Building a Sustainability Program Into An Industry Leader with Jonathan King

November 10, 2020

Jonathan King is Vice President of Corporate & Legal Affairs for TCL North America, and oversees the company’s environmental sustainability program. One of TCL’s original U.S. employees, he has steadily built TCL’s sustainability program into an industry leader. TCL has been recognized for its “above and beyond” policies that advocate solutions in under-served communities and promote public awareness of the benefits of electronics recycling. The program is a recipient of the EPA’s SMM Challenge Gold-Tier Award for two consecutive years. TCL is now the second-largest TV brand in North America and one of the largest vertically-integrated electronics manufacturers in the world.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian. I am so honored to have with us today Jonathan King. He is the Vice President of Corporate and Legal Affairs of TCL. Welcome to Impact, Jonathan.

Jonathan King: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

John: Jonathan, we were talking a little bit off air. This is your first time on our show, and we are so thankful for you making the time to come on, because we are going to be talking about your tremendous and great efforts that you are making, and impacts you are making at TCL. But before we get into that, share with our listeners and our audience a little bit the Jonathan King backstory. How did you even get into this position? And what got you interested in doing this kind of great work?

Jonathan: Yes. So for me, when it started, I started working for a little company called Go-Video. It was located in Scottsdale, Arizona and it was the inventor of the VCR and VCR. It was a dual VCR. It copied one tape to another with the idea that you could rent a tape or buy a tape and then just immediately start your own library. Needless to say, that got the attention of Hollywood and they became famous, or you could say infamous, for the fact that they really were not well thought of by the Hollywood community and it developed into a few lawsuits. Nevertheless, what came out of it was an incredibly innovative company that developed the DVD-VCR. It developed one of the first MP3 players that came into the market in the United States. It ultimately ended up becoming a subsidiary of TCL. That is how I came onboard TCL. That started back in around 1999 and that was when there was the transition from analog to digital, just starting, and you saw digital television showing up and we were introducing some of the first to those. We saw MP3 players come across. We are just the first ones that had been introduced, and really a couple months before we introduced ours. We saw really one of the largest consumer upgrades in history take place where everyone realized they had to take their old CRT 4 x 3 TVs and trade them in for these beautiful 15 x 9 or movie-set style TVs. Everyone was so in love with the new products that they did not think about, “What are we going to do with the old crap?” That is what got me into the recycling world and the sustainability world, because ultimately that was what brought about everything you see today. It is what brought about states starting to think about, “What is going in our landfills?” It started to create a more circular economy. People started to think about designing for the future. People started to really come across the idea of, “Wait a minute, these things are becoming more and more affordable. I can get two, three, four, or five of these in my home. What am I going to do with the old one?” So that was what really started the whole revolution.

John: Okay. Let us talk about that. When guys like you and me travel and we go to Europe or Asia, we see sustainability has been culturally ingrained there and circular economy behavior, at least, 50, 60, 70 years. Those countries in Europe, the UK, France, Spain, are much more geographically challenged than the big old USA, same with Seoul South Korea and Japan. They were into sustainability way before we even knew the word here in the United States. How is it challenging to bring sustainability efforts to the United States with a great big brand like TCL and make it stick, and make it work, and make people want to listen?

Jonathan: Well, those are really two questions. The first part of that I think is the fact that we are made up of fifty states and territories, and the District of Columbia and we have representation from all different types of groups. Getting everyone onboard with one plan or one vision is obviously going to be a lot more challenging than Japan or even Europe. But with that said, I think it is coming around, from the perspective of TCL, we were actually very fortunate. When we launched the TCL brand in the United States, the vision of what we were really basing the company on was an employee-centric vision. The employees got together. As we grew, we decided what was important to us. What we came across was all these different companies out there and with all these historic brands, they are really just brands that stand for– some stand maybe for innovation, Sony with the Walkman, [inaudible] into the Walkman.

John: Right.

Jonathan: Panasonic has its own history and so forth.

John: Yes.

Jonathan: Apple has its own history.

John: Yes.

