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July 05, 2006
Recycling 1.2--Dell, HP, and Apple Upgrade Takeback Programs to Slouch Toward Sustainability
    by Bill Baue

The Computer TakeBack Campaign applauds the improvements while mapping the long road the computer industry still has to travel to attain true sustainability.


In the past month, three major computer companies--Dell (ticker: DELL), HP (HPQ), and Apple (AAPL)--have announced major upgrades to their recycling programs, with Dell's global policy leading the pack. However, for an industry known for rapid innovation, these new programs still lag far behind the curve on the path toward true sustainability. Expressed in terms of the history of the computer movement, these new programs move the industry from punch cards to magnetic disc storage, leaving a long game of catch-up in addressing issues such as computer component toxicity and the business model of planned obsolescence.

"All three companies should be commended for making improvements in their takeback programs," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which has performed an in-depth comparison of the programs. "Dell announced that, starting in the fall, they will take back all Dell products from individuals worldwide, even if you are not buying a new Dell product."

"While that may not seem like a big difference on the surface, we think it's a significant statement to say--'We won't just take back old products to get you to buy our new ones, but we will take responsibility for our products at the end of their useful life, Period," Ms. Kyle told SocialFunds.com. "The Computer TakeBack Campaign promotes this concept of 'extended producer responsibility' and we'd like to see all computer companies step up to the plate like Dell has."

HP and Apple are in the ballpark, but they have yet to step into the batter's box, as their recycling programs are far from global in scale. HP's announcement augments its standard recycling program (which offsets $13 to $34 recycling costs by providing a rebate coupon) by offering free collection events in just a handful of US states (though it is globalizing its recycling efforts.)

"We need to see HP & Apple accelerate the supplemental free events like those just announced by HP," said Conrad MacKerron, director of the corporate responsibility program at the As You Sow (AYS) Foundation, an active partner of the Computer TakeBack Campaign. "It's been two years since they did a large-scale, free take back at Office Depot, and Apple still has done nothing on this scale."

Ms. Kyle would like to see Apple institute takeback at Apple stores, but this has yet to happen.

"One main weakness for all 3 company programs is that they are mail back programs," said Ms. Kyle. The order of the recycling process is another problem. "To get free recycling from HP's regular takeback program, you must recycle first, then you receive a coupon for a discount towards your purchase that usually covers the cost of recycling, but no one will send back their old computer before they buy the new one."

Apple is only slightly better in this realm, allowing 30 days to ship back old product for free.

"Many people will want a longer time period to make sure they have transferred all their data, and that everything is working properly, before they surrender their old product," Ms. Kyle pointed out. "We have been pressuring Apple for a year and a half to live up to its 'think different' motto and create a serious, free takeback recycling program, but the company has done almost zero publicity about their new takeback program, which makes us wonder if they really have a commitment to this issue."

"These programs will make a difference only if they promote them aggressively so that consumers use them," she adds. "We want to see these companies use the same expertise and creativity they apply to selling their products to getting them back for responsible recycling or refurbishment."

Beyond aggressive promotion, how the recycling proposition is framed can also impact success.

"I hope we can convince companies that recycling can be cool, a statement of environmental awareness and responsibility--like owning a Prius," Mr. MacKerron said. "Part of companies' responsibility is to educate and connect the link between purchases and disposal issues for customers--for example by prominently displaying free takeback offers, developing charts about the amount of energy various models will save you, and advertising 'green' models that are lead free."

Other parts of companies' responsibility are accountability and transparency.

"Companies need to set increasingly challenging goals and then provide transparent reporting about how they are meeting their goals," said Ms. Kyle. "Both Dell and HP have set public takeback goals, but Apple has not."

HP has committed to recycle one billion pounds by 2007, while Dell promises to recycle 280 million pounds by 2009. HP led this charge by taking back 140 million pounds in 2005, compared to Dell's 41 million pounds and Apple's scant 6.2 million pounds.

"When you look at what these companies took back in 2005, and then compare it to sales figures from seven years ago (as the companies argue is the fair way to do this), you will see that the takeback programs still have a long way to go," Ms. Kyle said.

In 2005, Dell recycled 9.7 percent of its 1999 sales, HP took back 6.2, and Apple a mere 3.5 percent. In addition to end-of-life takeback rates, start-of-life materials decisions and the industry's very business model are key to achieving true sustainability.

"While we applaud companies for their programs to take back and recycle products, we also need to see them phasing out the toxic materials that make them hard to recycle safely and easily," said Ms. Kyle.

"The term 'sustainability' gets thrown around in CSR reports but a genuine focus on sustainability will be a tall order as long as the industry continues promoting a model of overconsumption and planned or implied obsolescence by urging you to buy a newer, faster system every two years or so," added Mr. MacKerron.

 

 
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