From Connected Homes and Cars to Socially Responsible Devices, AT&T's Out to Help You Live More Sustainably

AT&T sees vast opportunity for mobile technology to enable sustainable lifestyles and the efficient use of resources. Did you forget to turn off the heat when leaving the house? No problem; we are long past the days when the devices in our pockets were used primarily as phones.

Ahead of his presentation at SB’15 San Diego next month, we asked John Schulz, Director of Sustainability Operations at AT&T, about the company’s sustainability goals, its new Eco-Rating system, and its millennial workforce.

How has mobile technology advanced sustainability, and how does AT&T envision it will do so in the future?

JS: We used to think of “mobile technology” as a two-way pager — a way for Person A to contact Person B. Now, mobile technology is increasingly becoming part of the natural way in which we — as individuals and as a society — operate. And as the Internet of Things (IoT) explodes, mobile technology isn’t just confined to people communicating with other people. Smartphones can lock front doors, cars will soon talk to each other and the environment around them, and business decision-makers are using real-time data to improve logistics and operational efficiency. This technology is enabling us to lead more efficient lifestyles, which allows us to operate better and smarter.

IoT technology enables three million connected cars on the road today. It has the potential to help you navigate more efficiently, leading to reduced fuel consumption and eventually enabling vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication. The AT&T Drive Studio is working with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) to research how the sharing economy and changing demographics are impacting technology’s role in transportation — and the social and environmental benefits that may be possible. ITSA is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to advancing the research, development and deployment of intelligent transportation systems, specifically how technology can play a role in building a safer, smarter, more efficient and sustainable transportation system.

Over the years, rapidly changing technology has enabled our company to develop a number of initiatives to help tackle social and environmental issues. For example, we all know that access to water is becoming an increasingly important issue in many of our communities, most notably in California where we will be in June. AT&T technology provides connectivity for monitoring systems to help customers and utilities manage their water use more efficiently and in real time. We worked with HydroPoint, a provider of smart water management solutions, to help their customers remotely monitor and manage their irrigation systems, which resulted in 15 billion gallons of water savings in a single year. Our IoT solution communicates over our wireless network in real time with thousands of HydroPoint sensors and sends the data securely to the cloud to analyze climate and determine water needs.

Why is AT&T focusing on the consumer engagement aspect of sustainability? How will it support customers in cultivating sustainable lifestyles?

JS: When customers think of AT&T, the first thing that comes to mind is probably their phone service. They think of the devices they can buy and the quality of their connection. AT&T is a leader in U.S. wireless services, yes, but we also recognize the power that our technology holds for consumers, perhaps even before they do.

We think it’s important to show consumers that the technology in their hands and around them can enable so many things in their lives. It connects a teacher to a student in the classroom, it gives older adults the opportunity to live at home independently longer, and it can help you find a ride close by.

When we talk about “sustainability,” we’re not only talking about what others refer to as “green” token initiatives. To us, sustainability encompasses environmental efforts, as well as social, safety and workplace initiatives.

Our customers have the ability to make a positive impact on the world around them, and in turn allow the world to positively impact them. AT&T has and will continue to empower consumers to make more informed decisions when choosing and using their technology.

AT&T recently announced the integration of its Digital Life® (home management system) and Drive (connected car) platforms. How can this integration advance sustainability?

JS: We’re building an open innovation ecosystem by collaborating with innovators inside and outside of AT&T to advance technology and create solutions for society. Providing a single platform that combines the environmental, safety and efficiency benefits of both Digital Life® and Drive helps consumers live more sustainably.

Imaging leaving your house for work in the morning and realizing you left the heat on after a cool night. By using your connected car’s voice-recognition technology, you could turn back the temperature on your thermostat in your automated home, resulting in better management of resources.

AT&T has more than 19 million connected devices currently in service. The more we can get these devices to communicate with each other, the more efficient we can make peoples’ lives. This announcement is a sign of the interoperability we foresee as our mobile technology weaves across the platforms that are so important to our daily lives.

What originally prompted AT&T to create an Eco-Rating system for mobile devices?

