With the backdrop of December’s COP28 meeting in Dubai, sustainability is a hot topic. In every sector, companies are scrambling to find solutions to new regulations, guidelines and limits that will soon be placed on businesses around the world. Telecom is no different; it also comes at a time when the telecom industry’s emissions are growing, representing about 2% of emissions worldwide. As a result, telecom sustainability is higher on the agenda than ever.
With these new pressures but also opportunities in mind, telco companies everywhere are looking for ways to comply with specific regulations in the countries in which they operate, as well as improving their public image as data usage and bandwidth increases. Whether they affect a telecoms business today or well into the future, there is a vast wealth of expertise out there to help with sustainability challenges.
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What is the carbon footprint of telecoms?
There are several reasons behind the growth of telecom companies’ carbon footprints. The surge in use and data needs of the domestic environment as well as business have driven an enormous growth in bandwidth requirements over recent years. This is particularly evident since the pandemic, as many remote workers would connect to colleagues through conference call software such as Zoom, as well as becoming heavier users of video streaming services like Netflix and Twitch during their time off. That period represented a 34% rise in global bandwidth use. However, while usage has since come back down to a more steady 23% growth in 2023, it still means a growth that needs to be supported with technology.
All of these factors increase the use of bandwidth, which subsequently, increases the amount of physical technology required to maintain it. Servers occupy large amounts of data centre floor space, are very energy intensive to power, and on top of that, need to be regulated by industrially sized coolers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As more people worldwide become connected to the Internet year on year, this intense growth in usage shows no sign of slowing. By 2040, data usage could represent 14% of total global emissions. This means that those focused on telecom sustainability need to start thinking about how to transport, process and store data in sustainable ways.
ICT and telecoms have a large role in making our economies, cities and lives more sustainable. Companies in the industry should start recognising their responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint, both directly and, by extension, to those areas that benefit from the success of telecoms. By that, we mean the way telecom companies enable new business models, ecosystems and lifestyles by increasing the potential of connectivity.
One industry that benefits from greater speeds, more access points and frequencies is fintech. New technologies that enable IoT and 5G access mean more people will be connected, more consistently and at faster speeds than ever before. Inevitably, this means business growth but that growth must be sustainable for it, and the economies it operates in, to survive.
How does telecom sustainability affect the environment?
The success of telecom implies the increase of consumer goods and physical infrastructure that has a further effect on the environment beyond that of data usage. Networks, even if cloud-based, require structural developments that mean the manufacturing of routers, cables, smartphones etc which require the production of raw materials and their transportation, all of which contribute to a negative environmental effect.
Furthermore, telco sustainability is affected by what is called scope 2 and 3 emissions: emissions that result from a company’s actions but emanate from sources it neither owns nor has control over. Two-thirds of companies’ emissions correspond to their partner’s emissions, which a company can only control by selecting the right partner.
Therefore, to improve telecom sustainability, companies should embrace a holistic approach that immerses themselves in green measures throughout the organisation. It means finding ways to improve every process and viewing them through a sustainability lens, reducing emissions from top to bottom. It can be expensive though; these measures entail replacing a lot of outdated data centre equipment and changing physical layouts to get the most efficient results out of them.
The changes made from the ground up should go some way for organisations to encourage sustainable ecosystems and communities around them. Consumer choice is important: 78% of US consumers claim that sustainability is essential to them. Breeding a culture of sustainability in telecoms will have a knock-on positive effect, inspiring other companies to follow suit.
How can telecom sustainability be achieved?
The first step should be understanding and creating a roadmap towards sustainability. Many telecom companies are sourcing freelance experts to be project leads in their journey towards more sustainable practices. The benefit of hiring outside of the organisation is in taking advantage of the expertise pooled from many areas. An expert brought in especially to work on a particular project will have worked with various organisations and faced diverse challenges. This makes them uniquely placed to offer informed, practical and up-to-date solutions.
We have identified five key areas that an expert in sustainability measures will look into to prepare a telecom organisation for a more eco-friendly future. As well as the usual measures to reduce a carbon footprint, such as opting for greener energy and introducing energy reduction policies, these five points are a step towards instilling a culture of sustainability from the ground up.
