AT&T’s Holistic Approach to Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship

As Jen reported in the March 14th edition of the Weekly Green Business Wrap, AT&T has recently announced a ten-year commitment to put 15,000 alternative fuel vehicle on the road, including deployment of 8000 Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) service vehicles over the next five years – what will be the largest private fleet of CNG vehicles on the country – and the planned replacement of 7,100 gas-powered passenger cars over the next ten years with hybrid-electrics or other alternative fuel vehicles as the older cars come up for retirement.

AT&T plans to spend more than a half billion dollars on its alternative fuel fleet, a significant investment even for a corporate titan like AT&T that reflects an important step in the evolving commitment to assimilate strategic sustainability programs as a core component of corporate culture.

I had an opportunity to speak with Beth Shiroshi, AT&T’s assistant vice president for Citizenship and Corporate Responsibility, discussing the alternative fuel fleet announcement and how it stems from the company’s growing holistic approach to its environmental and social commitment.

Just like taking 38,600 cars off the road – the plan recapped

AT&T launched a pilot alternative fuel vehicle program in June of 2008, deploying 105 vehicles across 30 U.S. cities, leading to the current plan to roll out another 15,000 vehicles in the coming decade. To support the 8,000 new CNG service vehicles requires an expanded fueling infrastructure. AT&T is working with private natural gas providers to build 40 new fueling stations across the vehicles’ operating region. These new stations are in addition to the 25 stations already in place in California, where the pilot CNG vehicle program was started. The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor Michigan estimates that the investment in the new fueling stations will create or save 1000 jobs per year over the next five years, with the CNG vehicles emitting 25% less greenhouse gas emissions than their gasoline powered counterparts. The service vehicles will initially be purchased from Ford and “upfitted” to CNG operation using U.S. service providers .

Hybrid-electric technology is the initial technology-of-choice for the 7,100 gas powered cars slated for replacement over the next decade with alternative fuel models. Hybrid-electrics are expected to improve fleet fuel efficiency by 39% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 29%. Likewise for their service trucks, CNG is currently the best choice, not only for reducing dependence on foreign oil (once fully deployed, the 8000 CNG vehicles will save more than 49 million gallons of gasoline over ten years), but also in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, providing jobs, and supporting the expansion of an alternative fuel infrastructure.

In total, the plan will reduce emissions by some 211,000 metric tons over the ten year deployment period, equivalent to taking 38,600 typical passenger cars off the road.

Shiroishi emphasized that a key component of the plan is adaptability. The right mix of solutions now is CNG and hybrid-electric vehicles, but as innovation and new technologies come into play, that mix could change as market conditions and company needs change.

Sending a message of commitment

Shiroishi touched on the dilemma often posed when a businesses and consumers face new frontiers and shifts in perception, as in adopting cutting-edge vehicle technology: buyers are willing to buy if manufacturers will produce it, and manufacturers are willing to bring new technology to market if buyers will buy, one waiting for supply, the other for demand. From the perspective of AT&T, and by virtue of the scale of their operation, it is part of their mission of corporate responsibility to push the process forward and “send a strong message” to the market. Such is the case, Shiroishi hopes, with the company’s plan for alternative fuel vehicles in its fleet, sending a message to American automakers that the new market is with alternative fuel vehicles.

A holistic approach to corporate sustainability

According to Shiroishi, AT&T has a long history addressing its need to practice good corporate social responsibility. But after a series of acquisitions and mergers, the challenge was to integrate a comprehensive approach to strategic sustainability and citizenship across their multifaceted operation.

Shiroishi points out that by the close of the Cingular-BellSouth merger, AT&T had what amounted to four distinct operating companies, each with its own culture, operations, and programs in place. In late 2006 and early 2007, AT&T enlisted the help of the non-profit Business for Social Responsibility to conduct a systematic review of the CSR issues most important to the company’s employees and stakeholders. The result helped to prioritize areas of focus and establish a framework for the company’s citizenship and sustainability program.

Creating a separate “sustainability unit” was examined, but ultimately such a compartmentalized approach wasn’t seen as the most effective strategy for incorporating sustainability, efficiency, and corporate citizenship throughout the many units, facilities, and functions that make up the whole of AT&T. A more holistic, fully integrated approach was needed, and in early 2008, oversight and management of corporate sustainability and citizenship was lifted to the officer level within the organization.

