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July 30, 2008 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Help my major electronics retailer employer go green.

I work for one of the major electronics retailers and we're trying to develop a plan for "going green" both with our own practices as well as with the assortment of products we sell. This is new territory for me, so I'm not sure where to start researching.

Here are a few questions I could use help answering.

1. What other retailers are going green and how can I find out about their initiatives?

2. If you're a customer of a specific retail store, and that store had a green initiative, what would it need to show to be credible to your shopper eyes? (Let me explain that a little bit more: We can offer you enviro-friendly products, but does it mean much if we, ourselves, aren't doing anything? If we can show you how we're being enviro-friendly, then will that add to our credibility as a green product provider and that we can help you make green choices for your life?)

3. What sorts of products have you heard about that you'd like to see an electronics retailer start carrying? Some that I've read about are solar usb chargers, energy star appliances, lower energy use hard-drives, accessories made from renewable resources, etc. I'm looking for specifics or a website that might help me find specifics.

Yes, I know that I work for a major corporation that sells electronics, and by definition, that's not really an enviromentally sound employer. But we're genuinely trying to make changes here that could be implemented across many countries and several thousand locations.

PS: Sorry for the overuse of the word "Green."
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One thing that really impresses me is when stores offer recycling or refill services right on the premises. So, for example, you could offer to refill inkjet cartridges while the customer waits, or take their old gadgets for recycling (although I've heard that electronics recycling is usually something of a joke; there may be some credibility problems here).

So make it easy for your customers to "close the loop", however that works with your particular merchandise.
posted by Quietgal at 9:53 AM on July 30, 2008

Offer free recycling drop off for old electronics, batteries, etc.

Offer a discount for computer and electronics trade-ins, especially if you can make the money back by selling the items used, or to scrap dealers.

Get your upstream providers to lower their packaging footprint (or remove it altogether - why do we need a quart of oil's worth of cut-inducing, blood-spilling blister-pack for a single cable? Twist-ties and a small cardboard flag are all that's necessary...)

When pitching appliance delivery to the customer, make sure they know that the packaging materials will be recycled responsibly. It usually isn't possible for consumers to dispose of styrofoam with most curb-side recycling programs.

Lose the plastic bags. Seriously. I've encountered several retail chains that REQUIRE bagging of simple items.

Have your sales people trained to know that Projectors > CRT > Plasma > LCD flatscreen when it comes to electricity usage, and use that as a selling point.

Re-bulb any fixtures or lighting which aren't using the most efficient bulb available.

It would probably be pretty hard to convince the powers-that-be to turn off all of the display machines until people need to comparison shop them with salespeople, but if you can change that angle of it, it's worth trying.

For drinks, which are sometimes available at the POS, have the vendors stock them with cans only, instead of plastic bottles, since cans have the best likely-hood of being usefully recycled.

At every trash can, have slotted holes for recyclable sortation.

If the facility has the capability, turn off half of the site lighting during the day.
posted by tomierna at 9:55 AM on July 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

" If you're a customer of a specific retail store, and that store had a green initiative, what would it need to show to be credible to your shopper eyes?"

A lack of excess packaging. Fewer products shipped from overseas. Smaller stores that don't use the shelves for storage. Internet and telephone stock inquiries that are not lies -- the part about telling the truth is key since most retailers get it wrong. Locations accessible from transit that aren't plopped in the middle of a huge sea of parking.

Also, less packaging, a reduction in packaging volume, and perhaps more minimalist packaging. One major electronics purchase can completely fill my recycle bin. I understand the need for protective packaging of expensive items, but c'mon, each three feet of cable doesn't need a blister pack, a cardboard insert, and a shrinkwrapped shelf box.

" We can offer you enviro-friendly products, but does it mean much if we, ourselves, aren't doing anything?"

That means you're cashing in on a trend, which is different from "going green." Make it distinct what your goal is, because if you're just looking to sell "green stuff" because it's hot, and scrabbling for the market credibility to do so, it's going to be pretty easy to see through that and it's an outright lie to call it "going green."

"What sorts of products have you heard about that you'd like to see an electronics retailer start carrying?"

