Lt. Columbo investigates Best Buy’s Sustainability Report

I love technology; always have, always will. After all it could help save our planet one day, ably abetted by passionate real people of course.

When I was three (according to my parents) I took apart my first clock to find the tick-tock. Some things haven’t changed in 36 years. Last week I spent 5 minutes on the Dell support website then had my laptop open to clean it. Yes it needed cleaning but that wasn’t my reason for opening up my ageing trusty workhorse. I even took a degree in Technology Management on my meandering career path just for the pure tech geek in me.

As I get older and more comfortable with my inner geek, my adventures in CSR increasingly gravitate toward tech related issues and last week’s #CSRchat format Twitter event with Best Buy promoting its sustainability wares was an event I wasn’t going to miss. I forcibly wedged the Livestream session into a maniacally crammed Outlook calendar and also agreed to a conference call with the Best Buy video stars of the webcast the following day.

For those who haven’t taken part in a Twitter chat, especially the #CSRchat, you should; they can be an exhilarating combination of intelligent comment, foresight, learning and fun – if you can keep up the conversation threads that is.

Before the live video & chat I set off in search of an updated understanding of Best Buy and their version of  sustainability. If you want to read their full report yourself click here to be taken to the Best Buy Fiscal 2011 Sustainability Report website and provided with a clear and well presented report, if a little light on raw data to interpret yourself. Not an integrated report by any means and nothing earth shattering impressive but a decent commitment delivered in an accessible manner. The school report would say ‘good but must try harder’.

Now to try another route into the world of sustainability at the $16.25 billion income world’s largest consumer electronics retailer. Here’s the Best Buy UK sustainability page. Notice anything different? Or should I say notice anything the same? Try clicking on the ‘Enterprise Sustainability Programme’ link at the bottom. Let me know if its fixed yet. The gulf between the two sites really pisses me off and set me off on a different investigation (where did I leave that cigar? – < pats jacket pockets >)…

With a new set of eyes now looking beyond the imminent live performance another elephant in the corner of the room began making noises I couldn’t ignore. Check out either of Best Buy’s US or UK landing pages. What do you see? I saw two similar traditional retail websites selling electrical goods and technology. Sustainability does get a grayed out link at the bottom, but apart from people like me (and I’m guessing some of you) who will ever click on it? I’d love to know their web traffic stats. I promise not to get started on my peeve about the term ‘sustainability’ meaning absolutely nothing to 99% of consumers to make that link even more worthless.

My geekiness also takes the form of regularly visiting Best Buy, not because of any sustainability event I was aware of, only my enjoyment of window shopping for the latest technology and often visit the nearest site only a couple of miles away – and my 4-year-old  son (not me honest) loves the big televisions and games consoles! Although my visits are those of  an average consumer, who admittedly struggles from ethical fatigue in nearly every shopping choice I make, I had subconsciously noticed the lack of any sustainability presence at all apart from a couple of electric scooters in the front window, generally happy Blue Shirts (the employees) and a very, very vague recollection of a point of sale recycling promotional sign somewhere.

As I began putting all this together (does this sound like  Lt. Columbo to anybody else or do I need more sleep?) I was beginning to feel an impression of a business where sustainability isn’t genuinely hitting the highest priorities internally.

I applaud Best Buy for their approach in utilising such innovative communications channels, especially those that provide a accessible level of transparency. The combination of live video link – professionally managed by the knowledgeable @AmanSinghCSR – and #bbycsrchat worked well to facilitate an honest interaction between the online audience of many of the usual online CSR / sustainability suspects and Leo Raudys (Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability), Hamlin Metzger (Senior Manager of Corporate Responsibility) and Mary Capozzi (Senior Director of Corporate Responsibility).

It felt like the scene at the end of all the episodes of  Columbo I can remember where there were a few questions about the detail of the report and activity, but for me I had to delve into the core ethos of the business. Best Buy are a huge retailer of consumer goods and I wanted to understand their official line on sustainable consumption. After only a few minutes I was tired of the word recycle. Yes, Best Buy have excellent recycling initiatives including their Buy Back programme, but in relative isolation that misses the point. So in true Columbo style I asked:

The answers ranged from the possibly knee-jerk yet scary ‘we can only react to consumer demand’ defence to a far more credible offering from Leo Raudys about engaging with global partners to fully understand sustainable consumption and the role retail plays. I know people can respond in various ways to being in front of a camera etc but the initial reaction was not from a sustainability leadership position, especially when there is so little evidence of activity to educate, challenge or encourage consumers to act in a more sustainable manner with their wallets. I had to probe further during the 45 minute conference call the next day and I felt far more reassured that Mary, Leo and @KellyGroehler were on the ball and fighting the good fight internally to the best of their ability. The problem is I don’t believe their seniors are.

We also discussed how Best Buy is enforcing their sustainability agenda in the Chinese market for example with their ownership of 5 Star branded stores, but again the financial growth aspiration doesn’t appear to correlate with the sustainability commitment.

How about improved sustainability labelling of products beyond compliance of energy consumption? Telecomms company Telefonica own o2 in the UK offer individual eco ratings for mobile phones on their website for example. How about FREE guides to extend the lifespan of products available online? Why not promote offers on products with better environmental performance? How about a schools programme to educate children about product  life-cycles? How about even putting sustainability front and centre on the websites? Do more! I’m certain there is much more that could be done without alienating a customer base who at the moment only want the latest tech at the best price. If it’s not your problem whose is it? Stop passing the buck.

In short, I hope / don’t think it will be acceptable for long for Best Buy to pass on its sustainability guilt to consumers. They like many, many other corporate giants need to address the essential core issues of sustainability that need to be strategically aligned to a slower business growth financial model. Am I the only person that is scared that far too many retailers are waiting for consumers to dictate the sustainability revolution?

I wanted Best Buy to be so much more.

I’m currently re-reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce. Maybe I should send a few copies to the board at Best Buy.

4 thoughts on “Lt. Columbo investigates Best Buy’s Sustainability Report

  1. Gareth Kane

    Nice piece – I ducked the opportunity to take part in the webchat as I had a lot to do that day – maybe I should have given it a go!

    What I found interesting when doing the interviews for The Green Executive was that the big food/drink/FMCG companies saw retailers as the sustainability gatekeepers for consumers.

    The business case for the retailers was more complex – it was more the broader brand enhancement/protection they were after rather than consumers choosing them because they stocked any particular green or ethical product.

    In fact most retailers and manufacturers had given up on “green products”, but were working to integrate sustainability into their mainstream product lines.


  2. Donald Nordeng

    I give a lot of credit to BestBuy for doing this webchat. It takes a lot of guts to open the floor to live questions. Its scary, but that is what stakeholder engagement is all about. It is just a guess, but in my experience, foreign subsidiaries don’t have the same resources as the headquarters. While holding them to the same standards is important, I think the differences Lt. Colombo ferreted out highlights this possibility.


  3. Jo Fergus

    I’ve started writing up a ‘socialmedia’ style news release to develop story angles around the Guelph Hydro (a local power utility’s) first ‘sustainability report…and would welcome any feedback on the angles presented so far, or even on just how the page format could evolve…

    The report raises interesting questions about the role of “Energy Managers’ for corporations and municipalities, while demonstrating the benefits of interrealted organizations (utilities, government, educators, etc…)



  4. Morrison Sustainability

    Wonderful post! Great information you have shared. Our collective challenge is to significantly reduce our impact on the local and global environment and begin to rebuild our natural capital in an economically and socially responsible manner.



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