The end of garbage

p12608In nature, nothing goes to waste. The excrement of one species (forgive me if you are reading over breakfast) becomes food for another.

Why can’t we design the industrial economy to be like nature?

This isn’t a new idea. During the American Revolution, iron pots were melted down to make armaments. I take notes with a pen made out of recycled bottles. The gospel of “natural capitalism” or “cradle to cradle” has been spread by  such pioneering environmental thinkers as Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough.

Lately, though, I’m pleased to report, the idea of eliminating waste is gaining traction among big global companies, which increasingly are talking about — and acting to bring about — what is called the circular economy.

As regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), I’ve long been excited by the idea of a zero-waste world. I wrote a story for FORTUNE called The End of Garbage in 2007. Recently, I revisited the topic for Ensia, a magazine and website about environmental solutions.

Here’s how my story begins:

Don’t let fashion go to waste,” says H&M, the global clothing retailer that booked $20 billion in revenues last year. So I brought a bag of old T-shirts, sweaters and khaki pants to an H&M store in Washington, D.C., where it took them, no questions asked, and gave me a coupon for 15 percent off my next purchase. H&M takes back clothes in all of its 3,100 stores in 53 countries.

Next, I pulled an ancient iPod and an iPhone 4S with a cracked screen from a desk drawer. On the website of a company called Gazelle, I answered a few questions and learned that the company would pay me $37 for the pair. (Without the cracked screen, the iPhone would have been valued at $135.) I printed out a free shipping label, and they were on their way. Not to landfills, but to a new life.

Meanwhile, not far from my home, a garage owned by the Washington Metrorail system is about to undergo a makeover. Existing lighting fixtures will be replaced by LEDs that are expected to reduce energy usage by 68 percent. The LEDs will be manufactured, owned and monitored by Philips, which will take them back when they need to be repaired or replaced.

Welcome to the emerging world of the circular economy.

I go on to write about McKinsey & Co., Philips, Sprint, Best Buy, all of whom are getting serious about circular business models. This is getting real, folks. You can read the rest here.

Best Buy: Sustainability amidst turmoil

Best Buy has made headlines this year, and not the kind that any company wants:

Best Buy Cutting 50 Stores to Get Profitable. Good luck with that. (Forbes)

Best Buy CEO Resigns Under Cloud (Minneapolis StarTribune)

Best Buy Suffers For Lack of a Plan (New York Times)

Best Buy in Turmoil: Will It Survive? (Forbes, again)

Best Buy is losing market share to Amazon, its stock is down by 25 percent since the beginning of year (while the S&P 500 is up by 15 percent) and the company’s  founder Richard Schulze stepped down as chairman because he failed to tell the board about allegations that then-CEO Brian Dunn was having an inappropriate relationship with a female employee. Now Schulze wants to take the company private, maybe with money from Qatar. It’s more than enough to paralyze an organization or, at a minimum, distract everyone.

So how are the company’s sustainability efforts going? As it turns out…very well. [click to continue…]

Thanksgiving shopping madness

Do we really need to start the holiday shopping season on Thanksgiving night?

Here’s a comment that showed up yesterday on an April 2011 blog post [Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn: Sustainability is all about people] that I wrote praising Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn:

Brian Dunn, what a thoughtful and caring person he likes to portray himself. As a current employee, I have to join my fellow employees in cutting our Thanksgiving time short because we are opening at mid night. Brian Dunn isn’t going to be working in a store for 14 hours straight. Correction, I get a measly 30 minute break somewhere in that 14 hours. On a regular work day, I work for 7 hours straight without a required lunch because my shift has to be longer than 7 hours to take a lunch. They don’t even let me break away unless it’s completely empty in my department (which is rarely the case). Best Buy also keeps diminishing the value of the employee discount, which is one of the best parts of working for them. Eventually, there may not be a discount. If Best Buy keeps making knee-jerk reactions like opening at Midnight on Thanksgiving day, there may not be a Best Buy down the road. Customers and Employees want to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving day!

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Valerie Brunmeier of San Jose plans a festive feast for her family on Thanksgiving, but two of her sons will have to hustle off to their retail jobs at local malls later that night.

“How do you relax when you know you’re heading out the door at 10 p.m. or so to go to work, and work all night long?” she said.

…Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Gap, Walmart, Toys R Us and Macy’s are among the major retailers that plan to fling open their doors early this season. Some stores plan to open at 8 or 9 p.m. Thursday, while others will open a few hours later at the stroke of midnight, trying to jump-start sales amid an uncertain economic climate.

It’s an arms race, of sorts, and the losers are the thousands of workers who have to cut their holiday short.

The backlash against Thanksgiving night openings began with petitions aimed at Target on Facebook and change.org. [click to continue…]

Best Buy CEO: Sustainability is all about people

Best Buy’s in a tough business. The electronics giant ($50 billion in revenues in 2010) competes with Amazon, the best of the online retailers, and Walmart, the world’s biggest bricks-and-mortar retailer. The company’s shares have fallen lately.