- Invest in items with greater longevity. The longer a single item can be used, the less often it needs to be replaced or recycled. This often represents higher initial costs but means long-term savings and more sustainability. It can mean consulting with suppliers about the life cycle of their products or the availability and exchangeability of spare parts. These measures can be introduced across the board, from using fresh, loose and organic coffee instead of pods in the break room to purchasing server equipment that’s built to last for several years.
- Embrace modular design. Choose devices that have individual parts that can be replaced cheaply and easily. For example, batteries, displays, memory etc. can be easily bought OEM individually and replaced when needed, rather than needing to replace the entire piece of equipment.
- Sourcing sustainable suppliers. Product design and supply chain management are crucial parts of telecom sustainability. Choose suppliers that work in sustainable ways, reducing your knock-on impact and having mid to long-term cost-saving benefits. Working closely with suppliers and startups with sustainability in mind can be an opportunity to collaborate with experts and gain a competitive edge other than pricing.
- Make recycling a core part of the business. Whether among the company’s employees or throughout the client base, encouraging recycling will help level up telecom sustainability. Talking to local governments to increase green initiatives for consumers, such as offering places to recycle old mobile phones, is a great way to reduce the telecom sector’s contribution to e-waste. Offering this service to customers also provides an opportunity to prove your green credentials and potentially upcycle used materials to decrease cost midterm.
- Incorporate the principles of “5R” overall – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. The first step should be not to use the thing in the first place. Ask yourself, is it necessary? If not, refuse it! Secondly, consider the necessity of the object, therefore reducing procurement and production. Third, reuse items where possible. Fourth, recycle applicable materials through government-approved programmes. Fifth, allow perishable items to compost naturally (but safely). These principles can be applied across the organisation from packaging, to transport and waste management and have the added benefit of helping to cut costs.
Of course, it will take a while for these policies to have an effect, and to enact meaningful change, they need to be made across industries. This is why lobbying governments to introduce green regulations and measures across industries is vital if we want to see some real change. However, telecom sustainability can be achieved by one company successfully implementing changes and proudly showing the benefits while improving their long-term cost strategy all the same.
Establishing a company as a sustainable brand leader takes time and organisation. Ensuring it is carried out in a way that provides value for customers and inspires loyalty involves careful planning that incorporates elements such as UX, marketing and social media strategies as well as managing how data is used, infrastructure is constructed and how products are packaged, sold and delivered.
A lean way to communicate green ideals and to bring customers on board is by making customers a part of the experience. For example, a telecom sustainability measure could be offering a greener tariff to customers that shows proof of how that particular network is powered by green energy. Another option could be providing mobile alternatives that offer recycled materials and modular design, such as the Fairphone or the Teracube. It could also involve making recycling of old equipment easier. If finding a path to achieving this seems difficult, a telecommunications consultant is a useful step towards more telecom sustainability.
Business benefits to providing greener options are manifold. Consumer intention to invest in sustainable goods is high, with an 8% yearly growth. With 20% of consumers checking a company’s green credentials before purchasing, finding the right strategy for making a business more sustainable will become essential and benefit companies in the long run in this competitive market space.
The future of sustainability in telecoms
One of the smartest ways for a telecoms company, no matter its size or location, to get on board with sustainability initiatives is to hire a freelance expert. Hiring an expert to lead cultural changes within an organisation is smart because of the power of objectivity they have over a project. Furthermore, they mean vital cost savings and can be found in a worldwide pool of talent we have available here at Outvise.
The world is changing, fast. Consumers are responding to those changes in the choices they make. Many industries have been forced to embrace sustainable practices and there has been much needed and long-lasting change in those areas. The telecom industry is one area that up until recently has been lacking, with consumers tending to make choices based on other factors such as price, data allowance and coverage being more important.
On a larger scale, though, and particularly when looking at business customers, sustainability and the initiatives produced in its name will be on the lips of more and more CEOs. Facing the world’s greatest challenges is a responsibility borne by all of us, but it’s industrial leaders who can make the greatest example.
Larissa is an accomplished independent business consultant with a passion for driving sustainable and social startups and businesses to success. Specialising in strategy business development, and procurement/operations, she is committed to transforming ideas into reality. Larissa's expertise lies in guiding companies though the complexities of today's business landscape, ensuring sustainable growth and success in their industries.