The right to repair: Officeworks

Ryan Swenson, Officeworks Head of Sustainable Development, explains the company’s commitment to viewing all operations through a waste lens.

At the Consumer Affairs Forum in late 2019, Australian consumer affairs ministers agreed to consider right to repair laws. Right to repair laws, broadly, refer to legislation designed to boost individuals’ ability to repair electronic goods, in lieu of disposal or secondary reprocessing.

The emerging movement was developed in response to growing volumes of consumer waste ending up in landfill, and design concepts such as planned obsolescence, which deliberately seeks a high turnover of goods via quickly evolving technology.

Over the last five years, right to repair laws have been enacted in the US and Europe, forcing manufactures to cooperate with legitimate third-party repairers. This involves providing tools, diagnostic software and genuine parts to enable transparency and consumer choice.

Right to repair as a concept, which extends beyond electronics to all consumer goods, is simultaneously gaining traction, even receiving mention at a 2019 US Democratic primary debate.

While the environmental case for repair is clear, Australian economist Richard Denniss argues there is a concurrent economic one. Mr Denniss suggests, in his book Curing Affluenza, that communities that repair goods employ more people, per dollar spent, than those with a disposal mentality.

After developing a pilot repair project with Worlds Biggest Garage Sale in October 2019, one could surmise Officeworks, Australia’s home for office and student supplies, furniture and technology, also understands the dual benefits inherent in repair.

World’s Biggest Garage Sale, a Brisbane-based start-up, helps enable the circular economy through the activation of dormant goods. Put simply, they repair faulty or discarded products, hold large-scale community “garage sales” and return those goods into circulation.

Ryan Swenson, Officeworks Head of Sustainable Development, says the notion of repair works to foster community engagement and is one facet of a company-wide commitment to a holistic approach to waste.

As part of the project, teams from World’s Biggest Garage Sale repair and repurpose faulty Officeworks furniture that would otherwise be sent to landfill, thereby transforming waste into saleable products.

“It’s early days, so we’re still measuring the viability of moving to the next level and including more stores. But judging from initial feedback, Worlds Biggest Garage Sale seems positive about what they’ve been able to achieve with us. We are committed to operating a responsible and sustainable business, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it’s important to our stakeholders and better for business.”

Ryan adds that Officeworks conduct a materiality assessment every two years to understand the issues most important to their stakeholders, which is then used to inform future priorities in the Officeworks Positive Difference Plan.

“It’s clear that addressing the issue of waste in a strategic and genuine way is important to all of our stakeholders, be it customers, team members, partners or investors,” he says.

HOLISTIC HIERARCHY

As part of Officeworks’ commitment to reducing its environmental impact, store teams utilise a balanced score card that reports on non-financial metrics, such as waste and recycling key performance indicators.

“It’s created a real sense of ownership at the store level. While Officeworks as a company has overarching sustainability targets, we’ve found that individual store teams are now setting their own targets,” he says.

Ryan notes that in 2019, 16 individual stores achieved a 90 per cent recycling rate, six per cent higher than Officeworks’ overall rate of 84 per cent.

“Our Ringwood store team has reduced its waste to such an extent that it’s now down to one household wheelie bin. The team has basically eliminated waste costs and moved to weekly council collection,” Ryan says.

“Ringwood achieved this through creativity. For instance, establishing a compost bin in the carpark garden. The apartment building next store is now also using it to compost their coffee grinds. I believe the intention is to also create a community garden right there on-site.”

According to Ryan, another store in Western Australia is taking a similar outside the box approach, setting up a free collection point for print and copy offcuts.

“Laminate roll cut offs and all sorts of card and paper are being left at this collection point. Schools in the area are then taking that material and using it in their craft projects. As a result, that store has seen a significant reduction in waste,” he says.

“Over the last six months we have been able to reduce the waste we send to landfill by 24 per cent, which is a great result both environmentally and from a financial perspective.”

PROBLEMATIC PRODUCTS

Despite a range of successful reduction initiatives, for a business-like Officeworks, which supplies tens of thousands of products across 167 stores, some level of waste is unavoidable. The focus then, Ryan says, is ensuring as much of that waste is recyclable as possible.

To that end, Officeworks rolled out a national polystyrene recycling program in February, following a successful 2019 trial. Initially tested at 20 stores, the program, now national, utilises additional pallet space in Officeworks reverse logistics network.

“We found that most of the faulty stock pallets we send back are 1.5 metres high, whereas the trucks can take up to 1.8 metres high,” Ryan says.

“To use that wasted space, the team began bagging their polystyrene on-site, and on weekly or fortnightly returns, we use that additional height to send the bags back to a central recycling point.”

Due to polystyrene’s notoriously difficult to recycle nature, Ryan says collecting the material for recycling at a centralised location removes a number of logistical layers.

He adds however that the program is designed to operate as a medium-term solution, with Officeworks continuing to address polystyrene via innovative packaging and transport approaches. As a next step, polystyrene will be removed from all international furniture shipping and replaced with cardboard from March.

“Our buying teams worked closely with suppliers to redesign our packaging and totally eliminate polystyrene,” Ryan says.

“From a commercial side, we needed to ensure the packaging was still fit for purpose and the product protected. So, we ran a number of trials before landing on our current cardboard solution.”

Additionally, in November 2019, Officeworks announced the rollout out of national battery and pen recycling programs, to be available across most stores by the end of 2020.

While no federally mandated national product stewardship scheme exists for batteries, Ryan says Officeworks understood battery recycling was important to their customers.

“It was an obvious choice for us to roll out the battery program: it’s a problematic product, but the recycling solutions do exist,” he says.

“We worked hard to develop a feasible national system, before trialling the program in a few stores. In terms of customer take up, the results were really positive.”

The pen program, Ryan adds, was developed by Bic and Terracycle, and launched as part of Officeworks new national recycling stations roll-out.

“With the volume of pens that come from schools and offices, and the volume that we sell, this was an important initiative for us,” he adds.

Following this range of new sustainability initiatives, Ryan says Officeworks saw it fit to appoint a specialised Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Manager.

Starting in February, the manager’s role is to approach waste holistically and work to reduce it across the entire business.

“They will also work closely with the merchandising team to address excessive packaging and oversee our customer recycling programs to ensure they are operating efficiently,” Ryan explains.

“The intention is to view all operations through a waste lens, so by working with individual stores and the supply chain, we can not only reduce our environmental impact, but also our cost of doing business.”

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