What’s Best Buy’s competitive advantage?

It’s the people in the blue shirts, says Brian Dunn, Best Buy’s chief executive. “Our business is utterly dependent upon getting those 180,000 people aligned and moving forward,” he says.

This is why sustainability is important to Best Buy, the 51-year-old chief executive says. It’s about providing those people with opportunities, making sure they are heard and showing them that Best Buy cares about them and their values.

Brian gave the keynote speech this morning at the Boston College Corporate Citizenship Conference, which is being held in Minneapolis, Best Buy’s home town. We spoke briefly after his talk, which wasn’t your typical speech about sustainability or corporate responsibility. I don’t believe he mentioned the words “carbon footprint.” Instead he talked, in a personal way, about Best Buy’s people, their  aspirations, how they connect to sustainability and how he connects to them. [click to continue…]

Sustainable consumption: Opportunity or oxymoron?

Imagine that you’re the chief sustainability officer of a FORTUNE 500 company. During a meeting with your CEO, you say: “We need to talk to consumers about using less.”

Improbable? Sure.

Impossible? Perhaps not.

An important conversation to start? Absolutely.

So, at least, says Aron Cramer, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a nonprofit association of companies, whose mission is to promote a just and sustainable world.

“The American model of consumption cannot be extended to the entire world, and won’t be, because the planet simply can’t support it,” Aron told me, when we spoke by phone the other day. Yet billions of people around the world want to improve their standard of living. Figuring out how they can enjoy a better life, without destroying the environment, “is the mother of all innovation challenges,” Aron says,

Last month, BSR published a 26-page report called The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption [PDF, free download). It’s an attempt to get business leaders to think about what sustainable consumption might look like.

The topic “has been the third rail of sustainability politics,” Aron told me, but he added, with his usual optimism, that “more companies are ready to have this discussion.”

If nothing else, the report makes clear the urgency of the issue. Citing a WWF report [PDF], it says:

By recent estimates, our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent, and if our current demands continue, by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

And yet:

…countless people have insufficient access to basic needs like food, clean water, and adequate shelter, and they also lack access to the resources they need to improve their lives. In 2006, the 1.2 billion people in the OECD countries had an average annual income per capita of US$30,580, while the 5.4 billion people in the rest of the world earned an average of US$3,130. Of those, 19 percent suffer from hunger, 28 percent are drinking polluted water, and 29 percent are illiterate.7 More than 2 billion people continue to rely on less than US$2 per day to meet their needs.

The question is, what business opportunities, if any,  await companies that figure out how to give poor and middle class people what they want in a sustainable way? [click to continue…]

Best Buy: An emerging green giant

best_buy_5th_ave.home By now, everyone paying attention to the greening of corporate America knows about Wal-Mart’s sweeping sustainability programs. Big-box rival Best Buy has not been nearly as visible about its efforts to become more environmentally and socially responsible. But I recently visited Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota, on assignment for FORTUNE, and came away impressed with what the $40-billion a year company has been doing.

My story, headlined Best Buy Wants Your Electronic Junk, appears in the current issue (December 7) of the magazine, as the latest in a series on FORTUNE 500 companies. This one showcases a corporate responsibility leader, and we settled on Best Buy.

Why, you may wonder? Predominantly because Best Buy is a pioneer when it comes to electronics take-back, which is the focus of the story. [click to continue…]

Smart Grid: On its way…slowly

Today, President Obama travels to Arcadia, Florida, home to one of the nation’s biggest solar power plants, to announced 100 grants providing a total of $3.4 billion in recovery-act funding for the smart grid. The federal money will unleash $4.1 billion of private investment that, according to the government, that will bring smart meters to about 18 million American homes, or 13% of homes. It’s a big deal.

Nelson_River_Bipoles_1_and_2_Terminus_at_RosserWhat would a smart grid mean to you? In theory, you could save money by running appliances like dishwashers or dryers at night when electricity is cheaper. You’d know how much it costs you to watch that big-screen TV. (Care to take a guess? Read on.) If you installed solar panels on the roof, you could sell electricity back to the grid. Or recharge that electric car you may buy in 2010 or 2011.

The laudable goal is to empower consumers to buy electricity the way we buy groceries or gasoline or airplane tickets –where we know what we are getting and what it costs when we make purchasing decisions. Right now, we consume electricity without knowing how much we are using, understanding where it’s going or knowing the price until an unintelligible utility bill arrives in the mailbox once a month.

The trouble is, layering intelligence and transparency into the electricity grid requires action by two of the slowest-moving entities in all of America–the federal government and the regulated utilities. So you can be certain this won’t be an overnight transformation.

In fact–irony of ironies–the news that Uncle Sam was going to be subsidizing smart-grid rollouts has inadvertently slowed down the process, albeit temporarily. About 570 applications were filed seeking a total of $14 billion in grants. While waiting to see who got the grants and who didn’t, some utilities put their plans on hold. [click to continue…]

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.