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Icons of Progress

Corporate Leadership in Environmental Responsibility

IBM100 Corporate Leadership in Environmental Responsibility iconic mark

For more than 40 years, IBM has been ahead of the curve on environmental issues, and is a recognized environmental leader.

In 1974, IBM set out to eliminate the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from its products, and achieved its goal worldwide by 1978. A year later, in 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States banned the use of PCBs. IBM began requiring that its underground storage tanks—used for production chemicals, for example—have secondary containment built around them in 1979. The EPA did not establish its underground storage regulatory program until six years later.

IBM set—and met—a target to eliminate its CFC (chlorofluorocarbons) use by 1993. This exceeded in scope and schedule the requirements of the Montreal Protocol at that time, which called for a 50 percent reduction from 1986 levels in the production of CFCs.

“Protecting the environment is in our DNA,” says Wayne Balta, IBM vice president of Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety. “Even before the issuance of our corporate policy commitment to environmental responsibility in 1971, our commitment to being a good corporate citizen was part of the company’s Basic Beliefs and Principles in the mid-1960s. As stated in those Principles: we understood well that “we serve our own interests best when we serve the public interest” and “we want to be in the forefront of those companies which are working to make our world a better place.”

In those Basic Beliefs and Principles, presented as a series of lectures at Columbia University in 1962, Thomas Watson Jr. said, “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.” For IBM, this meant being forthright and transparent in its approach to the environment—long before it was fashionable or required to do so. Reflecting the importance Watson gave the environment, IBM in 1990 made the office a dedicated corporate-level staff function. Today, Balta’s team is responsible for IBM’s global environmental strategy, monitoring implementation and publicly reporting on the company’s performance. IBM’s environmental programs are managed by professionals across the company’s business units in accordance with IBM’s global environmental management system (EMS). The environmental function reports annually to the Directors and Corporate Governance Committee of IBM’s Board of Directors. An independent company audits IBM’s EMS and results.

Company-wide focus on environmental programs at IBM began in the early 1960s, and grew to encompass not only its manufacturing processes and operations, but also the environmental aspects of its products. In recognition of its leadership, IBM received the World Environmental Center’s Gold Medal for International Corporate Environmental Achievement in 1990. By the late 1990s, IBM’s environmental commitment had become a source of innovation touching upon every aspect of the company, from basic research to customer solutions for a smarter planet.

Beyond the satisfaction of doing the right thing, the rewards have been significant—both in terms of tangible returns from use of materials with recycled content, waste reduction, water conservation, reduced energy costs, packaging and design innovations, improved development and manufacturing methods, and products with greater environmental attributes. From 1990 through 2010, IBM:

  • Saved 5.4 billion kWh of electricity consumption.
  • Avoided more than 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, an amount equal to 52 percent of its 1990 global carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Saved more than US$399 million through its annual energy conservation actions.
  • And, in 2003, IBM was the first company to report recovering and recycling 1 billion pounds of IT products and product waste.

All of this adds up to real money. Over the years, IBM estimates that the environmental savings and cost avoidance associated with its commitment to environmental leadership has exceeded its environmental expenses by a ratio of approximately 1.6 to 1.

Much of this progress is a direct result of the company’s “systems management” approach to environmental and safety issues. “It’s one thing to have each region or country meet or exceed local laws and guidelines,” says Edan Dionne, director of IBM Corporate Environmental Affairs. “It’s a much bigger task to manage to the same standards with more than 400,000 employees operating in more than 100 countries.”

IBM began the groundwork for its global approach to environmental standards in the 1970s, and integrated environmental and safety standards and goals in everything from research and development to real estate and supply chain operations. By the late 1990s, when the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization issued its comprehensive environmental standards, known as ISO 14001, IBM became the first multinational company to earn a single global registration.

IBM’s Corporate Standard for Environmentally Conscious Design was launched in 1996 and the company helped pioneer the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR ® program in 2002. The program is now used worldwide, and IBM continues to be a leader in meeting ENERGY STAR requirements with its systems and products. IBM also established, in Switzerland, the world’s first comprehensive program for recycling electronic products.

IBM was one of just three manufacturing companies to participate in the US Department of Energy’s Voluntary Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting program at its inception. The company was also a charter member of the World Resources Institute’s Green Power Market Development Group, the EPA’s Climate Leaders ® and a charter member of the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Awards and recognition of IBM’s leadership accomplishments abound. Recent examples: Newsweek magazine ranks IBM number one on the Global 100 list in Newsweek Magazine’s Green Rankings 2010. The company also ranked number one in the latest Supercomputing Green500 List. IBM was ranked number one in all-around performance and was in the top three in all five categories in the Gartner/World Wildlife Fund’s recent Low-carbon & Environmental Leadership Findings Report.

IBM is leveraging business analytics to help identify opportunities that were not previously visible, to further reduce demand for resources and cost. An example involves smarter buildings where these capabilities are helping the company improve utilization of assets, reduce energy and enhance quality of space.

IBM has been working with more than 150 clients to develop smart grid programs that dramatically improve how energy is transported, stored and used. IBM led the formation of the Global Intelligent Utility Network Coalition, which now collectively serves more than 115 million energy consumers on five continents.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Thomas Watson Jr. IBM Chairman and CEO
  • Wayne Balta Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety
  • Edan Dionne Program Director, Corporate Environmental Affairs
  • Brad Brooks Manager, Toxicology and Chemical Management