Where are telcos focusing sustainability efforts?

The 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and agreed upon by all 193 Member States. They are intended to be realised by the year 2030 and provide a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. But the focus on SGDs in telco sustainability initiatives is not consistent across telcos, as shown below.

Telco SDGs

STL Partners conducted interviews with seven telcos across the world and found that some telcos focus on just a few of the 17 SDGs (e.g. Telco 6), while others align their sustainability initiatives with multiple SDGs (e.g. Telco 4). However, all the telcos interviewed contextualised their sustainability initiatives within the UN SDGs.

  • Only two SDGs, Goal 9 – Industry Innovation and Infrastructure, and Goal 13 – Climate Action, were a common focus across all telcos.

Two telcos placed heavy focus on a particular SDG in their sustainability strategies: Telco 1 said SDG 10 (Reducing Inequalities) is “fundamental to core business strategy and purpose”, while Telco 4 said it can make the biggest impact on SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) as its network infrastructure forms a technological foundation, which enables solutions to social and ecological challenges.

An additional area for telco sustainability initiatives

Aligned with the SDGs, digital inclusion and exclusion is considered a key focus area for sustainability initiatives by four of the interviewed telcos. This is due to its closeness to the telcos’ core business and therefore its being an area where they felt they have the potential to make the biggest impact. For example, one telco said its sustainability agenda is predominantly linked to its core business, which is providing connectivity, and it runs an “Internet for All” scheme in Asia to bring connectivity to as many people as possible. Another telco in a highly developed market described digital inclusion and exclusion as its “biggest area of corporate social responsibility activity” with a whole digital inclusion team dedicated to it. Its focus on this is not just about ensuring network coverage, but also running programmes to help marginalised groups in society become more familiar and confident in using connectivity and technology in their everyday lives.

Different telco sustainability priorities in developing vs. developed markets

Through the interviews and operators’ reports, it became apparent that telcos in developing and developed markets often have different priorities when it comes to their sustainability initiatives and agenda. A European telco with operations in Asia highlighted the complexities of aligning sustainability agendas across its developing and developed markets. In the areas of gender equality and climate change, it suggested that expectations from its European employees and shareholders were already very high, leaving little opportunity to differentiate itself by exceeding their expectations. However, in Asia, its employees say they are proud to work for a company that addresses issues like gender equality, a highly contentious matter in this market. For example, when this telco introduced maternity leave for all female employees in Asia it met with resistance. It was not perceived as a positive move for some female employees, their husbands and their families, or may have been perceived as positive, but not for the right reasons. Despite this, when asked about the business benefits of having sustainability as part of the business strategy, this telco said its sustainability agenda made it distinguishable in the Asian market as a responsible operator, but did not do the same in the European market.

For telcos like this one, operating in both developing and developed markets, it can be tough to be innovative and progressive enough with sustainability to leverage it as a differentiating factor across its entire geographical footprint. The telco may have top level priorities, such as climate change and gender equality, but local implementation for many multinational operators will rely on local teams to navigate the different societal expectations and cultural norms, such as the case of the European telco rolling out maternity leave in its Asian subsidiaries.

Interestingly, another Asian telco, the biggest in its country, noted that it had not had the same success with its environmental initiatives as its social initiatives. It cited the “level of investment needed to put into it [environmental initatives]” and running several pilot schemes in different areas, all producing different results, were the key reasons for this. It said that many of its country’s environmental concerns stemmed from plastic going into oceans, and that waste management and single use plastic are big areas of concern. For a telco, this is a challenging issue to address on its own and make a significant impact, as it would need support from a wide range of companies and the government to successfully resolve. Similarly, reducing its own carbon footprint, such as by using renewable energy, is more difficult owing to the lack of local infrastructure to support it.

STL Partners’ research shows that telcos are increasingly engaging with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) and incorporating them into their sustainability initiatives and company strategy. The report Sustainability: Why it’s good for business outlines how telcos can evolve their purpose beyond just being profit driven by aligning core strategy with sustainability initiatives and a sustainability policy, and in doing so benefit their business and add ‘society’ or ‘the world’ to their stakeholders.

More insight is available at STL Partners’ telecom sustainability hub:

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