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Dell: The Invisible Green Computer Company

| Friday April 8th, 2011 | 4 Comments

When I say Dell, what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, not much. Perhaps a vague recollection that it’s a custom computer building company. Maybe that it has some sustainability measures. I’m betting you’re painfully short on specifics, and it’s been a while since Dell’s been actively on your radar.

You’re not alone. For a global company with a deep presence in both the consumer and enterprise market in 100+ countries, Dell has been surprisingly low key. Last week was the latest in a series of events they hope will remedy such invisibility: So called CAP Days, a chance for Dell to meet in person everyone from their biggest brand fans to the most staunch CSR watchdogs.

In this case, I and 13 other hand-selected people were flown by Dell to its Austin headquarters, where they had people from across the company (and the world) there to share what Dell has been up to in terms of sustainability.

This was no day long infomercial. I felt that Dell clearly cares about doing things the right way, as thoroughly as it can – and listening to what others think about it. I’m a long time Apple user, but I have to say that Apple could definitely learn from Dell’s willingness to be transparent about what it does, and where it falls short. And whereas Apple is seen as the innovator on so many fronts, it’s largely a laggard behind what Dell is up to in terms of sustainability, from product and packaging design to materials sourcing and end of life take back.

Much was discussed that day, but it was Dirk Olin, Editor of Corporate Responsibility magazine that put it best when he explained what “faulty source monitoring” means: When the brain is absent stimuli, it will make something up to fill in the space. Translated to a business context, it means that people will fill in whatever story they think fits best, if they don’t know the real one.

Though what I learned Dell was doing was impressive, it became clear they needed to simplify and put front and center the messaging regarding the depth of their commitment to sustainability. Otherwise, people just baselessly speculate. Sound familiar?

A few of the things that most impressed me:

Deep, domestic recycling efforts. Dell wanted to ensure that ecycling happened as cleanly and ethically as possible, so it began reaching out to Goodwill, the donations based organization that most people in the US think of as where to bring their old electronics for recycling. Dell Reconnect was the result, accepting all brands of used computer components, at no cost.

But an example of faulty source monitoring when it comes to Dell is this sentence, buried deep on a secondary Reconnect background page: “Dell Reconnect does not export waste or send any environmentally sensitive material to landfills.” Many people are hesitant to recycle electronics due to this very concern. Absent that information, they may fill it in with an overseas shipping, child labor using, toxics exposing version of reality.

Dell has helped 2200+ participating Goodwill locations become much more versed in how to effectively manage the computers brought to its locations. The program has created 250 domestic e-waste recycling jobs. The scope and thoroughness of Dell & Goodwill’s efforts are something other companies would do well to learn from.

The creativity of Dell’s recycling is inspiring, as shown in the video below. For instance, older yet still functioning machines may get turned into gaming specific machines, with a number of vintage titles installed for that purpose.

Dell has 65 global recycling partners, and regularly consults on remanufacturing issues, improving future iterations of its machines to reflect what they learn. Currently, 95% of the materials going into Dell products are able to either be directly reused as a whole, on a component basis, or recycled for materials. Dell has also begun to use post consumer waste recycled content in the computer shells, including enough milk jug plastic to reach from Florida to Canada.

Plant based packaging that makes business sense. It’s no easy feat to create packaging from atypical materials. It’s even tougher to do it at less cost than the typical options. And yet Dell has done it, creating a bamboo replacement for the styrofoam customarily used to cushion products in their boxes. Wheat chaff, the “waste” from farming that’s often burnt or thrown away, is being looked into as well.

Dell’s thoroughness shows here, not only going with FSC certified bamboo, but going there themselves to meet the foresters managing the supplies, to be certain of the integrity of the operations. All of the water used in processing is recycled, aside from what evaporates. When the sun is out, it’s what’s used to dry the resulting materials.

Going further, Dell announced this week at Fortune Brainstorm Green that they are testing the use of mushrooms in their server packaging. Mushrooms? Yes, mushroom’s greater density than bamboo can take the increased weight of servers as compared to bamboo for lighter, consumer level electronics.

If there’s anywhere that Dell falls short, it’s how clearly, effectively, and bravely they convey who they are as a company and their commitment to being as green as possible. Some Dell staff at the DellCAP meeting expressed concern that they’d be seen as “tooting their own horn” by being too forward with their green credentials. Horn tooting is warranted, Dell is doing an excellent job!

***

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.


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Comments

  1. April 08, 2011 at 6:37 am PDT | Susan McPherson writes:

    Excellent summary, Paul! I couldn’t agree more with your comments. Thank you for capturing the essence of the DellCAP day.

    Susan
    @susanmcp1

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    • April 08, 2011 at 9:08 am PDT | Paul Smith writes:

      Thanks much Susan. Glad I hit the mark for you. It seems like just last week you were just across the room! Oh right… :)

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  2. April 08, 2011 at 10:25 am PDT | Tara Burner writes:

    Excellent insightful info Paul!
    And people laughed at me because all I would buy were dells (though daughter has macbook pro and ipad) but I’ve always had dells..in, fact the one I’m currently on is old but still operates wonderfully…will be interesting to see the use of mushrooms as packaging!

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  3. April 08, 2011 at 11:48 am PDT | Carly Tatum writes:

    Thank you for a great article, Paul. We learned so much from having you and the other #DellCAP attendees down to Austin.

    Tara, thanks for being a long time fan of Dell. :)

    Carly at Dell

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