As head of supply chain and product recovery solutions company Infoactiv, Helen Jarman has a unique view on how corporations, associations and government bodies could do more to bring the circular economy to life.
When it comes to describing her business, Helen Jarman says Infoactiv understands the significance of “positive disruption and dematerialisation, and their ability to deliver business sustainability”.
The Infoactiv approach belongs in the Airbnb and Uber generation, as a more viable and powerful business model than traditional approaches to logistics and recycling.
“Like Airbnb with no hotels, and Uber with no taxis, we’re a reverse logistics firm with no trucks and no warehouses,” she says. “It makes us nimble, innovative and able to build solutions around the customer.”
Helen is the founder and Managing Director of Infoactiv, a leading independent provider of supply chain and sustainability solutions across the Asia Pacific region. With its focus on reverse logistics activity once original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) released their products into market, it has expanded to support clients with their product stewardship obligations and managing their environmental outcomes across all waste streams.
Freight to waste
Helen started Infoactiv in 1999. She had developed the business model that would best serve modern companies looking for holistic solutions early on, but had been unsure in which industry to apply it. When she arrived in the freight industry and saw the gap between the flexibility customers were seeking versus what was on offer, the step to launch her own value-add reverse logistics business was obvious.
In a previous role leading business development in the freight industry, Helen had around 200 accounts to manage and new business targets to achieve.
“This allowed me to study and understand 200 different supply chains,” she says. “But nobody was offering total, holistic end-to-end solutions. I felt customers were looking for one relationship to manage their entire business needs.”
Being an independent partner to customers is key to Infoactiv’s relationship with all stakeholders, working collaboratively and inclusively with other providers in the value chain to achieve the desired outcome.
“We are an extension of the client, a business resource aligned to their requirements and acting in their best interests,” says Helen.
Infoactiv operates facilities and agents all over the Asia Pacific region designed to meet customer needs. Once a client comes on board and the team has set their strategy and centralised their technology, processing, account management and project management, they have full choice of the vendors and suppliers.
“As a result, we’re seen as friendly in the market. We work so much in partnership with our clients that we become part of their business,” says Helen. “And we help bring suppliers together.”
She says she chose to specialise in the post-sales supply chain because it was non-core activity for customers, and therefore more fragmented and complex for them to manage effectively.
“Once a company sold its product into the market, it is often regarded as ‘job done’. But good post-sales services – such as warranty and out-of-warranty service options, returns management, service, after sales, parts, remarketing and asset re-sales – all contribute to brand equity and customer advocacy as well as bottom line profits. The relationship with the consumer must be continual and consistent.”
Evolution to sustainability solutions
Early in Infoactiv’s life, there was an opportunity to better address environmental recycling through its reverse logistics offering. Helen says the issue of waste typically lands first with the supply and logistics teams through product return, not those responsible for environment issues. She adds that customers need to make good brand, financial and environmental decisions about returned products before they ship or arrive in the warehouse. Infoactiv has been involved in providing solutions in this space well before product stewardship started to dominate government and industry vocabulary.
The introduction of the Product Stewardship Act and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) in 2011 fundamentally changed who dealt with firms’ e-waste issues and what they needed to address in this area. Infoactiv was ideally placed to support clients with this change, as it already had systems in place for product recovery, reverse logistics and recycling.
After much pressure and relentless advocacy from progressive brands, OEMs, recyclers, non-governmental organisations and councils, the Australian Government recognised the need for intelligent regulatory intervention. Helen says the era of extended producer responsibility had truly arrived in Australia, but only some brands were adequately prepared.
“Prior to regulation, we’d already recovered more than 5,000 tonnes of e-waste at that point through programs we were running with our customers, so we’d developed expertise and gathered meaningful data in this area,” says Helen.
This was how Infoactiv evolved into the resource recovery space. Helen says at that time product was being scrapped, and although some recycling arrangements existed, there were no nationwide or comprehensive collection and recycling programs in place.
“It was generally an undervalued area,” she says. “It was due to our foresight that we got involved in recycling because we’d started eight to 10 years earlier – it was a path we picked well.”