JS: We identified an opportunity to engage consumers on sustainability and better inform their purchasing decisions for handheld devices and took action. Eco-Ratings were created as a component of the company’s broader environmental programs. The first iteration of the Eco-Rating system focuses on the environmental profiles of devices and accessories, but Eco-Rating 2.0 now includes environmental and social measurements. By using the simple star-based system to track performance, the Eco-Rating system engages our consumers and drives sustainable design innovations from device manufacturers.

We worked with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a global nonprofit business network and consultancy dedicated to sustainability, and with industry experts and device manufacturers to develop and enhance the Eco-Rating system.

Eco-Rating 2.0 launched in January. How did your team develop the criteria composing the rating system, and how do they improve on the original version?

JS: Eco-Rating 2.0 criteria were developed in collaboration with BSR and it aligns with standards used across the globe, such as UL, ISO14001, EPEAT, EICC, IEEE and others.

Consumers are increasingly interested in the humanitarian and social aspects associated with the manufacturing of devices in addition to the environmental impacts. Recognizing this, we are working with manufacturers to promote greater transparency in the manufacturing process and have added related metrics to the rating system.

There are three key differences between the first eco-rating system and Eco-Rating 2.0. First, the portfolio of AT&T-branded eco-rated devices has been expanded to include tablets. Second, in addition to environmental factors, AT&T’s Eco-Rating 2.0 now includes social factors involved in device manufacturing process, including consideration for human rights policies and factory codes of conduct. Finally, Eco-Rating 2.0 includes 20 criteria — up from the original 15 — across five device attributes, providing a more comprehensive view of device sustainability attributes than our prior rating system.

How are consumers responding to AT&T’s sustainability efforts and how does the company track and respond to this interest?

JS: You’ll have to tune in on June 4 to find out!

Millennials, known for their sustainable values, will soon compose the majority of the global workforce and consumer base. How is AT&T planning to engage this generation?

JS: Millennials have let all of us know that if they have the opportunity to volunteer, they are more likely to be satisfied with their employer — 51% versus 32% (Deloitte, “2011 Volunteer IMPACT Survey,” June, 2011). We know that millennials are interested in making things happen in their communities and looking to any institution — including their employer — to channel that passion. The good news is that AT&T has a robust community engagement and volunteer program that continues to adapt to our ever-changing workforce.

Our company has a 100-year history of engaging our employees in the communities where we live and work. In fact, in the past year alone, our employees have volunteered more than 5.6 million hours in communities all across the country. Perhaps even more impressive, this year more than 4,500 amazing employees received the President’s Volunteer Service Award for outstanding service to their communities. For those who don’t know, the President’s Volunteer Service award is a recognition given by the White House for employees who volunteer more than 100 hours during the year.

Also, through our Nanodegree program, we’re equipping the next generation of millennial leaders through flexible, affordable online degrees for skills needed in tech fields such as software development and coding. The Nanodegree certifications will be fully recognized for entry-level software jobs at AT&T, and we’re working with other companies to develop similar curricula to meet their needs. We are always looking to make sure our employees — of any age — are ready for the next opportunity.

What’s on AT&T’s sustainability agenda for 2015?

JS: We will continue to look for and highlight ways that our customers — individuals and businesses — can use our network to embrace and deliver social and environmental benefits. In particular, the opportunities within our IoT business unit continue to grow — from home-automation technology to sensors tracking perishable goods to connected cars and cities.

While we see tremendous opportunity for our technology to help our customers and communities, we’ll always be focused on running an efficient operation ourselves. AT&T has invested more than $120 billion in our wireless and wireline networks over the past six years — $21.4 billion in 2014 alone. And as the network grows, so does the demand for energy, requiring us to be smart about how we plan for energy use. That is why in 2008, we established an intensity metric to measure our electricity usage as compared to our network traffic growth. We set a goal to reduce this metric by 60 percent in 2013, which we exceeded. Now, we’ve extended our goal to reduce by another 60 percent by 2020.

Another resource crucial to our operations is water. That’s why we began working with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2012 to develop Water Management Application, or WaterMAPP, a toolkit of resources that can be used to create a facility water management program and build the business case for increased efficiency. If adopted by all companies nationwide, the toolkit could help save an estimated 28 billion gallons of water annually. That’s as much water as more than 750,000 Americans use at home in a year.

While more than 700 organizations have downloaded the toolkit to date, we will continue to encourage all companies to use the toolkit and look for more ways to conserve this resource.

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