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Green Power Drives Dell's Agenda

When it comes to sustainability, Dell is thinking big—and small. And it's the big things that are paying off the most.

In August, Dell met its much publicized goal to be carbon neutral ahead of schedule, lending some credibility to its less tangible quest of being the "greenest technology company on the planet."

Of course, it helps to have an eco-minded chairman, CEO and company founder in the person of Michael Dell.

Its Austin, Texas, headquarters complex uses 100-percent clean energy.

And in an industry that's been under fire for its recycling efforts, Dell has a pretty ambitious one, offering its customers a number of options while partnering with non-profit organizations.

The company says it "recovered" 102 million pounds of products from customers in 2007, 20 percent more than 2006.

Just last week, Dell, Staples and recycling company Eco International announced a new partnership to recycle any of the company's products at the retailers 1500 US stores.

Other well meaning, though somewhat symbolic programs, appear to getting less traction.

Its Plant a Tree for Me campaign, launched in January 2007, has enabled the planting of more than 100,000 trees. The program, in conjunction with with The Conservation Fund and Carbonfund.org, allows businesses or consumers to donate the amount of money equal to the cost of the the carbon impact of the average amount of electricity used by various devices over three years. For instance, $2 covers a laptop, $40 a server. You can do so with or without purchasing a Dell product. There's also a Plant A Forest program. (Dell doesn't break down the data and says each tree might involve multiple participants.)

At the same time, Dell is engaging and working with employees, customers and suppliers to develop an implement green ideas.

Green Your Routine
Green Your Routine

Like an increasing number of companies, Dell has a senior-level executive devoted to the area of sustainability. Tod Arborgast, who ran the company's recycling program in its early days, has been director of sustainable business for about six years.

Arborgast shared some of his thoughts with us.

What advice does Dell have for companies trying to adopting a carbon-neutral strategy?

Every organization should be focused on that. Ours has three elements. First is to be as efficient as you can be with the resources you are consuming. Second is to invest in and buy renewable, clean sources of energy. Again, because energy is a big part of it. We are buying, advocating and participating in the development of renewable energy. About 20-percent of our total energy consumption comes from clean and renewable sources. Of, course, the absolute goal is to buy 100 percent. The third is, since you will have a remaining operational impact is drive further development through the purchase of RECS (renewable energy certificates].

What the keys to launching a green strategy?

Certainly, looking at elements of environmental leadership that drive multiple benefits, identifying initiatives that save costs, that enable further product and service development, and also provide a tangible benefit. Organizations that start there, will gain momentum with leadership, customers and stakeholders.

For example, we have focused on this for almost 2 years and it's an easy win for an organization. And that's to deploy software management at the enterprise level that allows you to manage the power consumption of your assets. Dell has successively deployed that across our global organization and saved $2 million a year[in energy costs] and avoided nearly 8,500 tons of CO2 equivalents

What's a common mistake that companies make?

It's one of the early leaning curve things that helped shape our strategy. Some organizations do not leverage enough the NGO [non-governmental organization] and stakeholder community. We had a choice to actively engage with those who might be critical of us or to ignore them. We chose to engage and were able to understand more deeply and at a faster pace what sort of the problems there would be. We were able to find similarities with these groups and forge a relationship.

Recycling has been a big challenge for the consumer electronics industry. Dell is doing a lot. How is it working?

There’s individual producer responsibility, such that leader organizations will provide no-charge recycling and hold themselves responsible...and that’s where it starts and Dell is the only one in our industry to do so.

How important is customer engagement in that process?

It’s critical for Dell. We look at providing customers with multiple solutions to engage and participate in environmental leadership. One of them is plant a tree. We are very pleased with the results. We also partner to provide free and convenient recycling. Our partnership with Goodwill industries is an example. We now have 1,000 manned locations.

Another example: We partnered with Facebook and asked people what does green look like to you. We had thousands of folks participate. We had an online contest and had more than a million people vote on what green looks like.

Finally, what about employees?

It’s a key. One tool we deploy broadly is Employee Storm. Any employee goes to a common platform and can provide a very, very specific recommendation in terms of what actions we can take. Other employees can view it, weigh in and ultimate vote that recommendation and then determine how it fits into the company’s priorities.

This is an example of the easy things you can do, We have green teams all over the world that are focused on it and are driving embedded actions.

Take the average company cafeteria. It likely sells bottled drinks. What's the most effective way to recycle those bottles? Well, if you leave a little bit of fluid in the bottle and put it in the bin and if there’s too much fluid in those bottles you lessen the possibility of the entire bag being recycled.

Another example: One employee recommended that you get a discount if you bring in your own coffee mug and not buy one. We worked with our cafeteria contractor to implement that.