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Behind AT&T's 10x Return-on-Carbon Commitment

By Jen Boynton

This week, AT&T announced its goal to enable carbon savings 10 times the carbon footprint of its operations by 2025. That's an impressive commitment to be sure. In fact, it very well might be a B-hag (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal). I love to see companies make these big goals. The real problems we're trying to solve with sustainability don't necessarily have answers yet, and it's a bold company who will make a public goal they don't yet have a plan to meet.

I sat down with AT&T's Director of Sustainability, Jenny Robertson to get the details at the BSR conference earlier this month. When asked about how AT&T landed on this goal, she explained,

"This goal has been a year in the making. But we always had targets – the change is moving to a more specific outcome base. Every year we were going through a goal-setting exercise which we realized wasn’t a great use of time. Now we have this commitment as a tent pole to organize around."

Underneath the big goal, the telecom company has more specific 10-year goals, but the long-term goal provides much-needed flexibility for meeting a goal in a rapidly changing technological landscape. As an example, Robertson offers the goals the company set in 2005. Gesturing to the three mini-computers sitting on the table in front of us, she exclaims, "We didn't even have the iPhone then!" Indeed new technology offers new challenges -- like the rapid cell phone replacement that is now common -- and opportunities, like the carbon savings that can happen as teleconferencing improves.

The current plan for meeting the 10x carbon commitment isn't just to buy a bunch of carbon offsets (although they may play a part). AT&T will be creating products that, "drive resource efficiency and enable AT&T customers to lead more sustainable lives," as a release outlining the commitment explains. This goal, and its link to customer needs, has me very fired up because it means that sustainability is baked into the business cycle. AT&T recognizes that its customers will need to improve their own efficiency in the coming decade. By providing these needed products, AT&T will be improving its own impact all the way to the bank.

AT&T's big goals don't end with the environmental goals. They've also set a pretty audacious goal on the social side. AT&T's Aspire program has focused on high school education improvement since 2008. The program offers a mixture of financial donations ($250 million invested so far with another hundred million in planned giving before 2017), telecom product donations, and employee mentoring to students around the country who are at risk of dropping out of high school.

AT&T has struggled to measure the impact and performance of these gift since the program began in 2008. While measuring dollars spent and employee hours donated were fantastic for press releases and a pat on the back, it was difficult to tell if the program had actually moved the needle on high school graduation rates. Now the telecom giant has decided to actually tie their efforts to that goal directly. Robertson explained that the company hopes to improve U.S. high school graduation rates from 80 percent to 90 percent by 2020, "It doesn’t matter how much we spend unless we’re having an impact. We're moving from measuring outputs to measuring impacts. Want to make sure that we're using money effectively."

AT&T has a business imperative to back up these do-gooder intentions: the skills gap. Nearly every large tech company we talk to has some version of the following story: we can't find qualified people for our entry level technical positions. Alongside the efforts to produce more high school graduates, AT&T is investing directly in education with Udacity to offer a credential program that will prepare students for jobs with the telecom provider. Symantec and SAP offer similar workforce development programs. These programs provide a much-needed leg up to high school graduates for a well-paying technical career-- these initiatives are fantastic for society and the business bottom line as well. AT&T's benchmarking against a country-wide number they can't directly impact is especially impressive because it indicates a clear effort to move beyond the bottom line and invest in communities.


Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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