Aligning the notion and practice of sustainability within the biggest companies on the planet is no small undertaking and AT&T – founded by Alexander Graham Bell – is no exception. The world’s largest telecommunications company and ranked number nine on the Fortune 500, this giant multinational conglomerate has just under over 270,000 employees and posted a 2017 revenue of $190.5bn. This is a holding company whose operations spread out over numerous sectors and territories and to seek a sustainable road map at such a business is as complex as it is integral.
Shannon Thomas Carroll is Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at AT&T and possesses a rich knowledge of both the company’s operations and its sustainable practices as he works to reduce the environmental impact of the telco’s operations. His key accomplishments include “being the internal driver for large scale renewable energy, zero-waste, and supply chain human rights audits”.
Carroll has been with the company for almost 20 years, having served in several different capacities across the 133-year-old conglomerate. “I’ve worked on a consumer side, the business side of the house and on the network side,” he explains. “So I’ve had lots of different roles. I spent a lot of time in project management, as well as with a couple different business units. I did project management and compliance for our supply chain; that’s one of the things that transitioned me into my current role. On the compliance side, you have things like environmental health and safety and that was one of the transitional topics that really got me interested in this work. Then I just started asking for more work around environmental sustainability while I was still in supply chain and was lucky enough to transition that into a full-time role over on the corporate side. I took that supply chain focus and expanded it to a corporate view. Now my responsibilities are specific to environmental sustainability within our operations. So, anything that has an environmental impact within our four walls is, generally speaking, something I would look at.”
AT&T has had a long history of corporate social responsibility, even if it wasn’t always labelled as CSR. “We have an extensive history of strong energy management and corporate real estate management,” Carrol explains. “We looked at things like waste water, and obviously there are natural financial incentives to use those resources, but you also want to look at being a good corporate citizen. What are the positive environmental impacts of doing that? I see my role, first and foremost, as looking into what’s going to be best for the company, while also seeing how we can have the most sustainable business practices possible.”
One of the first things Carroll explored when he stepped into his current role was AT&T’s greenhouse gas footprint. Carroll monitored all the different aspects of scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 through an inventory to gather the required information. “Once we had that information, we had it verified by an independent third party,” he explains. “That was a great introduction to the job because I got to touch all parts of the business when undertaking a corporate greenhouse gas footprint. From there you then start looking at some of the larger responsibilities, such as waste and how you dematerialise. What projects have been done? What was successful? What wasn’t successful? What maybe didn’t happen in terms of timing and can you pick up the ball again and start trying to work with what hasn’t been done? You have to be strategic in your thinking. You’ve got to read the tea leaves and see how the wind’s blowing externally as well. There’s obviously an importance to the business and what our stakeholders are asking of us is important. You’re looking internally, but you’re also looking externally. You’re trying to think strategically while you still have the practical responsibilities to get the job done.”
As the scale of operations at AT&T is so vast, Carroll liaises with Chief Sustainability Officer, Charlene Lake. They operate at what Carroll describes as the ‘ink level’ or the corporate side of operations. “The advantage that gives us is we can go into all parts of the business, essentially representing the company. What’s really important though is that we don’t just walk into the different business units and say, ‘This is what you’re gonna do!’ We have to be good business partners, whether it’s internal or external. We’re very lucky that sustainability really is at the core of a lot of our work. So, as we go in to talk to our network folks or our corporate real-estate folks, or our supply chain folks, they’re already doing a lot of this work. What we try to do is help frame that work and see what we can amplify; see what we can do better. We just try to partner with them.”
With support from AT&T’s corporate level, Carroll and his team launched 10X Goals. A 2025 goal, the program is aiming to enable 10 times the carbon savings for AT&T’s customers as well as for its our own footprint. “We have somebody who works full-time on that making sure the methodology is sound,” says Carroll. “We have somebody who’s working on the numerator part of that, making sure that our products and services can deliver that. You have me, I’m on more the denominator side. I’m trying to shrink our own operational footprint so it makes it easier to achieve it. We’re very lucky. We are a large company, but we have the right amount of resources addressing sustainability here.”
One of the challenges Carrol cites as specific to large-scale renewable energy is that first time you put the practice into action. Thus, off-site research is essential in getting these methods right. “We’ve obviously been looking at renewable energy options for years and years and years. We did have some onsite solar and we just knew, because of our scale, that if we’re going to have a significant impact we needed to look offsite at the large-scale renewable energies. We look at what others are doing and then try to figure out if that’s something that could potentially work for us. You do a lot of research and then bring that research and those findings home. We would then start stakeholdering those. I’d say the biggest challenge is because you’ve never done it before, you have to educate a lot of folks on what it is and how it works and how the mechanics of it work. What does it mean for AT&T to go from a relatively small renewable energy concern to one of the largest corporate buyers in the United States? A lot of education has to be done, in getting people familiar with new terminology. I’d say that’s the biggest challenge; the newness of it all.”
In reference to large scale renewable energy, AT&T is one of the top five corporate renewable energy buyers in the US. “The fact that we were able to scale up so quickly is a credit to the professionalism we have on our energy management team. I would say the thing I’m most proud of is just the scale ’cause what you’re really looking for is impact. We’re proud of the 820 megawatts we’ve done so far. We’re the evangelists. We’re going around talking about all the benefits. The interesting thing is when you go into the different business units, my experience is that even if people don’t know it by name, they’re doing the work. These are folks who do sustainability for a living. We already have folks who are trying to save as much water as they can. They’re already trying to remove as many kilowatts as they can from the business. They’re already trying to be as efficient as they can.”
AT&T has an energy intensity goal, relative to its network, to be 60% more efficient. Carroll wants to push more data through the network using the same, or less energy. “We have a public goal around that. We have a public goal to reduce our fleet emissions by 30%. We have lots of public goals that are already tagged at this work and within the business units. They just have their heads down and are doing the really hard work to achieve this. When we come into departments and explain it’s really about the work that they’re already doing, the light bulbs go off and they become really good business partners. We’re constantly looking at the landscape in terms of the environment. A few years ago, we worked with EDF on our water footprint for example. We’re always looking at every aspect of our operations.”
Technology is driving sustainability and AT&T is largely a technology company thus possessing a read edge when it comes to finding solutions. “I would say just about everything we do has a technology component,” Carroll explains. “For example, we’ve got a project called Icon. It’s basically our internal IoT solution, where we’ve put sensors on all types of internal equipment, including network equipment, HVACS, water towers, everything you can think of. We then actively monitor that through our Icon dashboard and are able to look at predictive and preventative maintenance. Are things running as efficiently as they should? If they aren’t, how can we maximise their efficiency? There’s a lot of data out there, so the key is not just having accessibility to data, but being able to do something smart and good with it. We need to make good, smart decisions around that data.”
“I think it’s important when you’re a company our size that you’re comprehensive. You need to have a short-term plan, a mid-term plan and a long-term plan. You have to think strategically, you have to look far down the line. You just can’t say you’re going to do this and that. You have to be transparent in the way that you do it. And you have actually have to do it.”