How to avoid greenwashing in telecoms: Recommendations for genuine sustainability

As telcos accelerate their sustainability efforts with new enabling services, understanding how to avoid greenwashing becomes essential. This is due to the risk of making unsupported or even contradictory claims. In this article, we discuss some of the common mistakes that telcos make, and how best to avoid them.


Top 5 Sustainability Solution Mistakes

When it comes to understanding how to avoid greenwashing, operators and vendors must be mindful of potential pitfalls while promoting the sustainability of their operations and solutions. Although many claims are legitimate and valid, STL Partners has identified some common mistakes that can occur in their sustainability journeys. This article lays out some of the mistakes that vendors and telcos may fall into when making sustainability claims. We have identified some of the common mistakes we see telcos and vendors making in their sustainability journeys, and provide  recommendations for avoiding these pitfalls ..

Here we identify top 5 mistakes vendors and telcos make when developing sustainability solutions:

1. Not netting off the sustainability downsides from the benefits of the service/product:

One common mistake we see telcos make is overestimating the sustainability upsides of a service by focusing simply on the benefits. Not calculating both the upside and downsides of a services leads to a lack of transparency, and contributes to inaccurate claims about how sustainable a product is. Common examples of this include telcos reporting the carbon emission savings that their solution can contribute to, but not calculating the embedded carbon in their services, as well as failing to calculate how much e-waste has been generated in their operations.

2. Contradictory claims about the sustainability of centralised and distributed cloud:

Centralised cloud data systems can take advantage of certain features that enable them to operate more sustainably than distributed alternatives. At the same time, distributed data centres – or edge data centres – can also take advantage of other features than enable them to be more sustainable than their larger, centralised counterparts. There iscertainly truth to both sides of the debate. However, players within the telecoms and IT industry should be careful to avoid supporting one side over the other within the same narrative which can lead to contradictory claims. For instance, large data centres are very power hungry and  many hyperscaler data centre providers have made strides in this area but  using more renewable energy as well as deploying cutting-edge technology to reduce their HVAC energy consumption. Cooling is particularly import for large data centres as it accounts up to 40% of their energy consumption.

Larger data centres can also achieve a lower power usage effectiveness (PUE) than edge data centres as, due to the number of servers that they house (and therefore excess capacity), they switch them on and off depending on demand while still meeting processing requirements. Edge data centres on the other hand do not have  a large enough number of servers to be able to switch any off, making it harder to achieve lower PUE.

At the same time,  edge data centres can require less cooling and ventilation thanks to having fewer servers and more space between equipment to allow for natural ventilation, meaning they require less intensive HVAC systems  in comparison to large data centres. Therefore, it is imperative for to analyse the benefits and drawbacks of both options to avoid making biased claims about one approach over another.

3. Making claims without supporting evidence:

Telcos often make claims of enablement without backing it up with evidence. A common example of this are claims of supporting home workers and claiming the carbon emission savings that arise from avoided commutes. However, the actual evidence is far from compelling. While telcos are quick to make claims about contributing to carbon reduction , the calculations to support these claims are either non-existent, or fail to include other carbon emissions to which home working gives rise  e.g. individuals heating their homes in winter or cooling them in summer, which would be avoided if these workers were based in a single office building.

4. Flattering factors such as telcos claiming 100% renewable energy usage:

When telcos switch to contract-based energy supplies (e.g. power purchase agreements (PPAs), it is common for them to claim their operations run on 100%  renewable energy resources. Although contract-based energy supply agreements have a significant impact on the use of renewable energy and the decrease in carbon emissions, claims of 100% renewable energy use are not truly accurate. For example, there may not always be enough wind to power wind turbines, or sunshine to generate solar energy. It is therefore not possible for all contract-based energy agreements to provide a continuous supply of renewable energy.

Therefore, operators should not only report on their market-based emissions (the energy contracts that they have bought) but also on their location-based emissions, which takes into account the average emission intensity of the grid from which the energy consumption actually occurs and therefore provides a more accurate picture.

5. Claims around automation always being more sustainable:

Telcos often claim that automation is (automatically) more sustainable. While it is true that automation can usually be greener, since processes can be completed faster while using less energy, making claims without supporting evidence can be misleading. There are several examples of inefficient and poor automation, which can be much less sustainable when compared to an efficient way of doing something that is not necessarily automated. Another misleading factor can be when telcos equate cost savings via automation to greater sustainability. Automation can improve cost savings in the long run, but automatically associating reduced costs with reduced carbon emissions can be misleading. Ultimately,  telcos should be able to support claims of sustainability with credible evidence, and not fall into “greenwashing” through unsubstantiated claims.

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Transparency and Clarity: Key to Avoiding Greenwashing in Telcos and Vendors’ Sustainability Efforts

To summarise, telcos and vendors should always aim for transparency and clarity when promoting their sustainability services and strategies to avoid greenwashing. This can be done by acknowledging both upsides and downsides of any potential sustainability endeavour, as well as by providing clear and robust supporting methodologies on any reported claims.

Ela Eren


Ela Eren


Ela Eren is a Consultant at STL Partners, specialising in sustainability and telco cloud.

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