Public companies are responsible for 40 percent of all climate-related emissions. And greater accountability and transparency on sustainability-related issues could soon become the law of the land. As the top financial regulator in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C) proposed a rule  in March which would require all publicly-held companies to disclose the climate change impact of their operations, as well as risks posed by climate change.

AT&T is not waiting for the federal government to dictate how transparent it should be with regard to its impact on climate and the natural environment. The Dallas-based company is working to position itself within the communications industry as a leader when it comes to sustainability goal setting and transparent reporting, and publicly sharing its processes, operating principles, and progress.  

AT&T’s Sustainability Team Structure

Shannon Carroll is the Assistant Vice President of Global Environmental Sustainability and leads the Global Environmental Sustainability Team at AT&T. Carroll’s team members serve as internal sustainability consultants to the business divisions at AT&T, as well as to AT&T’s customers and external partners. The team is well-positioned to do this work, Carroll says, because every member has worked within AT&T’s business teams in other roles. 

ShannonCarrol

Shannon Carroll, Assistant Vice President of Global Environmental Sustainability

Carroll himself has spent 23 years at AT&T. He started as a service representative in the call centers and moved on to roles in project management in supply chain. In those roles, he worked on environmental health and safety (EHS) compliance requirements. He enjoyed the work, and asked his manager at the time to be more involved in AT&T’s activities related to environmental and social good (ESG). Even though he had been at the company for over 10 years at that point, his manager told him that without formal education in sustainability, this was not an option for him. 

“Sustainability work is too complex, and the outcomes of it are too important to just learn on the job,” says Carroll. “The multi-dimensional decisions have governance, science, and social implications that must all be considered in context. You need training to do it well.”

Committed to shifting his career path, he found a graduate program at Harvard Extension School, and began his studies while continuing his work at AT&T. Now, with eight years of sustainability experience at the company, he has advice for other companies that want to jumpstart their sustainability efforts, or enhance their existing sustainability work.

Sustainability work is too complex, and the outcomes of it are too important, to just learn on the job. The multi-dimensional decisions have governance, science, and social implications that must all be considered in context. You need training to do it well.

Set Sustainability ‘Stretch Goals’

“I’m a firm believer that companies need to set goals that are ambitious, that stretch them, and reflect the right thing to do for the world, even if they have no idea how they’ll reach them,” said Carroll. “This is no time to play small.”

To that end, AT&T has set the goal of being a net zero company by 2035. To do this, the company has been focusing on six key areas:

  1. Exchange significant portions of energy-intense network equipment for low-cost, energy-efficient hardware. So far, AT&T has completed 75 percent of this work.

  2. Transition to a low-emissions fleet.

  3. Accelerate energy efficiency and network optimization efforts to reduce electricity use and cost.

  4. Support the renewable energy marketplace by committing to purchase power from renewable energy developers.

  5. Invest in carbon offsets to recover the emissions they cannot eliminate.

  6. Expand sustainable feature film and TV production (through WarnerMedia, a division of AT&T that was spun off earlier this month) with clean tech solutions, sustainable products, and reuse and waste reduction efforts.

Build for Resiliency

“We don’t have climate scientists on staff,” Carroll says. “So we contracted with an external third party to get the best climate data possible. Argonne National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, has modeled climate data at the neighborhood level. With this data, we can see what sea level rise means for different cities where we operate.” 

AT&T took this data and mapped it over its existing network layout, as well as its plans for future layouts. That enabled the company to see how sea level rise and the flooding it causes might impact its network, and let it plan for more resiliency. From there, AT&T created a climate change analysis tool

A Word to the Wise: Pitfalls to Avoid

Carroll cautions against trying to chart your company’s course on sustainability initiatives without a map. “Don’t do this work alone,” he says. “Steal shamelessly. See what others have done in your industry. There are so many industry groups out there who want to work with you.”

Carroll also has advice on reporting: “Look at all the reporting frameworks out there. They can guide and inform your expectations. Pick the frameworks that work best for you. Again, the industry groups can really help you here.” Common reporting frameworks used by AT&T and other companies include the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards, Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards.

Steal shamelessly. See what others have done in your industry. There are so many industry groups out there who want to work with you.

Large companies may be moving out of an era of issuing press releases about sustainability, and into a new era of transparency and accountability. 

“Set the goals,” Carroll advises. “Make them public. Make them ambitious. It’s the only way we’re ever going to create and experience progress.”

(Featured image via Andreas Gucklhorn on Unsplash.)