The case for CSR/ Sustainability Reporting Done Responsibly


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Home / case studies / Case study: How AT&T provides consumers with environmentally friendly, recyclable and reusable products

Case study: How AT&T provides consumers with environmentally friendly, recyclable and reusable products

The world population is growing and currently each human being adds significant waste to the planet, over his or her lifetime. Americans toss millions of cell phones each year in favor of newer technology and all those discarded phones are taking a toll on the environment. AT&T tries to provide avenues for its customers to reuse, recycle and dispose of phones  Tweet This!, accessories and other products responsibly.

This case study is based on the 2014 Annual Sustainability Update by AT&T published on the Global Reporting Initiative Sustainability Disclosure Database that can be found at this link. Through all case studies we aim to demonstrate that CSR/ sustainability reporting done responsibly is achieved by identifying a company’s most important impacts on the environment and stakeholders and by measuring, managing and changing.

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Rapid technology change – with newer cell phone models and other accessories constantly replacing older ones – and low initial cost have resulted in an increasing amount of electronic waste around the globe.  AT&T works with its community of suppliers, customers and community groups to ensure the reuse, recycling and proper disposal of cell phones and other products. After measuring and setting targets, AT&T took action to develop a rating system that helps customers understand the environmental and social factors associated with their devices (the AT&T Eco-Rating system), consider sustainability in product packaging, engage customers about sustainability, provide energy efficient products, encourage customers to use paperless billing and ensure responsible cell phone recycling.

What are the material issues the company has identified?

In its 2014 Annual Sustainability Update AT&T identified a range of material issues, such as social & environmental innovation, network reliability, customer privacy, compensation and benefits, network/data security, greenhouse gas emissions. Among these, given the growing significance of electronic waste as a global problem, providing customers with recyclable and reusable cell phones, accessories and other products stands out as a key material issue for the company.

Stakeholder engagement in accordance with the GRI Standards

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) defines the Principle of Stakeholder Inclusiveness when identifying material issues (or a company’s most important impacts) as follows:

“The organization should identify its stakeholders, and explain how it has responded to their reasonable expectations.”

Stakeholders must be consulted in the process of identifying a company’s most important impacts and their reasonable expectations and interests must be taken into account. This is an important cornerstone for CSR / sustainability reporting done responsibly.

Key stakeholder groups AT&T engages with:

Stakeholder Group
Customers
Employees
Consumer and Privacy Interest Groups
Suppliers
Industry analysts
Environmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
Education and research organizations
Public policy makers
Investors
Community agency groups

How stakeholder engagement was made to identify material issues

AT&T engages a diverse range of stakeholders across all parts of its business. Its Stakeholder Engagement Principles guide its collaboration with its stakeholders. Through a regular materiality assessment, it systematically engages stakeholders and captures their view into what is most important for the company. The assessment provides critical clarity about how AT&T should focus its resources, reporting and communications. In 2013, AT&T worked with Deloitte to conduct its third materiality assessment. With their guidance, AT&T created a list of 47 sustainability-related topics and then collected input from internal and external stakeholders to understand the relative importance of the topics.

Fifty-two stakeholders representing 10 different types of groups provided insight into the prioritization of these topics. AT&T engaged most groups directly through surveys and interviews. When direct engagement was not feasible, it relied on other resources (such as websites, sustainability reports and other communications) as proxies to glean insight into their priorities. These groups included advocacy organizations, employees, consumers, enterprise customers, government, suppliers and analyst firms. Internally, AT&T interviewed 17 business executives who oversee departments that touch these sustainability-related topics to assess and rank their impact on business success.

What actions were taken by AT&T to provide consumers with environmentally friendly, recyclable and reusable products?

In its 2014 Annual Sustainability Update the following targets were set by AT&T for providing consumers with environmentally friendly, recyclable and reusable products, based on the company’s approach to materiality – on taking action on what matters, where it matters:

  • Developing a rating system that helps customers understand the environmental and social factors associated with their devices

It’s easy for customers to compare products on attributes such as cost, technology and appearance. But it’s harder for them to gauge the environmental aspects of a phone, which can encompass everything from how it was manufactured and shipped to how easy it is to recycle. That’s why AT&T developed the AT&T Eco-Rating system, a rating system that provides customers with an easy way to understand the environmental – and now social – factors associated with their devices. The system addresses five environmental attributes using various performance criteria. Device and accessory manufacturers evaluate their products against these attributes, assign 1–5 star consumer labels and submit their assessments, which AT&T reviews to confirm reported data. The composite score – featured in both online and in-store collateral – is based on criteria comprising: a) substances of concern, b) environmentally preferred materials, c) energy efficiency and charging, d) end-of-life and recycling, e) environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing. The program was launched in 2012 with AT&T-branded, postpaid handsets. In 2013, eco-ratings were expanded to cover pre-paid devices and accessories such as power supplies, headsets, speakers and battery cases. The system is complementary to existing standards on sustainable design, but is designed to simplify those complex frameworks for consumers. In 2014 AT&T worked to refresh the system, raise the bar on performance and incorporate social sustainability criteria, as its customers have indicated they’d like more information about labor and human rights practices for the products they buy. AT&T also expanded the system to rate AT&T-branded tablet devices and anticipates that the ratings will continue to evolve and respond to the shifting sustainability landscape and technological advances. The system was developed in collaboration with BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. When AT&T launched the system it was excited to empower consumers, but also found that the system is driving innovation as the company works with manufacturers to continuously improve performance. Rather than focusing on a single device or environmental attribute, it helps AT&T gain a holistic view of its entire portfolio across its life cycle – from design to end-of-life – and advance accordingly. AT&T’s portfolio of devices was rated at about 3 stars out of a total of 5 at launch and has risen to more than 4 stars out of 5.

