AT&T: Aligning Business and Sustainability Strategy


ATT_CSR_imageI ask a simple gut-check question when reading a sustainability report:  “What does [insert “green” initiative here] have to do with this company’s operations?” The connection should be obvious.

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?

Fleet Investments

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.

Matthew Holtry is a full-time Consultant for PRIZIM Inc. and a seasonal Journalist for Triple Pundit. His previous experience includes greenhouse gas & energy consulting, eco-business journalism, and various IT roles. He recently received his MBA from Penn State University, where he also served as the President of Penn State Net Impact. He was a former AmeriCorps Team Leader with Outward Bound, has driven cross-country twice, visited 19 countries, and now resides in Washington, DC.

2 responses

  1. It’s encouraging that new-media journalists are seeking out leading corporate responsibility decision-makers and giving them an opportunity to describe their initiatives in their own words. While metrics are important, the leaders need to be personally invested in the processes; their heartfelt commitments to the goals of these departments will show through in the bottom-line results.

  2. You know, I’ll be the first one to say I often take a lot of corporate America’s green “initiatives” as greenwashing. I think if more companies spent their resources on getting the facts out to consumers, like you’ve done here, instead of trying to sell things to us with pictures of grass and sunshine and creepy blonde chicks making weird facial … Read Moreexpressions…it would help increase our confidence as well as act as an educational vehicle for consumers and businesses a like.

    On a similar note, I was watching that Planet green channel the other day and was totally disappointed with a show they did on Habitat for Humanity. It was completely not unobjective and kept trying to push their methods as “as green as they can go for mass production” which is the mentality their channel should be trying to break in the first place.

    Your article was really refreshing and an interesting comparison between the “corporate giant” bad guys vs. the “non-profit” good guy dualism stereotypes.

Leave a Reply