Implementing Sustainability Strategies

moderator: Peter Senge, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Wayne Balta, IBM
author: Mark Buckley, Staples
published: Jan. 6, 2014,   recorded: December 2007,   views: 1890

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Companies sometimes regard sustainability as “metaphoric low-hanging fruit,” says moderator Peter Senge, and reach for a few easy targets to achieve cosmetic improvements. His three panelists describe how their corporations are attempting to embrace sustainability as more than just another high-profile, low-impact initiative that “goes right into an overloaded bucket.”

IBM wants to be known for its innovation and leadership not just in products and services, but in its relationship with the environment, says Wayne Balta. All aspects of the company’s operations, from research and product design, to fulfillment, software and services, must integrate environmentally responsible behaviors in ways that also advance the company’s bottom line and satisfy shareholders. “Environment is not a special, short-term project, not a fad or flavor of the month,” says Balta. IBM pursues opportunities in and out of the company, including “making brown green:” reducing waste in its business and industrial processes around the world; designing intelligent networks to improve the efficiency of electrical utility operations; developing systems for mitigating traffic congestion in cities; launching a Big Green innovation business unit; and creating an Eco Patent Commons, enabling users the free and unrestricted use of IBM technologies that help solve environmental challenges.

“We’re trying to find the sweet spot between social, economic and environmental areas that define sustainability, because at the end of the day if any one of those three legs of the stool aren’t available then the model itself falls down.” says Mark Buckley. He describes the “Staples Soul,” an approach to corporate responsibility that attempts to engage the corporation’s 74 thousand associates worldwide, involving business ethics, impact on communities, diversity, and reducing a product’s direct and indirect impact on the environment. Staples, says Buckley, “has every opportunity to develop sustainable design platforms in terms of carbon intensity.” One example: Staples has developed school notebook filler paper made from sugarcane byproducts that Argentine farmers typically burn in their fields at the end of processing, creating local air pollution. Notes Buckley, “We can do a lot of good from the social perspective but if there’s no economic market to drive it, provide long term pressure or opportunity, the model will fall short.”

British Telecom is tackling three interdependent areas, says Kevin Moss: sustainable economic growth, climate change and creating a more inclusive society. The company engages its 100 thousand plus employees in this mission by, among other methods, aggressively encouraging telecommuting -- nearly 15% of staff stay at home rather than drive to work, leading not only to a reduction in carbon emissions but to a 99% retention of working mothers returning to work after maternity leave. Since 1996, the company has reduced its carbon footprint by 60%. As a telecom, BT pushes digital inclusion by installing computer equipment and training people in India, South Africa and Brazil. The company gambled big when it ventured to bridge the digital divide in the UK by wiring the entire country for broadband. This move, says Moss, “turned out to be a sensible decision commercially.”

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