Case Study: Dell Computers

Oliver Campbell holding up mushroom based packaging for Dell servers

Oliver Campbell holding up mushroom based packaging for Dell servers

Dell is one of the first major brands to embrace mushroom-based packaging. I was surprised too. As a part of my thesis research I reached out to Oliver Campbell, the head of Dell's packaging team, to talk about the crossroads of sustainability and packaging design.


Ian : The first project I came across years and years ago was the mushroom foam project. I wanted to ask about scaling that, because that seems like such a labor intensive growth process. What were the challenges with bringing that to scale?

Oliver: First was convincing my own team. They thought I was crazy. But I Worked on a farm growing up, so I had an advantage of being exposed to agriculture and, also, very much the natural world. My wife and I actually grew shiitake mushrooms here Austin. We had a commercial farm. We had 250 logs, so we were registered as a commercial farmer by the Texas Department of Agriculture. That really exposed me to mycelium and, you know, it's kind of squishy. I never made the connection at the time, you could grow that and use it as a protective cushion. I wasn't involved in packaging at that time. I came into packaging rather late. You know, we heard about Eben Bayer and what he was doing with mushrooms and the mycelium, and based on my experience, I immediately understood what he was doing and it was that connection that really started the relationship.


It was interesting, you know, when you look at how the mycelium structure interconnects at a microscopic level, and it actually slightly outperforms foam in some of our compression and drop tests because of that structure. When we look at these technologies, we'd look at it in terms of a technology roadmap or a series of steps. And so, by that, I mean we felt the technology had promise; maybe not so much for the initial blends that we utilized, but Ecovative has some other blends that we've seen several years ago they have not brought to market. Those are the ones that really excited us, and we had some applications where we could use it. It's why these calculated investments that you say it's worth getting in on this technology because we see what the future of it can really be like. That's what interests us.

We put the mushroom technology on our best-selling server product. They're like little hockey pucks. I mean, they're like, you know, that big, maybe about that thick, and we use three of them. They're really kind of unassuming if you look at them, but they're pretty mighty. We've been shipping those for about two years, and I think if you stack them up on top of one another it would stretch eight miles up into the sky.


Ian: Wow, that's unbelievable. (yep, I’m a real Walter Cronkite)


Oliver: You know, we've used hundreds of thousands of them. That gives you an idea, even little things can have a tremendous impact.   



Eben Bayer of Ecovative holding up a Dell Mushroom server package during the growth process

Eben Bayer of Ecovative holding up a Dell Mushroom server package during the growth process

My analysis:

I’m blown away by this project. It’s a radical paradigm shift implemented on a large scale with massive sustainability benefits. Dell invested in a new technology in a way that will lower costs and increase economies of scale for future mushroom based packaging projects. Dell helped its supplier Ecovative tremendously by pursuing this project, and by doing so provided Ecovative with a powerful proof of concept. From a pure sustainability perspective, the project is incredible. I want to give Dell a hug for doing this.  However from a design, the project leaves plenty of room for improvement. 


1. How does the form of the package relate to the packaging substrate?

It doesn’t. And I think Dell is blowing it here. It looks like Dell took traditional styrofoam structural forms and recreated them with mushroom foam. The result is a functional square slat. LeCorbusier would not be pleased. There is certainly a metaphor to be made between the biological function of mushrooms as great webs of communication and the function of servers, and it would fantastic to see Dell take this metaphor into the form of the packaging. I would encourage Dell to develop geometry and structural forms based off of research into the intrinsic bonding and growth patterns of the mushroom foam. And even if that research leads nowhere, more round organic forms or even geometry of connective nodes would speak more evocatively to the material truth of the mushroom. 


2. How does the materiality of the package speak to the packaging substrate?

The materiality of the mycelium is the packagings great design success. The soft velvety coating of the mycelium suggests something living, something different from traditional styrofoam. It’s a startling and compelling difference from the dry squeaky uniformity of traditional styrofoam. Even the color, a dusty organic tan, connotes a gritty natural material. Dell succeeds wonderfully at creating a tactile materiality that speaks to the truth of the substrate. Compared the the creepy uniformity of styrofoam, the mushroom foam carries an organic sense of wabi-sabi.


3. Does the tactile feel of the material suggest communicate its proper end disposal?

Most likely, The wood chips embedded in the foam suggest compost. Paired with additional graphic messaging about composting I would believe that the material communicates it’s proper end use about as effectively as something can.


4. How did the design achieve tangible sustainability gains?

Dell simplifies it’s sustainability goals into a simple question, “Does the time it takes to grow the material match it’s end use?” Styrofoam produced from fossil fuels takes millions of years to form, and is only used for a few months. Mushroom foams that take several days to grow, and once used it can be composted easily. In this regard, the end solution is far more sustainable than traditional styrofoam.


5. How was the design implemented on a large scale?

Because Dell is a massive corporate entity, they have the purchasing power that affords them the freedom to invest in new technologies. 


6.What made the design cost-effective? And if the design was not cost effective, how was a roadmap put in place to make it so?

It wasn’t cost effective at first! But luckily Dell’s packaging team is progressive enough to see this project as an investment in future economies of scale. According to Campbell this project marked a step on the roadmap to make mycelium packaging cost effective.


7. How does the design anticipate future infrastructure changes? 

This design could become a pioneering model in a future where petroleum based packaging is either banned or too expensive to be cost effective.


8. Did the design result in a positive brand story?

The design garnered significant press among the packaging and biomaterials world, as well as some major coverage. However Dell’s public perception has not shifted to one of pioneering sustainability as a result of this project. This is unfortunate, and hopefully will continue to change over time, because Dell deserves to properly rewarded for the work it has been doing.

Ian Montgomery