DTW23-Ignite: Colt’s Keri Gilder on the bigger lessons telcos can learn from paper towel waste
About a year ago, UK-based Colt Technology Services Group became the first (and only) communications service provider (CSP) to achieve the EcoVadis Platinum rating. That is no easy feat when only 1% of all the companies EcoVadis rates – based on business sustainability in four key categories: environmental impact, labor and human rights, ethics, and procurement practices – have reached this status.
“We did this by holding every single one of us accountable – our employees, our partners, our suppliers and most importantly, ourselves,” Colt CEO Keri Gilder told the crowd during her keynote at DTW23-Ignite. “We created Colt to be sustainable by design.”
In a follow-up session later in the day, Gilder explained that Colt began its sustainability journey about three and a half years ago during the Covid pandemic. “We were isolated in our houses and we actually saw the birdsong come back; we saw different parts of the world being regenerated… There was this strong reality of the impacts that we were having on the planet,” she said. “That was the reason [for making sustainability a priority], because we felt that we had a responsibility to do something.”
But as Gilder pointed out in both of her talks, Colt’s focus on sustainability isn’t simply altruistic. It is necessary to survive as a company and because the telecoms industry is on track to become the biggest polluter on the planet.
“As AI comes to the forefront of our industry – and according to [Google AI subsidiary] Deep Mind we are going to double our computing every three and a half months – we are estimated to surpass the transportation industry in just a few years for energy use,” Gilder said. “That means we’re becoming the primary problem for the planet. Let me repeat that,” she emphasized. “We’re becoming the primary problem for the planet.”
Change is not easy, however. Gilder used the paper towel as a persuasive example of how CSPs and their suppliers must change their corporate mindsets in order to reduce energy consumption and create sustainable businesses.
Gilder showed a picture of two Colt employees who were sent to Antarctica last year on a sustainability mission with polar explorer and environmental leader Robert Swan. “They learned that 10.8 billion tons of ice have melted since 1992. While they were there, the temperature at the research center, rose 6.9 degrees, which was the highest raise ever.”
Gilder continued: “Now, you may not be able to relate to Antarctica – I understand that you’re not my Colt team employees who were down there and actually saw the ice melting. But I bet I have something that you can relate to: the paper towel.”
Gilder explained that a single employee uses about 3,000 paper towels a year. Indeed, paper towels are the biggest source of waste in the US. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they cause the deforestation of 110 million trees annually in the US. “If we just reduce our use by three paper towels a year, we can actually have 120,000 tons less waste,” Gilder said.
But getting her own family to break its reliance on paper towels turned out to be extraordinarily difficult and helped Gilder realize why it is so hard for telcos to shift their corporate mindsets away from legacy equipment and processes.
“Changing of the paper towel to a [reusable] cloth was actually not that hard – it was a simple purchase on Amazon,” Gilder said. “Changing the mindset of my family was enormous when it came to changing out the paper towel. What I realized through this personal process is that climate change is not about wanting to do the right thing. It’s about actually doing it – even when it’s hard.”
She added: “We actually have to do something in our business – and in every part of our business. We have to change the mindset in our legal departments, in our finance departments, in our engineering and our software development departments… This changing of behavior is critical.”
In the follow-up session, Gilder gave examples of how Colt has changed its behavior. Last year the company needed to replace about 2,000 laptops. Instead of throwing them away or sending them to a recycler, the company worked with Dell and Microsoft to refurbish them all. Then Colt donated them to a local school. Colt is also working with a company in the UK to extract and reuse the precious metals in circuit boards.
“It’s all about that circular economy,” Gilder said. “It’s about ensuring that we see the value in everything that we have within our infrastructure.”
Colt also now looks to buy contiguous land at sites where it is building new data centers so that it can create wind farms for power. And perhaps most importantly, the company is focusing on the “G” in ESG: environment, social and governance.
“One of the major changes that we made at Colt was enabling binding-corporate rules for GDPR, and that was a huge change for us as a company,” Gilder said. “It … basically enabled us to catapult into that EcoVadis Platinum rating, because we were looking at it holistically.”
Bain defines binding corporate rules, or BCRs, as: “legally binding and enforceable internal rules and policies for data transfers within multinational group companies [that] work in a way somewhat similar to an internal code of conduct”.
Finally, Colt is focusing on sustainability because its customers are demanding that it does so to help them meet their own sustainability goals and requirements.
“About 40% of the RFPs [requests for proposal] that are coming into Colt are being weighted quite heavily in regard to sustainability,” Gilder said. “And I think what we’re going to see is that’s going to shift more and more… There’s more value that’s associated with working with sustainable telcos.”