Dell's 2011 green report card mixed as it preps for cloud era

While the company reported a dramatic improvement in the energy efficiency of its technology, some of its own operational efforts hit a plateau.

Technology giant Dell continued to make strides in the energy efficiency of its products and the recycling credentials of its packaging during the past year. But its acquisition of services company Perot Systems affected some of its forward progress when it comes to direct emissions and water consumption.

The company's 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report offers details, along with updated targets for some of its long-term sustainability goals. Dell CEO Michael Dell notes in his introductory letter:

"In fiscal year 2011, we made great progress in our sustainability efforts. We continued to optimize our own footprint through responsible process and product improvements while focusing on making 'green' convenient and practical for our customers."

I chatted with Trisa Thompson, Dell's vice president of corporate responsibility, about some of the specifics in the company's report. Here are some of the things that leapt out for me, both positively and negatively:

  • Dell's laptops and desktops now consume 25 percent less energy than they did in 2008. The company is still working on the elimination of brominated/chlorinated flame retardents (BFRs and CFRs) as well as polyvinyl chloride. All new laptops now use LED, which eliminates the use of mercury. Cumulatively, Dell figures that its energy efficiency improvements has saved about $20 million and 220 million kilowatt-hours of electricity usage on behalf of its customers.
  • Dell server performance-per-watt has been improved by 31X over the past five years. You will see heightened attention to this area as Dell and other would-be leaders in cloud services assess the impact that shift will have on their own data centers, Thompson said. The report notes: "Our customers have turned increasingly to data management and cloud services to drive efficiency in their operations. Accordingly, our data center needs have grown. A single Dell data center can diminish customers' need for hundreds of individual, smaller and less efficient server 'closets.' "
  • The company surpassed its goal to reduce packaging volume to 10 percent, cutting it by 11.7 percent overall. Thompson said that Dell is also the leader in multi-pack shipping, which helps cut down on the emissions from transportation cost. Dell is also experimenting with new compostable materials, including bamboo and mushrooms.
  • During the fiscal year, more than 150 million pounds of end-of-life computer equipment were recycled through Dell initiatives. That's roughly the equivalent of 914 Boeing 737 airplanes, according to the report. That was a 16 percent increase over the previous year. If the company continues on this pace, it will recycle 1 billion pounds of technology by 2014.

Where Dell shows some mixed progress its on its own operational goals. There are three goals in particular where the company has given itself a "needs improvement" grade. They are:
  • Achieve 50 percent post-consumer waste for paper used in our U.S. catalogs
  • Reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per dollar of revenue by 15 percent from 2007 to 2012
  • Reduce worldwide facilities' GHG emissions by 40 percent by 2015

Specifically, Dell actually reported an increase in absolution emissions to 34,115 metric tons. Thompson said the absolute increase was, in part, a reflection of Dell's acquisition of Perot Systems. She noted that the GHG emissions intensity per unit of revenue still declined relative to the previous year (although it is still above fiscal year 2009). Dell's water consumption also increased by about 5.6 percent, again because of the Perot acquisitions, although its intensity measure remained about the same. The company's use of green power also decreased. Thompson said Dell is moving away from the practice of buying renewable energy certificates and plans to put those resources into other green power initiatives.
The report also offers some updated goals with respect to Dell's community and social responsibility programs, but the company isn't ready to publish its next set of environmental goals, which have yet to be updated. Thompson notes in the report:

"Sustainability priorities and goals we defined several years ago are no longer necessarily the right ones. We are in the process of updating our environmental strategy to reflect Dell's new business dimensions, and we will be sharing new plans and objectives throughout the coming year."

So, stay tuned on future Dell green guidance.