Mini-ITX and Nano-ITX / VIA EPIA products, especially the fanless stuff. Used, cosmetically damaged, refurbished, and otherwise "not just thrown in a landfill" products. Repair, support and warranty services that are actually competent enough to keep existing devices usable instead of disposable -- this is another important one, because most of the big retailers get this so hideously wrong (think: Geek Squad) that it's embarrassing to look at.

Greenness isn't about cultivating an image in the market, or vending products in beige boxes with pictures of leaves on them. It's about moderating the resources you and your customers consume. It's about mitigating the environmental stress your products and sales transactions create. It's about not selling people shit they don't need when what they have can be fixed. It's about not being car-centric in your operations. It's about doing business in a way that doesn't require people to drive to your location to find out something you could tell them over the telephone if your employees were smarter than sea urchins and not being managed incompetently by petty retail dictators with a company handbook in one hand at all times. It's about using the Internet to communicate with customers, not just to sell to them.

In short: don't greenwash your image and call it "going green." Either do it or don't, but don't bullshit your customers.
posted by majick at 10:13 AM on July 30, 2008

Offer free recycling drop off for old electronics, batteries, etc.

Yes, and then make sure that they're recycled responsibly. Most recycled electronics just get shipped to China, India, or elsewhere in the third world where the recovery of heavy metals is not done safely. In Ontario, for instance, there's only one company that does proper, safe recycling of old TV's - Sims Recycling in the province. They can't do it at a profit, so they rely on government programs that pay for recycling. So your company is either going to have to get in on a publicly-funded recycling effort, or eat the cost itself (how likely is that?); but don't just dump our problem on the third world.
posted by Dasein at 10:46 AM on July 30, 2008

Like Quietgal suggests, a proper takeback program would be awesome especially if you can demonstrate what is happening to the stuff you take in. If you haven't already, read up on the WEEE directive in Europe and see if you can talk to your counterparts in similar retailers over there about what they are doing and how effective it has been. In my industry, at least, companies talk to each other all the time about this kind of thing, at least when it's a regulatory issue and everyone just wants to comply. (That's why talking to an EU counterpart could get results when you can't really call up your direct competitor across the street).
posted by cabingirl at 10:48 AM on July 30, 2008

Re-use of extant buildings when developing new locations rather than the new-construction big-box out in a field model.
posted by stefnet at 10:50 AM on July 30, 2008

I agree about the packaging and feel free to advertise the fact, i.e. it's okay to point out that you're using less packaging and why.

I think there's a lot of interest in solar and wind. Not at the retail level perhaps, but educational materials about that would be kind of cool. Identify where you get your energy from and where you see yourselves in the energy "ecosystem".

Identify how your stores are energy-efficient (insulation, lighting, etc.)

Use those devices that measure energy consumption in the store perhaps? Sell them too.
posted by idb at 10:58 AM on July 30, 2008

I would kill to be able to pay like $4-6 for a USB cable instead of being confronted with some $22 monstrosity that had gold leaf or whatever the hell it was on it. Maybe you can do what the food co-ops do and buy some of these things in bulk and sell them cheaply under your own brand name in very simple as-green-as-possible packaging. That would say to me that you were willing to do a little actual work, not just buy something that someone else told you was green.

Other stuff

- have all the computers have screensavers on or something that isn't sucking down power while people aren't messing with them
- take back my old tech and recycle it
- have energy star ratings on all the stuff, the way fridges and ovens do
- have a bunch of recycled paper options for people to buy and have them be cost competitive
- use post-consumer recycled paper for EVERYTHING you guys print, and soy inks

You're in a position of making some green purchasing into "genuine options" for people by pricing them attractively. Do that. Choose loss leaders from the green pile sometimes. Don't assume that you can teach most people to be green, I think more what you're trying to do is attract the green consumer by being greener than the competition and frankly, that's going to be non-hard since all those electronics retailers are pretty much equally "we don't care lalala" about green anything in my eyes.
posted by jessamyn at 12:20 PM on July 30, 2008

I'd say one thing to seriously consider is what kind of waste you are generating as a company. Is it possible to reduce the amount of packaging you use to ship things? Or reduce the amount of plastics needed so you can recycle more of what does get used? Or reduce the amount of shipments that need to be made to save on gas use? Maybe you can't do all three at once so you pick and choose your battles. If your company has its own line of products are those packaged in the most environmentally friendly way?

