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Dell's next big sustainability goal requires collaboration

<p>Dell plans to reduce its negative impact and amplify the potential for social and environmental innovation through technology.</p>

As sustainable business practices go, Dell's new 2020 Legacy of Good plan unveiled Oct. 15 contains some pretty ambitious targets -- pretty much what we've come to expect from the one of the world's biggest high-tech companies.

There are 21 targets in total, divided into environmental, social and community categories. Two highlights include an industry-first aspiration to reduce the energy intensity of its product portfolio by 80 percent -- that's a cumulative goal across all its notebooks, servers, personal computers and storage -- and a mission to provide "waste-free" packaging through sustainably sourced materials, such as wheat straw, mushrooms or bamboo, that are 100 percent compostable or recyclable.

But those goals seem tame -- and manageable -- in comparison to the one introduced by Michael Dell, the company's founder, chairman and CEO, in his letter outlining Dell's latest commitments. Over the next seven years, Dell seeks to generate 10 times more benefit through its technology than it takes to make and use it in the first place.

"Our 10x20 Goal is about measuring not only the sustainable and social initiatives Dell can execute, but also the ripple effect of how our technology enables others to benefit the planet," Dell wrote. "We believe it will be dramatic."

In some ways, the goal could be construed as a tacit admission that while the company never can completely eliminate its footprint, it could, in a sense, offset it through some broader long-term positive economic or social benefits.

Trisa Thompson, Dell's vice president of corporate responsibility (pictured), is the first to admit that both interpreting and measuring this goal will be very difficult. But the company has no intention of trying to pull it off alone. She detailed some of her team's early ideas for creating these partnerships during a keynote interview at VERGE San Francisco.

A keynote interview between Trisa Thompson of Dell and Heather Clancy of GreenBiz.

”This plan is ambitious and bold, but so are the Dell team members who will ensure we achieve each goal," Thompson said. "They are the thousands of researchers, engineers, experts and employee volunteers who have enabled us to become the first company to provide free electronics recycling and an industry leader in energy efficiency and sustainable packaging. Now, their collective expertise and entrepreneurial spirit will help us develop ways to expand and measure the ripple effect of IT on the planet and society.”

To illustrate, Thompson points to the short-term and long-term impacts of a major event. The London Olympics, for example, cost nearly $9 billion to stage and put on, but the positive long-term positive impact could be more than $40 billion in jobs, tourism and future business development.

Dell believes that information technology could have a similar multiplier effect. One area that already has Dell's attention is electronic medical records, Thompson said. For a start, digitizing medical records affects the amount of materials and space needed to store this information. If that information is stored in the cloud, where it can be accessed from many locations, this reduces the need for doctors and patients to access and share it. A further benefit is realized in the form of virtual doctor-patient consultations.

Another example is tied to Dell's new commitment to reach 3 million young people through education technology and expertise. It's a mobile ZubaBox classroom that is powered by solar energy, which sidesteps the need for electric infrastructure to create schools in developing nations. The first one, essentially a shipping container equipped with Dell Wyse terminals, running a host PC with Internet connectivity, was deployed in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. Partners on this concept include Computer Aid International and Camara.

To be clear, no single mechanism is in place today to measure and compare all the environmental and societal implications of projects like these, but by collaborating with customers, researchers and other industry partners, including its competitors, Dell intends to develop such a framework.

"We will 'cut our teeth' on carbon, followed by materials, waste and water," Thompson said. "Existing specifications will form the foundation for these measurements," she added, pointing to standards used by the World Resource Institute as just one example.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Dell's own 100,000 employees will also be integral in the effort, and the new plan includes significant commitments when it comes to the amount of time – 5 million hours – that the company is encouraging its workforce to dedicate to community service over the course of this latest plan.

"This is an area where we not only have tremendous engagement from our teams, but where our entrepreneurial roots and spirit really come through, and I think we’ll see more of that as we go private," Thompson said.

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