Dell Earth: Greening IT with Smarter PCs and Engaged Employees

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When Tod Arbogast, Dell’s Director of Sustainability, was interviewing for his current position, he posed a question to Michael Dell, the iconic namesake of the PC giant: “If I got this job, what would you expect of me first and foremost?” Dell replied, simply and profoundly: “Courage.”

Arbogast needed courage to carry forward issues that may be controversial, tough, and without the widest support both in the technology sector and within Dell itself. These days, Arbogast leads a small, yet surprisingly effective team. Last month, the technology research firm TBRI ranked Dell #1 in its inaugural Corporate Sustainability Index Benchmark Report, a study measuring the CSR initiatives of technology and computing companies.

Core Fundamentals of Green IT
Dell Earth was established to organize and promote the company’s internal and external sustainability initiatives. Launched roughly two years ago, the company created its “Core Fundamentals of Green IT,” a framework for looking at the lifecycle and impact of its products. As Arbogast sees it, the company has been doing this for seven years and is one of the longest standing Fortune 50 corps to integrate sustainability into their business. As such, the ethic of sustainability has methodically been intertwined into the DNA of the company. The Core Fundamentals are a way for the company to look at its operations holistically, according to Arbogast, attempting to incorporate sustainability in all aspects from cradle to grave. The Core Fundamentals are:

  1. Greener, Scalable, Upgradable Architecture
    Dell uses modular design to make its products easy to upgrade and service – and, when necessary, to be safely and efficiently recycled.
  2. Efficient Configuration and Delivery
    As an EPA SmartWay partner, Dell favors business with carriers that demonstrate a commitment to reducing their GHG impacts. By minimizing packaging material wherever feasible, Dell can reduce waste and transportation impacts.
  3. Engagement and Empowerment
    Dell provides tools such as energy calculators and its Greenprint Advisor to help customers make decisions that are best for their organization’s green objectives. Regular, transparent interaction with NGOs, investors, and other stakeholders provides critical feedback for the development of effective sustainability policy. Online communities and forums also help connect employees and customers.
  4. Product Recovery and Recycling
    Dell has developed a global recovery and recycling supply chain on six continents to recycle the parts and materials it collects. “Successful sustainable strategies snowball,” said Arbogast. As the previous fundamentals became incorporated into operations, the company found increased returns on bottom lines across various business verticals. As a result, the company has been able to dedicate significant R&D into making more efficient, greener PCs. Its EPEAT Gold Studio Hybrid desktop, for example, is approximately 80 percent smaller than standard desktops, uses about 70 percent less power, and comes with about 75 percent less documentation and guidebooks. It also comes in packaging that is up to 95 percent recyclable.

In September 2008, Dell also announced a plan to transition notebooks to LED displays within 12 months. It estimates customer savings of approximately $20 million and 220 million kilowatt-hours in 2010 and 2011 combined, the equivalent annual CO2 emissions of more than 10,000 homes.

Employee Engagement within Dell
In addition to its technological innovations, Arbogast also talks about the greening of Dell’s paper management (one of the company’s chief sales tools is its consumer catalog). By using FSC-certified and post-consumer paper in their catalogs, they were able to reduce a massive element of their environmental footprint as well as reduce costs in supply and fulfillment. Dell was able to achieve this by allowing the people involved to feel supported and empowered, that they had a certain level of ownership over these transitions. This helps foster employee engagement, but even as Arbogast alludes to the small size of his group at Dell, it also helps embed sustainability into the business, a necessity if Dell Earth is to be effective.

“As folks build wins,” added Arbogast, “Momentum drives further activity.” And for Dell, momentum has manifested itself in an unexpected way.

Employees have made sustainability a passion. Granted, there has been support and promotion of the company’s initiatives from the executives on down, but there has been an equal amount of leadership shown from the bottom-up. Dell employees across the globe voluntarily participate in green teams to brainstorm and work on environmentally responsible projects in their facilities and local communities. Globally, Dell saves more than $3 million and avoids nearly 12,000 tons of CO2 annually through a power-management initiative that turns off computers at night and wakes them back up in the morning, an idea brought forward by one of its employees.

The Penang, Malaysia campus implemented a monthly domestic waste collection program; the program encourages employees to bring materials from home for recycling. The site collected more than 56 metric tons of materials during this past year. And the Philippines site was one of several office facilities that started or expanded an on-site recycling program, the proceeds of which were donated to local organizations.

Dell Engaging with the Community
That’s ultimately been one of the strong suits of Dell’s CSR—establishing relationships with local communities. Though Dell has seen its share criticism—the Wall Street Journal was quick to criticize the company for its ambitious claim of carbon neutrality last year—the company’s efforts appear little like PR fluff. From advocating regulatory and legislative innovation to supporting philanthropy, Dell’s efforts instead come off as serious attempts to engage its community and offer savings for customers while leading the way to reduce the private sector’s impact on the environment.

A nifty little widget on the Dell Earth homepage has a running tally of how many CO2 emissions have been avoided and how many consumer dollars have been saved by the company’s sustainability initiatives. (As of this moment, the numbers get up to 35,175,976 tons of carbon and $3,672,310,990.) According to Arbogast, Dell is also the only tech company on the planet providing free electronic recycling services, an effort its executives hope will set the tone for other computer and electronics companies. “The beauty of sustainability is it’s often not competitive,” Arbogast said. “It’s collaborative. No one company can bring forward a solution; we have to work as a unified source.”

The IT industry is often vilified for its severe environmental impact. Roughly contributing to 2% of global CO2 output, IT is on par with the aviation industry in terms of carbon pollution. “While we’re deeply committed,” Arbogast added, “We still have a lot more to do.”

Ashwin is an Associate Editor of Triple Pundit. He recently returned to the Bay Area after living in Argentina, where he wholeheartedly missed the Pacific Ocean. He is a freelance editor and media and marketing consultant.After a brief stint working in the wine world, when not staring blankly at a computer screen, you'll find him working on Anand Confections or at 826 Valencia, where he has been a long-time volunteer.

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