(Photo copyright: Abhinav Sunil)

Circular economy strategies play a substantial role in carbon footprint reduction for technology companies, especially those with product- and IT infrastructure-centered offerings. Organizations such as Dell, which has large consumer as well as enterprise businesses, must prioritize multiple sustainability levers that extend beyond green energy procurement and operations. These priorities must also include bringing sustainability to products and services.

I sat down with Dell Technologies Head of Corporate Sustainability, Page Motes, to discuss these aspects. Page Motes oversees Dell Technologies’ strategic vision and goals, as well as stakeholder engagement.

In our discussion, we cover important topics such as Dell’s sustainability organization, how Dell ascertains climate action priorities, a circular economy strategy, measuring goals, what clients ask Dell, and the evolution of standards.


Sustainability Organization And Leadership Within Dell

Abhijit: Give us an overview of Dell’s internal sustainability organization, the team you lead, and the various internal priorities.

Page: I am the head of corporate sustainability for the company. My organization rolls up into an official ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] organization at Dell. The ESG organizational construct was mostly developed in the past few years, although there were other versions of it in the past, just called something different (i.e., corporate social responsibility). This organization not only houses critical pillars under Dell’s ESG sustainability but also what we call transforming lives, which combines strategic giving, social innovation, philanthropy and community engagement.

There are a number of groups that fall under ESG’s organizational construct. And that construct rolls up to our chief marketing officer, ultimately within corporate affairs. We work, however, in a very matrixed way across all aspects of Dell, and we touch and partner with every place where sustainability is being operationalized and engaged on.

What I mean by sustainability in our context is really climate action and broader environmental work, like biodiversity, water, pollution, and circular economy, as well as human rights. Although we are also a center of gravity for broad human rights work across the company, much of the execution of that work is deeply involved in our supply chain, and there is a dedicated team focused on those efforts.


Sustainability Organization For Products And Services

Abhijit: Is there a separate organization that looks at Dell’s external sustainability services and product offerings?

Page: When it comes to how our products, services, and solutions are connected to sustainability, it depends on what it is and where it is housed. We work very closely with our product groups both on the client side as well as on the infrastructure side, as they partner with us in looking at our overarching climate action and circularity strategies. If it relates to climate action or circular economy, my team sets the strategy and the official point of view from the company. Then the product group, for example, looks to that strategy for product design and development. My team is deeply involved with advising, engaging, and helping product groups continue to advance in sustainability. We have created a robust governance construct within the company.

Over the past few years, we’ve been significantly ratcheting up our overall ESG governance. I mentioned that our ESG organization houses those two pillars of sustainability and transforming lives, but those are only two pillars of our broader ESG strategy and work. There’s ethics, privacy, and cybersecurity as a pillar. Another pillar is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They roll up to different parts of the company, but they work deeply with us on the broader ESG strategy and how we all play a role together.

We’ve established an ESG executive steering committee. I sit on that steering committee. So the heads of sustainability, giving, DEI, ethics, privacy and cybersecurity, we all sit along with many others around the company, such as investor relations, government affairs, legal, and finance, to create a governance structure to set a strategy overall for Dell’s ESG. This committee is led by our VP of ESG, and then each of us manage our pillars in partnership with others across Dell’s business.

In the sustainability pillar, we have really worked over the past year to create a construct that brings together the top leadership of the company within our product group, global operations, and services. The presidents of those groups come together with their next levels down, and we meet routinely, minimally every eight weeks. We will meet to talk about progress toward goals, where we have needs, where we want to accelerate, what our customers are telling us, updates on the regulatory space, etc.

So we’ve created a governance construct where we’re becoming very closely aligned. Because so much of the sustainability work happens in concert, what the product group does is absolutely connected to the decisions made by operations, supply chain, and procurement.


Climate Action Priorities For Dell

Abhijit: Especially as you go higher up in sustainability maturity, you need to do more than just being compliant and thus need to be aware of the new opportunities. How do you identify climate action opportunities for Dell, and what are the main pillars for environmental sustainability that Dell is currently focused on?

Page: There are many different areas to put our time and attention, so it is really important for us to prioritize.

A few things we do out of the gate: We’ve traditionally tried to reup and reevaluate every 2–3 years. For example, what do our stakeholders care about, and where do we know we need to put our time and attention? What are the most important topics, and how are we acting against those?

We have centered around three different areas of sustainability and then specifically three different areas in climate action. Today, sustainability overall for Dell includes:

  1. Climate action.
  2. Circular economy.
  3. Human rights.

And within the climate action space alone, we’ve created our climate strategy focused on three big buckets.

First, Dell’s own decarbonization and net zero journey. Dell defines net zero as “all in” — it’s not just our own operations but also the electricity we procure, our upstream supply chain emissions, and our downstream customer-use emissions. Since this is a big bucket, my team spends a lot of time on this, and we have solid goals to advance. Therefore, we hope that we have earned credibility to play in the next two buckets.

Second, climate action of our customers and how we can help them. Where are our customers putting their priorities, their goals, their commitments, their KPIs? And how can partnering with Dell help them in their journey? That could be anything, from how we are making our products or solutions, like taking back used products and being able to put that material back into the supply chain to make new products. It could also be partnering with them more in depth in helping them think about the various considerations of energy and emissions in a data center. A lot of people are thinking about their data centers, and it’s not just about individual products but the holistic setup of a data center.

And our third priority is “How do we think about society at large and helping broader society transition to a low-carbon economy?” And how do we not forget those groups that could be made even more vulnerable by climate change? We are early in this stage, but we do believe that we have to play a deeper role over time in using Dell’s scope, scale, brand, and resources to think about those types of community engagements, as well.

One of the things that we are already doing in that broader transitioning to a low-carbon economy is that we have created a robust energy vertical at Dell. The general manager of Dell’s energy vertical works very closely with my team in identifying how technology can better optimize the energy vertical’s ability to transition to a low-carbon economy, more quickly and effectively.


Customer Questions On Sustainability

Abhijit: What trends do you see in requests and interest from your clients on your own sustainability data?

Page: We’ve seen a significant increase just in the past year in customer requests for information, and this is not just on data, which is table stakes now. These requests are on deep engagements, often connecting us to their heads of sustainability.

For Dell, it’s not even just a CIO or IT decision-maker conversation anymore. We see robust interest from customers on these conversations across their leadership, and this fuels our decision-making around how to prioritize our sustainability pillars.

Abhijit: You mentioned a significant increase in customer questions. What vertical of business within Dell sees the most sustainability-related questions from customers? Is it consumer electronics, enterprise organizations, or elsewhere?

Page: I would say the organizational sections of Dell’s businesses are getting more questions than the consumer side because, as an example, some of them sit within countries that are now imposing laws that they have to take greater consideration of sustainability for RFPs. Public organizations in France, for example, are being put much more on the front lines of driving some of this change.

I would say, outside of that, we are still seeing very broad-based, global interest, not just out of Europe but in the United States and very much increasing in [Asia Pacific, Japan, and China], as well as in Latin America, where they are really starting to lean in. Some might be less apt to have a defined set of KPIs in an RFP but still have questions about what we do internally.

The contractual nature of the B2B relationships enable some of these deeper conversations in comparison with B2C businesses.

Again, this has gone from years ago, “Do you have goals, and isn’t that nice?” to “Do you do X, Y, and Z, and where can I find data?” to “We want to deeply engage with you on how we can think this through more effectively.”

Abhijit: Plus, I’m sure that the B2B businesses are also tracking their own metrics and seeing how they can use their own data.

Page: That’s right. The leadership of many of our customers are putting goals out there and driving toward commitments, just like we partner with our own supply chain. They’re turning around to Dell and saying, “You are one of our largest suppliers. What are you doing, and how does that affect me?”


Emerging-Technology Use Cases

Abhijit: In the broader pillar on climate action, how does technology enable the energy transition? How are you seeing emerging technologies, such as automation, edge computing, blockchain, or AI/ML, play a role?

Page: We are seeing that any and all technologies have a role.

Some of them are helping to drive efficiencies on a whole host of fronts and often when, by definition, those efficiencies result in less energy being used. Other times, the technology is implemented purposefully to be an enabler of some of this sustainability output. And then in some cases, the products themselves, because of how they’re being used or how we are making products, have downstream sustainability effects.

I’ll give you some examples.

IoT tends to be one of the first places you see sustainability benefits, with use cases that enable better monitoring and better data collection. IoT has been used in a whole host of ways, including in our facilities to monitor electricity use.

We have a very interesting partnership with the conservation organization Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, which uses Dell’s edge technologies. Citizen scientists can use this capability to take photos and upload photos of the reef, either out on vacation, boat tours, or while diving, much faster than other previous examples to monitor the behavior of the reef. This technology is installed on phones, participating in something called a “Reef Census.” This particular technology was selected for its rugged design, because it can withstand extreme humid conditions, fit in small spaces, with low power consumption, and it allows it to be fully connected and operate locally. Very soon, we will be developing a deep learning model with them to better analyze photos. This is an example of how, in a natural environment setting, not necessarily a corporate setting, Dell’s edge offerings were leveraged.

We are doing something similar with the Billion Oyster Project. We are monitoring waters in the New York harbor for external agents that could harm oysters.

We have also implemented use cases in the agricultural farming space, where AI, ML, or other technologies are used to boost crop yield and make crop production safer.

A number of years ago, we did something similar with a group called AeroFarms, where they did vertical farming. They are able to grow crops in an urban environment by providing the right amount of light, nutrients, and water, timed perfectly to be efficient for high crop yield — all organic farming and yet using technology as the enabler.

Because agriculture today is one of the top five most emitting sectors, it is a place where technology is perfect to apply for better data collection, better monitoring, better traceability, and also more efficient use of resources.


Circular Economy Strategy: Questions To Find Answers For

Abhijit: The second major pillar that you mentioned is circular economy. What are some open challenges in the electronics industry to be more circular?

Page: Circular economy is a huge focal point for Dell and for the industry Dell is in. We were part of an early group that helped establish the Circular Electronics Partnerships (CEP). We are also involved with a number of NGOs, like the Global Electronics Council that works on the EPEAT ecolabel.

The questions we have been collectively asking are: “How do we increase demand for circular economy or circular products? How do we increase supply? How can we get better at collecting good data on that supply?”

“How do we think about measuring circularity? Because, unlike the greenhouse gas protocols on emissions, there’s not one standard on calculations within the circularity space.”

“How do we think about all the different reporting frameworks so that we’re not encouraging a patchwork of frameworks but that we’re all measuring using the same approach?”

“How do we think about closed loop versus open loop?”

So all of these things are workstreams that are underway with the CEP. They are not the only group — we also work with PACE (Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy) and others. But specific to our industry, I’m really excited about the work with the CEP because it is about all of us locking arms together and thinking about the industry as a whole.

Circular Economy: Lessons Learned

Abhijit: What are some lessons that you have learned at Dell on circular economy and answering some of the above questions?

Page: Some of the things that Dell has come to understand are, one, it is very difficult to be circular if you are putting out products and don’t get those products back. Hence, we have done a ton of work over the past year, both in the consumer and B2B space, to expand multiple programs available to take products back, but we don’t stop there.

It will be critical for us to continue to ensure, as an industry, that we take as much of our products back as possible, then educating and engaging with customers to make sure they feel confident in these processes and comfortable. Dell has seen that, when we get a product back, you can use a lot of those materials at true end of life to go back into the supply chain and make new products. As just an example, since 2014, Dell has been able to take back 100 million pounds of plastic from used electronics to make new products, and that plastic today sits in 125 Dell products. So we’ve seen closed loop at its best.

But that closed-loop process is dependent on getting back the products at end of lifecycle in the first place. So a big question is: How do we make sure that we’re not letting products just go untraced at its end of life? Dell is working deeply on multiple fronts to get even more answers to that question.

Another big piece of that is how can waste streams be shared between industries so that there really isn’t a need for particular leftover waste to be used within its current industry but that someone else can use it. There is an adage, “Someone else’s trash is your treasure.” I’m not really calling it trash but a waste by-product. But that’s something we lean into also.

For example, at Dell, we buy things like scrap carbon fiber from the aerospace industry, and we use it in our laptops. All these kinds of concepts of circularity are incredibly important.

