The Pioneering Past and Future of HP's Sustainability Efforts

Hewlett Packard, the world's biggest technology company, ships 3.5 products per second.* That's a lot of printers, cartridges, computers, servers, handheld devices, etc. No tech company -- not even Google -- is more important to the health of the planet.

Fortunately, HP takes sustainability seriously. HP topped Newsweek's environmental ranking of 500 big U.S. companies, as well as a similar (but less credible) list assembled by Corporate Responsibility magazine. It has set tough goals for itself around greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency of its products and recyling.

"It's in our company's DNA," says Engelina Jaspers, HP's vice president of environmental sustainability. "This has been underway for decades."

Engelina has been the steward of HP's environmental efforts for just about a year; she has been with HP for 12 years and before than worked for about 15 years at Eastman Kodak, mostly in sales and marketing. We had lunch today in Washington to talk a bit about where the company has come from, where it's going and how an executive who commands just a handful of executives can help move a company that generated $115 billion in revenues last year.

She's right about the company's DNA. Despite some big-time stumbles in recent years -- the embarrassing tenure of CEO Carly Fiorina and the even more embarrassing exit of CEO Mark Hurd -- HP has been a model of corporate responsibility since it was started after World War II by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Their path-breaking "HP Way" corporate philosophy says, among other things, that companies need to be about something bigger than generating short-term profits. As a Stanford magazine profile put it:

"I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money," Packard told an HP management training session in 1960. "While this is an important result of a company's existence, we have to go deeper to find our real reason for being.... A group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company ... to do something worthwhile -- they make a contribution to society.... The real reason for our existence is that we provide something which is unique."

HP, for example, was a pioneer in electronics recycling. It built a recycling facility in Roseville, CA, (pictured above) in the mid-1990s, long before the rest of the electronics industry took recycling seriously. (See my 2007 FORTUNE story, The End of Garbage.) There, HP disassembles old computers and printers, and extracts valuable metals that, at least in theory, pay for the operation. "Things come in as e-waste," Jaspers says. "They go out as commodities." Even before that, HP recycled ink cartridges. Today, at a plant near Montreal operated with a partner called the Lavergne Group, HP is using a closed-loop plastic recycling system that incorporates post-consumer recycled plastics -- from sources such as water bottles and ink cartridges -- into the manufacture of new inkjet cartridges. Of course, as HP takes responsibility for its products at the end of their life, the company increasingly designs them in a way that makes it easier for products to be reused or recycled. HP has said it will use a total of 100 million pounds, cumulatively from 2007, of recycled plastic in HP printing products.