Much of the headline reporting of Dell’s recently-published CSR report highlighted the fact that the company has dropped its commitment to carbon neutrality. This was achieved in 2008, but came with a couple of caveats. Firstly, it was only in terms of operations, i.e. it didn’t include the ‘embedded’ carbon in products the company sold. Secondly, the goal was achieved not just through emission reductions, but also through the use of green power and the purchase of renewable energy certificates (RECs – effectively payments for the extra cost of renewable generation, rather than for the power itself). Now the company has said that not only will it end its purchases of RECs to achieve carbon neutral operations, but that the way it measure its carbon footprint and sets reduction targets will change.
The obvious conclusion to draw is that the company is backing away from its carbon neutrality commitment because it failed to meet its reduction targets in 2010. In a year when Dell's revenue was up by 16% the company’s carbon emissions (allowing for renewable energy purchases) were up 22%. The biggest increase was from business air travel (almost 50% higher), while a fall in renewable energy purchases also increased emissions. But despite this top line failure, Dell has been doing some things right – enough to earn it number one position in Newsweek’s Greenest Companies in America last year.
The company has been making its products more sustainable and passing the benefits on to customers. For example, it has a top-down design approach aimed at making product recycling and reuse easier and it has started measuring the carbon footprint of some of its mainstream products. Dell now also provides a free recycling service in 78 countries and recycled more than 150 million pounds of electronics globally last year. The target is one billion pounds of e-waste by 2014.
On the customer side, in its last financial year Dell achieved a two-year goal of cutting customer-related energy use by 25% for desktops and laptops. Since 2005 it claims that its low energy products and solutions have saved customers more than 55.7 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and $5.8bn in energy costs — equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 10 million cars.
These and other actions are not all down to altruistic actions by the company - some were forced by legislation and regulation and some came about from changes in demand. For example the trend is towards laptops and tablets which are much more power-efficient than desktops computers.
Dell freely admits that there is more it can do, but, like all companies in the industry, it faces a number of challenges. The various standards and regulations around environmental issues adds cost and confusion to making products more sustainable. Variations in available recycling facilities can limit its recycling programmes. Even the lack of a clear definition of sustainability is a problem – particularly if it ignores the ‘enabling’ capability of technology.
So even with the best will in the world, IT companies struggle to be live up to a variety of green expectations. But in Dell’s case there is another motive for abandoning the carbon neutral target. The company says that it is “Adapting our sustainability programs, baselines and goals as a result of mergers and acquisitions and the evolution of Dell’s business model, business priorities and core sustainability objectives”. Businesses are continually changing and sustainability goals should take that into consideration. The reduction in greenhouses gases that we need to achieve to save the planet is not going to change.