Ericsson puts sustainability in context

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Ericsson puts sustainability in context

The most dramatic revelation in mobile communications giant Ericsson's latest annual corporate sustainability and responsibility report is certainly this: It's reached its five-year commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent more than a year early.

An equally intriguing statistic, however, is that this is Ericsson's 20th anniversary of publishing a report of this nature. That's a relatively long time in the scheme of green business practices.

Companies that are only a few years into this exercise might take a cue from its example, and from the changes that Ericsson has made along the way -- specifically its ongoing evolution toward integrated reporting.

"The process, for sure, has changed dramatically," said Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, head of sustainability and corporate responsibility for Ericsson. "If I go back to the 1990s, companies did environment reports and it was reporting emissions, primarily. Nobody was into promoting the benefits to the business. … That was before anyone really started thinking about the triple bottom line."

So what's different? For one thing, the analysis surrounding Ericsson's progress – especially when it comes to philanthropy -- is squarely focused on discussing the role of mobile phones and broadband communications solutions in sustainability, both internally and for Ericsson customers. If you look back 20 years ago, it was all about compliance, and this is not the right focus for a contemporary report, she said.

"The whole report is about the use of technology to transform society," Weidman-Grunewald said. "And in linking the business to sustainability challenges. This is more where it needs to go."

By the numbers

A peek into Ericsson's latest statistical recap illustrates what's she's talking about. Specifically, the Swedish company reported a 22 percent reduction for carbon intensity in 2012 alone, helping it cut levels by 40 percent against 2009 levels in the past four years.

The company also managed corresponding improvements last year in absolute emissions related to business travel (down 16 percent). It didn't do this simply by banning road trips or sales calls. It has taken a cue from its own product portfolio to invest substantially in videoconferencing. The number of rooms available to its employees was increased by 60 percent. It also has rethought the layout of its offices, moving to the concept of floating desk assignments. Last year, the amount of employee air flight trips was reduced by 12 percent.

”We are a little more modern in our approach to this than other companies," Weidman-Grunewald said.

It also has the sense to know that targets are dynamic, and it's currently in the process of updating many of them, although two remain in effect for this year.

Specifically, the company's short-term objective for 2013 is to reduce carbon emissions by 5 percent per employee. It also is striving to improve its ratio of product takeback under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, versus items brought to market to 10 percent and to enforcing programs to the amount disposed of in landfills to less than 5 percent, according to the report.

  Not a separate process

What sort of effort does it take to produce a report of this nature? Weidman-Grunewald will be the first to admit that it's not trivial, and it took several years for her team to get to a formula that it likes. "The first two or three is like climbing a mountain," she said.

To make things simpler, she suggests using a reporting framework such as the one used by the Global Reporting Initiative. The Ericsson team also invests in third-party assurance from PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It gives you more structure," she said.

Here are three other best practices that sustainability managers might consider applying to their own reporting process:

  1. Make it an ongoing exercise. It can take months to produce a thorough report (Ericsson started its latest edition in November). A sustainability team can help kickstart the process by collecting data on a rolling, quarterly basis.
  2. Remember your corporate culture. The tone of a report should definitely align with the DNA of the company. Ericsson does benefit, in part, from the broader Swedish belief in equity and fair treatment, Weidman-Grunewald said. Look to your CxO suite to figure out the posture your own reporting should adopt, or it might not seem credible.
  3. Link philanthropy to specific business benefits. For years, companies have talked about philanthropy for philanthropy's sake. That sort of fragment approach won't cut it in the future. Ericsson's Technology for Good projects, for example, are discussed in the context of its overall mission (one adopted more than 100 years ago) of helping humans communicate more easily with each other. One project that maps to this goal is Ericsson's support of Refugees United, specifically a database meant to reunite families.

"Our aim is to make mobile communications more affordable and accessible, as well as work to demonstrate the positive role of technology, where it can shape low-carbon economies, increase access to education, and support other humanitarian issues such as refugees, peace and conflict resolution, and disaster response," Weidman-Grunewald said.

Illustration of footprints in the sand provided by nmphoto via Shutterstock.