Telco roadmap to net-zero carbon emissions: Why, when and how

Telcos’ role in reducing carbon emissions

There are over eighty telecoms operators globally that turn over $1 billion or more in revenues every year. As major companies, service providers (SPs) have a role to play in reducing global carbon emissions. So far, they have been behind the curve. In the Corporate Knights Global 100 of the world’s most sustainable corporations, only five of them are telcos (BT, KPN, Cogeco, Telus and StarHub) and none of them are in the top 30.

In this report, we explore the aims, visions and priorities of SPs in their journey to become more sustainable companies. More specifically, we have sought to understand the practical steps they are undertaking to reduce their carbon footprints. This includes discovering how they define, prioritise and drive initiatives as well as the governance and reporting used to determine their progress to ‘net-zero’.

Each SP’s journey is unique; we’ve explored how regional and market influences affect their journey and how different personas and influencers within the SP approach this topic. To do this, we have spoken to 40 individuals at SPs globally. Interviewees have varied, from corporate and social responsibility (CSR) representatives, to those responsible for the SP’s technology and enterprise strategies. This report reflects the strategies and ambitions we learnt about during these conversations.

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This report is informed by interviews from SPs globallytelcos carbon emissions

What do we mean by scope 1, 2 and 3?

Before diving in further, it’s important to align on the key terminology that all major SPs are drawing on to evaluate and report their sustainability efforts: in particular, how they disclose and commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

SPs divide their carbon emissions into scope 1, 2 and 3 – scope 3 is by far the most significant

For most SPs, scope 1 (e.g. emissions from the fleet of vehicles used to install equipment or perform maintenance tasks on base stations) and scope 2 (e.g. the electricity they purchase to run their networks) makes up less than 20% of their overall footprint. These emissions can be recorded and reported on accurately and there are established methodologies for doing so.

Scope 3, however, is where 80%+ of SP carbon emissions come from. This is because it captures the impact of the SP’s whole supply chain, e.g. the carbon emissions released from manufacturing the network equipment that they deploy. It also includes the carbon emissions arising from supplying customers with products and services that an SP sells, e.g. from shipping and de-commissioning consumer handsets or servers provided to enterprise customers.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Table of Figures
  • Introduction
    • What do we mean by scope 1, 2 and 3?
    • Where are SPs in their sustainability journey?
    • How does this differ by region?
    • What’s covered in the rest of the report?
  • Procurement and sustainable supply chain
    • Scope 1, 2 and 3: Where are procurement teams focused
    • Current priorities
    • Regional nuances
    • Best and next practices
  • Networking
  • IT and facilities
  • Enterprise products and services
  • Key recommendations and conclusion

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Sustainability: Why it’s good for business

Introduction

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

three-components-to-sustainability-stl-partners

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

coordination-age-basic-stl-partners

 

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

unifying-purpose-CSR-stl-partners

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
    • Context
    • Key findings from research
    • Recommendations
    • Next steps for research
  • Introduction
    • 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
  • Conclusion
    • To what degree are telcos taking a holistic approach to CSR and sustainability?

STL Partners’ telecom sustainability hub:

Related Research:

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Telecoms priorities: Ready for the crunch?

The goal of this research is to understand how telecoms operators’ investment priorities and investments are likely to change as the COVID-19 crisis recedes.  To do this, we collected 144 survey responses from participants in telecoms operators, telecoms vendors, and analysts and consultants and other groups. All responses are treated in strict personal and company confidence. Take the survey here.

This research builds on our previous content on the impact of the pandemic to the telecoms industry: COVID-19: Now, next and after (March 2020), COVID-19: Impact on telco priorities (May 2020), based on a survey undertaken in April and early May 2020 and Recovering from COVID: 5G to stimulate growth and drive productivity (August 2020).  STL Partners has also hosted three webinar on the topic (March to July 2020).

This deck summarises the findings of our industry research on telecoms priorities at the start of 2021.

We explored the research in our webinar,  State of the Industry: 2021 Priorities (click on the link to view the recording).

