IBM is certainly not the first global company to require its suppliers to be more environmentally and socially responsible. Hewlett Packard was a leader in seeking out transparency in the supply chain, and Wal-Mart’s of its suppliers have helped to green dozens of industries. Still, Balta maintains that Big Blue’s systemic approach is unique.
IBM has always been big into “systems,” and in the last few years, that word has been used a lot to describe its Smarter Planet initiatives, which incorporate everything from municipal water management to transportation to electrical grids. The company sees cities as “systems of systems” that need to be optimized, and it uses the same language to describe its own business.
In the case of its supply chain, taking a systemic approach is crucial to building long-lasting success for all parties involved.
“If you adopt an approach to environmental and social responsibility that’s based on management systems and business processes, first of all that’s familiar to businesses. And second, it allows you to evaluate sustainability in a horizontal way across your business, which is much more holistic than just looking at, say, climate change and CO2 emissions," Balta explains.
"By taking a systems approach to environmental issues, companies will be able to pinpoint which parts of the environmental arena matter most to them and then focus in on those parts.”
From IBM to Entire Industry
It’s an approach the company will also be sharing with the other members of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (), chaired by IBM’s manager of supply chain social responsibility, John Gabriel.
The Coalition — formed in 2004 by Hewlett Packard, Intel, Dell and IBM, along with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and the United Nations Environment Program’s Global e-Sustainability Initiative — was formed to address supply chain issues throughout the electronics industry. The companies figured that since many of them shared suppliers, it would behoove them to get together and agree on what they should be demanding of them. To that end, the EICC published a Code of Conduct in 2005, based largely on IBM’s Supplier Code of Conduct.
“This approach could be applied to any industry,” Balta is quick to point out. “Any organization and any industry — including government — could look at what we’re doing and what our suppliers are doing and apply it to their sector.”
Again, it’s all about the systemic approach. “Ultimately we’ll all retire from our professions, but if we leave behind a systemic approach our successors can pick it up and run with it without dropping the ball,” Balta says. “And that’s an important contribution.”