  • Considering sustainability in product packaging

The useful life of packaging is brief when compared to the lifecycle of products. As a result, it is important to consider sustainability in product packaging to help minimize its environmental footprint. AT&T is working to improve its product packaging throughout its life cycle, including material reuse and reduction, use of environmentally friendly materials from renewable sources, increasing recycled content and end-of-life recyclability and improving transportation efficiency. AT&T is beginning to use a life-cycle approach to evaluate impacts of packaging changes on key sustainability metrics such as energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and packaging waste and strives to ensure that the changes made do minimize the environmental impacts of packaging.

  • Engaging customers about sustainability

AT&T also strives to engage its customers about sustainability at EcoSpace, an award-winning online hub that serves as a one-stop consumer site for sustainability information. Designed to motivate customers to participate in AT&T’s sustainability efforts such as paperless billing and phone recycling, AT&T EcoSpace also showcases eco-ratings for devices and accessories, as well as information on initiatives such as It Can Wait, support for the military and the company’s commitment to education.

  • Providing energy efficient products

In 2013, AT&T joined a consortium of industry-leading multi-channel video providers and device manufacturers to launch an unprecedented Set-Top Box Energy Conservation Agreement that would result in annual residential electricity savings of $1.5 billion or more. Through the terms of the program, at least 90 percent of all new set-top boxes purchased and deployed after 2013 would meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ENERGY STAR 3.0 efficiency levels. In 2015, AT&T joined several other companies and industry associations in announcing a voluntary agreement to improve the energy efficiency of internet modems, routers and other in-home equipment that delivers broadband service to millions of Americans. The agreement – to which AT&T is a signatory – set rigorous requirements designed to improve the energy efficiency of small network equipment by 10 to 20 percent compared to typical, recently deployed devices. It covered more than 90 percent of U.S. broadband households – roughly 80 million homes. The new agreement runs through 2017 and is modeled on the successful voluntary agreement for set-top box energy conservation.

  • Encouraging customers to use paperless billing

AT&T encourages customers to use paperless billing and its website www.att.com/simplify is a one-stop resource to choose paperless billing and self-service. In 2014, more than 1.1 million additional customers opted to receive only an electronic bill, bringing the total number of customers going paperless to approximately 20.9 million by the end of 2014. AT&T’s goal is to continue to grow the number of customers using this service.

  • Ensuring responsible cell phone recycling

In 2014, AT&T’s consumer Recycle and Reuse programs collected approximately 4.3 million phones for reuse and recycling, as well as 282,500 pounds of cell phone batteries and accessories. At AT&T, customers can recycle their old phones by dropping them off at an AT&T retail store recycle bin, by taking advantage of the Buyback Program with an AT&T retail associate or online with att.com/buyback and by returning their AT&T Next phone when they upgrade. When customers turn in a phone, AT&T’s goal is to see if a phone can be reused. First, its priority is to protect the customer’s privacy, offering customers tips and detailed information on wiping their devices before they return at www.att.com/recycle. As an additional protection to its customers, once it receives the device, AT&T wipes it of customer-saved data. If the phone can be refurbished, the company does so and puts it back into the marketplace. This is beneficial from an environmental perspective and has the benefit of making phones more affordable to those who might not be able to purchase a new phone at full cost. If the phone can’t be reused in its entirety, AT&T takes it apart and pulls out individual parts that might be reusable (e.g., the camera). The remaining plastics and metals are recycled responsibly. These materials end up in consumer products such as cell phones, PCs and tablets. To ensure responsible recycling, AT&T’s device recycling vendors are R2 certified. The R2 Standard for electronics recycling and refurbishment facilities cover areas such as worker health and safety, environmental protection, chain-of-custody reporting and data security. In summer 2014, AT&T began a pilot project to see how consumers would respond if the company made a charitable donation on their behalf when they traded in a phone for reuse or recycling. When customers brought in a phone for recycling, it facilitated a $5 donation to DonorsChoose, a nonprofit that matches donations to public school teachers in need of supplies, materials and technology for classroom projects. AT&T tested the program in four markets — Austin, Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Seattle — and will be using the findings to inform how it can continue to educate and engage customers about the importance of recycling.

Which GRI indicators/Standards have been addressed?

The GRI indicators/Standards addressed in this case are:

1) G4-EN7: Reductions in energy requirements of products and services – the updated GRI Standard is: Disclosure 302-5 Reductions in energy requirements of products and services

2) G4-EN27: Extent of impact mitigation of environmental impacts of products and services

3) G4-EN28: Percentage of products sold and their packaging materials that are reclaimed by category – the updated GRI Standard is: Disclosure 301-3 Reclaimed products and their packaging materials

 

References:

1) This case study was compiled using published information by AT&T which is located at the link below. For the sake of readability, we did not use brackets or ellipses but made sure that the extra or missing words did not change the report’s meaning. If you would like to quote these written sources from the original please revert to the following link:

http://www.about.att.com/csr/reporting (May 2016)

2) http://www.fbrh.co.uk/en/global-reporting-initiative-gri-g4-guidelines-download-page

3) https://g4.globalreporting.org/Pages/default.aspx

4) https://www.globalreporting.org/standards/gri-standards-download-center/

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