Jonathan: What we realized is yes, we create amazing TVs, we create amazing products, but we want to be known for something more than that. So we created what we call the TCL Cares program. It was an employee created program and one of the four legs of that program is the environment. What we said is everything we do, every decision we make, has to have the environment in mind in some fashion. That means if we are creating products, it means we have to come up with a way to do something environmentally friendly so that we put products out there and figure out a way to, in some senses it sounds strange, but bring products back. Some of that circular economy based but for us what it really came down to is electronics recycling was our focus. What we realized was everything that is made in a product is going to be again made into a product. The idea of creating that circular economy and creating electronics recycling programs that bring the products back around and recover all of those different parts and minerals, and different things, it really just enables the world to be in a better place and that was the central focus of our environmental program.

John: So when you started that give me a little context, what year was that, just so I understand better.

Jonathan: When we started selling TCL TVs into the marketplace that was about 2014. This was after we had just put our toe in the water. We wanted to understand the market, understand the environment we were operating in, and then we started doing what we did and realized the formula we had to come up with was, to put it simply, incredible. We started witnessing double digit, triple digit growth. We grew two times, three times over year to year and we went from being what I think was the 17th or 18th largest manufacturer of TVs by volume in the United States to being the number two TV manufacturer by volume. I think we did that in really only about five years.

John: Jonathan, just so our listeners can understand, in your industry that is a meteoric rise. It is literally never been done before.

Jonathan: Yes, it is really unheard of. TVs are one of the most competitive spaces in consumer electronics and I have been in a lot of different consumer electronics categories in my 20 plus years in the industry and I got to tell you TVs are definitely one of the most competitive. It is price competitive, it is feature competitive, it is brand competitive, it is retailer competitive. To accomplish that type of growth means that you have to have not only some amazing products that work unbelievably, that have incredible reliability, that have incredible quality, but it also means you have an incredible team behind you and that is something we take a lot of pride at. We built our team piece by piece. Every person on our team is really worth several people on anyone else’s team. I will put anyone on this team up against anyone else. We can take anyone and that is what did it. Retailers love working with us, consumers love purchasing our product, and it has given my sustainability team the leeway to do some incredible things. In most other companies they look at it and say, well, hold on, I do not want to go that route. In our company we say, no that is not the way we want to go, we want to explore that. What can we do to make that better? What can we do to take advantage of that so that consumers can participate in it more and that has given my team the ability to be so creative in their solution.

John: So interesting. You went from literally the new kid on the block in 2014 to now number two. The number two brand in the United States. How does that increase both the spotlight and the responsibility to now be a leader? Because you were just a rookie. When you are a rookie you are given a lot of latitude, when you are the new kid, but now that you are number two, everybody is focused on you. Everyone is looking at you for the next move in sustainability. Talk a little bit about that and then we are going to go back and talk a little bit about some of the other things that you are working on.

Jonathan: Yes, you are absolutely right. As you are rising people do not notice you. You have a lot of freedom, you can do a lot of things. Then when you start getting noticed, everything you do starts mattering a little more, a little more, and then all of a sudden, and you do not realize it right, but all of a sudden you become everyone’s target. That is when you start realizing, wow, all these things are getting thrown at me and I did not really realize it right away, but they are all coming to me at the same time. Why is that and that is when you realize because it is working, because what we are doing matters, and people are taking notice. Once people were focused on, how many units can I sell, how many retailers can I be in, it was really for us a question of what kind of impact can we make? How many cool features can we add to a TV? How many amazing different features can we come up with for the future so that each time we introduced a new line it is something amazing and something new that people gravitate toward and love. I will just give you an example. One of our TV models is one of the most heralded TVs for the gaming sector. Gamers love it. It has this amazing following. What we realized is wow, we can be in the TV space and we could focus on entertainment in the home, but we can also focus on gaming entertainment in the home as well as professional gamers and so forth. TVs really are the centerpiece of the American home. It always has been since the introduction of the TV. The fireside chats around the radio eventually transformed into the family gathering around the TV. I grew up that way. I was a product of the 70s and the early 80s watching Friday and Saturday night TV. The television set itself was where everyone gathered around. You really do have a responsibility as the second largest TV manufacturer to do things in a really innovative, quality, affordable way so that you are not just catering to one sector of the market but you are catering to all sectors of the market.

