Getting Sustainability Right

Though they’re often made fun of, millennials arguably are making a bigger impact on saving the planet than the generations that preceded them. It does seem strange to me that our governments haven’t been more aggressive about protecting the environment, given that the cost of not doing so poses an existential risk to the human race.

It seems insane to me as we watch parts of the country burn and other parts of the country drown that we’re still arguing about climate change rather than coming together to do something about it. At this point, we likely all know people who have lost their homes and perhaps their lives due to these changes.

It often seems like it’s not only our leaders who are a tad insane but also everyone else’s. What is fascinating is that companies individually have been stepping up to address at least some of these concerns.

For instance, when it comes to recycling, every technology vendor now has some kind of recycling program in place. HP currently leads the pack in this regard, both starting earlier and being far more comprehensive than its peers.

I’ll share some observations on what HP is doing right, why more firms should follow its example, and why this should evolve to become less about competitive advantage and more about the industry coming together and collaborating to save the world. I’ll close with my product of the week: the first carbon neutral printer in the market, from HP.

What HP Is Doing Right

Product design. In most cases a new technology product, regardless of the firm’s recycling policy, is designed without the input of the folks who must recycle it. This results in substandard yields and higher recycling costs. HP factors recycling into its designs, which allows products to be recycled more easily. This has allowed it to recycle the equivalent of 8,000 blue whales, or 3.3 billion pounds of material that otherwise would have gone into landfills.

Closed loop recycling. This sets a goal of creating a system surrounding the products that ensures they don’t contribute to the ever-growing pollution problem. To create a closed loop the focus is on reusing materials to create products, thus offsetting some of the harm from eventually discarding them. HP has set a goal of using recycled materials in 30 percent of its products by 2025, which showcases that even this proactive company has a long way to go until it gets to 100 percent.

Company culture. This goes back to David Packer, one of the HP founders, who was a believer in sustainability long before we even coined the term. Because our culture is a throwaway culture, HP not only had to be early, but also had to drive an effective reeducation campaign within the company. The goal was to develop a plan to close the loop from design to delivery to disposal in order to eventually achieve 100 percent reuse.

The result is that HP is doing some incredible work, largely using technology that was designed to ensure food quality and movement, to address its unique need for recycling. I toured its big recycling plant in Nashville last week and saw corn shuckers opening packaging and orange juice squeezers recovering ink. Boxes were reused from produce shipping, and bags reused from peanut farms. I saw scanning equipment that initially was developed to make sure bones weren’t in your fish sandwich.

One of the ways you can tell if a company is truly leading is to look at the technology it uses. If it is purpose-built, there are a lot of companies doing the same thing. A unique company will use custom or repurposed hardware from other industries.

By the way, if you have an HP printer and you want to comply fully with the company’s sustainability program, subscribe to its Instant Ink service, as that will ensure your old ink cartridges get recycled. I should add that most HP printer failures are attributed to non-HP print cartridges, and few things are more annoying for me than needing to print something and having the printer break.

Following HP’s Example

Some of the financial advantages that HP highlighted during last week’s tour were impressive. HP claimed to have won US$900 million — that’s nine hundred million dollars — in revenue due to its sustainability efforts. This trend is driven by the realization that more and more customers are making choices based on the sustainability efforts of the firms they buy from.

For instance, 60 percent of millennials will favor employers that contribute to social and ethical causes, according to HP’s surveys — and I’ve seen much stronger numbers than this. Cisco, another firm very aggressive about social responsibility, has reported similar positive impacts from its efforts. For much the same reason as HP, it has made these efforts a high priority.

Given that large companies increasingly are driven as much by what investors want as what customers want, 800 investment houses favor firms with aggressive programs like this, again according to HP.

A focus on sustainability not only impacts the bottom line of the firm but also the firm’s valuation, because valuation is driven largely by supply and demand. The more demand for security the higher priced it is. Executives often care more about valuation, thanks to stock grants and options, than they do about revenue — and this positively impacts both significantly.

Wrapping Up: From Competition to Partnership

HP is doing impressive work, and as it advances into 3D printing this desire to recycle is being designed in. 3D printing has huge potential to reduce waste, because rather than building to projections — which often results in waste if those projections are overset — you build to need.

If you can lower or eliminate the need for spare parts you eliminate the waste tied to creation, warehousing, shipping, and disposing of excess parts. If those parts are made from recycled materials, then you immediately get a huge advantage in terms of recycling that the existing manufacturing methods can’t match.

It is interesting to note that the biggest potential advantage for 3D printers, particularly in remote areas (like Mars when we finally go there) might be the ability to completely recycle the raw materials used in them.

When it comes to making meaningful change, companies like HP and Cisco can’t do it alone. Every company needs to focus on making a difference to make enough of a difference to save the planet.

Much like Mercedes will share technology that it believes will make drivers safer with its competitors, firms should be willing to share what they’ve learned about sustainable programs with their peers. They even should share some processes as well, like mining ocean-born plastics. If we as a race don’t get this right, we are going to have to move to another planet — and given the lack of livable close planets to Earth, that is problematic.

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