Sprint’s Buyback Program is Impressive, But the Sky’s the Limit

Sprint has made some solid efforts to reduce their environmental footprint. Last year they were rated #3 on Newsweek’s Green Giants list (PDF here), they have a top rated phone buyback program, and recently made great effort to redesign their billing envelopes to reduce paper waste.  Most refreshingly, their CEO, Dan Hesse, frequently maintains that sustainability is a top corporate priority – the kind of priority that doesn’t just feel good, but trickles down to employees at all levels.

According to Sprint, the company buyback program is almost halfway to its goal of re-collecting 90% of all Sprint phones sold by 2017.   The system will even take most phones from competitors, and manages to refurbish 90% of them. Although “doing the right thing” matters to most people, easy cash (or discounts on billing) is the obvious incentive to make the effort to return old phones to Sprint. Sprint then benefits by being able to re-sell a certain number of them, and hopefully looks good in the process.

From a sustainability perspective, the plan has real impact on a large scale as it gets consumers into the habit of thinking about their devices as temporary ‘rentals’ which get cashed in at the end of their lives, like a used car – real Access Economy thinking!   Once consumers learn they’ll get more for their money if their phones are kept in good condition, the system will work even better.  To top it off, Sprint is making the process simpler by integrating it with their online purchasing system.

But could there be inspiration beyond cold hard cash that would encourage more consumers to play ball?  And what about the opportunity to push the company’s accomplishments beyond “green” and into real triple bottom line thinking?

Here are few ideas to take things further:

Let’s start with the envelope. In conversations with Sprint I was surprised to learn that most customers are currently unwilling to part with paper bills. Nonetheless, Sprint has done a rock solid job redesigning their billing envelope to use far less paper – enough to save the company close to half a million dollars a year as well as make life easier for customers.  It’s a slow road – the industry average adoption for paperless billing is barely 10%. Sprint has managed to  raise adoption to an impressive 30%.

But shouldn’t a fiscally and green-minded company’s ultimate goal be to eliminate paper billing all-together? If my calculations about the costs of mailing paper to customers is remotely accurate (see this post), then why not reward folks with a discounted bill for agreeing to go completely paperless? Even if the amount of discount were trivial, say 25 cents a month, there’s a psychological positive when folks find out about it. This contrasts to a psychological negative if folks are dinged with a fee for sticking with paper.  However justified, the latter could cost Sprint customers.  Why not reward the good in hopes of slowly filtering out the bad?  And why not profit while you’re at it?

How to make the buy back program even more popular

Now, onto the buy-back program.  Earlier this year I had the chance to interview Dave Edmondson, CEO of eReyclingCorps.  eRecyclingCorps is a behind-the-scenes company that actually supports and in some cases runs the buy-back programs for a number of carriers.  What’s most interesting about them is that many of the phones they collect are re-sold at a substantial discount to customers in the developing world.   This is not only a profitable business, but it literally revolutionizes the lives of poor folks who are just stepping into the global economy.  Where there were recently no landline telephones and no televisions, this leapfrog technology creates a whole new economy.  People are now able to get weather information for their crops, communicate pricing, buy and sell products, start new businesses and, in general, enter the global middle class which leads to education, entrepreneurship, and every other kind of social advancement we care about.

Today’s mobile phone buy-back customer is only aware that they’re “recycling” their phone.  They don’t know if it’s being refurbished, re-sold, ground into bits, or launched into outer space. Wouldn’t it be satisfying as a consumer to know that your well-used phone was empowering economic development in African countries?  Sprint does work closely with eRecyclingCorps but their website doesn’t talk about it. There is a huge opportunity to educate consumers about the good that their used mobile phone can do and Sprint would be wise to look into it.

Could new developing world business models await?

Earlier this year I had a chance to meet the founders of Mobile Transactions International, a Zambian startup funded by the Omidyar Network to empower financial transactions in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa.  The company has almost singlehandedly created a cashless society in rural Zambia where people buy and sell their wares via mobile devices for small transaction fees.  Money is transfered instantly in a part of the world where not long ago you had to walk for days with a wad of cash in your pocket to get to anything resembling a financial institution.  This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the empowering possibilities mobile phone technology is bringing to more than a billion new customers around the globe.   Where are American telecoms like Sprint when it comes to this opportunity?

Although cutting eWaste and paper is impressive, what would really impress me  would be to see Sprint enter the developing world to empower this kind of development. Doing so would not only make the company look good from a sustainability perspective but would likely be wildly profitable in the long run.


Ed Note: Some clarification added after getting more information from Sprint.  Specifically, Sprint does work with eRecyclingCorps & actually leads the industry when it comes to percentage of customers who have gone paperless (30% vs industry average of 10% according to this source).

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

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