John: It is so important. I so agree with you including, and I am older than you, but even my children were growing up even Thursday nights on NBC with Seinfeld in that lineup was where we all gathered and have so many great memories of being around the TV watching that great lineup of shows in the 90s. Sustainability in the last 20 years, talk a little bit about how the last 20 years have been historically with manufacturers with regards to their interrelationship with sustainability and what is your vision now in 2020, where is it going to go from here on?

Jonathan: Yes, I think it is important to, as I was saying before, to take a step back and look at the history.

John: Yes.

Jonathan: What happened? Understand how we got to where we are today. I am so privileged to have been in the electronics industry to witness that transformation, from analog to digital. It is that transformation that provides the context for sustainability in 2020. Back in 1999 or just when digital televisions were starting to come into the US market. You saw everyone marveling at the picture, and that was back in the time when you would go to the consumer electronics show and see these consistent images of close-ups of flowers with little honeybees on them, and how you could see the detail, the same images and you go from booth to booth and see the same images on each TV. Every booth had TVs in them because it was the next thing. Then once that became adopted, everyone took those square products that we got rid of and put them in their garage or put them in their closet and forgot about.

John: Right.

Jonathan: Every one of those TVs became a huge, huge challenge for the future. The same goes for the upgraded digital media players, and MP3s, and the upgraded DVD players, and what to do with VCRs, and all these products built up. I was fortunate to be around replay TV and a part of that when it was doing[?] about, and the time-shifting of TV and how everything began to not be based on tuning in at 10 o’clock on Saturday night, but you could tune in whenever you wanted to because you could all of a sudden control that. I always marvel at the fact that my kids were born in a post-replay TV and TiVo world where they do not know anything but time-shifting a TV. That is all they know. Now they are in college, but that is really all they know whereas for us, it is a whole different world. All these products, these analog products built up, we did not know what to do with them. All of a sudden that is when everything started to change and we started to realize instead of repairing, we were replacing and that is just an honest way of looking at it, and because you could not take a CRT TV and turn it into a digital TV. You could not take the VCR and turn it into a DVD player, and you certainly certainly could not take a Walkman and turn it into an MP3 player. So all of those that built up had to have a solution and I think everyone started looking around and realizing as they took up more and more space, what are we going to do with this? That is what drove the revolution today. So much of the recycling that we see today, so many of the solutions, so many of the state programs that you see today that have rules where consumers cannot throw these products in the landfills anymore, and you have to have solutions for them, this is what drove that. It is that evolution and it took that many years, five, ten years after that started happening for it to build up and people to realize that we had to have a solution. Then fast forward, in the last 10 years we have come up with all these amazing different solutions for recycling, for these processes that are so state-of-the-art, the robotics involved in it now, the way you can separate out these valuable materials and then create a situation where these materials can go back into the process and you do not have to go mining for it, and you do not have to go shopping for it. It just saves so much in terms of resources in the United States. That takes us to where we are now, where we have these amazing solutions in place and TCL is a big part of that. We what we have tried to do is create a recycling solution in all the underserved communities across the country so that we could really bring about solutions for people that did not know what to do with it. We took the EPA America’s recycles they had pledged so that we could inform people, enlighten people on the positive aspect of this, and that is when we started what we call now the TCL Take-Back Tour, where we are creating events around the country that bring awareness to consumers in different towns of the ease and convenience of taking these products and recycling them and all the good that it can do for their own local communities. Let us be honest, this is a local community issue. Every local community across the country has their own town dump and landfill and places where these products go. When these goes into the ground, it affects them at the local level. It is about getting down to that local level and informing them. We have created this incredible program where we go across the country and we have these events in partnership with some of our amazing recycling partners and we try to do this for free so that we can raise awareness for it, and it has worked out really well. The reception has been phenomenal.

