Businesses operate in a fiercely competitive global economy in which they must not only deliver value and be efficient, but also must operate responsibly. That includes responsibility towards the environment.

Thankfully, business leaders have come to realize that decisions about environmental sustainability have to reflect an unambiguous, long-term commitment. The reason is simple: it makes good business sense.

Environmental sustainability must be managed as a strategic imperative, not a feel-good tactic. Businesses motivated by a clear-eyed regard for the sustainability of the planet realize that it bears directly on the sustainability of the company as well. Success comes from recognizing and managing it as an operational business issue -- and making it systemic, not an episodic fad or marketing campaign.

Since the 1970s, IBM has been one of the most progressive large companies in the world when it comes to addressing environmental matters. We are also making an impact with our Smarter Planet agenda. When we created it, we said that the way the world works isn’t smart enough to be sustainable.

Today, we are helping governments and companies adopt innovative solutions to some of the world’s big challenges. These solutions are deriving new insight from “big data” and analytics for breakthrough thinking and more sustainable living.

Great progress is underway as leaders step up and determine that sustainability must be an area of focus. For example, water resources are diminishing while demand is increasing, and aging infrastructure threatens water quality. Smarter water management solutions can use big data from sensors, video, texts and tweets to coordinate resources for less waste, more availability, improved quality, and better use of limited budgets. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, new analytics tools and smart metering is helping the Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department reduce water consumption by 20 percent and generate up to $1 million a year in savings per year, which can be reallocated back into parks services for residents.

Food security is affected by increasing population, shortages in clean water, limited arable land, environmental damage and climate change. Although these are daunting challenges, new techniques for smarter agriculture can use technology to improve food science, safety, production, tracking, and sustainability. Such technologies offer end-to-end visibility across a global web of growers, packers, shippers, processors and retailers.

This approach enables better decisions about when to irrigate and fertilize, and how much water and fertilizer are really necessary. It minimizes food waste and increases transparency across our complex global supply chain for food. An example is Sun World International, a California agribusiness growing more than 60 varieties of produce. The company is using big data analytics to improve food operations, from planting, watering and harvesting to storage, tracking and distribution.

A third example involves transportation. With more than 50 percent of the world’s population living in the world’s cities, traffic congestion is growing. The economic and personal costs keep increasing, as does pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In light of this, new intelligent transportation systems can integrate big data from sensors for system-wide, real time visibility of traffic, with ways to improve forecasting, adaptation and response. This is already happening in the busy cities of Dublin, Ireland, Lyon, France, and Zhenjiang, China. New systems to allow smarter tolling, parking, and road charging can also help provide cities with an improved quality of life and reduce the impact on the environment.

Regardless of whether or not it’s easy to be green, it’s certainly necessary. Corporations need to partner with government, academia and private sector partners to make environmental sustainability achievable today because it's necessary for the long-term health of business, the economy and society as a whole.

Wayne Balta2

Wayne Balta is Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety, IBM, where he has global responsibility for environmental affairs and energy efficiency. He is also Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Environmental Law Institute and served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the World Environment Center from 2008-2010, and was re-elected to its Board in 2012. He is a member and past Chairman of The Conference Board's Chief Environment, Health & Safety Officers Council and serves on The National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability.