Since its launch in 2010, the Eco Rating scheme that Forum for the Future created with Telefónica UK/O2 has been helping consumers make more sustainable handset choices, whether they like it or not. Conceived as a simple consumer-facing rating, a rainbow symbol above a numeric score of 0.0 to 5.0 indicates the sustainability rating of each handset. The rating takes several things into account: the direct lifecycle impacts of the device, like the energy used in its manufacture, or the substances contained in it; the corporate sustainability of the manufacturer; and the indirect impacts that flow from helping the handset user to make more sustainable lifestyle choices — such as videoconferencing, or showing them how to make lower-carbon travel decisions.
All of this is great, but the real success of the scheme in driving sustainable behaviours lies in the acceptance and support of the manufacturers who make the handsets in the first place. And this is both driven and boosted by O2's clout in the market.
O2's Eco Rating scheme was developed in close collaboration with the handset manufacturers themselves, to ensure that it was stretching, based on leading-edge science, and also fair. So whilst manufacturers might not always like the scores they are given, because they’ve helped develop them they accept the scores as an accurate reflection of their device's performance. Most usefully for them, because the rating scheme features a transparent scoring system that shows precisely why each device gets the score it does, manufacturers also know what they can do to improve their ratings. For the first time, manufacturers were given a tool they co-designed and agreed to accept. This has helped them to stretch themselves, and has created a clearer end goal for innovation. Because no one can afford to come last in a sector as competitive as mobile phone handsets.
Eco rating may have created clearer focus on sustainability-focused innovation, but the biggest shift came from O2’s integration of the scheme into core business practices. Their standard procurement processes were updated to consider eco rating scores as a deciding factor in selecting the devices they offered consumers, it became a primary choice filter for customers searching for a new handset, and it helped direct their manufacturer engagement programme by showing the areas where O2 could help them to improve. They put their cash where their commitment to sustainability was. In doing so, they gave manufacturers the confidence to invest in more sustainable practices that would result in higher-scoring handsets which O2 would be happy to sell and promote to customers.
Which brings us back to the consumers and behaviour change. In creating the eco rating tool, Forum for the Future and O2 knew that sustainability wasn't likely to be a key factor for most consumers when choosing a phone. But customer feedback was surprising: A full 12% told O2 that sustainability is a strong consideration in their purchasing choices, and another 32% said they would use it as a final differentiator once other factors had been taken into account. So, if O2 had gone about trying to actively influence consumers to be more consciously sustainable, they might have succeeded, but they probably would not have changed their sector to the extent they did. Instead, by driving manufacturer engagement they have helped increase the sustainability of their entire portfolio — so no matter what handset a consumer chooses, for whatever reason, it will be a more sustainable choice. The impact has been huge. O2 has tangibly changed the sustainability of the telecoms sector — genuinely creating a 'rising tide that lifts all boats.'
The role of a major consumer-facing brand such as O2 in changing an entire supply chain has provided some key lessons — firstly, that manufacturers could not have done it on their own. Many already had their own assessment schemes, but these were difficult for the average consumer to compare. Secondly, having a leading and highly visible brand like O2 draw these together through their eco rating scheme created a simple message for customers. Thirdly, this was not something an industry body was well-positioned to have done; there are simply too many competitive players and too many positions to have allowed them to do this at any great speed.
Other well-known brands — such as Patagonia, with their sustainable apparel — are taking similar steps that could lead a shift among their own sectors and suppliers. Forum for the Future has worked globally with brands big and small to help them gain competitive advantage by focusing on sustainability. The brands that will succeed in the future are those who understand that a more sustainable supply chain is a more viable supply chain, and is core to a successful business strategy.
What brands will be the next to lead their sector's shift toward greater sustainability, ensuring they are ready for future opportunities? Forum for the Future plan to be part of this work. Do you?