More than five decades ago, IBM CEO Thomas Watson, Jr. stated: “Businessmen are influential leaders in public opinion. That is why it is so important that they be as open-minded and far-sighted in matters concerning the general public need as they are in questions relating to the operation of their businesses.”
Today, Wayne Balta, vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety at IBM, is keeping Watson’s commitment to sustainable business practices alive.
I recently spoke with Balta to learn more about IBM’s sustainability goals—including an effort to procure 55 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025—and how the company is using technology to help solve environmental challenges.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Where do you see the opportunities for collaboration as you try to tackle the carbon footprint of IBM’s operations and supply chain?
Wayne Balta: Doing this type of work requires a lot of internal collaboration. We engage with IBMers who are responsible for different domains—from employees in our research division who invent technologies that better allow us to detect and analyze data, to those who operate our real estate infrastructure (including data centers), to the people in charge of the checkbooks and finance. This interdisciplinary collaboration is what we've learned yields the best results.
Externally, we ask our suppliers to establish their own environmental management systems and goals. It's essential for our suppliers to build their own long-term capacity to succeed and we continually endeavor to help them understand why this work matters.
Can you share some examples of partnerships with suppliers or other stakeholders that you’ve been involved in?
WB: We’ve partnered with a diverse group of organizations over the years on a variety of environmental subjects. One environmental partnership that I love to this day is the U.S. EPA Energy Star program. At the very beginning, ‘Energy Star computers’ was one of the initiatives that allowed Energy Star to take hold and to flourish. And look today at how pervasive Energy Star is.
These days, we're excited to see how the Responsible Business Alliance—something IBM helped create back in 2004—has grown. It began as a group of like-minded companies in the electronics industry working with each other and our suppliers to explain why good practices in this arena makes sense. Today there are over 140 members in the group coming from multiple industry sectors, and they collaborate to promote good practices across supply chains.
How are you applying IBM services, data analysis and technology, like blockchain, and IoT, to improve the sustainability of your supply chain?
WB: Our world and the lives we're leading are being transformed by the existence and the continued generations of data, which are being coupled with new technologies that can be used to identify patterns and extract value. At IBM, we call this digital transformation.
An example of this at IBM is our work with The Freshwater Trust, SweetSense, and the University of Colorado to use blockchain and Internet of Things technologies to monitor the extraction of groundwater in California’s Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta. The project aims to demonstrate a way to transparently measure groundwater extraction in real time, record the withdrawals, and manage those withdrawals of groundwater in a blockchain-based ledger.
Can you tell me more about IBM’s new plastics recycling process called VolCat? It sounds like a real game-changer.
WB: IBM's research division came up with VolCat, short for volatile catalyst. It’s a process that catalyzes chemicals at high temperature and high pressure to clean waste from PET, a plastic used in food and beverage packaging. It turns PET into a renewable resource so people who want to innovate and turn old plastic into new product can get that feedstock in a way that's more usable and more economically sustainable.
Editor's note: This story was previously published on Forbes and was reprinted with permission.
Image credit: Panumas Nikhomkhai/Pexels
Tom Murray is Vice President of EDF+Business at Environmental Defense Fund. He focuses on challenging businesses and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale and impact; accelerating environmental innovation, and supporting smart environmental safeguards.