Sprint vs. AT&T: Dialing up the 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 How much of a difference can Walmart really make?Inside Mars' science-based quest for sustainability 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. AT&T’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 AT&T’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 Sprint reduced its “relative” number was because outsiders were comparing AT&T’s 16.5 percent relative reduction to Sprint’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.

Next page: AT&T, by the numbers