The Dell campaign

The Computer TakeBack Campaign emphasized Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), the emerging global framework that holds producers and brand owners financially responsible for the life cycle impacts of their products, with particular emphasis on product take back and end of life management. By shifting the costs of managing discarded products away from taxpayers and local governments and onto producers and brand owners, EPR creates a powerful market incentive for brand owners to reduce those costs by re-designing products to be less toxic, more re-usable, and more easily recycled. The goal statement of the campaign captures this nicely: "Take it back, Make it clean, and Recycle responsibly." Since its inception, the CTBC has pursued a deliberate dual strategy: (1) Build sustained consumer and market pressure on Dell Computer Corporation, and (2) Build informed public support for regulatory reforms embracing producer responsibility. The CTBC's founding organizations quickly recognized the power inherent in a markets campaign (sometimes called "corporate campaigns") paired with a policy campaign focused on state legislative change. This dual approach nicely embodies the "political economic process" model (Pellow 2001).

Dell's business model is fundamentally about cultivating a relationship with their customer base that builds long-term loyalty. Fortunately, for environmental justice activists, that business model uniquely positions the company within the computer industry to develop and successfully implement a comprehensive, national computer take back system. Dell is the only computer company in the US (if not the world) that knows all of its customers by name, mailing address, e-mail address, phone number, date of purchase, product specification and more—exactly the kind of information a company would need to design a system to recover its obsolete products. If activists could force Dell to use its customer networks to design a computer take back system it would be the most efficient and far-reaching recycling effort to date. The creative use of Dell's business model as a means of organizing resistance was an example of how economic globalization processes unintentionally create opportunities for their reform, if not undoing (Hardt and Negri 2000).

Furthermore, Dell is not so much a manufacturing company as it is a marketing company. Dell assembles made to order computers from parts supplied to it and attaches its logo (and has no union). The Campaign believed that Dell, as a marketing company, was particularly susceptible to a strategy and associated tactics that attacked its brand name. The company bears the name of its founder, Michael Dell, who continues to be the CEO, a major stockholder and the most visible personality of the company. This also provides activists with opportunities to personalize the issue vis-à-vis Michael Dell who takes credit for the company's direction and success. For example, in a humorous effort to reach a younger audience of students and other computer consumers, the CTBC referred to Mr Dell as the "Toxic Dude" (Schatz 2003).

The CTBC issued Report Cards that tracked Dell's progress on recycling, which were very effective at capturing press headlines and getting consumers involved. The CTBC used the Report Cards to pit Dell against its competitors like Hewlett-Packard, who, at that time, was doing a better job of recycling its products. Dell provided the Campaign with other targeting opportunities, including the company's decision to partner with UNICOR, the federal prison industries, as its primary recycling partner. For Dell, selecting UNICOR was a matter of driving down costs. The Campaign's concern was that reliance on prison labour undercut development of the "free market" infrastructure necessary to operate a robust, national e-waste collection and recycling system. Moreover, because prisoners are not covered by the same worker health and safety protections as regular employees, incarcerated populations are more endangered by the toxic materials contained in discarded computers and electronics. Activists charged that Dell's recycling programme was "a high tech chain gang" not much better run than efforts studied in Chinese villages (Texas Campaign for the Environment 2003a). Barely a week after the CTBC announced its concerns about Dell's use of prison labour, Dell Computer announced that it would no longer rely on prisons to supply recycling workers for its programme (San Diego Union Tribune 2003). The fact that Dell cancelled the contract one week after the CTBC made its objection to these practices public is a testament to the real power this TSMO exercises against global corporations.

In its 2003 annual report card, the Computer TakeBack Campaign assigned failing grades to Micron Technology, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard and others, but emphasized the particular shortcomings of the Dell Computer Corporation. The Report Card stated, "The Dell position on e-waste is a stain on the soul of Dell—the company and its founder.Michael Dell and his wife, Susan, make generous donations to children's health and environmental charities in the US but ignore the health and environmental impacts of e-waste on children and adults" (Associated Press 2003). Activists were relentless in their public criticism of the Dell Corporation and of its founder.

Activists in the US had a clear sense of Dell's operations around the globe and began to question the company's dual recycling systems—one for the US and one for Europe. The CTBC received data and details on this "double standard" from the partner SMOs across the Atlantic and made it known publicly. As Robin Schneider, Director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment stated,

We want Dell Computer to take the same degree of responsibility for used and obsolete personal computers here in the US as the company does in European countries. In Europe, Dell takes back old equipment free of charge from all consumers. European producer responsibility laws require this of the company, ensuring that the products are kept out of landfills and incinerators and their valuable materials are reused or recycled. Our simple question to Dell Computer is "Why do American consumers and the American environment deserve second-class treatment?'

(Computer TakeBack Campaign 2002)

In July 2003 recycling activists leafleted the Dell shareholders meeting in Austin, Texas and delivered a load of Dell computers collected from western cities, as part of the "hard drive across America". The Dell corporate staff accepted the waste computers and joined activists placing them into a truck to be hauled to Image Microsystems, an Austin-based recycler that replaced the UNICOR prison labour contractor that previously managed Dell's waste. "We're not exactly holding hands and singing "Kumbaya," but this is more common ground on recycling than we've had for a while", said Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Image Microsystems also agreed to honour the Recycler's Pledge of Stewardship, developed by the Computer TakeBack Campaign. Included in the pledge is the requirement that toxic waste not be sent overseas to global South nations or dumped in domestic landfills. "We consider this a big win", said Ted Smith of SVTC. "But we're also very mindful that Dell only recycled 2 percent of the 16 million computers they sold last year. Those uncollected computers will still end up in landfills or be shipped overseas" (Texas Campaign for the Environment 2003b).

I want to underscore that, in addition to high profile activists' efforts, consumers were critical to the Dell campaign, as the CTBC persuaded thousands of Dell computer owners and students to write emails, letters, and faxes to Michael Dell urging him to institute a responsible recycling programme that would take back computers and recycle them without prison labour. Students were particularly critical in this effort, having raised funds to place open letters in full-page advertisements in newspapers in Austin, Texas, Dell's hometown headquarters. Students also successfully negotiated a meeting with Michael Dell (that was telecast nationally) where he responded to a list of concerns and demands.

Finally, much of the waste from companies like Dell and others ends up being exported and dumped in Pakistan, India, and China, creating further social and ecological havoc. E-waste recyclers face significant health hazards while disassembling the waste from global North and middle-class consumers. They too are part of the chain of production, consumption, and disposal, and activists were clear that they deserve our attention, access to basic rights, environmental protections, and a living wage. After all, without ties to social movement organizations in these Southern nations, the information about e-waste dumping might never have surfaced.

In 2004, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, the nation's largest personal computer makers, reported that they were increasing computer recycling and taking more of the financial burden for the recycling of used computers off consumers and local governments. The Computer TakeBack Campaign timed the pledges by Dell and Hewlett-Packard to the release of another annual "report card" of corporate environmental behaviour. HP received the highest rating and Dell moved up to second place on the 2004 report card. In a statement that reveals the power of "venue shopping" by movements engaging the political economic process, activist Ted Smith stated, "We believe the companies have to set up these systems, not governments" (Flynn 2004). Yet during 2003 alone, more than half the states in the US introduced some kind of electronic waste legislation (Bartholomew 2004). This is testimony to the dual-pronged approach that activists have taken to ensure that the state and corporations behave in ways that might ensure environmental justice.

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