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Beyond ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’: Dell’s circular economy strategy and ‘rethinking’ the business

US technology giant Dell has long been an industry leader on implementing sustainable business practices. The company’s vice president of sustainability, David Lear, explains how these practices have smoothed the organization’s transition towards a circular economy model - and the importance of ‘rethinking the entire business’ to embed circularity.

A pile of plastic bottles

Dell has been a sustainability leader in the technology industry for decades. Has that helped the company in adopting the circular economy model?

We’ve really been applying the circular principles of ‘reduce’, ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ for a long time. In fact, if you look at some of our earliest product designs, right back to 1984, Michael Dell built in concepts of upgradability and ease of servicing. We started out in a good way, thinking through how our products come together and how they're pulled apart, which gave us some advantages with recycling.

About 15 years ago, we started very actively taking products back from our customers. We offered this as a service to our commercial customers and offered free recycling to our consumer customers. We understood customers relied on us, we knew what the products were made of, the quality of the materials, and we knew how to recycle them. We also knew how to manage and protect customers’ data in the process.

As a result of that, we've established a comprehensive network of asset management and recycling capability for our customers around the world in over 75 countries and territories. This has meant we're getting better at designing for recyclability, but more importantly, using these recycled materials back into our new products. So, I believe we've been practicing circularity for many years, even before people started labelling it as such.

The support of supply chain partners is seen as an important enabler of circular systems. How has Dell managed to establish this support, given it has been a first-mover in the industry?

A few years ago, we realized that to achieve our long-term sustainability goals, we really needed to rethink our entire ecosystem. We gathered insights from customers, suppliers, NGOs, governments and employees to establish a set of 21 goals across topics of environment, community and people for Dell to achieve by 2020. By setting those long-term goals, we sent signals to a lot of our supply chain partners and technology partners about where we wanted to go. That opened the door for some of them to jump in and say, “Hey, we can help you get there faster. We can help you with a better recyclability process, or a better tool, or a better system.” 

We also went on to form new partnerships to support our progress. For example, we've been very successful at getting materials back from our customers, which has been partly down to strong relationships we’ve developed. In the US, for instance, we've partnered with Goodwill Industries, a non-profit organization, which has more than 2,000 locations nationwide where customers can donate any of their old household items including computers. Goodwill will take and try to refurbish the computers and get them back into the community, but if they can't then they'll recycle them with our help using our process standards.

Another important step to drive change in the ecosystem was to establish a common code for the industry supply chain. We helped to establish the Responsible Business Alliance in 2004, with about 8 other companies which now has expanded to 120 companies participating. We've worked across our common supply chains to establish codes of conduct for worker rights, human rights, environmental and social standards, to raise the bar for the entire electronics industry supply chain.

What areas will Dell be focusing on next with its circular economy strategy?

I think the concept of virtualization in the cloud is a game-changer for the circular economy because of the energy savings and the optimization of data in the clouds that it enables, so that is certainly one area you will hear more about.

You will also continue to see us develop more innovations around ocean plastics. A couple of years ago we started collecting some plastics through tributaries, waterways and beaches and putting them back into our product packaging.

But the next step here is about how we're trying to scale this across the industry. Again, Dell can only do so much by itself. We helped to launch an external non-profit called Next Wave, to provide an open source community of corporations who all had their own use cases but wanted to undertake shared development of solutions to address ocean plastics. The aim is to create standards on the way plastic is collected, managed and processed, and actually create a viable economic model that can ensure more of these materials never hit the ocean in the first place.