By 2003, Michael Dell and other executives were realizing that playing defense against environmentalists wasn’t working. In January of that year, the company appointed Pat Nathan to oversee its recycling programs and communications.
Ms. Nathan had held a top position with the company in Europe, where the same recycling issues were receiving much more public attention. Her job as sustainable business director in the United States would be to help develop and communicate a recycling strategy that was environmentally and financially sound.
About the time Ms. Nathan came to Round Rock, the company started looking at recycling in a new way. The demand for recycling wasn’t great among customers, making it an atypical market for Dell to enter. But assuming that the problem wasn’t going to go away, recycling might be something that Dell could do well.
Dell had to start finding some common ground. “We basically started a dialogue with our critics,” Ms. Nathan said. “We needed to listen.”
Mr. Dell started meeting face to face with critics, first with so-called “socially responsible” investment groups.
“They came back with a system that we’re still working with them on,” said Anita Green, vice president for social research at Pax World Funds. “My sense is that they’re committed.”
In December, Mr. Dell met with environmental group leaders, including Mr. Wood and Ms. Schneider. By then, Dell had decided that the “producer responsibility” method of recycling, the idea that computer makers should pay for recycling and pass the cost on to consumers in the PC price, was the right approach.
Environmental groups understand that Dell can’t do it alone, Ms. Schneider said. Dell wants the entire computer industry to adopt the producer responsibility ethic and to develop standard methods of collecting old computers.
If all computer companies are involved, the playing field becomes level, Dell argues. Then Dell can do what it has done with other businesses: analyze data from suppliers and customers to develop more efficient recycling methods, eventually recycling computers at a lower cost than its competitors can and offering customers a lower price, Ms. Nathan said.
Dell wants the industry to develop a national standard for recycling so it doesn’t have to develop different programs in each state. Dell’s biggest rival, Hewlett-Packard Co., agrees with that notion.
“The problem now is to get anybody to agree on this,” said Kevin Farnam, manager of corporate environmental strategies at H-P. “Every company’s a little different. We all go down different paths.”
H-P has long been a favorite of recycling advocates, consistently getting high marks for its programs while Dell has flunked. But Dell is catching up. The Texas Campaign, which opened an office in Arlington last month, will soon release its report card of computer industry recycling programs. “Dell is no longer at the bottom of the pack,” Ms. Schneider said.
Dell’s newfound rapport with environmental groups hasn’t been its only success, Ms. Nathan said. The company has learned to be more open and available to critics.
When another environmental group asked Dell recently how much recycled paper it uses in its catalogs, the company immediately started examining the problem and decided it could improve. “Before, we might have ignored it,” Ms. Nathan said.
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