Every organisation around the world, large or small, is talking about sustainability right now. Of course this is all about the need to take care of the planet, but as Kirstie McIntyre, the Director of Global Sustainability Operations at HP explains, it's also driven by customer requirements, and it makes perfect business sense.
In the last two decades businesses have woken up to the fact that the world's resources are running low. Whether it's sustainable development programmes, the Natural Capital Coalition initiative set up by company leaders and conservationists, or HP's adoption of circular economy, ultimately all have the same goal: to assess environmental issues and put practices in motion to limit damage.
"A lot of them are around the same sort of thing," McIntyre says, "but for me, as a resource specialist, this is what we're driving to, this is what fires me up every day and gets me going."
McIntyre says it was natural for HP to start recycling. A lot was driven by customers with leftover empty cartridges and old devices they wanted to get rid of. Then they worked out how to bring those discarded materials back into their own products. This forms the basis of circular economy, which aims to minimise waste, vs the traditional linear economy we're so used of the "take, make and dispose" attitude.
It also consists of shifting customers' mind-sets from wanting and buying the newest, latest products to purchasing recycled or refurbished goods, for the benefit of the planet.
As linear economy becomes unsustainable due to the earth's dwindling resources and the lack of available space for discarded gear, it's become essential to design products that are recyclable and repairable.
"We used to call sustainability environmental responsibility," McIntyre says. "It's had all sorts of different names, but it's been around for about 20-25 years now."
However, despite this timeframe, she explains that the process has only just begun. To make it a reality HP has needed customers, suppliers, partners, and retail outlets to be on board with them.
"For us the circular economy is a natural evolution of where we've been for last 20 odd years. We've been doing a lot of resource efficiency at HP, doing more with less, energy efficiency, waste management, all these types of things. That's just good business sense really, not to waste things. The circular economy is a slightly different mind-set of how move ourselves away from transactional to contractual relationships with customers. And that's the piece that we're working on now, and it's bringing with it these sustainable benefits.
"If other people see these benefits and drive it from a business perspective, then there is a very nice story to tell. I'm not trying to force anything on people, it's what businesses want to do for their customers. Instant Ink is a fantastic example of that, it was grown by the business to address a real customer need."
Closing the loop
Instant ink is a service where users pay a monthly subscription fee and their HP printers connect to the internet and automatically order new ink cartridge when levels are low.
"We've made it really easy for people. In the box there's a return envelope so you take your old cartridges and post them to us. They're really easy to recycle. We're mitigating issues about the quality of the materials, what's in them, and all of the big manufacturing conundrums that go with it, so we continue to work on recycling content across all our product lines."
This is one of the ways HP is implementing circular economy into its operations.
Cartridges are made from plastic recycled from bottles in Haiti. This work serves several purposes: it is cleaning up Haiti's environment by preventing the plastics from leaching into the Caribbean Sea and therefore polluting the ocean, and providing jobs to the people the company employs as collectors, therefore improving Haiti's economy.
Additionally, since 2013 their carbon emissions have reduced by 21 percent, aided by a decreased product transportation, and using smaller and less energy-intensive computers and tablets. In the United States it endorsed an open letter to then President Elect Donald Trump, urging him to honor the nation's commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.
HP has committed to advancing the skills of half a million workers by 2025, particularly females, students, and employees from minority backgrounds. To do this it has partnered with non-profit organisations and governments in five different countries. HP has also built state of the art classrooms in 60 schools.
The US board of directors is the most diverse of any other technology company in the country, with five women and five members from ethnic minorities.
The emergence of big data has been beneficial for making supply chains more visible, and also to enable companies to collect data on their customers, to see what they want and how to create solutions to better cater to their needs. But McIntyre explains that it also has its pitfalls.
"There is so much data being generated, the analytics of it is very complex, and that's a challenge for all of us as a society to move forward. We're just creating more and more data, and how can you sort through it all to create insights to move the business forward, or move yourself forward."
At the same time, it helps people make more informed choices about their purchases. "People are receiving more data and therefore they're able to make more informed choices about the world around them," she says. "Perhaps it is the younger generations who are concerned about the future of the planet, and what that means is they are concerned about sustainability, they understand more about it than previous generations have done.
"I think it's therefore up to companies like us to put solutions in place that address those concerns. We could just sell ink as ink, but that's not how we want to engage with people. Clearly it is successful to engage in a different way."