While “One Million Acts of Green” are admirable, it makes more sense to inventory impacts and make reductions where they matter most. (Can I leave my AC running while I go to the store as long as I take a reusable bag?)
Consumers are less likely to respond if corporate sustainability efforts don’t tell a coherent story. AT&T’s latest Citizenship & Sustainability Report reads like a “how to” manual for creating business value through an effective sustainability strategy.
AT&T has clearly taken a look at their core business operations, identified high-impact areas, and committed to making reductions where they mattered most.
When I interviewed Beth Shiroishi, AT&T’s Assistant VP for Citizenship & Corporate Responsibility, I was amazed by both the length of her title and her breadth of knowledge about the company.
As a telecommunications company, AT&T’s key environmental impacts seemed pretty simple: They use a lot of electricity, they operate a lot of repair trucks, and their business generates a lot of e-waste. However, they had a unique way of looking at each of these problems.
Measuring Electricity Consumption
AT&T (obviously) expects more subscribers and heavier traffic with growing iPhone popularity. To create a consistent year-over-year comparison, they developed a new metric: “kilowatt hours per terabyte of data carried.”
Right now, that figure stands at 654. They plan to reduce it by 15% in 2009.
Typically, I am not a huge fan of intensity-based metrics since they can mask problems. (A nation’s “emissions per unit of GDP” can decrease while total emissions levels continue to grow.)
However, AT&T’s “kWh per terabyte” metric is a fresh way to think about how to add new customers without proportionately adding to global energy consumption. If AT&T and competitors all reported intensity-based metrics, consumers would be able to make more sense of that 654 number. Shouldn’t the iPhone have an app for that, too?
AT&T is utilizing an “invest to learn” philosophy to reduce emissions associated with its trucking fleet. Its commitment of $565 million over the next 10 years for CNG and all-electric vehicles (which sell at a premium over conventional models) is the largest of its kind in the country.
Beth emphasized these purchases as a long-term play: “Fuel price volatility was killing us so we decided to look for options that were more stable. We formed partnerships with companies like Smith [Electric Vehicles] to understand how these vehicles would work and help to shape their development.”
A Business Solution to e-Waste
e-Waste has been a controversial issue and AT&T could have kept a distance from the issue since they do not manufacture the phones. However, they saw it as an extension of their business and therefore part of their responsibility. That is encouraging in an industry plagued by a meager 10% cell phone recycling rate.
AT&T offers in-store drop-off or even postage-paid envelopes to mail devices for recycling. Phones are either refurbished, dismantled for parts, or melted down yielding a material recovery rate of 99.9% for all phones donated according to Shiroishi. AT&T has made a commitment to monitoring vendors for exportation and safety issues, and they have received praise for doing a better job than some government-backed initiatives.
All three of these initiatives pass the gut-check test. Even AT&T’s community outreach efforts focus on causes such as technology training in schools with high dropout rates. The corporation’s sustainability strategy shows a consistent direction and tells a convincing story.