Dell: A union of sustainability, packaging and marketing

In an interview with MIT Sloan Management Review, John Pflueger, principal environmental strategist for Dell, discusses Dell’s innovations in packaging, and why reporting into marketing works for his sustainability team. Pflueger spoke recently with Nina Kruschwitz, editor of the sustainability content initiative at MIT SMR. Here's an edited excerpt from that interview:

Nina Kruschwitz: So let’s talk about packaging. Dell has been an innovator there.

John Pflueger: Yeah, we’ve got a great subject-matter expert who runs our packaging group and he’s very interested in sustainability-related topics, very personally motivated. So he started looking for different alternatives for packaging, and he found a company in China that was interested in seeing if you could use bamboo fibers in the same way you use paper fibers today for cardboard packaging. Bamboo is native to China and it’s one of the fastest growing plants in the world. It’s a very renewable resource.

They experimented with the material, and they actually found a way to use bamboo as a raw material for manufacturing packaging. Now, I don’t think we use it on any of our big systems, but right now, 70 percent of notebooks ship in bamboo. Its structural strength makes it great for shipping our high-tech products.

You might think that packaging seems like this mundane, boring topic, but it really addresses a recurring pain point with a lot of our customers. So Oliver Campbell, our subject matter expert, continues to say, “Well, what’s the next thing I can do?’

Kruschwitz: That’s really interesting. What other kinds of packaging ideas is he coming up with?

Pflueger: One of the things he’s been experimenting with is this notion of finding a material that’s local to where the factories are, that’s renewable, or would otherwise be considered waste in and of itself, and something that’s compostable. So now, they’re looking at something called “mushroom packaging.” They take agricultural waste, in this case cotton hull, and they put the cotton hull into a form shaped like the packaging they want with mushroom spores, and then the mushroom spores feed on the hull and grow into the form. When they reach the proper size and have filled up the form, they kill off the mushroom spores and you’re left with a piece of compostable packaging material.

It’s absolutely amazing. The fungal mycelium, which are essentially mushroom roots, act like a glue and we don’t let them grow long enough to produce mushrooms. So, we don’t have to worry about having them trigger mushroom-based allergies. Rumor has it that Oliver actually ripped off a tiny piece of these things and chewed it. Just to make sure. It apparently could use some soy sauce.

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