Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Corporate Value Chain GHG Accounting Standard: Where’s IT?

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The 149-page corporate value chain accounting and reporting standard was released a few months ago by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol:

Over a three year period:

  • 2,300 participants were involved from 55 countries;
  • 96 members participated in technical working groups to draft the standard, and;
  • 34 companies from various industries road tested the standard in 2010.

The new standards provide a methodology that can be used to account for and report emissions from companies of all sectors, globally. They are accompanied by user-friendly guidance and tools developed by the GHG Protocol.

The standard is all about information: what’s required, what’s suggested, how often, how accurate, boundaries, computations, etc. It is detailed, precise, and (fairly) comprehensive.

But it says almost nothing about the information systems that are at the foundation of its implementation. For example, discussion of a “Data Management Plan” is relegated to an appendix that uses vague language such as:

Information on criteria used to determine when an inventory is to be re-evaluated, including the relevant information needed to be tracked, and how this should be tracked over time. This allows data and information sources to be tracked and compared overtime. It may also involve identifying a system (e.g., document tracking and identification system) to ensure data  and information is easily located and under what conditions this information/data was used or collected.

Why is this a problem? As Orlikowski and Iacono (2001) emphasize:

  • IT artifacts, by definition, are not natural, neutral, universal, or given….they are shaped by the interests, values, and assumptions of a wide variety of communities of developers, investors, users, etc.
  • IT artifacts are always embedded in some time, place, discourse, and community….[historical and cultural conditions] cannot be ignored, abstracted, or assumed away.
  • IT artifacts are usually made up of a multiplicity of often fragile and fragmentary components… [over simplifications] make it easy to talk about technologies, [but] they also make it difficult to see that such technologies are rarely fully integrated, flawless, and unfailing, and that they can and often do break down, wear down, and shut down.
  • IT artifacts are neither fixed nor independent, but they emerge from ongoing social and economic practices.
  • IT artifacts are not static or unchanging, but dynamic…understanding how and why IT artifacts come to be “stabilized” in certain ways at certain times and places are critical aspects of understanding the range of social and economic consequences associated with particular technologies in various socio-historical contexts.

Ignoring these critical characteristics of information systems in organizations may inhibit effective implementation of environmental standards, and ultimately, hamper efforts to manage and reduce corporate greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s needed? IMHO, expansion of the scope of GHG standards to include specifications for the information systems that form the foundation of applying the standards in practice.


Orlikowski, W.J., and Iacono, C.S. 2001. “Desperately Seeking the ‘IT’ in IT Research – A Call to Theorizing the IT Artifact,” Information Systems Research (12:2), pp. 121-134.


Author: nigelpm

Associate Professor of Information Systems, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Helping organizations to navigate digital transformation.

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