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AT&T Demonstrates Sustainability Progress

  • Jennifer Proctor
November/December 2017

Telecom and technology giant AT&T has been around for 141 years. Although the company operates in more than 200 countries and acquires an average of five patents a day, its leaders know continued success depends on sustainability. And from there, it’s a short leap to supply chain, which they recognize is central to any sustainability initiative.

In 2008, AT&T launched its corporate citizenship and sustainability program, which included rolling out a supply chain sustainability initiative. The company published the “AT&T Principles of Conduct for Suppliers” that same year, ensuring expectations were set, including transparency as a main objective.

In the report “Connect to Good: A Roadmap to 2025,” AT&T outlines its 10-year plan for creating a more connected future that’s good for not only business, but also customers, employees, suppliers and communities.

“A theme of collaboration is woven throughout our goals and targets,” writes Charlene Lake, AT&T corporate social responsibility and chief sustainability officer, in the report. “We’ve set our goals with this question in mind: How can we work with our customers, our employees, our suppliers and our communities to better the world we all share?”

The “Connect to Good” roadmap presents several environmental, supply chain, education and recruitment goals that AT&T is working toward for 2025. Here are a few:

  • AT&T will see carbon savings 10 times the footprint of its operations by creating a more efficient network and delivering sustainable customer solutions.
  • AT&T will work with industry peers to develop and promote the adoption of sustainability metrics that will transform the environmental and social impact of technology supply chains.
  • AT&T will invest resources, create initiatives and work with stakeholders to close the skills gap. It plans to boost the number of Americans with high-quality, post-secondary degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2025.

Nathan Sparks is the AT&T global supply chain assistant vice president for sustainability, risk and compliance. He acknowledges the goals are very ambitious and the real work is in the journey. That’s why the roadmap defines targets aligned with the objectives. “Sometimes you might not get to the ultimate end state that you were striving for, and a little bit of failure and adaption is OK so long as you stay on the path of success,” he explains. 

Supply chain is key

At AT&T, decision-makers are connecting the dots between sustainability and supply chain best practices for themselves and their suppliers. They find partners might balk at investing in sustainability, but “investing in lean procurement and total cost of ownership can be more effective,” says Stephen Bernard, senior sustainability manager - supply chain at AT&T. “The key steps in sustainable business practice that you take now with your suppliers can exceed the return on investment for your company three or five years from now. Preventive and sustainable actions at the front end of a supply chain are more effective than cleaning up waste at the end-of-the-pipe of operations.”

AT&T spends billions of dollars on goods and services every year. And each year, AT&T publishes “Engaging Our Supply Chain,” which shows how the company relies on its supplier relationships to advance its own sustainability goals. The report states: “It must be recognized that sustainability issues cannot be solved by any one company acting on its own. Instead, it takes a collective effort including suppliers who have a critical role in addressing the major challenges facing society and the opportunities available to address these issues such as transitioning to a clean energy economy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water usage and improving labor practices.”

The company’s supply chain organization has a multipronged approach to help AT&T meet its ultimate supply chain goals by 2025. This includes annual assessments, scorecards and direct engagement. “We can all do things that help our company be more efficient and better stewards of our resources,” Sparks says. “We’re focused on employee engagement, but we’re also looking at the big picture: How should we behave ethically as a company? Part of this is encouraging and aligning with suppliers that share those values.”

Although sustainability initiatives at AT&T have the support of the executive team, much of the work is done within the supply chain division itself. “To be successful, you need bottom-up and top-down engagement,” Bernard says. “Bottom-up engagement creates passion among the workforce, which gives sustainability traction. Top-down engagement gives sustainability the attention it needs to survive.”

For example, AT&T clearly outlines its expectations in its “Principles of Conduct for Suppliers” document — which describes the importance of suppliers to AT&T’s corporate citizenship and sustainability goals — on the company website. The principles include sustainable business practices, which apply continuous improvement processes and minimize or eliminate the use of hazardous substances; environment, health and safety policies and practices; supplier diversity; ethics, which includes not engaging in bribery or other corrupt practices; freedom of association, which means respecting employees’ rights to join trade unions or other related associations; absolute avoidance of using conflict minerals in products; fair labor practices; support of human rights; and more.

But AT&T doesn’t just provide its suppliers with sustainability principles and goals.  The company trains its more than 200 sourcing managers about sustainability in the supply chain. According to “Engaging our Supply Chain,” AT&T is focusing on how the sourcing managers work with suppliers to ensure they respond to the company’s sustainability assessment and ultimately help suppliers improve their performance. As a result of these efforts, AT&T is seeing greater supplier awareness and higher sustainability scores. In 2013, the average partner grade was 63 percent, but by 2016, that number jumped to more than 80 percent.

The next phase

This year, AT&T began evaluating its suppliers using the QuEST Sustainability Assessor, a 10-factor maturity model distributed by QuEST Forum. The QuEST Sustainability Assessor goes further than simply requiring participants to check a box, by measuring sustainability within organizations and providing actionable best practices to help accelerate sustainability programs.

“Sustainability is a journey,” says Fraser Pajak, CEO of QuEST Forum. “Companies tell us how good they want to be at sustainability, and we show them on a continuum how to advance and get better over time.”

QuEST Forum is a global association of companies dedicated to influencing the quality and sustainability of products and services in information and communications technology — and it knows supply chains. Pajak explains that, although QuEST Forum started as a quality standard organization for the industry in 1998, it grew to encompass supply chain sustainability.

For AT&T, the QuEST Sustainability Assessor is a more holistic approach to supplier engagement in sustainability. “The QuEST Sustainability Assessor uses a kind of stepladder approach, breaking down sustainability into 10 key elements,” Bernard says. “We like it because it challenges the whole supply chain — those companies just beginning their sustainability efforts and those that are more sophisticated.”

Sparks adds: “This is intended to be an easy, low-cost [form] of entry. It’s the straightforward survey and algorithm that keeps it simple and effective.”

For AT&T, sustainability is an important aspect of its business.  The company relies on the efforts of its supply chain professionals and expects its partners to incorporate sustainable business practices. AT&T identifies and rewards suppliers throughout their sustainability journeys. Sparks says, “That’s what supply chain is about.”


Stephen Bernard, senior sustainability manager - supply chain at AT&T, is the winner of the 2017 APICS Award of Excellence: Corporate Social Responsibility Catalyst, which honors consistent integration of CSR into business processes and reduction of environmental impact throughout the supply chain. Bernard has championed social responsibility and sustainability in supply chain for more than a decade. To learn more about the awards program, visit

Learn more about AT&T’s sustainability efforts at


Jennifer Proctor is the editor-in-chief of APICS magazine. She may be contacted at

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Want more? Check out Jennifer Proctor's "Making Cities Smart" to learn more about AT&T's ongoing sustainability efforts. 

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