A complementary business
In response to this, Helen then set up part of the business to concentrate on reuse, re-marketing and recycling. She named it ECOACTIV because the name resonated more with its environmental aims, as well as reflecting a strong product stewardship approach.
Early on, it specialised in promoting and holding community collection events for people to bring their unwanted electronic items for environmentally-responsible disposal at easy to access drop-off points. However, it was able to leverage the strengths of its parent company over time to evolve into the business it is today.
“There weren’t direct competitors in that matched the way we design programs, and I’d say that’s true even now,” adds Helen. “With us, they’ll get a style of solution catered to their needs. Some firms do aspects of what we do, but Infoactiv is overarching.
“We cover everything from policy and advisory to marketing communications and operational execution. We seek to enhance relationships and bring volume to providers through collaboration.”
Helen says customers partner with Infoactiv because generally it helps resource and time constrained businesses to pull together diverse suppliers and processes, across multiple channels and product categories.
“Infoactiv manages that load with an audited and approved pool of vendors, protecting their clients’ brands and mitigating risks to the business,” says Helen.
She acknowledges that one of the benefits to clients can disadvantage Infoactiv’s market awareness, as it operates so under the radar. She cites the example of working on an asset management program for IBM, managing more than $50 million of inventory and supporting over 30,000 users of its laptops across 17 countries.
“But only a handful of people know it’s Infoactiv providing that service,” says Helen.
Today, Infoactiv’s scope of business is built around providing value- added solutions to OEMs, brands, retailers, corporations, institutions and government authorities that deliver significant financial, brand and environmental benefits.
Shared value, shared responsibility
For Helen, all stakeholders have a shared responsibility to make a true circular economy happen, including OEMs, importers, retailers and consumers. She advocates better education and awareness, more collection points, and the sponsorship of programs to make improved product stewardship and resource recovery a reality.
In particular, Helen argues for action much further upstream, such as product design, that is driven by waste avoidance and smart user features that can minimise environmental impacts cross the product life cycle.
This approach to new product development is now clearly acknowledged by some of the world’s leading companies and think tanks, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Apple, Phillips, Patagonia and Unilever, among others. She says that an appropriate and enabling role for governments remains if we are to see a more rapid trajectory towards a circular economy.
“Just as Zero Waste Scotland, the UK’s WRAP and many other European agencies are forging ahead, Australia agencies also need to show some foresight,” argues Helen. She adds that it isn’t enough to keep focusing on transfer station design at the cost of big ideas that will benefit Australia’s environment and its communities – urban and regional.
“What I like about the concept of shared value is that it’s a sound framework and vehicle to engage everyone on sustainability, and address societal value in and through their business,” Helen states.
She says a major challenge to making this happen is “a disconnect between business and not-for-profits” on the sustainability agenda. She has witnessed not-for-profits fail to get their messages across effectively to businesses, as they cannot forge the link between societal value and the business strategy with pursuit of profit.
In her experience, Helen says many companies only see sustainability from a corporate social responsibility (CSR) or philanthropic perspective, and miss the point of its intrinsic strategic value to their business models. “This is where we can help in translating the social, cultural and environmental messages into the commercial language of business,” Helen explains.
Her team goes beyond CSR speak with a focus on designing processes that enable desirable outcomes, be they environmentally- sound solutions, or social development and empowerment.
“Shared value engages everyone in an organisation from the top down, and that leads to increased sales and better quality business,” she argues. Opportunities exist where companies can access new markets and environmentally-savvy consumers, when they bring sustainability principles into their business strategy.
“It’s a different way of engaging and winning customers who want to do the right thing beyond the usual clichéd campaigns that border on greenwash. A circular economy focus can achieve that,” adds Helen.
Infoactiv’s Asia Pacific reach gives it a different, fresh perspective on what’s possible in the post-sales supply chain and resource recovery sector due to first-hand experience with firms and regulators there. The company has been doing more business in India recently.
Helen says Australia would do well to keep an eye on this developing nation for its work to address sustainability issues there. The presence of regulation on e-waste and CSR in India combine to compel companies to examine their practices and ensure the correct policies, measures and tracking is in place. ECOACTIV’s recent project with Electronics City in Bangalore (ELCITA) ensured a four-year roadmap was in place to manage brand risk and protect the local community.
