Small Steps

Small Steps

To save the planet, we need to take a handful of big steps, like regulating greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to take many, many small steps, like recycling, buying paper from sustainably-harvested forests and using less packaging. Last week’s high-profile defeat of the Lieberman-Warner bill to regulate greenhouse gases was a significant setback, a big step that won’t happen for at least another year.. So this posting will look at some small steps towards a cleaner planet that have not gotten as much attention.

We’ll start with Best Buy. Thanks in part to the work of an effective shareholder activist group called As You Sow, Best Buy announced last week that it will test a free recycling program that will offer consumers a convenient and safe way to get rid of old TVs, computers, cell phones and other unwanted gadgets. The trial will be offered at 177 Best Buy stores in eight states. The company already had an active recycling program, available when consumers bought a new product from Best Buy. The big change here is that Best Buy will take back e-waste that it did not sell.

Conrad McKerron, an activist with As You Sow, told me via email:

As You Sow has been in dialogue with Best Buy, the largest U.S. electronics retailer for several months, and filed a shareholder proposal with the company last fall asking it to look at using its stores for free take back of electronic waste, including TVs, and to partner with electronic manufacturers to develop a workable, convenient national collection system. We withdrew the proposal in exchange for an agreement by the company in April to develop a large scale pilot to test in-store recycling of electronics. They are now ready to roll out a pilot that will offer free take back of most consumer electronics, including TVs, at 117 of their stores in three areas – here in the SF Bay Area, Minneapolis and Baltimore. We believe this represents the first on-going large scale take back of consumer electronics offered by any major retail chain.

This is especially significant because of next February’s switchover from analog to digital TV broadcasting, which could render millions of old TVs obsolete. The ultimate goal—and we are gradually getting there—is for all manufacturers to assume responsibility for take-back all their products, as Dell and HP have for their hardware. (I recently shipped a couple of old printers back to BP, and the system worked well.) Sony’s the leader in the TV industry; its competitors have yet to come along. Best Buy could give them a push.

Speaking of HP, the company recently announced a comprehensive new paper-buying policy, developed in cooperation with NGOs Forest Ethics and World Wildlife Fund. We’ll spare you most of the (boring) details; suffice it to say that HP will set goals for all of its worldwide operations, maximize the use of recycled paper, give preference to papers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and report publicly on all of this. The paper products covered under HP’s new policy amount to more than 300,000 tons, including its retail printing paper, all packaging, promotional materials, and internally used paper.

Will Craven of Forest Ethics tells me that a growing number of companies are taking responsibility for the environmental impact of the paper they use. Among them are Limited Brands (after an activist campaign targeting the Victoria’s Secret catalog), Patagonia, REI, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Timberland, Nordstrom’s, and LL Bean and Dell. Visit www.ForestEthics.org or www.catalogcutdown.org for more info.

Finally, Wal-Mart marked a milestone recently—it now sells only concentrated liquid laundry detergent in all of its U.S. and Canadian stores, having phased out those wasteful, oversized jugs of Tide, All and the like. Essentially, Wal-Mart muscled its suppliers to ship their detergent in more compact containers, saving water, plastic, shipping costs and shelf space (in the stores and in your laundry room). It’s part of the company’s ambitious goal to reduce the packaging (and waste) of everything it sells.

Since about 25% of all the liquid laundry detergent sold in the U.S. is sold at Wal-Mart stores—yes, the company is THAT big—this means the beginning of the end of those oversized containers.

I’m interviewing Matt Kistler, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability, later this week at a conference called Greener By Design organized by my friend Joel Makower. After we talk, I’ll report back on other WMT initiatives aimed at reducing packaging and designing products with a lighter environment footprint.

Given the reach of Best Buy, HP and Wal-Mart, these aren’t really small steps—they’re major steps. But let me be clear: They are no substitute for the big steps, like climate-change legislation, that will be required to bring about the change we need, at the scale we need, in a hurry.