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Raz Godelnik headshot

Best Buy's New Sustainability Report: Between Recycling and Upgrading

Best Buy released their 2011 sustainability report last week, entitled “Our World, Connected.” It is a comprehensive report demonstrating Best Buy’s CEO commitment that “as the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer, we take our economic, social and environmental responsibilities very seriously.” At the same time it also presents some of the challenges retailers have when they try to embed sustainability into their business.

First, kudos to Best Buy for creating a user-friendly online report instead of the traditional 80-pages or so PDF. They also did a great job neatly presenting their four business-centered themes: Product Stewardship, Sustainable Solutions, Access through Connections, and an Inspired Workplace. These themes came up after Best Buy engaged its customers to find out what issues were meaningful for them.

The first theme, product stewardship, represents how Best Buy is working to lead the industry in solving sustainability challenges across the lifecycle of their products. They set up two impressive goals for this theme - to recycle one billion pounds of consumer goods and to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 20 percent by 2020.

One of the backbones of their commitment is a Buy Back Program, which was launched in the US last January. The idea is very simple – you pay a fee when buying a product and Best Buy in return promises to buy it back and reimburse you for the used product under a reimbursement schedule you know upfront. The used product will be re-used or recycled safely.

The upside of the program is that it reduces e-waste, which is a growing environmental and social concern, and at the same time helps Best Buy to grow their business. Sounds like a win-win program, right? Well, almost. The downside is that although the program provides you with an incentive to bring back your old product instead of trashing it, it also provides customers with an incentive to upgrade their products very quickly and shorten their upgrade cycle.

The reimbursement is provided on decreasing scale – upgrade your product within 6 month and you get back 50%, 6-12 months – 40%, 12-18 months – 30% and 18-24 months – 20%.  For TVs only, you’ll get 20% back up to 48 months. So as you can see the concept of this program is very clear – you want more money back? Upgrade fast! Unfortunately, I’m not sure this helps to improve what Annie Leonard calls “our whole unsustainable materials economy.” Wouldn’t it be much more sustainable if the highest reimbursement would be given after two years instead of six months?

Under the second theme, sustainable solutions, Best Buy aspires to be the place where customers have access to technology choices that fit their lifestyle and enable them to live a more sustainable life. The Blue Shirts, according to the report, will help you find the latest and greatest entertainment technology that fits you and your needs, including energy-efficient products like ENERGY STAR qualified televisions and appliances.

The third theme, access through connections, relates to the company’s philanthropic efforts. Best Buy explains it believes access to technology connects the world and builds richer, fuller lives and is committed to helping people understand and experience all the benefits of the connected world. That’s why the company donated over $26 million in fiscal 2011. The employees are also part of this effort and last year more than 26,000 of them volunteered over 160,000 hours to community nonprofits.

The last theme, inspired workplace is focusing mainly on Best Buy’s employees. As the report mentions, the employees’ “passion for technology is evident in the relationships they build with customers every day.” Best Buy’s goal is that eventually we’ll see similar passion towards sustainability coming from the Blue Shirts, as people would choose to work at Best Buy because of the company’s sustainability efforts.

I was happy to find on the report stakeholder feedback on last year’s report and the company’s response. This is an important part of every report where you can find valuable criticism and how the company responds to it. It provides a good balance to the report, which usually presents a more positive image of the company’s sustainability efforts.

After reading a report I find it interesting to check how it is reflected in the company’s homepage and how easy it is to find it if you don’t look for the report in the first place. Starting from the later, it’s not very noticeable – if you don’t go to the bottom of the page and click on sustainability, you won’t be able to notice that the report was just released.

The first question is even more intriguing because from the report it looks like there is some tension between the company’s goals to grow its business and to become more sustainable, or if you many between the ‘upgrade’ element and the ‘Energy Star/recycling’ element. If you look at the homepage, it looks like right now business comes before sustainability. Nevertheless, we should give Best Buy credit for their efforts and hope they will find the right balance between these two components. Then they’ll really have a win-win model.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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