“It will be interesting to see how effective these key regulatory instruments will be,” adds Helen.
The ECOACTIV model played a key role in how Infoactiv designed and implemented logistics and recycling under the NTCRS for one of the Co-regulatory Arrangements. In its early phase, the company had immense data and feedback from around 20,000 households from surveys completed at public recycling events.
As a result, Helen says they have learned there is a gap for resource recovery in certain waste streams, and an even larger gap of proper awareness campaigns and reasonable access. She asserts that the greatest opportunities lie in engaging consumers directly with product stewardship, so they can make an informed choice about what to do with their end-of-life or returned products.
“Many companies aren’t working together to design integrated waste solutions,” states Helen.
With her view across a broad spectrum of sectors, Helen says every industry has its unique challenges and needs, but for the recycling and wider resource recovery industry in Australia, it is its lack of consistency and collaboration that limits the potential opportunity at hand. As the company has links across the industry, governments and regulators, she is pondering the potential for Infoactiv to step in as the missing link in bringing that together.
Helen and her company certainly have influence and access across local, state and federal regulators and industry decision makers. Knowledge transfer and sharing in the industry and between sectors, is a major part of Infoactiv’s outreach and communications goal.
As such, Helen is proud of its “proactive membership and knowledge sharing through associations and organisations working collectively to deliver a sustainable future”. Her team offers significant time and expertise to organisations such as the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative and the Global Product Stewardship Council.
Infoactiv also plays a key role in national environment and product stewardship forums through its participation on government committees and working groups, including Australia’s Product Stewardship Advisory Group and the United Nations of Australia Association Environment Awards. Its Chief Sustainability Officer, John Gertsakis, is regularly invited to provide comment to a wide range of media channels on e-waste and product stewardship.
With her experience across these different groups, Helen says that for better resource recovery, product stewardship and a true circular economy to evolve, much more multi- stakeholder involvement is needed.
“It would be great if manufacturers and retailers could work together on a solution that benefits all and gets rid of duplication in program design,” she says. “Ideally, I’d love to see supermarkets get involved, as they have complementary waste streams.”
Progress to a circular economy
Like many other reputable, innovative Australian businesses, Helen believes Infoactiv has a unique opportunity to lead the way in the transition to a circular economy and in embracing frameworks such as shared value to make this happen.
“As an independent, passionate collaborator, we can act as a vehicle to coordinate, influence and recreate real world supply chain business models that focus on collaboration, shared gain, as well as technological and social innovation,” states Helen. “In Asia Pacific, we look to do this and, to truly move the needle, we are partnering with companies that seek to do the same.”
Considering recent global activity, including closed-loops, step-change thinking and pragmatic system redesign, Helen says this suggests that the world is at a tipping point of recognition of the need for and action towards circular economy principles, be it through COP21 goals or smarter stewardship and extended producer responsibility policies. She thinks this direction bodes well for the future success of her business.
Infoactiv’s business model of “good design” and smooth implementation, says Helen, contributes to helping its clients achieve success and realise their potential through comprehensive product stewardship and extended producer responsibility initiatives. She cites its logistics planning for MobileMuster’s 4,000 drop-off locations or working with Telstra to help small businesses manage e-waste responsibly as examples of Infoactiv helping to push the boundaries of product life cycle management.
“Achieving the circular economy depends heavily on reverse logistics and sharply tuned expertise,” says Helen. “And yet there is much more to do if we are to truly make responsible prosperity and the circular economy a reality.
“It’s an exciting time at Infoactiv as we transition to even higher levels of supply chain management and sustainability performance.”
Any level of objective analysis highlights that good design in reverse logistics is a cornerstone of delivering a circular economy. For Infoactiv, this means positive disruption with a purpose.
Helen concludes: “More than ever before, sustainable futures will depend on strong collaboration, innovation and a genuine desire to achieve significant change and improvement.”
Helen Jarman speaking with a Telstra Business Centre employee.