Cisco's green guru pushes profitability with sustainability

Cisco's green guru Paul Marcoux leads the company in cutting costs by being more earth friendly.

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Cisco, with the help of its new "green guru" Paul Marcoux, is pushing greener technologies, partially for idealistic reasons but also to gain a competitive advantage and deliver reduced power consumption and savings to its customers.

In a recent interview, Marcoux, who joined the company last November, expounded upon the social responsibility of corporations before admitting to the strategic edge that "greening" also happens to give Cisco.

"Greening is really a social problem first," Marcoux said. "If you don't understand that … then you really have a problem. This is why it has touched the hearts and souls of so many people."

Rare rhetoric for a networking equipment company, but Cisco is developing a portfolio to make that eco-compassion pay. Multifunction devices reduce server footprints while lowering power consumption, unified communications applications can help cut out commutes, and Telepresence might even eliminate long-distance travel and a whole host of related costs.

Conservation issues evidently struck a strong chord with Marcoux, one of the founders of the Green Grid, a vendor-led consortium that is developing metrics for measuring energy efficiency within IT ecosystems.

His credentials are well-tuned for one of Cisco's primary green pushes: cutting its products' energy use. Before joining Cisco in late 2007, Marcoux served as director of education and training for power device supplier APC.

Marcoux will not be alone in his attempt to green Cisco. Executives from throughout the company sit on a green task force that examines how the company can go green in every phase of operations, such as an e-waste program that recycles almost 100% of material consumed in offices, reduced employee travel, and an intensive water-reduction and reuse program.

For each initiative, Marcoux handily rattles off the return, from the extra cash of reduced flights to the millions of gallons of water saved. Behind each green investment appears to be a keen eye for ROI. That may go a long way in explaining what motivates Cisco's green push.

"I think, generally, the tech companies, including Cisco, have a combination of motivations [for going green]," said Christopher Mines, senior vice president with Forrester Research. "They see opportunities for more efficient internal economics, and they can help their customers do the same thing."

More and more, Mines said, IT departments are better calculating blended capital expenditures and operational expenditures, and they are looking at the total cost of ownership, which can sometimes justify a larger initial investment in exchange for cheaper energy costs throughout the device's lifetime.

In addition, about 35% of companies surveyed by Forrester are using green criteria in their IT purchasing decisions, a percentage that has been steadily tracking upward, Mines said. But there's a limit to how much companies will buy into green.

"I've heard many companies describing it … all things being equal, [green] could be a tiebreaker," he said. "It's very hard to say, but green is not something that customers are going to pay more for."

They may not have to do so in the long run. Even if companies want to plant their forest and harvest it too, Cisco and other vendors can provide a lot of opportunity for eco-improvement.

Marcoux pointed out Cisco's development of more multifunctional products that reduce footprints and energy consumption. Beyond these, he said, Cisco was looking at materials and packaging, and drilling all the way down to the design of hardware and software to improve efficiency and reduce waste.

More potential for both cost savings and reduced environmental impact rests with collaboration tools -- enabling telecommuting and reducing travel.

"Telepresence is really the green product of the century," Marcoux said, noting its ability to reduce the need for business travel.

While a bit less convinced that Telepresence deserves that particular appellation, Mines agreed that changing travel habits is a large component in merging environmental and economic interests.

"If you can change your employees commuting habits or travel habits, you've really taken pretty big steps there," he said. "Bigger steps probably than energy efficiency in your data center."

According to Marcoux, fixing metrics to green concepts is essential. In the next month or so, Cisco plans to release data on energy and cost savings from the use of Telepresence to reduce travel. He said these numbers would be reviewed by an independent third party.

"If you can't measure something, you can't manage it," he said. To that end, Cisco has been running its latest devices through a battery of tests to determine actual energy savings from hybrid designs, smarter power supplies and any other green innovations the company develops.

However, when pressed on whether or not going green will always be a win-win for Cisco and its customers, Marcoux sets metrics aside, temporarily and returned to the concept of social corporate responsibility.

"This is the right thing to do. We might have to look at giving up a couple of points in terms of profitability," Marcoux said, pausing briefly. "And my belief is that if we don't do it, others will. And then it becomes a competitive disadvantage for us not to have that knowledge."

Sustainability and profitability, together at last.

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