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CSA Exclusive: Electronics, appliances retailer saves green by going green

By reducing its carbon footprint, Abt Electronics saves dollars as well as the environment.

Based in Glenview, Illinois, Abt Electronics is a family-owned national e-commerce retailer of electronics, appliances, and home goods. Abt also operates a 107,000-sq.-ft. brick-and-mortar store in Glenview, as well as a 350,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, and employs 1,400 associates.

Chain Store Age spoke with Abt Electronics president Michael Abt, a second-generation member of the family business, about the company’s sustainability efforts.

“Sustainability evolved over the years,” said Abt. “I was the catalyst. I was attending medical school in Denver, which is a pretty earthy place.”

Abt, who began working for Abt Electronics part-time in 1975, ultimately did not pursue a career in medicine. Joining the retail operation full-time in 1989, he first got involved with corporate sustainability by looking at the company’s large waste stream.

“We had a lot of trash,” said Abt. “It seemed silly to keep paying to have it all removed. I looked at all the trash to see what we could get rid of (from the waste stream).”

A large portion of Abt Electronics’ waste stream was wood, cardboard, plastic, and expanded polystyrene (EPS) from product packaging. In addition, the retailer generated waste from appliance returns. The company even accepted returns of appliances purchased from other sources. It soon found recycling packaging and used electronics produced benefits besides aiding the Earth.

“Philosophically, it’s great to save money by not paying to get rid of trash,” Abt said. Compounding that savings is revenue that comes in from Abt reselling recycled materials. For example, Abt Electronics melts down EPS and sells it for $25 per ton, and also sells recycled copper for $2-$3 per pound. To date, the company has recycled 11,000 tons of scrap metal, 500,000 pounds of EPS, 4 million pounds of paper and cardboard, and 322,000 pounds of electronics. Abt Electronics conducts 95% of its own recycling in an in-house facility.

Since launching recycling efforts, Abt Electronics has also initiated sustainability programs such as providing electronic vehicle charging stations in its store parking lot, using alternative fuel trucks, obtaining power from a natural gas generator and solar rooftop array, and implementing a rainwater harvesting system. But there were some bumps along the way.

“We tried biodiesel trucks, but they did not save money,” said Abt. “They didn’t work in the cold weather; the fuel lines kept clogging. Now we use trucks that run on diesel fuel and natural gas. They may cost a little more, but it’s worth it to us.”

Initially, Abt found inspiration from the do-it-yourself sustainability efforts of green retailing pioneer Patagonia, the outdoor apparel and equipment retailer.

“Patagonia is the most sustainable retailer,” said Abt. “They put together a coalition of North Face and other outdoor apparel companies.”

Abt Electronics now belongs to a buying group of 10-12 electronics retailer who collectively ask suppliers to be more environmentally conscious with their products and packaging.

“It’s a nice place for retailers to get together and share ideas,” said Abt. “We save money and can save more if we work together. This is my religion. My goal is to get other businesses to be green.”
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