In Fall of 2013, Dell launched what it called its Legacy of Good plan — a set of 21 ambitious sustainability goals covering everything from its packaging and production materials to reducing the energy intensity of its entire product portfolio by 80 percent. But as David Lear, Dell’s executive director of sustainability, told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview, the company’s “capstone goal” was to understand what he asserts is the Net Positive value of information technology — proving that the value its customers gain from IT solutions are 10 times greater than the footprint of the technology.
To that end, the IT giant has launched a project with Arizona State University that aims to measure the environmental impacts of students on campus vs. those who attend programs online.
“When you look at the energy that’s used, where carbon is emitted from — technology is a tiny little spot of it. But when you look at the way people apply technology, it really is shrinking the other carbon footprints,” Lear said. “We set out to prove that, so that’s where ASU comes in.”
Dell has funded and participated in research with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) to create a working group called the Center for Technology and Sustainability (CTS), through which it is bringing in partners — both developers and users of technology, and even competitors — to measure the enabling effects of technology. Dell and CTS are now working with ASU — which boasts the country’s largest university campus and one of the largest student populations — to create a scalable scorecard for measuring the environmental impact of online education programs and a tool for easy cost-benefit analysis of IT investments that factor in environmental sustainability metrics.
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Once established, the approach will be applicable to other industries, including the healthcare sector, logistics — where efficient use of transportation data and analytics can dramatically reduce carbon emissions — and municipalities that seek to reduce congestion.
“As you see this movement, especially in Europe, of smart cities, this is going to be a component of that — how do you educate your residence base in a smart city? So we’re just starting this with ASU, but we realize that ASU is going to look unique — it won’t look the same as NYU (mass transit, no parking lots, etc) or if we did it in London.”
UC Davis has already expressed interest in analyzing the footprints of its students. Eventually, the scorecard could be used by any large entity to measure the impact of its investments in IT.
Lear said the ASU project — led by Bruno Sarda, Dell’s Director of Sustainability Operations and a professor in ASU’s Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership program — came together after a similar pilot with some of Dell’s medical customers to measure the benefits of solutions such as electronic medical records (EMR) systems and telemedicine. The company then sought out other IT-use models that would make good candidates to help measure the Net Positivity of IT, and followed the lead of one of its industry peers, BT: Inspired by the British telecom giant’s study of the benefits of telecommuting, Dell applied the thinking to other forms of virtual operation, such as ecommerce and remote education.
“The unique thing I think we’re doing here is, we’re trying to do this all open-source. This isn’t some magical Dell algorithm we’re trying to roll out to our customers — we’re trying to raise the whole industry awareness of it and inform business decision-makers, CIOs, the full value proposition of a technology-based solution,” Lear said. “That’s what we launched as part of our 2020 goals and what we’re trying to accomplish through partnerships like the one with ASU.”
With its remote-degree students representing an estimated 20 percent of its 80,000-student body, Dell wanted to find out how those extra 16,000 students would affect life on the physical campus — necessitating bigger parking lots, more cafeterias, more classrooms, more dormitories — as well as their effect on city congestion. So Dell and the school are working to find the delta — the fixed cost of having the students there and the variable cost and footprint of online students, when compared with the cost of putting the IT infrastructure in place — and the abatement created by not having those extra students on campus.
Lear said the project will also try to measure some of the social implications of providing access to students across town or even across the country that the school might not normally be able to reach. He cited Starbucks’ decision last year to offer its employees full tuition reimbursement through a collaboration with ASU's online undergraduate degree program.
“That is going to be incredibly hard to measure — so that’s farther, aspirational — but we think it’s incredibly important. We couldn’t have done that before, but now any Starbucks employee anywhere can start taking classes, where they might not have had access to a university degree in the past. Think about the implications of that!”
Lear said Dell’s broader goal is to facilitate the creation and standardization of definitions and tools relating to Net Positive, to avoid divergence on the subject as the “immature science” continues to take shape. Aside from its work with BSR, Dell has also joined forces with an industry group called GESI (Global Environmental Sustainability Initiative) and Forum for the Future, which both have their own working groups around Net Positive.
“So we joined them — they’re the three most progressive groups in the world that are working on Net Positive — and we’re proposing that they come together and coordinate their standards, their definitions, because we think it’s going to take all of these to be aligned to really work. If too many people go in separate directions, it’s going to lose credibility. … For this to work, it needs to be an open and public standard.”
All of this pre-competitive, cross-sector collaboration might sound very magnanimous of Dell, but Lear is open about how the company stands to benefit.
“A lot of people ask me, what’s in it for Dell? Right now, we own anywhere from 25-51 percent of various markets around the world in all these areas, so if we can get the market bigger, it’s going to help Dell. Why invite competitors to the table? Because if we all work together to grow the market and drive awareness, we’re all going to get a piece of it.”
Lear, who began his career in product development, said his evolution into sustainability was as natural as the evolution of the topic itself — hence, the need for solid standards.
“I’ve always had a love and a passion for sustainability, CSR, LCA, the three Rs — whatever you want to call it; now it’s Net Positive and the circular economy. One of the things that scares me through all of this is that we don’t let it become a cliché, that we really try to define what does it mean and what are the requirements,” he said. “I don’t want to overthink it and be too academic about it, because standards and structure could take years and I don’t want to wait years. We have to start today, make mistakes today so we can refine it and get it better. We’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to be directionally correct, and that’s super important because it will help people make informed decisions.”
Speaking of the circular economy, the concept figures heavily into Dell’s Legacy of Good plan: The company has led the charge through its incorporation of Newlight Technologies’ methane-turned-plastic AirCarbon material and Ecovative’s mushroom packaging, and putting a massive dent in e-waste throughout the world through its product take-back program, but Lear says the achievement he’s most proud of is Dell’s creation of the industry’s first closed-loop computer — with the release in 2014 of its OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One desktop, Dell became the first company in the IT industry to turn plastics from recycled electronics back into a new system.
“We already had the infrastructure out there but we’d had some technical challenges around the material — how to make it pure enough, make the colors just right. Even though we’ve always been successful in recycling our plastics, we finally got them to a high-enough quality level that we could scale this inside our products. By setting the long-term goals, we sent signals to our supply chain, so they knew where we wanted to be.
“Oh, and by the way, we’re saving money. Did I mention that? We were happy with price parity! But now we’re saving money, and at the end of the day, that’s everything.”