K. GROBE: "All organizations need to embrace sustainability, whether it is out of concern for climate change, resource depletion or customer demand”

 

In this interview, Klaus GROBE of ADVA discusses the role of technology infrastructure as an enabler of sustainability and how organizations are applying standards-based approaches to assess and manage their environmental impact.

Q: Would you begin with some introductory information about yourself and ADVA?

KG: ADVA develops and supplies technology for broadband transportation networks. We are a German company that was formed in 1994 and which gradually built a position in optical networking. Our equipment probably carries about 10% of the world’s internet traffic. The name comes our founders’ desire to “ADd VAlue”.

As for myself, I have just been promoted to the role of Senior Director for Global Sustainability. I have been involved in this area for about five years, focusing on supply chain as well as product and energy efficiency issues. Now, I lead our sustainability department, reporting to the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and working across the entire company where different departments have direct responsibility for executing on a wide range of actions that affect our sustainability profile.

This new role is a change from my past background in broadband networks and wavelength-division multiplexing. However, a technical background is essential when it comes to dealing with sustainability.

Q: You are also active in the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), one of oneM2M’s founding partners. What is your role there?

KG: Yes, I have been active in the TIA for several years. Since April 2021, I have been chairing the TIA’s Sustainability working group which aims to do more work to share best practices and to showcase projects related to sustainability.

One of the key resources we work with is the TL-9000 standard. This is a quality management system (QMS) to meet the supply chain quality requirements of the worldwide communications industry. TL 9000 is built on ISO 9001 but designed specifically for the communications industry. The Sustainability working group works on enhancements in TL-9000 regarding sustainability, as defined, for example, by different emissions criteria. Work began around 2013 to codify the different aspects of sustainability in the form of a tool. This was driven partly by network operators, such as British Telecom (BT), to set performance standards for their suppliers.

Q: What sustainability aspects are involved in the tool?

KG: We consider different facets of sustainability such as environmental, social, stakeholder engagement and organizational structure. The weighting on these factors prioritizes issues related to emissions, environmental impact, and circular economy practices. For the telecommunications sector, the latter is important in terms of raw-materials efficiency.

We have developed a tool, called ASSESSOR, to help organizations evaluate their profile across ten criteria. It is quite straightforward to use and designed to be easy, even for beginners. I would estimate it taking roughly an hour to complete an assessment, much less if you have been through the process before. The evaluation framework defines the relevant aspects that organizations need to focus on. Its results provide a broad overview of strengths and weaknesses in how an organization is performing. While all data is held confidentially, there is also a comparison relative to the average performance of other TIA members and a fairly precise set of recommendations that each organization can implement to improve their performance.

At ADVA, we have followed the recommendations from our annual evaluation and continue to see our performance get better and better over time. In fact, we won an award in this year’s evaluation for the best participant in the systems manufacturer category.

Q: For other organizations looking at your success, what does it take to succeed in applying a sustainability strategy?

KG: Firstly, it takes time. ADVA began on the sustainability journey about 8 years ago. We initially targeted emissions. We learned a lot from the ASSESSOR tool which helped us make key decisions and define our strategy.

As time has gone by, you must get used to the targets becoming more stringent. We started to look at new requirements arising from the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and we are now looking at the implications of meeting goals related to the 1.5 oC Climate target. We are now ranked in the Platinum category by EcoVadis, the world’s largest provider of business sustainability ratings.

Q: How do you evaluate the benefits of corporate sustainability initiatives?

KG: There is some early thinking from the Task Force on Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and the EU Taxonomy for Sustainable Investments. These are complex reporting frameworks, at a high level.

Another way that any business can look at this issue is from the perspective costs and revenues related to climate change. When we look at our optical networking business, 80% of the climate impact is connected to the operational phase of our equipment once that equipment is deployed by a customer. That represents a huge externality for us. We would need to factor what is happening in our customers’ businesses – that is the network operators – and their customers whose usage patterns drive network traffic. It is almost impossible to do today.

In general terms, we can talk about the emissions footprint is massive, especially if you compare it against the emissions associated with our vehicle fleet, for example. However, it is important to act responsibly towards our wider stakeholder community. That means taking action on our fleet of vehicles at the same time as investing engineering resources to improve the environmental performance of our future product line.

There are, of course, significant benefits from the use of information and communications technologies. We refer to this as “greening by ICT”. By some measures, the impact is in the range of 1-to-10x, so we are fairly confident about the net benefits of our products.

Q: In light of the issue of externalities, what are your impressions on the wider adoption of corporate sustainability practices?

KG: All organizations need to embrace sustainability. This can be for two reasons. One is driven by the belief that something needs to be done about climate change. For those that have doubts about climate change, the other reason for action is due to resource depletion. We can already see how this is developing in the market through increasing prices for raw materials.

In any case, customer pressure will cause businesses to change. You can see how a company like Apple is engaging consumers by developing a ‘green’ brand image. That will eventually create pressure on the supplier community.

There is a similar dynamic with large customers. When ADVA started using the ASSESSOR tool, some of our large customers asked us about our sustainability strategy and emissions commitments. Now, many more customers require such information and there is a market for independent assessments. We have to pay for these to be carried out, so it is good that different companies ask for information in a common way.

Earlier, I mentioned that BT played an important role in developing the ASSESSOR tool. Nowadays, BT and similar organizations will not sign a vendor contract without sustainability commitments on issues such as green packaging. This is becoming the norm and organizations need to start adapting.

I spoke earlier about ADVA’s sustainability journey and our successes. My advice to organizations tackling sustainability is to treat that this is a continuous process, as you would see with any quality or continuous improvement activity.