Background to the telecoms priorities survey – January 2021

The respondents were fairly evenly split between telcos, vendors, and ‘others’ (mainly analysts and consultants). This sample contained a higher proportion of European and American respondents than industry average, so is not fully globally representative. The split of company types and geography was broadly similar to the May 2020 survey, with the exception of the MENA region, where there were less than half the prior respondents – a total of 7. However those respondents were senior and well known to STL.

Who took the survey?

telco industry breakdown

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

48% of respondents were C-Level/VP/SVP/Director level. Functionally, most respondents work in senior HQ and operational management areas. Compared to May 2020, there were proportionally slightly more senior respondents, and slightly less in product and strategy roles.

What are their roles?

Senior participants

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

How respondents perceive priorities, as the COVID threat recedes

There were increases in respondent confidence in almost every category we surveyed from May 2020 to Jan 2021.

  • Telecoms automation and agility remain top priorities across the industry – and transformation has moved up the agenda.
  • Appetite for 5G investments increased the most of all areas surveyed in the last 8 months.
  • The ‘consumerisation’ of enterprise continues, although security and work from home (WFH) services have overtaken conferencing and VPNs in priority.
  • Healthcare remains the most accelerated vertical / application opportunity of all those impacted in the current crisis.
  • The priority of consumer services has significantly increased yet confidence in making any additional money in the sector is low.
  • Leadership and transformation: COVID 19 has empowered an industry-wide belief that change is possible.
  • Transformation and innovation are high priorities, and appetite for sustainability and recruitment has returned, but there are doubts about some telco leaders’ commitment and ability to grasp and invest in new opportunities.

STL Partners assesses the telecoms industry to be at a crunch point: COVID has injected further pace to the rapid evolution of the world economy. Telcos that have been focused on responding to immediate pandemic-induced challenges, will emerge from the crisis faced with an urgency to respond to this evolution – key choices that telcos might have had 5-10 years to ponder are being crunched into the next 0-3 years.

Our findings suggest that most telcos are only partly ready for this disruptive opportunity.

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Notes on interpreting the research findings

  • The way research respondents perceive any given question is generally dependent on their current situation and knowledge. To get relevant answers, we asked all respondents if they were interested or involved in specific areas of interest (e.g. ‘consumer services’), and to not answer questions they couldn’t (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) or simply didn’t know or have a clear opinion.
  • We saw no evidence that respondents were ‘gaming’ the results to be favourable to their interests.
  • Results need to be seen in the context that telcos themselves vary widely in size, profitability and market outlook. For example, for some, 5G seems like a valid investment, whereas for others the conditions are currently much less promising. COVID-19 has clearly had some impact on these dynamics, and our analysis attempts to reflect this impact on the overall balance of opinions as well as some of the specific situations to bring greater nuance.
  • In December 2020 / January 2021, the worldwide impact of COVID-19 is increasingly well understood and less of a shock than was the case in May / June 2020. Vaccines are beginning to be rolled out but it is an early stage in the process, and new variants of COVID-19 have evolved in the UK, South Africa and Brazil (and possibly elsewhere). There are geo-political wrangles on vaccine distribution, and varying views on effectiveness and the most appropriate responses. Nonetheless, respondents appear overall more optimistic, although there is still considerable uncertainty.
  • We’ve interpreted the results as best we can given our knowledge of the respondents and what they told us, and added in our own insights where relevant.
  • Inevitably, this is a subjective exercise, albeit based on 144 industry respondents’ views.
  • Nonetheless, we hope that it brings you additional insights to the many that you already possess through your own experiences and access to data.
  • Finally, things continue to change fast. We will continue to track them.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary: Opportunities are in overdrive, but can telcos catch them?
  • High-level findings
  • Research background
  • Technology impacts: Automation, cloud and edge come of age
  • Network impacts: 5G is back
  • Enterprise sector impacts: Healthcare still leads
  • Consumer sector impacts: Mojo aplenty, money – not so much
  • Leadership impacts: good talking, but enough walking?

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