Being 'green': Practical, possible... and profitable?

How environmentalism can be a part of the business
Written by Will Sturgeon, Contributor

How environmentalism can be a part of the business

In recent years, as environmentalism has become a watchword for the socially responsible, politically aware and regulation wary, many vendors have made bold claims about what they are doing to operate in a 'green' manner. silicon.com visited Ricoh's Midlands Green Centre to find out what the Japanese giant is doing to meet its own eco-agenda.

The easiest criticism of companies which claim to be doing 'a lot for the environment' is that they don't really care much for what they're actually doing.

Somewhere between 'being seen to care' and 'the law says we have to do it' the suspicious would wager there isn't really much room for actually caring.

And if things improve, if landfill levels of toxins, hazardous substances, heavy metals and plastics decrease, and boxes on environmental and corporate and social responsibility charters are ticked then who really cares?

Talking of the required move towards greater 'green thinking' in the tech industry, Paul Kennard, assistant general manager at Ricoh's Green Centre, near Northampton, says: "There are certainly a lot of people out there who are doing this because they have to. And if that means things get better then of course it's a good thing."

It's a case of the ends justifying the means.

However, as you might expect, Ricoh claims it isn't just ticking boxes. The company has been operating on an environmental agenda since the mid 70s, long before EU politicians conceived of a Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

In fact even in the UK, where the Directive continues to stall at each turn, the company is operating far in excess of WEEE guidelines.

Tom Wagland, environmental manager at Ricoh UK, says: "The WEEE Directive is just a hell of a mess now and I don't know whether the government will ever get it right."

However, he admits the appearance on the horizon of proposed European legislation was one factor in opening the Green Centre back in January 2004 but while those laws have hit hurdle after hurdle, the centre has gone from strength to strength.

Principally the Green Centre is there to process returned kit (to read more about this process read our detailed photo story) but it also serves as a focus for the company's UK efforts to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

An education centre for teaching school trips about green issues even includes a wormery for staff to recycle their food waste.

But such novelty shouldn't detract from a serious business matter. Wagland believes delays in the WEEE Directive may mean some companies are slow to see any value in compliance but he argues the value of being environmentally friendly goes well beyond a stamp on a piece of paper.

Wagland says it has been a major factor in Ricoh's success: "We used to see maybe one question in 100 returned tenders about whether we have an environmental policy in place. Now we perhaps see 99."

Kennard adds: "There is a good economic argument for it. It's a real differentiator."

The most notable UK example to date is that of Derbyshire County Council, which awarded Ricoh a contract to provide 1,300 copiers and multifunction devices in large part due to its environmentalism.

The deal is evidence that customers are also looking to demonstrate 'green thinking' in an age of corporate and social responsibility where the environment tops the agenda.

Derbyshire County Council accounts for around 16 million copies and printouts per year and Ricoh will plant 1,600 saplings per year in an attempt to offset carbon emissions.

And that's just one way the printer/copier industry is trying to distance itself from a close association with deforestation.

Wagland argues that with paper "a necessary evil" it is actually the vendors who are working to cut down on paper wastage – again something which presses the cost and social responsibility buttons of their customers.

He says: "Paper waste is probably the biggest item in any company's landfill and waste costs. And copiers and printers are the fastest growing area of energy consumption."

Kennard adds that it may actually be the recently well-publicised hikes in energy bills which force companies to recognise the savings which can be made.

As such engineers are increasingly focusing on energy saving measures such as faster reactivation from standby to prevent customers switching off the powered-down idle mode, and multifunction devices - which require one plug, rather than a plug on each of several machines (copiers, faxes, printers) - are being promoted to customers.

Software and networking capabilities are also helping. Smarter systems that can reroute and manage print jobs to make best use of resources cut down on wastage.

Such measures also represent major long-term cost savings. And that is an important factor given that being 'green' has long been seen as synonymous with increasing operating costs.

In common with other vendors, Ricoh admits costs will be borne to a degree by consumers as recycling becomes an essential aspect of lifecycle management. However, unlike Dell, for example, the company doesn't insist this must be the case.

Ricoh's ambitions for the Green Centre include making it as close to 'break-even' as possible.

Kennard told silicon.com: "We can't really know how much money this makes us but asset recovery and parts recovery, as well as reusing expensive components such as circuit boards, can counter some of the less profitable areas."

The company recovers a great deal of cost in the Green Centre – where recycling is actually a last measure. If possible components are reused and machines are often reconditioned and sold to trade for sale outside the EU.

A lot of components that cannot be reused cost-effectively and which pose something of an environmental dilemma – such as plastics and metals – are also sent offshore; predominantly to China.

Kennard insists this isn't simply a case of out of sight out of mind (and EU remit). The components sold to China are of higher value over there, he claims, and as such they are guaranteed to be reused rather than put into landfill.

Last year Ricoh sent 6,600kg of plastics and 1,000kg of polythene to partner Zen International in China.

Kennard says: "China is a very hungry market for this stuff. I see nothing wrong if you see countries who are hungry for these raw materials."

Some materials remain closer to home, however. Metal from power leads, motors and fans goes to European Metal Recycling down the road in Northampton.

Even toner which comes in with machines, often with half-full bottles, is reused, saving around £5,000 to £10,000 per month. Customers pay for their toner as part of the standard contract, so such savings all go towards the profit and loss of the Green Centre.

And Ricoh is aware that regulation tends to breed regulation. Hot on the heels of the WEEE Directive will be a further tightening of the RoHs (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) Directive.

Among those substances already banned or regulated in terms of exposure and quantity in use are asbestos, cadmium, chlorinated hydrocarbons, mercury, nickel and polyvinyl chloride.

Wagland says one of the issues constantly under review at Ricoh is predicting future shifts in regulation to create manufacturing processes which eliminate potentially harmful substances ahead of legal barring of their use. The company is also looking to standardise on plastic use in order to build machines which are easier to recycle – the extension of a practice it has been involved in for some years now.

Ricoh is far from the only vendor involved in working in a green manner. Wagland was a founder of the Beige Group (Business Equipment Industry Group for the Environment) for manufacturers in his industry and says a number of his peers are getting up to speed on such issues now – though he also names some who are dragging their heels or otherwise failing to realise it need not be a costly 'extra' entirely detached from the core business.

Ricoh believes by making its environmental policy so inextricably linked with everything it does it is limiting the cost to business and customer while ensuring it constantly performs above and beyond the call of regulation.

Editorial standards