meet compliance demands and achieve economic goals in a new way. Yet solutions have been lacking until now.

As sustainability climbs higher on the corporate agenda, technology leaders are focusing on innovations that help companies increase their ESG successes and accelerate innovation and growth at the same time.

At the head of the—still slim—pack is IBM. A dominant force in business since its inception over a century ago, it’s ideally situated to address this challenge, providing strong data foundation tools for decades. In many ways, that still lies at the heart of their approach. But their capabilities for organizations to harness that data and turn sustainability ambitions into actions reached a new level this past January. 

It was then that IBM acquired Envizi, a critical piece of the puzzle for connecting sustainability into broader business operations. A “sustainability performance” tool for ESG management, reporting and analytics, it allows for automated collection and consolidation of more than 500 types of data, which is then displayed on simple-to-use dashboards that are accessible to all types of business stakeholders. This data can range from air travel costs to measurable elements of diversity and inclusion initiatives to real estate holdings’ energy metrics. Having unified it into one place, Envizi can help companies identify issues like energy use inefficiencies, measure progress on how they are tracking against specific sustainability goals, and streamline compliance reporting—with capabilities for reporting against a multiplicity of ESG frameworks.  

That’s just the beginning. Other AI-powered tools from IBM measure and analyze everything from cloud workload optimization, to the health and efficiency of physical assets, to supply chain metrics, to possible disruptive environmental events. Yet, again: It’s not only the integrative capabilities of the tools to bring data together within their own dashboards but their ability to work together that’s key to helping companies turn their eco-ambitions into action. These integrated capabilities have just begun to be rolled out, and will continue to grow over time—opening a new world of possibilities for connecting sustainability to daily business processes. In the words of Christina Shim, head of Strategy and Sustainability for IBM Sustainability Software, the question is, “How can we leverage AI to support the average worker, and make it easy for them to understand and do their part in driving sustainability?” Now, “With a couple of clicks, they can do the analytics that they need to do. Then they can put those insights into the business and make sure those are action-ed upon.” All automatically, at least in technological terms.

What does this look like in practice? Each organization is in a different place in terms of its technological sophistication and sustainability goals, and Shim notes that even most Fortune 500 companies still use manual spreadsheets to gather data. A company’s location can dictate things like disparate country regulations they need to follow as well. But an example of sustainability tech in action is illustrated by Sundt & Baelt, which operates and owns some of the largest infrastructure projects in the world. Among the projects: the eleven-mile Great Belt Bridge in Denmark. In the past, maintenance inspections had to be performed manually—with mountaineers climbing the bridge’s side to complete certain tasks. Now, using software tools from IBM, drone photos illustrate structure status more safely, AI and 3D models help identify cracks and corrosion areas, and insights are available remotely—all of which drive key decisions about bridge maintenance. As a result, the bridge is expected to last a century longer than it would have otherwise—saving as much as 750,000 tons of CO2 emissions. Maintenance productivity is expected to increase by up to 25%. 

Sundt & Baelt qualifies as a trailblazer. But the need for sustainability software is exploding in businesses regardless of their point of view on ESG alone. Companies know they’re on the verge of being compelled to meet environmental regulations in many instances, and they’re seeing sustainability issues affect the bottom line and relationships with both customers and investors. Last year, sustainability and social responsibility tied as the third most important concern for large organizations in a report from Forrester Research. Yet fragmentation of data is still rampant, and the information that is known is often going under-utilized. An IBM study showed that 44% of CEOs cite lack of data insights as a problem when it comes to meeting sustainability goals.

Shim, who will be featured at Techonomy’s The Health+Wealth of Our Planet conference during Climate Week, on September 20, is optimistic about technology’s ability to help companies get up to speed, and spur growth and innovation. She also foresees a world in which the sustainability problem is understood more holistically. “Right now, the siloing between the environmental piece and what else is happening in the business around social, community issues—that decoupling is very forced.” She cites supply chain as one example—an area where carbon emissions are getting most of the prioritization today, but where other important ethical issues like labor practices are also highly relevant and should be considered. Such dividing up of the issues “is not how the world works…The way people need to think about it is, these are all interrelated.” 

For more on the future of climate, business and sustainability, register for The Health+Wealth of Our Planet conference, presented by Techonomy and Worth, here.

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