Toward a Profession of Sustainability Managers: Wayne Balta and Sustainability at IBM

If we are to make this planet more sustainable, all of us–individuals, families, schools, nonprofits, and especially corporations–will need to change our behavior. This does not mean that we must live grim lives where we stay at home freezing in the dark. It does mean that we need to pay attention to the resources we consume and we need to switch as quickly as we can to renewable resources. This is going to require changes in public policy and increases in the funding for scientific research and development. It is also going to require the private sector do more to incorporate sustainability principles into best management practices. In the period after the Great Depression we saw the reform of financial markets and the development of rules governing corporate finance and reporting. Along with that we saw the rise of the profession of accounting. Despite the attacks of those who think that free markets require the same governing principles that prevailed in the Wild West, well-managed modern corporations understand the importance of financial rules and financial accounting. The profession of accounting is a real one and it influences the behavior of corporations. Sustainability principles may never be as codified as accounting rules, but these principles are starting to become visible in many private corporations. Along with these principles we are starting to see a new profession rising: a profession of sustainability managers

With this in mind, we spoke to a leader in the private sector who is one of these new sustainability professionals–Wayne Balta, Vice President of Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety at IBM. Balta has global responsibility for environmental leadership at the company.

Founded in 1911, IBM now works in 170 countries and employs more than 380,000 people. Balta, who holds a Master of Science Degree in civil engineering from MIT, began working at IBM in 1984. He’s been in his current position since 2001.

According to Balta, IBM has a long history of trying to "get it right" with the environment. Former CEO Tom Watson Junior issued IBM’s first environmental policy in 1971, long before terms like "environmentally friendly" became buzz words. In 1974 the company called for energy conservation when it issued its first energy policy, and IBM has voluntarily published a corporate environmental report every year since 1990.

Balta says IBM has been proactive about environmental stewardship for two reasons. First, "Protecting the environment is the right thing to do, and that has always been consistent with IBM’s historical stature as a responsible company." Second, IBM has long recognized that good environmental management makes good business sense.

For example, since 1990, when IBM began documenting its carbon dioxide emissions, the company has saved almost 300 million dollars by conserving over 4.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. They also avoided over 3 million tons of carbon emissions in the process.

Today, IBM has several environmental initiatives underway. Recently, the company set up a congestion pricing system (sound familiar?) for Stockholm, Sweden. The system, which involves 18 points of entry into Stockholm’s city center, charges vehicles based on use of the road and time of day. Balta notes that the results have been very promising, showing a 25 percent reduction in peak hour traffic and a 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions, since people are driving less.

One of the company’s latest environmental initiatives came out of a worldwide "InnovationJam"–basically a massive online brainstorming session–held in the fall of 2006. The topic, according to Balta, was how IBM could "help the world innovate in areas where innovation would really matter in the coming decade."

"For one calendar week we invited and encouraged all IBMers, all over the world, at any time of day, including their family and friends, to get on an IBM web-based system, and "jam," or collectively talk to each other, submit ideas, blog, post, whatever you want to call it."

More than 150,000 people from just over 100 countries participated, posting tens of thousands of ideas. "One of the topics that came up over and over and over was the environment," says Balta.

In response, IBM launched a new business unit called Big Green Innovations. "It’s all about . . . setting aside a group of IBM technical leaders, researchers, others with greater business skills, to think about how IBM could apply the skills inside the company to innovate in areas for the environment," explains Balta.

The unit is looking at a broad range of areas, including water management and high performance computing to model scenarios for the world under a changing climate.

It becomes clear when talking to Balta that IBM’s environmental accomplishments come from integrating the ethic of sustainability into the "fabric of the business," rather than relegating environmental responsibility to just a staff function.

"[I] don’t design computers," Balta says, "but there’s a bunch of IBMers who do. . . and they’re the ones who can make decisions to design those computers to be better for the environment, whether it involves the materials that are used, the energy that’s consumed, or the extent to which it can be used at the end of its original life. When we integrate it and get those people involved, that’s when it sticks."

One key to this integration is IBM’s global Environmental Management System, which identifies and manages the potential environmental impact of IBM’s operations. In fact, when asked to name one of IBM’s top environmental achievements, Balta says IBM’s Environmental Management System is the most important.

"If you’re going to be a leader on the environment," says Balta, "you’ve got to identify the way in which you’re involved. You’ve got to measure your impact. You’ve got to manage the results of what you found out, and you also need to be transparent and report it, and . . . make known how well you’re doing, or how well you’re not doing."

"All of the eventual [environmental] results that happen, they’re really due to the global environmental management system, because that’s the foundation, that’s what sustains our focus, and that’s what drives our performance over decades."

As Balta points out, the environment is a long-term issue, with long-term importance. "It transcends generations, and getting it right really, really matters," he says.

If you look at a list of the world’s 100 largest economic entities, you’ll find more corporations there than countries (51 versus 49). Simply put, corporations are big and powerful. Their size means they have a big impact on global issues, including the environment. It also means they have tremendous resources that can be rallied to actually do good for the environment. We see this at IBM, we see it here at Columbia University and we are beginning to see it in many large organizations. Going green may have started as a public relations gimmick, but as the price of energy and water continue to rise, it’s starting to take root with those responsible for managing production and facilities.