Another important circular piece is continuing to understand human impacts, not just human impacts on climate if products end up in a landfill but also the human impacts of mining for minerals and resources such as rare earth magnets and metals. We have a partnership with Seagate and Teleplan, where we are able to extract aluminum and rare earth magnets from returned drives and put it back into a closed-loop supply chain.


Measuring Circular Economy

Abhijit: Circular economy, as you mentioned, is extremely challenging indeed. How do you measure your success and set goals for being circular?

Page: In order for Dell to really drive progress and change, we put out our circular-economy discrete goals. We called them “moonshot goals,” not just because we didn’t think we could hit them but because we knew it was going to take a lot of engineering prowess, innovation, connections, and collaboration with others to achieve. They are publicly stated goals, and we report on them annually.

Dell’s three-pronged goal:

  1. By 2030, for every single product that we sell, we will take back an equivalent product.
  2. One hundred percent of our packaging across our entire portfolio in 2030 will be made from renewable or recycled material.
  3. By 2030, 50% or more of our product content across our portfolio will be made from recycled or renewable material.

We put lines in the sand to really drive decision-making, prioritization, and actual progress in Dell to go tackle those really tough issues.


ROI Of Sustainability

Abhijit: How do you illustrate the ROI of being sustainable to your customers?

Page: We have had a number of deals, engagements, and customers who have made it very clear to us that a driving force behind why they’re engaging in partnerships with Dell is either the work we’ve done to make the products themselves more sustainable or our additional services and capabilities.

As an example, on the product side, when we started using bio-based plastic a year ago in our Latitude 5000 Series, it directly resulted in a decarbonization of the manufacturing phase of the product. Another example is using hydro-powered aluminum, which is a decarbonized aluminum, so an IT buyer is able to turn around to their chief sustainability officer and illustrate that a partnership with Dell has a direct input in lowering emissions for the company.

Another great example is how we have interesting toolsets that can be leveraged within a data-center environment to drive more efficiency and optimization in the data center, reducing potentially energy and emissions. This has tangible results to IT decision-makers and CIOs and shapes how they think about transforming their data centers.


Government Regulations That Affect Dell And Standards

Abhijit: How does the growing government regulations and mandates affect your customers’ buying decisions? What opportunities do you see around regulations in both circular economy and in the climate action space?

Page: This is a space that is very dynamic and changing fast. It is not a surprise that the places we’ve seen the most robust action have been out of the European Union — definitely France, where they have helped to lead the way both on climate and circularity.

In the circularity space, we are seeing a focus on metrics around the percentage of recycled materials, plastic being a big element.

The biggest impacts we are seeing have interestingly been in the circular economy space. Because there’s everything from repair and refurbishment laws to materials to end-of-life requirements, there are lots of different regulations across various aspects of circularity.

I would say regulations in the climate space are still very much evolving. And the way it affects companies like Dell is around making sure that we have emissions reduction activities and that those actions trickle into the products we sell while making sustainability data more available.

From an opportunity standpoint, we want to look beyond mandates. We truly believe that technology can be an enabler for climate action. The question is: Where are the places that technology can be put into play or tweaked in such a way where it drives greater efficiency, greater capability, etc.? We already talked about the energy vertical and the agriculture vertical.

More importantly, as governments around the world are thinking about policy, our only real request is that policy be thought of in a way that doesn’t seem like patchwork. We are very big proponents of standards, commonality, and consistency, because climate action is complex enough, and when you’re dealing with complex topics that are dynamic by nature, if we layer on top a patchwork of global regulations, it slows down activity.

So we are definitely proponents of the right kinds of standards regulations. But we hope regulations will create consistency, simplification, and transparency, all of which will lead to more information and the right depth of information focused on the right kinds of action.

Abhijit: Thank you for all these insights and your time.

Page: Thank you!


This interview was conducted by Forrester Senior Analyst Abhijit Sunil in association with Researcher Renee Taylor-Huot. To learn more about Forrester’s research on technology sustainability, reach out to asunil@forrester.com or retaylor@forrester.com. Read more about Forrester’s work in environmental sustainability and other interviews in this series. A special thanks to Laura Tongbua at Dell!