Sprint vs. AT&T: Metrics that matter

When looking at corporate sustainability claims and targets, some metrics matter more than others.

Absolute metrics matter a lot. Did your company reduce carbon emissions from last year? By how much? What about waste? Are you generating more or less?

Not nearly as significant are relative metrics. Greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue are interesting, but efficiency only goes so far when it comes to protecting the planet.  Using less packaging per product is laudable, but if your firm is sells more products every year, it could well be increasing its environmental footprint, too.

I’ve written about this before (See Walmart: A friend of the earth?, Why Mars is a sustainability leader and P&G: A bold green vision but…) because it seems to be to me crucial to corporate accountability. I’m revisiting the topic, briefly, today because of an announcement last week from Sprint–and because, thankfully, a growing number of people inside and outside of business are paying attention to what’s being called sustainability context.

First, Sprint. To its credit, Sprint was the first and, to date, the only U.S. telecom company to publicly announce an absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goal, the company says. By 2017, Sprint intends to reduce GHG emissions by an absolute 20 percent compared to 2007 levels– even as the company grows, or at least hopes to.

Last week, Sprint said that its 2011 analysis showed an absolute emissions reduction by 3.5 percent versus 2010. The company also, for the first time, released  its “emissions intensity” metrics (the ratio of emissions compared to the amount of data transmitted) and found a year-over-year reduction of 31 percent.

It did so for competitive reasons–because rivals like AT&T talk about their emissions reductions in relative terms. ATT’s emissions numbers are hard to find on its website — you’d think they would be here or here but they’re not. Several searches led me to ATT’s 2011 sustainability report (which you can download from this page) and there, the company says:

We reduced the electricity consumption of our company relative to data growth on our network by 16.5 percent in 2011 as compared with year 2010.

One reason why Spring reduced its “relative” number was because outsiders were comparing AT&T’s 16.5 percent relative reduction to Spring’s 3.5 percent absolute reduction. Now that Sprint has released its own relative metric, you can see that it is progressing nearly twice as fast as AT&T.

It shouldn’t be so complicated. But a quick return visit to AT&T’s sustainability website demonstrates why we need more context. The company asks:

How do we connect a world of seven billion without inhibiting our natural environment’s ability to support us? It is a daunting, exciting and critical challenge and we are working hard to toward meeting it every day?

How so? Here are the numbers, as reported by AT&T:

$42 million

Annualized savings from implementing 4,500 energy-saving projects

$86 million

Annualized savings from 8,700 energy-saving projects implemented in 2010 and 2011

5,114

Alternative-fuel vehicles deployed, including 3,469 CNG vehicles and 1,617 hybrid electric vehicles, as part of our $565 million commitment to deploy approximately 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles (AFVs) over a 10-year period through 2018

2.5 million

Gallons of unleaded gasoline that will be avoided in 2012 and each subsequent year that our 3,469 compressed natural gas vehicles are in service

30

Percent of plant-based materials in new plastic being transitioned into AT&T-branded accessories

50.1 million

Pounds of network scrap materials kept out of landfills through reusing, selling and recycling materials

3.0 million

Approximate number cell phones collected for reuse or recycling

1.7 million

Pounds of batteries and accessories collected for reuse or recycling

These numbers have two things in common: They lack context and, as a result, are all but meaningless.

Put another way, they are numerators in search of denominators. It’s great that 3 million cell phones were collected for reuse or recycling, but how many cell phones did AT&T ship? Nice that 50.1 million pounds of scrap was kept out of landfill, but how much scrap, in total, did the company generate? 5,114 alternative-fuel vehicles sounds like a lot, but I’d be even more impressed if AT&T had a total of 10,000. If it has 100,000, or 300,000, I’m a lot less impressed.

Fortunately, there are some independent parties who do the hard work of comparing company performance around sustainability. I’m thinking about folks like Climate Counts, as well NGOs like Greenpeace, with its Cool IT challenge, and Forest Ethics, with its Green Grades that rank companies for the paper-buying practices.

It would be easier, though, if companies agreed to report common metrics in a meaningful way. A nonprofit called the Global Reporting Initiative provides companies with a widely-used framework for sustainability reporting, and it asks them to provide context–but few seem to do so.

Fortunately, Mark McElroy, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Organizations in Thetford Center, VT, and my friend Bill Baue and others have launched an effort to bring more context to sustainability reporting. More on their work, another day, but meantime, here’s an article from Mark explaining why context-based sustainability is important.

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  1. [...] For starters, each of these numbers, as a numerator, needs a denominator. See Marc Gunther’s Fortune article for more on this idea. [...]

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