A program of corporate citizenship

ATT’s program of citizenship and sustainability is outlined in the executive summary of their latest CSR report, Connecting for a Sustainable Future

The report discusses the the six areas of strategic focus:

These focus areas include a wide variety of projects, programs, and products. Just a few specific examples that Shiroishi mentioned include:

  • A 1 megawatt solar power system at their Bishop Range campus in San Ramon, California. The system was installed by SunPower and partially funded through incentive from Pacific Gas and Electric under the California Solar Initiative.
  • Participation in Austin Energy’s GreenChoice program. 10 percent of all electricity purchased for all of ATT’s facilities in Austin come from wind power.
  • Fleet management products and services. Based on ATT’s Telenav GPS technology, fleet managers can track parameters such tire inflation, oil levels, and other important criteria to improve vehicle performance, minimize downtime, and help maintenance crews maintain vehicles more efficienty. Vehicle operation monitors and reports mileage, speed, stops, and delivering times. Fleet networking improves routing and customer response times. Drivers have access to GPS maps and rerouting information to help improve efficiency and drivers’ quality of work life.

As with the the alternative fuel vehicle conversion, so it is with the full range of their sustainability programs, a mix of solutions across its broad corporate reach stands as the most effective means of reaching their goals. As an example, Shiroishi talked of building efficiency: “Some of our facilities have a lot of equipment in them and relatively few people, data centers and the like, others are full of people with less equipment. Each requires its own approach to sustainability and environmental responsibility.”

The chicken or the egg

Businesses claim they must cater to market demand, consumers counter that businesses often aren’t innovative enough in providing better choices. So what comes first? Responsible and visionary corporate entities that alter and transform public perception of how we consume and what is sustainable, or a grassroots awakening that demands from corporations a new way of doing business? I would assert both. The size of large corporate entities makes change difficult, yet the scale they wield in the marketplace brings to bear positive momentum once change is initiated. Grassroots advocacy can harness the immediate sentiment of individuals in their daily lives, such as the talk lately of a “populist uprising” in the wake of the AIG executive bonus fiasco, but such movements may lack the reach and power to effect large-scale change.

Through its decision to adopt a holistic integration of corporate citizenship and sustainability, based on the values and issues of its employees and shareholders, ATT works to employ the best of both worlds.

For much of the corporate world, there remains comfort in the old ways of doing business, even as it becomes ever more apparent that those ways of doing business are not sustainable – whether socially, environmentally, or economically. As Shiroishi explained in regard to the deployment of 15,000 alternative fuel vehicles: it just comes down to someone taking the first step.

ATT isn’t in the business of sustainability, but to the degree that they and other corporate “giants” make it a part of their (triple) bottom line, the business of sustainability fights the natural resistance to change, moves forward, and creates ripples of transformation from corporations to society at large – you and me and the guy next door.

We all have a job to do to ensure a sustainable future. From what I could tell from our chat, Beth Shiroishi and her colleagues are seeing to it that ATT does theirs.

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

One response

  1. “Incorporation of Legal Risk Imperative in complementing Ernst & Young Stress Pendulum”

    The article ‘Sustaining Our Future” by Azwan Baharudding, Partner, Ernst & Young Advisory Services Sdn BHd
    Malaysia (Starbiz, The Star, p B6-19.08.2009) raised several relevant determinants in the ‘EY Stress Pendulum’.

    All the components contained in the Ernst & Young Stress pendulum are practical markers/indicators that require specific actions to achieve sustainability.

    There is however one cruucial factor that ought to have been included in that Ernst & Young Stess Pendulum, failing which it does not represent a complete pendulum that would swing towards
    real sustaianbility in the corporate world. That factor is the Legal Risks Managment component (‘LRM’).

    In the corporate world since the meltdown of Enron and other well known US corporate trade mark entities that snowballed towards current global financial diasater,
    corporate giants around the world have include LRM in their corporate managment purview side by side financial management.

    Post Lehman Brother’s saga pointed towards taking decisive management action by not just focusing on similar stress pendulum approach but by incorporating the LRM component within the Corporate Sustainability Roadmap.

    Jeong Chun-phuoc*

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