John: I love it. Making recycling localized. Making recycling convenient is one of the pillars of just responsible and great recycling. For our listeners who have just joined us, we have got Jonathan King with us today. He is the Vice President of Corporate and Legal Affairs at TCL North America. To find Jonathan, his colleagues, and his great brand, please go to www.tcl.com. I am on the website now, when you click the sustainability button there are so many great programs that Jonathan and his colleagues are doing to make the world a better place. Plus, there is also a newsletter that you could sign up for. I highly recommend that you do that. Jonathan, let us go back to what we were just talking about, your Take-Back Tour and the circular economy. To just disavow any of our listeners, first of all, one of the big myths about recycling and also about just good environmental practices that I think we have both learned in our journeys is that degradation of the environment is a borderless event. If they are doing the right thing in New York but the wrong thing in New Jersey, that affects all of us. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the whole planet, so even though there is only twenty something states that have laws, landfill bans, the truth is that when doing responsible recycling the right way obviously, as you just pointed out, it is zero waste, zero landfill. All of the items that come out of old electronics, like your great televisions, are steel, plastic, aluminum copper, gold, silver, palladium, lead, all of that gets recycled and goes back to beneficiary use, potentially back into new television sets. Is that something that you are excited about every day more than ever, and are you also starting to use more of these materials back into your new products?

Jonathan: Right. The answer to that is yes and yes. We are absolutely more excited about it. When it comes to the states that you referred to, you are absolutely right. There is legislation in about half of the states while the other half of the states not as much. What we try to do is focus on a kind of a two-step process. In the states that have the focus, we do what we call Above and Beyond. It is called Above and beyond, it is a simple name, but it is true. What we do is we go above and beyond. Where we have certain goals that we established, we establish goals that we not only meet but we exceed. If we set a goal, for example, in a state where we want to recycle a million pound, we set a higher goal. We try to recycle more than that, a million and a half pounds perhaps, 1.1 million pounds and so forth. What we try to do is exceed it so that at the end of each year we beat the year before. We measure each year based on what do we do the year before and how much can we beat it. Not can we barely beat it but how much can we beat it. Then, when it comes to the other states, the ones that do not have as much, we try to run some of the events through that. For example, our TCL Take-Back Tour that is going to actually take place on the weekend of America Recycles Day coming up in November, I think November 14th is the date, we have an event that is going to take place in Tampa, Florida, an event that is going to take place in Rogers, Arkansas. We have another event that is going to take place in Fresno and we have another event that is going to take place in Aurora, just next to Denver. Each one of these events represents a time zone of the United States and the idea is that in at least every time zone across the contiguous United States, we are trying to raise awareness for the benefits of recycling.

Now, as far as the second part of your question, absolutely. That actually has a two-part answer. Yes, we are trying to put more materials back in the products, create more of a circular economy. That I think is what a lot of people talked about. A lot of people love to use the phrase circular. It is kind of a generic phrase right now. It does not necessarily have specific meaning. For us the meaning is every year can we put more into products than we did the year before, kind of as simple as that. Can we create a solution where our new line incorporates more of our old one? It is kind of like. New features but perhaps old materials and by putting those things together, the recycling of those things enables the product to be, of course, that much better. Then of course, there is the idea of the packaging. More and more there is a focus on not just the products that are shipping across the country and it is in everyone’s homes but the packaging. What is in the packaging? What happens to the packaging afterwards? That, of course, has become even a far more exacerbated issue because of the pandemic. What we try to do is, it is like a balancing act, right? You want a TV to show up in one piece, but at the same time you want a TV show up in packaging that can easily be recycled, that has easy recyclability, that has more materials in it that are made from recyclable materials, and the more you can do that the better off you are. Each one of these is a lot more focused than just one step, it involves a couple steps. I should even add from that what you have is a situation where consumers do not know what to do with recycling and as you know, when it comes to recycling bad choices often cost money. Consumers look at things and say, well, I think it is recyclable because it feels recyclable so I will recycle it. Often that is a bad decision because if it is not it can cause more problem than it is worth. We are the first TV manufacturer to actually partnered with how to recycle and we are adding how to recycle labeling to all of our packaging, which is going to start at the end of the year. Starting at the beginning of 2021, every part of the packaging will have a specific instruction on its recyclability and what to do with it.

John: I love it. That is just so great. We are talking about the consumers, you bring up a great point and because I am older than you and I have been doing this since 2004 or so, we got in this business before, Al Gore did Inconvenient Truth and won a Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award and well, the sustainability was a great run in the United States from 2005 to maybe 2010, then things sort of petered out. Just around when you stepped in 2014, things started coming back and now we see the rebirth of the Jane Fonda’s of the world going at it hard and also you have Greta Thunberg generation. So those are the bookends that I see right now and I have a model that I use but I want to hear your thoughts on it. The quest to get people to save the planet has to include the promise that they also are saving themselves. How does that work for you and how does that work with TCL in terms of your consumer base? How do we message that to them and get them to be more motivated to do the thing?

