Making sustainability the ninth principle of information management

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In a world confronting the dire consequences of climate change, sustainability has become a corporate imperative.

29 July 2021 mins
Making Sustainability the Ninth Principle of Information Management- A lightbulb depicting growth

In a world confronting the dire consequences of climate change, sustainability has become a corporate imperative. More than 90% of CEOs now say sustainability is important to their organisations’ success and nearly half of the top 100 U. S. MBA programs offer academic programs on business sustainability, according to Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The information management association ARMA lists eight principles of records and information management (RIM): accountability, transparency, integrity, protection, compliance, availability, retention and disposition. Given the challenges we are facing, sustainability should be added as the ninth principle to ensure that RIM is involved in inspiring meaningful change.

The benefits of sustainability go far beyond just corporate social responsibility. The payoff is also in lower costs, improved employee morale and better efficiency. Sustainable businesses have an easier time attracting talent, particularly the people for whom environmental issues are critical. They are less likely to run afoul of compliance rules and better able to attract customers. And the bottom line is that more than two-thirds of the respondents to one recent study said they consider sustainability when making a purchase and are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

At first glance, RIM professionals may think there is little they can do to further their organisation’s sustainability goals, but their potential impact is much greater than they might think.

Recycle paper

Paper is a good place to start. Recycling one ton of paper saves enough energy to power the average U.S. home for six months, saves 7,000 gallons of water and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by one metric ton. Paper records that have met their retention requirement and those that have been digitised are logical candidates for recycling by shredding. Removing paper entirely through the creation and management of records in digital format prevents trees to be felled in the first place.

A “shred-all” policy is a good way to distribute responsibility for paper recycling throughout the organisation, strengthen security and reduce regulatory vulnerability. Shred-all simply instructs employees to securely shred any information no longer needed for business rather than placing it in a trashcan or a recycle bin. This removes uncertainty about what qualifies for shredding and ensures that as much paper as possible can be recovered and recycled.

Reuse and recycle electronics

Electronic equipment such as computers, phones, monitors and copiers are full of hazardous materials including beryllium, cadmium, mercury, arsenic and lead; they may also contain private and sensitive information. Electronic refuse – or e-waste – is a growing problem; more than 53 million tons of it was created globally in 2019, or about 16 pounds per person, and that figure is expected to grow 40% by 2030. The U.S. has the dubious distinction of being the world leader.

A large amount of e-waste is shipped overseas where it finds its way into landfills, waterways and even streets and vacant lots. Much of this material can be safely disposed of and even mined for value. For example, 200 laptops collectively contain about five troy ounces of gold. Yet only 17% of e-waste is recycled, according to the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership.

E-waste can also be a major security and compliance vulnerability, since data storage media may not be thoroughly scrubbed of sensitive information. Secure data erasure programs exist to ensure all proprietary and sensitive data has been removed, allowing the device to be refurbished and put back into the economy.

A responsible e-waste program first and foremost looks for ways to repurpose electronics such as computers, printers, fax machines and mobile devices. A successful remarketing program can not only help you recover some value from your assets, but it helps your organisation participate in the Circular Economy. A Circular Economy differs from the Linear Economy by repurposing items and keeping them in use. In doing so, we can both minimise the growing need for virgin goods as well as divert waste from the landfill.

Once a piece of equipment no longer retains value, it should then be securely and sustainably recycled. Experienced service providers can recover value through donation tax credits and precious metal reclamation. They can also ensure that equipment is disposed of through secure, safe and environmentally sound processes that meet regulatory requirements.

Equipment that is not eligible for refurbishing or recycling can be disposed of through waste-to-energy incineration, which is a way to generate energy and divert waste from landfills.

Choose vendors visely

Your organisation may have embraced sustainability goals, but can the same be said of your vendors? With more functions than ever being outsourced, organisations need to perform due diligence on the companies that do business with them. Ask questions of the contractors that serve your organisation's needs for waste disposal, drayage, cleaning, storage, food service and equipment maintenance. How transparent are they about their practices? Do they provide reporting and comply with best sustainability practices? Are their facilities and vehicles powered by alternative energy? What do they do to minimise emissions? Make sure their sustainability goals are in line with yours.

Don't forget data centres

Many organisations are becoming more digital, and while this minimises physical waste, there is the unseen environmental impact of needing to power data centres. Data processing facilities consume about 1% of the world’s electricity and are also major users of water and diesel fuel. An older mid-sized data centre can use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day.

If your organisation manages its own IT needs, consider moving to a co-location service which can provide economies of scale and are held to strict regulatory guidelines on power and water efficiency. Many data centres are innovating in the use of green energy. For example, Iron Mountain’s colocation data centres around the globe are powered by 100% renewable sources and meet the toughest standards for power efficiency. In fact, data centre customers are eligible for Green Power Pass points that can be incorporated into their organisation’s sustainability reporting and help meet their reduced carbon output goals.

Rethink the office

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many organisations to take a fresh look at the purpose and design of offices. With work-from-home programs likely to proliferate in the future, now is a good time to look at reducing square footage, achieving economies through shared workspaces and digitising paper records or moving them to offsite storage.

The shift to remote work is also catalysing digital transformation initiatives. Digital records are not only more sustainable but easier for people to retrieve, share and integrate into digital workflows. A standard four-drawer file cabinet consumes 17 square feet of floor space, including the space needed for people to access its contents. Between 8% and 10% of the space in a typical office is taken up by paper records, according to Iron Mountain Clean Start® estimates.

Consolidating or digitising records and moving rarely accessed files to long-term storage frees up space for people to work safely or enables organisations to reduce space needs to save on rent, heating and cooling.

Organisations are finding that the benefits of flexible remote work policies go beyond space savings. Commute times are reduced along with emissions and traffic congestion, and research has shown that many people give at least some of that saved time back to their work. Remote workers report higher overall job satisfaction and productivity, with many saying they will trade off compensation for flexibility. The workplace is also safer when employees who are sick don’t have to come in to work.

Implement governance practices

The paper reduction, digitisation and office redesign initiatives described above are part of a sound information governance strategy. Organisations that have a complete picture of all their data, where it is, how it’s used and where it came from, are more informed, efficient and sustainable. The productivity savings alone are compelling. One recent survey found 36% of office workers said it's difficult to find the most recent version of a document most or all of the time. A sound governance strategy all but eliminates this waste of time.

Good information governance practices also contribute to sustainability when defining rules for disposing of redundant, obsolete and trivial data, destroying outdated or unneeded paper documents and aligning records use with sustainability goals. Having a single version of the truth in a place where everyone can find it isn’t just a sound business practice. It’s also good for the environment.

In conclusion, making sustainability the ninth principle of records and information management and adopting it in your daily work makes a statement about both your organisation and your profession. It must be part of a larger, holistic sustainability imperative.

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