Telcos should embrace sustainability not just as a PR goal, but as a new heart to their purpose and strategy in the Coordination Age. By doing so they can unite and motivate employees, customers, investors and partners, and reignite growth and innovation.
In the last year, businesses all around the world underwent unprecedented changes and had to adapt to the most challenging of circumstances. Priorities shifted for all stakeholders with telcos operating in an increasingly complex world and having to rethink how they do business.
The world is connected digitally now more than ever. With office closures and working from home, Zoom calls with loved ones having been the only way to socialise and to carry out online schooling, telecoms and technology have become even more relied upon industries in the last 18 months.
The idea that a strong corporate social responsibility and sustainability strategy is good for business has been around for decades. This report 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.
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Scope of Research
The modern concept of ‘sustainability’ is composed of three components: economic, environmental and social. This is also sometimes called the ‘triple bottom line’ of business – stating that businesses should commit to measuring social and environmental impact, as well as financial performance, rather than focusing solely on profit. The ‘triple bottom line’ theory states that businesses should focus on the “three Ps”: people, profit and planet.
The three components of sustainability
Source: STL Partners
Modern discussions of ‘sustainability’ refer to the economic, environmental and social effect an organisation has on the societies or markets in which it operates. It is an umbrella term that covers issues such as diversity and inclusion, energy usage, human rights and supply chain management.
Through this research we sought to understand if there is a business value to incorporating sustainability into a telecoms operator’s purpose and strategy. Speaking to seven operators across the world, some of whom are named in this report (Telstra, Globe and Orange), we wanted to know how telcos are thinking about sustainability, and to learn more about the following:
- Telcos’ perception of the impact of sustainability initiatives in wider stakeholder groups e.g. employees, customers, shareholders, society
- Which sustainability issues telcos are focusing on
- The business benefits of sustainability initiatives
- Case studies of companies that have incorporated sustainability into their company strategy
- The effect the markets in which a telco operates in has on its sustainability initiatives (e.g. developed vs developing)
To gain an idea of how sustainability affects all aspects of the business, we interviewed employees in telcos’ sustainability and CSR teams, as well as in corporate strategy and product management.
All interviewees were asked largely the same questions, covering topics including: the initial motivations for engaging with sustainability; the effect of sustainability on multiple stakeholders (including customers and employees); if being sustainable puts telcos at a competitive advantage; important sustainability issues and solutions; successes and challenges of different sustainability initiatives; adapting sustainability strategies in different regions and the selection of their term for what we are calling ‘sustainability’.
Notably, some of the telcos we reached out to were not willing to participate in interviews because they were in the process of revising, changing, or updating their position on sustainability. In itself, this tells us that sustainability is an important and topical issue that many are still figuring out how to “get right” and how to incorporate it into their company strategy.
Sustainability is a cornerstone of the Coordination Age
As we outlined in The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, we believe that the telecoms and the wider digital economy is in its third age, ‘The Coordination Age’, which builds on ‘The Communications Age’ and ‘The Information Age’.
The three ages of telecoms
Source: STL Partners
The Coordination Age is a result of the changing needs and demands of the world’s people, businesses, and governments, evolving technological solutions and possibilities, and the need to preserve the most habitable possible future environment for the world’s population.
To create major growth and advance as a telco, operators need to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. We believe some of those major problems are:
- A desire for greater business efficiency and productivity
- The distribution and availability of human resources and services such as healthcare, education, employment, and entertainment
- Mitigating climate change and minimising its effects
- Reducing the amount of waste and harmful by-products polluting the environment
- Concerns over employment due to automation and global economic changes
These major problems can and are starting to be addressed through sustainability initiatives set out by companies in their agendas and policies.
In addition, telcos have important and unique assets, as well as specific resources and capabilities, such as access to data, technology and their prevalence in the everyday lives of their customers, that can enable them to contribute to tackling some of the world’s problems and ‘help make our world run better’. A specific common problem is to help companies and people coordinate their resources in or near to real-time.
For example, a major problem in delivering sustainable energy is ensuring that the variable demand of populations is coordinated with supply. Wind turbines and solar panels cannot be relied on to produce at peak capacity at exactly half-time in sporting events, when the audience goes to make a cup of tea by boiling their electric kettles. As such, supply needs to be very flexibly managed in relation to demand.
This means sharing information about those resources and demands effectively, which in turn takes modern communications in some shape or form (although connections may not always need to run through a telco network, for example Bluetooth, WiFi, etc.) Given his common need, telcos are well-equipped to help enable sustainability.
The motivating value of a compelling purpose
Protecting the future of the planet and society is a compelling purpose, and one which is progressively becoming part of our daily lives.
Our research on sustainability found that that there are a number of benefits for different stakeholders when telcos incorporate sustainability into company strategy, including increasing employee engagement. Sharing a mutual goal or purpose unites a team and creates value, which is important for business performance, and thus a business benefit of sustainability.
How a unifying purpose helps create value
Source: STL Partners
A clear unifying purpose applied successfully creates a virtuous cycle:
1. Clarity of direction: A clear purpose can provide direction for people at all levels. E.g. incorporating the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as Goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy, into company strategy and developing processes around it that involve employeesat all levels.
2. Energising work: Most people work for money, to a greater or lesser extent, and a range of other drivers: status, socialcontact, etc. However, work with a clear purpose is much more energising, especially if (like sustainability) it has some broader merit or meaning. It can make work ‘worth getting up for’. All the telcos we spoke to said that their employees are motivated by the sustainability work their company does.
3. Switched on people: If a telco is full of people that care about what they are doing, and know what they are trying to do, it will be a much more enjoyable and attractive place to work for everyone. Telcos we spoke to also said that sustainabilityis beneficial for talent attraction and retention, as employees want to work for a company that they feel is making a positive impact on the world
4. and 5 – Compelling offer and support, and attracts and satisfies customers: The combination of engaged people in the company and a compelling offer will be attractive to customers. Telcos we spoke to also referenced the need to be attractive to and satisfy different types of customers through their sustainabilitywork, such as the socially conscious Generation Z, and the older generation who can be engaged through digital inclusion
6. Feeds the business: The combination of internal clarity and alignment, motivation, and external attractiveness creates a virtuous circle that benefits telcos and drive business growth.
We think that engaging with sustainability and incorporating it into company strategy is a crucial part of operating in the context of the Coordination Age, and fundamental to operating in this way successfully. To support our hypothesis that having a clear and motivating purpose (in this case sustainability) can help to enhance currant performance, engage its employees, and find and nurture new areas of growth, we interviewed telcos to better understand how they define and measure the benefits of sustainability for their business. The research conducted for this report further validates our belief that commitment to sustainability is crucial to telcos’ success and growth in the Coordination Age.
Table of Contents
- Executive Summary
- Key findings from research
- Next steps for research
- Scope of research
- Sustainability is a cornerstone of the Coordination Age
- The motivating value of a compelling purpose
- Defining and contextualising sustainability
- ‘Corporate social responsibility’ vs. ‘sustainability’
- The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
- Where are telcos focusing their efforts?
- What are the business benefits of sustainability?
- Employee benefits
- Customers and government
- Shareholder benefits
- Challenges of sustainability
- To what degree are telcos taking a holistic approach to CSR and sustainability?
STL Partners’ telecom sustainability hub:
- The Telco Sustainability Manifesto
- Why energy management is critical to 5G success
- The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms