Digital technology holds enormous potential to increase sustainability

Digital technology holds enormous potential to increase sustainability, and there are as many possible approaches as there are technologies in the toolbox. Five leading companies offer inspiration and insight.

In the search for ways to battle climate change and accelerate sustainable development, digital technology may not be what first springs to mind as a likely part of the solution. Yet increasingly, emerging tools are enabling innovative new ways to drive progress toward the 17 social, economic, and environmental Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. By making it easier for humans to connect and communicate, monitor the world around them, analyze and predict, and augment their own capabilities, these technologies may help to provide what the world needs for a sustainable future.

Many organizations around the globe have already begun to work toward the SDGs for 2030, and five highlighted in the new “Digital with Purpose: Delivering a Smarter 2030” report from the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Deloitte illustrate technology’s potential to help. Far beyond small, scattered grassroots efforts, sustainability is now core to these companies’ strategies, and digital tools play a starring role. “Sustainability has become an integral part of our larger strategic priority and guides how we operate, because there is business value in being a company with purpose and in creating value for all stakeholders—not just shareholders,” says Tim Fleming, director of enterprise sustainability at AT&T. “The writing is on the wall: Purpose-driven business is here to stay.”

Indeed, for organizations in the technology sector and those at the forefront of deployment, “the opportunity is enormous,” says Luis Neves, GeSI’s CEO. “Given poor progress against the SDGs, it is also nonnegotiable.”

For companies seeking their own tech-enabled paths to sustainability, there are many lessons to be learned from ongoing initiatives around the globe.

Be Brave

As part of its commitment to sustainable development, AT&T in 2015 set a goal of enabling carbon savings of 10 times the footprint of its operations by the end of 2025. The company is focusing on making its network more efficient—particularly by improving electricity efficiency in its buildings and by investing in fuel-efficient vehicles—and providing technology to help its customers do the same. By the end of 2018, AT&T had already achieved savings of 2.2 times its footprint, according to the broad set of metrics it tracks. Looking ahead, the company expects advances in areas such as 5G, the internet of things (IoT), and software-defined networking will unlock further reductions for itself and its customers.

AT&T’s commitment has full support from its chairman and C-suite. “I did a lot of networking with stakeholders at an operational level to understand the barriers to overcome,” explains John Schulz, director of sustainability integration and champion of the 10x program. “While math and research certainly drove the 10x goal, it really resulted from a vision, and from setting an example of behaviors we’ve talked about for years. It was a little bit brave, because we risked not succeeding, but we’re making it happen.”

Bring It Home

Verizon is relying on 5G as a pillar of its sustainability efforts. The company’s Verizon Connect and Smart City Solutions, for example, aim to enable communities to stay connected and safe through capabilities such as fleet management, intelligent lighting, intersection safety analytics, smart traffic management, and a real-time response system for public safety. Customers that use Verizon Connect products for fleet management to coach drivers or run optimized routes have decreased field vehicles’ idle time by as much as 13% and harsh driving events by 11%, resulting in reduced fuel consumption and fewer accidents, the company says.

‘We’ve embedded sustainability in operations. By putting it into people’s performance agreements, we have started to move the needle.’ —Jim Gowen, chief sustainability officer and vice president of supply chain operations, Verizon

Earlier this year, Verizon launched a $1 billion green bond focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation, and reforestation; it has also pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2035. To ensure the sustainability imperative is embraced companywide, Verizon has made it core to employee evaluations, according to Jim Gowen, who serves as both the company’s chief sustainability officer and its vice president of supply chain operations. “Many companies put their sustainability officer in Washington, D.C., and focus on policy,” Gowen says. “Policy is important, but we’ve also embedded sustainability in operations. By putting it into people’s performance agreements, we have started to move the needle.”

Measure What Matters

Deutsche Telekom’s network infrastructure provides the foundation for innovative solutions to a number of social and environmental challenges, including a mobile app it developed to help combat air pollution in urban areas.

Noting that drivers searching for parking spaces cause roughly 30% of urban traffic and that it takes them an average of 20 minutes to find a space, Deutsche Telekom designed its Park and Joy app to serve essentially as a digital parking service through which drivers can easily and conveniently find and pay for a parking space in just two clicks. Using a combination of mobile data analytics, AI, and data from in-road IoT sensors, Park and Joy was found to reduce the average distance traveled per car in search of parking from 1,396 meters to 521, with a corresponding reduction in emissions of up to 63%.

To help maintain its laser focus on sustainability, Deutsche Telekom has established a set of relevant KPIs to monitor and steer its sustainability activities. One top goal is reducing its own carbon footprint. Toward that end, the company plans a 90% reduction in two key types of emissions by 2030, primarily by switching to 100% renewable electricity by 2021. It also plans to cut its value chain emissions by 25% per customer in the same time frame. In addition, “in line with the Paris Agreement, we commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” says Birgit Klesper, the company’s senior vice president for group corporate responsibility.

Deutsche Telekom also evaluates its product portfolio each year, measuring the share of revenue that comes from products and services that offer sustainability benefits. The data so far indicates good progress: The proportion of revenue deriving from sustainable products rose from 40% in 2017 to 42% in 2018, Klesper says.

Leave No Stone Unturned

In January 2018, T-Mobile became the first U.S. telecommunications company to join RE100 with a pledge to use 100% renewable energy for all its operations by 2021. It is also the first major U.S. wireless company to have approved targets through the Science Based Targets initiative, it says, including an aggressive goal of reducing two key types of emissions by 95% by 2025.

The company is working to improve the energy efficiency of its networks and operations, recycle devices and reduce waste, and build sustainable facilities, and it’s already seeing results. Even though data flowing through T-Mobile’s network has increased by more than 49 times in the last six years, for example, energy-efficient technologies have reduced its energy intensity by 98%.

“T-Mobile is fully committed to social and environmental responsibility and is making great strides toward achieving our industry-leading goal of 100% renewable energy,” says Brigitta Witt, T-Mobile’s VP of corporate responsibility and sustainability.

Choose a Legacy

EIT Climate-KIC is Europe’s largest public-private organization focused on catalyzing change in areas of human activity that critically affect sustainability. Its WINnERs (Weather Index-based Risk Services) program offers risk-management services to enable the creation of sustainable food supply chains that include everyone from small farmers to global retail buyers. Using machine learning and other technologies, the project models weather and climate risk exposure, enabling risk sharing across the supply chain and lowering costs for small farmers.

‘Companies can make a conscious decision: What legacy do we want to leave for future generations?’ —Sira Saccani, director of sustainable production systems, EIT Climate-KIC

EIT Climate-KIC also works to promote the implementation of new financial and contractual arrangements that can incentivize climate-resilient practices at the farm level. Ultimately, one of its goals is to create a positive feedback loop that lowers the cost of credit and ensures that the entire value chain cares about farm-level climate resilience. “Innovating, developing, and operationalizing an effective sustainability effort requires a radical mindset shift for many organizations,” says Sira Saccani, director of sustainable production systems for EIT Climate-KIC

CIOs, CMOs, CFOs, and other business leaders all have important roles to play, she adds. “C-suites will need to work at a systemic level, taking responsibility for the impact of their decisions on the environment, the communities they are connected to, and their workers, customers, and suppliers. They can make a conscious decision: What legacy do we want to leave for future generations?” —by Katherine Noyes, senior writer, Deloitte Insights for CIOs