Also, how about actual garbage produced at the stores. Do you have a policy to recycle paper and cardboard? Accept recyclable items from customers? What happens to old displays? What do you do with opened returns and defective items? I know my store doesn't check for usability and simply destroys the item and then dumps it. The amount of waste is appalling; the other day we threw out an entire dumpster worth of perfectly fine wire racks because a manager didn't want them around anymore and didn't want to find another store to transfer them to.

The place I work for is trying to cultivate a "green" image, but aside from putting a few eco-friendly products on the shelves they don't do much internally to change their habits and the good changes they do make are transparently cost saving measures for themselves as well. There is nothing wrong with saving money, but sincerity isn't proved by simply making the easiest cuts. So think about it, what goes in your dumpsters and why?
posted by CheshireCat at 12:33 PM on July 30, 2008

My company has been working with a number of clients on sustainability in the last few years. Quite a few consumer electronics manufacturers have complained that the Best Buys/Circuit City/etc of the world won't allow them to cut down the amount of packaging they use due to fear of shoplifting, etc. They also worry that they'll lose shelf faces if they do reduce package size. Work with your buyers now, today, to refocus what the heck they're saying.

You've got an opportunity to partner with anyone who supplies to you, as they're under the same pressure. That can help offset a lot of cost as well. And if they can cut down the amount of packaging for you, that same pack can go to online retailers where consumers want smaller packs for cheaper ("greener") shipping and the like.
posted by Gucky at 1:13 PM on July 30, 2008

In addition to the above...Turn off the lights at night. Turn off all electronic displays too. Lower /raise the HVAC to a more "green" level. Collect rainwater from the roof to water the landscaping. Encourage carpooling or mass transit for employees (money rewards help here). If you have a delivery service schedule the trucks to use the most efficient route. Use smallest vehicle possible (nothing galls me more than a 40 ft truck with one box in it.)
posted by Gungho at 1:54 PM on July 30, 2008

Remove all extraneous crap from your receipts. Getting 2' of receipt paper when you buy 3 or 4 things is both an inconvenience and pretty wasteful.
posted by public at 2:59 PM on July 30, 2008

That means you're cashing in on a trend, which is different from "going green." Make it distinct what your goal is...

Because I didn't see it above, I just want to explicitly put out here that "good business practice" (i.e. profit) and "being green" do not have to be mutually exclusive. Frankly, your proposals will have to be both in order to make the cut for implementation at any "real" company, and you should recognize that from the outset. Some of these ideas already are both, and you should look into the economics of them to sell the idea. For example:
* reducing packaging (pressuring suppliers to change packaging reduces their costs and your costs, while you can charge the same price at the end)
* changing lighting (lower electric use, lower replacement frequency. however, higher initial price - NPV may not come out on these yet but it's close enough huh)
* take-back programs for electronics - gets customers specifically back into your store when it's time for a new gidget. has to outweigh costs of the recycling.
* turning off displays, etc., on off-hours: reduces electricity cost.

The tricky part is that ideas are usually easier to sell when they generate revenue as opposed to minimize spending. Somehow, even though the math works out the same, the latter is just not as sexy.
posted by whatzit at 3:02 PM on July 30, 2008

"I just want to explicitly put out here that "good business practice" (i.e. profit) and "being green" do not have to be mutually exclusive."

That's an excellent point and one very much worth considering when setting priorities. Is squeezing the last possible penny out of every person who walks in the door a priority over "going green?" Perhaps for reasons of responsibility to a set of shareholders who require growth over profit? Because if so that vastly limits (but as whatzit says, hardly eliminates!) your options versus what can be done if environmental responsibility supersedes the bottom line.

And this is what I mean by making it distinct what your goal is. If "going green" is chiefly a marketing effort rather than an operations effort, and the intent is to drive sales instead of making a best effort to reduce environmental impact while aware of the cost of doing so, that's different from actually "going green" in a way cognizant of the fact that it's more profitable on a quarterly basis to externalize your environment costs to your grandkids. That's just doing some common sense stuff around the company that could trim spending a bit and improve brand perception anywhere from a little to a lot.