Jonathan: I think part of that goes back to who we are as a company. With the idea being, of course, that people want to emulate good things that they see. Our company, as I have said, is founded on the idea that we created certain pillars that every decision we made, they will be make as the company is filtered through. Of course the environment is an important part of that, it is one of the key pillars. With the idea that every decision we make is filtered through that, with the idea that we can be a successful company, very successful as far as brand recognition, as far as market share, as far as product breathe because we are introducing more and more products into the marketplace every year or two, people are going to want to emulate that. It used to be–it was about creating something, selling it, and then creating the next thing, and forgetting about the first thing. What we are showing is that you can do both. You can actually be environmentally friendly, you can make really good quality decisions about your products, about your packaging, and about what goes into all those decisions, and you can be successful at the same time and beat some of the most storied brands in electronics. That is what I think we are doing. I do think America and the people that are in America are always looking for the next best thing. When it comes to the way we sell products, we firmly believe that the way we do it is the next best thing and that people are going to be emulated going forward.

John: Our consumer base, which now is our children, are going to vote with their pocketbooks to those who they believe are doing the right thing compared to those who are not doing the right thing anymore, no matter what the brand name.

Jonathan: That is absolutely right. I have always used my kids as an experiment with the products we sold. It is fortunate enough to have them growing up throughout the years. They are as familiar with our products as anyone. One of the things they have always said to me is that it is about those types of decisions, it is about environmental decisions, it is about making the right decisions. The generations today are really incredible. They have an empathy that I just do not think a lot of previous generations had as of. In the past it was all about how much can you build, how much can you accumulate, these generations they are looking at it not really from that standpoint but, okay, how much can I [inaudible], am I going to feel good about it, and how do I build it and if I do not feel good about it, I do not really want to do it. It is really that simple.

John: I love that.

Jonathan: I think the way that that is really thought of by our kids is the way I think all the generations going forward are going to think about.

John: Jonathan, before I let you go today, you have been so generous with your time, share with our listeners a little bit about the coming tsunami of turnover electronics on the 4G to 5G turnover that is now just underway in the United States and is going to be with us for years to come here.

Jonathan: This is the next consumer upgrade, right? We are originally behind the analog to digital conversion. I mean, it is a problem we are still dealing. CRTs are still around.

John: You are right.

Jonathan: We are in 2020 going into 2021.

John: Great point.

Jonathan: So yes, this is absolutely something. I look at it a little differently because when we went through the first one, we really did not have a clue what we we are going to do and how we are going to handle it. There was not anything in place to push people and there was not really a reason for people to feel like they needed to do anything about it. Now fast forward, you have got new generations that care a lot more, you have got history that shows we have to do something. A lot of people do not know this but there are usually twenty to twenty-five, roughly, electronics devices that people have in their home and that is just growing exponentially now with smart devices and the artificial intelligence, and the devices that just over the last few years that we have all started buying. Imagine this upgrade to 5G and what is that going to mean. What it really means for TCL and for I think a lot of companies out there, is that it just means you have got to step it up even more. It means that you have got to get these programs perfectly in place, planned in such a way that you kind of eliminated the jinks, you have got everything going, you accelerate it, so that you can take care of these problems, so that you can reach a point where hopefully, and I think this is probably everyone’s goal for every product you end up selling, hopefully you can in some way bring one back. If you can hit that, I think this upgrade is going to go a lot better than the first.

John: Jonathan, we are going to leave it on that and I hope you are right. I am just so grateful both for your time today and also all the efforts you are making. For our listeners out there, go see what Jonathan and his colleagues, and the great brand TCL is doing to make the world a better place. Please go to www.tcl.com, click the sustainability button and you will learn everything that they are doing to building a sustainable future for the United States, and to make the world a better place and make the impact. Jonathan King, we need more people like you in this world. I am grateful for your time. Thank you for making the world a better and greener place. I cannot wait to have you back on the Impact one day to talk about all the other great things you are doing at TCL.

Jonathan: Thanks so much for having me. It was a lot of fun.