Greenpeace pressures Philips to recycle, 2009


In late 2007, Greenpeace began organizing an international campaign for Philips to reform its electronic waste - or “e-waste” - disposal policies. Philips is a major engineering and electronics corporation with operations in over 60 countries. As of this time, their environmental practices were rated among the lowest in Greenpeace’s Electronics Ranking Guide. In particular, the corporation did not provide take-back and recycle services for its products in countries that did not legally require it. Moreover, they subscribed to a model of collective producer responsibility (CPR), in which any costs incurred for recycling and toxic material recovery were diffused among a number of different organizations. It was Greenpeace’s goal to convert Philips to a model of individual producer responsibility (IPR), in which the company would have to provide for all stages of its product lifecycle. This model would help ensure that Philips factored hidden environmental costs (or “externalities”) into the cost of each product at the time of its production. Greenpeace contested that individual producer responsibility would thus both yield representative, transparent pricing for consumers and ultimately incentivize Philips to start using more easily recycled materials.

The first major action in Greenpeace’s campaign took place in March 27, 2008, during Philips’ annual corporate meeting in Amsterdam. Volunteers for Greenpeace made a large visual display outside the meeting venue by piling up at least 500 used Philips TV sets and over 100 other pieces of electronic waste. They captioned this display with a large banner hanging high up on the Okura Hotel. Its message, satirizing Philips’ “Simplicity” slogan for the meeting, appealed to e-waste reform as a “simple” way to do good. Greenpeace also spread their message in the form of pamphlets and demanded a meeting with Philips CEO Gerard Kleisterlee.

Several months later, on June 10, 2008, Greenpeace applied further pressure to Philips by issuing an official challenge to graduate from the “red zone” of their Electronics Ranking Guide. Philips accepted this challenge, yet does not seem to have committed to any concrete actions at the time.

Thus, without any verifiable change having occurred over the following months, Greenpeace repeated its performance in Amsterdam at another “Simplicity” event in October of the same year, this time at Red Square in Moscow. While Philips was celebrating its long-standing relationship with Russia, Greenpeace used subtle rhetoric linking the “Red”ness of the location to the “redness” of Philips’ environmental ranking. They hung another banner, distributed more pamphlets, and so forth.

In its characteristic fashion, Greenpeace also began circulating an online petition, urging Philips to “simply take back and recycle its products.” Altogether, Greenpeace claims to have collected some 47,000 public messages calling on Philips to reform. They supplemented this online effort with informational resources on their website, which included a guide to the differences between individual and collective producer responsibility, as well as a series of unflattering comparisons that put environmental policies at Philips in direct competition with those of rival companies like Sony, Toshiba, Dell, Nokia, and Lenovo.

The next phase of escalation was a research-based exposé of the e-waste disposal process, published in February, 2009. Greenpeace members electronically tracked a damaged television from its disposal facility in the UK all the way down to Nigeria, where merchants put it up for resale without ever having inspected it. The exposé noted that there were large amounts of similarly damaged, unregulated technology in the area. Here, poor, unskilled workers, lacking proper safety training, would add it to junkyards and landfills. Greenpeace used this field research to strengthen their case again Philips, bringing it into the realm of human rights and economic injustice.

Just a week later, Philips officially stated that it would be revising its stance on collective producer responsibility, and it began instituting take-back and recycle programs in several additional countries. Greenpeace immediately declared this outcome a resounding success, and, in subsequent fundraising campaigns, they tried to brand it as a testament to the power of Greenpeace membership fees put to good use. However, Philips did not set forth any kind of timeline for a truly global implementation of these reforms, and it is unclear whether the company ever fully came around to subscribing to individual producer responsibility.