Knowing where the priority is helps you determine the limits of your effort to "go green."
posted by majick at 3:39 PM on July 30, 2008

If Walmart can do it, your company can. From an excellent article in Fast Company:
Last year, conversations started in Wal-Mart around the potential of swirls to save customers money on utility bills. "Somebody asked, 'What difference would it make if we changed the bulbs in the ceiling-fan display to CFLs?'" says Kerby. A typical Wal-Mart has 10 models of ceiling fans on display, each with four bulbs. Forty bulbs per store, 3,230 stores.

"Someone went off and did the math," says Kerby. "They told me we could save $6 million in electric bills by changing the incandescents to CFLs in more than 3,000 Wal-Marts. I couldn't believe it. I didn't know I was paying $6 million to light those fixtures. I said, that can't be right, go back and do the math again." The numbers came out the same the second time: savings of $6 million a year. "That, for me, was an 'I got it' moment."
(Not that Walmart isn't still evil or anything; but credit where credit is due.)
posted by rafter at 4:52 PM on July 30, 2008

Here's what I'd appreciate from an electronics retailer:
- Assistance with take back programs sponsored by manufacturers.
- Your own in-house take back programs for non-covered electronics. You can partner up with a non-profit like these guys and just provide space for them, if need be.
- Provide information about how green the products are; use that as a selling point. Longevity of parts. Energy use. Toxic components involved. Pollution during manufacturing. Worker health safeguards. Take-back program. Etc. Provide me with a little handout rating them in these areas. Put up signs like "lowest-energy use laptop!" or "lowest-lead monitor!" If you don't want to do the research yourselves, I'm sure you could just keep on hand materials made by a nonprofit, eg, Greenpeace. Your suppliers can't really argue with you providing your consumers with information to make informed choices. Educate your salespeople about these issues.
- Make a pledge to keep up with European standards for electronics, to buy only products vetted for the EU market. This move is quite sensible and mainstream. At the same time, it would send a very powerful signal to those who care (I'd probably be loyal forever if you were the first US retailer to do this), and it would have a huge impact on the industry. Since the top levels of US government regulatory agencies are totally corrupt (I'm sorry I have such a chip on my shoulder here, but it's true), you have the opportunity to provide leadership here.
- Stop stocking certain products or companies if they are egregious enough in what they include (eg, PVC or PBDE) or what the company does (eg, if one got hit with an expose by Human Rights Watch about villages left polluted). This is another move that (if done quickly and without activist prodding) would immediately convince me of your company's seriousness.
- Provide grants to non-profits addressing electronics issues: Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition....
- Adopt a village in, say, Taiwan. Anywhere polluted by electronics manufacturing or disposal. Maybe every store outlet could adopt one. I don't know what would be realistic here. Maybe you could just give customers the option of adding a 1% surcharge that would go to a trusted nonprofit whose focus was electronics pollution cleanup.
- Have good repair policies. Keep replacement cords, etc, on hand a bit longer, so it's not like, "oh sorry, we don't sell a replacement battery for last month's model, you'll have to buy a new phone or order one from Ebay." I know people who'll take a working screen from a broken phone and put it on a working phone with a broken screen. If you guys sponsored something like a salvage yard for lightly-used electronics parts, I'd be impressed. This is probably a long-shot, I realize.
- I'll ditto stefnet: "Re-use of extant buildings when developing new locations rather than the new-construction big-box out in a field model." I'll add: lower the amount of surface parking you provide. Green building practices like these that took some effort on your part would be more meaningful to me than some generic thing like dimming your lights.

If we can show you how we're being enviro-friendly, then will that add to our credibility as a green product provider and that we can help you make green choices for your life?

Mini-rant / If you talk about your in-house paper recycling policies or trumpet that "we're using efficient lightbulbs!" I will immediately become skeptical. I swear to God some retailer announced that they now recycle like 20% of their white paper. All I could think was "I've recycled 90% of my white paper for the last decade, what is wrong with your company?" / End of rant. Point being, I guess, just be a bit careful about acting like something is the latest and greatest advance in sustainability.
posted by salvia at 8:13 PM on July 30, 2008

Actually, I'll re-echo myself and salvia and add re-use of extant buildings that are LEED-certified.
posted by stefnet at 4:50 PM on July 31, 2008

Good point: LEED-certified would mean much more to me than "we've replaced our lightbulbs!" Have some outside agency verify your goodness.
posted by salvia at 10:13 PM on July 31, 2008

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