Sprinting Toward Sustainability with CEO Dan Hesse

"People just want a cell phone," Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint, told me. "They don't care how green it is."

"But we think they will over time."

Is that sufficient reason to try to sell "green" phones, aggressively promote recycling and buy renewable energy?

"People want to do business with good companies," Hesse says. "I want us to be thought of as a very good company."

I met with Hesse last week in Washington to talk about Sprint's environmental practices. They're impressive.

Dan HesseYou probably recognize Hesse. The 56-year-old chief executive has been starring in Sprint commercials for the past couple of years, touting the company's "Simply Everything" plan which offers unlimited calling, text and email for one price. Sprint's subscriber numbers have perked up a bit this year, but the company remains the No. 3 player in the cell phone industry (far behind Verizon and AT&T), with about 48 million subscribers and $32.3 billion in revenues. Its stock price is down by nearly 40 percent in the past two years, trailing rivals and the S&P500.

So Hesse, who has been CEO since the end of 2007, could be forgiven if he had shoved environmental concerns off the agenda.

To his credit, he hasn't.

Sprint offers not one, but three environmentally-friendly phones -- the Samsung Restore, which is partly made from post-consumer recycled plastics, the Samsung Reclaim, whose casing is made in part from bioplastics sourced from corn and the LG Remarq, which also uses post-consumer recyled plastic. Their chargers meet the EPA's Energy Star standards and they all contain "low levels" of potentially hazardous chemicals (PVCs, BFRs, Phthaltes and Beryllim.).

Because of its aggressive promotion of recycling, Sprint's collection rate for recycling and reuse of phones has climbed from 22 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2008 to 42 percent in 2009 -- about twice the industry average, according to Hesse. Like some electronics companies, Sprint now offers free recycling, not just to its own customers, but to anyone who has wireless phones, batteries, accessories and data cards that they no longer use, as part of a program called Sprint Project Connect. Proceeds, if any, go to charity. Better yet, a program called Sprint Buyback pays Sprint customers for their old devices, which are then either recycled or, more often, refurbished and reused. The company's long term goal (2017) is to collect nine phones for every 10 that it sells.

Hard to believe, but Americans discard 16,000 cell phones every hour. Here's an amusing Sprint video reminding customers that  throwing away old phones is a bad idea.

And, in terms of its own operations, Sprint has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2017, and it's using wind power to deliver about 24 percent of the energy use in its commercial buildings. Its headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, are 90 percent powered by wind.