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The Tech Company that Earns Greenpeace's Highest Rating

Q&A with Darrel Stickler, a leader of Cisco Systems’ green task force.
January 25, 2011

In December, the environmental group Greenpeace put Cisco Systems at the top of its twice-yearly Cool IT leaderboard for the second time a row. The group praised the Silicon Valley-based company for keeping detailed measurements of its environmental impact and for its advocacy of green practices. Darrel Stickler, a leader of Cisco’s “green task force,” works with customers and every part of Cisco’s business to make sustainability a priority. He talked to Technology Review about how Cisco works to reduce its own environmental impact and that of its customers.

Sustainable business: Darrel Stickler, who tries to reduce the environmental impact of Cisco Systems and its customers.

TR: What does sustainability mean to Cisco?

Stickler: Sustainability is taking care of your needs today without impacting the ability of future generations to do likewise. We have people in every business function dedicated to working on sustainability and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. This concern may have started as part of our social responsibility program, but it has matured into a business opportunity as well.

What’s a good example of a Cisco product that cuts the emissions of your customers?

Our remote collaboration products target an area that the International Energy Authority and the Department of Energy say makes up 35 percent, give or take, of all energy-related emissions: transport. Cisco Telepresence, Cisco WebEx, Cisco Virtual Office, and videoconferencing products from recently acquired Tandberg all reduce the need for transportation. Removing the need for business travel is just one part. The larger effect is by replacing commuting, which, because so many people do it, accounts for more emissions.

Are customers motivated to buy those products to save money, or to save the planet?

The business case has to make sense or no one will buy them. When we go to market, we lead with operational expenditure savings, improvements to productivity, better asset utilization, the whole package of business benefits. We always highlight the green aspect, though, and over the last three years, customer interest in sustainability has definitely increased. Large tenders from major companies now insist that we provide detail on that. They want to know the sustainability impact of what they buy because they are reporting their carbon emissions publicly now.

How has topping Greenpeace’s Cool IT leaderboard helped Cisco?

It’s bought us access. Nobody’s going to buy something just because we’re at the top, but it raises our profile, and we get a lot more invitations to talk about it at conferences and on panels. It also validates the work we do.

Can you give an example of how you’ve proved that Cisco’s technology boosts sustainability?

I have a chart that shows [Cisco’s] travel was going up linearly with the number of employees we have. We’ve grabbed that straight line and bent it backwards. We can point to why, too. You can see where we brought out WebEx, telepresence products, or made the Tandberg acquisition. You can clearly see what the impact of actually using this stuff was. If you look at what we avoided, the trajectory we were on, our emissions are 25 to 30 percent of what they would have been.

Does looking for green business strategies lead Cisco into new markets?

Yes. Consider the smart grid, which has its own business unit [in the company]. From one perspective, it is a play to get us into traditional utilities, a long way from computer networking. It’s a conservative sector with a lot of legacy and history that makes it hard for [established companies] to innovate. We realized that both [computer networks] and the energy grid are moving electrons—sometimes photons—around. That’s a great new business opportunity to leverage our expertise.

The green side is that we will enable the grid to support technologies that cut greenhouse-gas emissions. More electrified transport creates load and demand problems for utilities; imagine we all try and plug in our electric or plug-in hybrid cars at once. Using renewable energies like solar and wind also requires the grid to handle intermittent flows of power. We need smarts in both the devices and the network to manage those—more sophisticated control systems.

Will Cisco enter new green areas of business in the next year?

Possibly, but I don’t think what’s coming is going to be as sexy as the initial push. We’re going to go beyond the early adopters. I may have a telepresence setup in my home, but I work at Cisco. We want most people to have HD videoconferencing from their [home and work] desktops. From a green perspective of making the biggest impact on emissions, it becomes less about technology and more about adoption.

Tom Simonite is IT Editor for Software and Hardware at Technology Review.

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