AT&T's Driving Ambition

Today, AT&T made a major announcement: It will invest more than a half-billion dollars over the next decade to purchase more than 15,000 alternative-fueled vehicles -- 8,000 vans powered by compressed natural gas, and another 7,100 hybrid passenger cars. The telecommunications giant estimates that the new vehicles will save 49 million gallons of gasoline and reduce carbon emissions by 211,000 metric tons over the 10-year deployment period -- equivalent to removing the emissions from more than 38,600 traditional passenger vehicles for a year. 

You can hear a podcast interview I did last week with two AT&T executives about why -- and how -- they did this.

Making a commitment like this is no mean feat. For starters, it means placing a decade-long bet on a dynamic technological market: No one really knows exactly what the technological landscape of automobiles and delivery vans will look like in 2019 -- the fuels, powertrains, and other innovations that will become the state of the art. Moreover, there's the problem of ensuring that there's a critical mass of natural gas fueling stations ready when the vehicles hit the streets. Toward that end, AT&T is contracting to have between 35 and 40 fueling stations built on its property, Jerome Webber, AT&T's vice president of fleet operations, told me last week. That's hardly enough to accommodate 8,000 vehicles, but the company hopes that it will help stimulate a market for more.

In some regards, the AT&T announcement represents another in the continuing series of corporate environmental initiatives that my colleagues and I at see (and report on) every day, despite the recession and credit freeze. But it's more than that. It also marks the resurgence of AT&T as an environmental leader.

Say what?

Odds are, you haven't heard much lately about AT&T from an environmental perspective. But the company was a pioneer in such fields as industrial ecology, design for environment, and telework. It still funds an Industrial Ecology Faculty Fellowship Program, annual grants intended "to stimulate interdisciplinary research involving social and environmental issues, engineering, science, economics, management, business, law and public policy issues." The company's iconic Bell Labs (now part of Alcatel-Lucent) fostered and supported some of the leading thinkers on such topics, the ones who wrote the textbooks now used in progressive engineering schools on how to integrate ecological systems thinking into product design and manufacturing.

As reported in a 2001 article on AT&T

Industrial ecology systematically studies the environmental consequences of production and consumption. It addresses product-life-cycle planning that examines how the design, production, use, and final disposal of products affect the environment.


Industrial ecology includes the creation of eco-industrial parks that provide for the cleaner production of goods. The field also considers extended producer responsibility, known as product stewardship; eco-efficiency; and environmental policies that produce social and environmental benefits to the company and to society as a whole.

AT&T is sometimes erroneously credited with inventing the concept of industrial ecology. In fact, it was first introduced to the general public in 1989 by Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopoulos, research scientists at General Motors, who believed that 

industrial systems should emulate the best features of biological ecosystems, thereby reducing energy and material consumption and waste generation. The benefits of such operations are reduced environmental damage and increased sustainability for both natural resources and human activities.

Today, that's still cutting-edge thinking.

But AT&T -- specifically, Thomas E. Graedel and Braden Allenby, two company engineers -- popularized the concept, at least among some early green business thought leaders and practitioners. While at AT&T, Allenby, for example, wrote more than 100 publications and four books: "Industrial Ecology," "Design for Environment," Industrial Ecology and the Automobile," and "Industrial Ecology: Policy Framework and Implementation." (He also has contributed scores of thought-provoking essays to since its launch in 2000, archived here.)

Design for environment (DfE) is one means by which the principles of industrial ecology can be implemented today, within the overall perspective of a global economy that is increasingly service oriented. As a U.S. EPA fact sheet (Download - PDF) puts it: 

DfE pursues industrial ecology principles by requiring that industrial designers and managers think in terms of cycles or complex systems rather than traditional linear process flow diagrams. DfE locates environmental concern within the most positive stages of the production process. Rather than trying to mitigate environmental consequences of production after the products have been defined and the processes designed, DfE encourages consideration of environmental issues to help shape the context of the industrial designer or process engineer in the same way that manufacturability, cost competitiveness, and consumer satisfaction currently shape that context.

And then there's telework, defined as "working from home or nonoffice locations during normal business hours," which AT&T pioneered in 1992. The company became a champion of the concept long before telecommunications and information technology -- not to mention rising real estate and facility prices -- made working from home a fairly common practice among many large companies. As recently as four years ago, AT&T -- which, of course, benefited from sales of telecommunications products and services resulting from telework -- boasted $180 million in business benefits annually from increased productivity by employees and reduced real estate needs from telework. (We've brought telework trends up to date in our annual State of Green Business report.)

So, why this trip down memory lane? AT&T isn't the first or only green business pioneer to fall off the radar. (Another early adopter is 3M, whose environmental mission statement was written in 1975 and still sounds fresh today, and who began a highly successful Pollution Prevention Pays program that same year. Haven't heard much from them lately, though their early initiatives continue.) AT&T is basically a different company today than then, having absorbed BellSouth, Cingular, and several smaller companies. (3M, for its part, lost its pollution prevention czar and got distracted by a myriad other things. Every company has a story.)

As Beth Shiroishi, AT&T's VP for Citizenship and Sustainability, told me last week: "At the close of the BellSouth-Cingular merger, we really still had almost four different operating companies with different programs, operations, even different cultures. At that point, we took a look across all the operations and said, 'What are the best practices? What do we want to be from a holistic standpoint?' A lot of good work had continued throughout those mergers, but looking operationally across the board, we took a couple of steps to really manage that, including elevating citizenship and sustainability to the board of directors." AT&T created an officer-level steering committee to help manage sustainability throughout the company, says Shiroishi, "and then we put in place kind of an expert team structure to look at all the issues and integrate that into our business." She says the company is committed as ever to being an environmental leader.

That remains to be seen, but the vehicle commitment represents a respectable re-boot. "We're all fired up about this," says Webber. "This is the right thing to do and we're doing it, and that's exciting. If you think about it, you've heard certain things coming out from the administration about infrastructure and jobs. This is the real deal."