This week Dell Computer became the latest US computer manufacturer to announce that it would recycle old computers, following similar announcements by Apple and HP. While each program is somewhat distinct, each offers to recycle its own products (free-of-charge or free with purchase of a new computer) or that of its competitors (for a nominal fee). Such programs amount to a giant leap forward for e-waste recycling in the US, and have generated positive PR for the industry. Yet, overall program objectives are uncertain. As such, what has the potential to be a significant leap forward for the environment is endanger of generating only short term PR benefits.
The impetus for computer recycling comes from two areas: First, EU regulations demand that manufacturers do so under its “Extended Producer Responsibility” law which came into effect in 2005. This law requires manufacturers to take back for free all e-waste including computers, printers, displays, cell phones, etc. (A sister law regulates the use of toxic substances such as cadmium, lead and mercury comes into effect this year). Japanese manufacturers have already adopted EU regulations, thus making them the de factor global standard. The second source is US consumers which are increasingly aware of the environmental hazards of simply throwing away computers and/or the inconvenience of storing old hardware, uncertain about what to do with them.
From a marketing perspective, manufacturers are able to generate significant PR with limited commitment and risk. EU regulations have already forced OEMs to take steps to incorporate cradle-to-grave practices into their design and manufacturing practices. Bottomline: HP, Apple and Dell have already done the heavy lifting to comply with EU regulations, so a rollout in the US should require only incremental costs. Second, recycling programs are voluntary and are not backed by legislative mandates or targets in most cases. The federal government has dropped the ball and only four states have enacted e-waste legislation to date – California, Maine, Maryland and Washington. (Apparently, OEMs have campaigned against the passage of state regulation – at the same time embracing EU standards). Finally, OEMs have not set specific recycling targets, resulting in uncertain goals and metrics of success.
While the industry hopes to continue to generate significant PR from its recycling programs (and perhaps some brand loyalty), it is also important for marketers to understand what factors exist that could undermine this positive PR and shift sentiments in the wrong direction. PR can be a powerful tool to shape perceptions and drive awareness, consideration and purchase intent. Sustaining positive sentiment, however, may require OEMs to do more: set tangible goals for recycling product and demonstrate impact in the market. OEMs like Apple, Dell and HP should take note.