Pro: Carbon footprint reporting, Supply chain oversight
Con: Third-party manufacturer reduces transparency, not TCO certified, Manufacturing sites not all complaint with labor safety standards
Dell has grandiose plans for 2030, most of their reports begin with a statement of how sustainable they will be by that year. But their current performance is not as spectacular. Their sustainable claims focus on the packaging and energy efficiency of the device, but most of the carbon footprint and labor come from the manufacturing of the device, not its use or its box. The individual carbon footprint report for each of their products is a great start, however this report deserves to have much more information to show Dell is truly committed to sustainability and transparency. The manufacturing of the device by Compal seems to allow for even less transparency, and it may allow unfair working conditions that cannot be traced by to the Dell brand and its product. As a consumer one may look for a laptop that is TCO certified, which has a more transparent supply chain and that focuses on longer life-cycles, while Dell continues to work towards 2030 and improved sustainability. But the real change needs to come from the industry, as most laptops around the world are made in very similar conditions.
The XPS 13 line of laptops from Dell has been a consumer favorite for over 5 years now. The sleeker screen, innovative colors and reasonable price make this a very competitive product in the laptop market. However, as is the case with most laptops we buy, sustainability is largely a second thought. This issue is aggravated by the fact that laptops are such complex machines. Determining the sustainability of this machine, and of laptops in general, requires gathering information about its exterior materials, various internal chips, batteries, sensors, and its screen. These parts are not usually manufactured by the single company that assembles the laptop, they are part of a long supply chain. The amount of processes and people that ultimately work on a laptop is truly remarkable, and can be seen as an accomplishment of modern society. But it can also help obscure the true environmental and societal cost of these machine which are so crucial to our lives.
Starting from the outside, the exterior of the screen is made of Corning Gorilla Glass, the body is made of aluminum, the palm rest of carbon fiber. On the inside, it is likely using various semiconductor materials and associated metals, both for its high-quality LED screen and the various processing and sensing chip below the keyboard. Their memory likely comes from Samsung, who was not very transparent about their current sustainability performance. Their CPU and GPU come from Intel, which appear to be making big strides in increasing its renewable energy use, leading in responsible sourcing and now recycles more than half of its immediate waste, all according to their own report. The laptop is BFR/PVC-free, two materials often used in plastics fro electronics which are known to generate harmful by-products. It is also said to be made of “Safer materials: Free of materials like cadmium, lead, mercury and some phthalates,” however this is a vague claim, with words such as “like,” and “some,” which leave the possibility for unsafe material being used. This is further aggravated by the fact that this computer is not TCO certified, although many other laptops are, including some other Dell product lines. The TCO certification requires laptops to follow deign rules such as responsible sourcing, limiting plastic content, ensuring a long lifetime, among others. It seems the XPS 13’s Energy Star certification, recyclable packaging and recyclability claims unfortunately do no translate to such sustainable material being used. Currently, less than 5% of the material present in Dell products come from recycled sources. A lack of transparency on all the materials used, recycling schemes that fall short and lack of TCO certification bring this product down.
Once more, this is complicated by the fact that this product is made from components from companies all over the world. The company collects information about its suppliers in a supply chain report, although there is no such information for individual products. The current report does not show huge progress from 2018 to 2019, except in saved freshwater. Suppliers saved double the freshwater, from 15 million cubic meters to almost 30 million cubic meters, a significant amount compared to Dell’s 1.3 million cubic meters usage. However, it shows over 10% of all of Dell’s supplier’s facilities do not meet air emissions, environmental permits and hazardous materials compliance. Using the product’s report, we learn that most of this products footprint comes from manufacturing, especially from making the screen and the internal chips. The exact process and energy usage statistics for this process is hard to find. Although on the products page we learn that “90% of the laptop’s parts can be easily recycled or reused,” Dell’s circular economy initiative is only able to collect around 9% of the total materials it sells, lowering the true benefits of a laptop that claims to be 90% recyclable as it is unlikely most of it is actually recycled. The lifetime of this product is in only 4 years, according to the product’s carbon footprint report. The same report concludes that the total life-cycle carbon footprint of this product is equivalent to driving an average car for 800 miles, nearly the distance between New York City and Chicago. Despite the mostly positive manufacturing stats, there is little evidence that this product was manufactured with sustainability in mind or that Dell’s current manufacturing practices are sustainable.
To begin, Dell often contracts out the manufacturing of their product, in this case it seem Compal is the original manufacturer or the final assembler of the XPS notebooks. Most of their manufacturing plants and workers are located in mainland China and Taiwan, with a small footprint in Brazil. Compal’s sustainability report points at an uneven number of men and women in their workforce, but a mostly even pay rate. The gender wage equity only changes in their management position, where it seems female managers are paid around 85% of their male counterparts’ wages. Compal meets all regulations, however migrant workers in Taiwan have complained about dormitory-style living conditions and arbitrary pay cuts, cuts which were later clarified. According to the ethical consumer site, manufacturing plants in China use young student labor for cheap manufacturing costs and long working hours. Furthermore, according to Dell’s supply chain report, over 10% of facilities are not compliant with standards for food and housing, industrial hygiene and injury and illness prevention. Additionally, only 70% of supplier facilities are compliant with occupational safety standards, and a similar percentage is well prepared for emergency situations. Further down the supply chain, although most supplying smelter’s and refiners are compliant to the Responsible Minerals Assurance Process (RMAP), a significant portion are not. Around 15% of tungsten, and 25% of gold sources are not compliant with this baseline, and it is unclear how significant these non-compliant sources are to the XPS 13. These numbers show there still a lot of work to do to ensure fair working condition across the full supply chain of the laptop, and little transparency for individual products does little to reassure consumers their product was made by laborers working under fair conditions.