Some household names in the telecommunications industry, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Telecommunications Union, are formalizing a cooperative effort to promote sustainable business practices and technologies. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) is officially being launched today on the occasion of World Environment Day.

“At a time in history when our technologies are bringing people closer together it follows that businesses also work together to contribute to the societies within which they operate,” said Chris Tuppen, Chair of the Interim GeSI steering group. “The launch of GeSI will build on existing voluntary activities and act as the focus for a global network of companies and organizations working on sustainability issues.”

The GeSI’s vision is “to help improve the global environment and to enhance human and economic development, and thereby make a key contribution to a global sustainable future.” Its activities will focus on sharing best practices and knowledge, working with stakeholders, implementing policies that support sustainability, conducting corporate environmental monitoring and benchmarking, and raising awareness of how telecommunications can contribute to a more sustainable society.

The founders of the group include some of the biggest global players: AT&T (ticker: T), British Telecommunications plc (BTY), Cable & Wireless plc (CWP), Deutsche Telekom AG (DT), Ericsson, Lucent Technologies (LU), Marconi plc (MONI), Telcordia Technologies , Telenor AS and the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association. Each member of the group has something to offer in terms of recommendations of environment-friendly business practices.

Some have taken steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. British Telecommunications, for example, has calculated that employee use of audio and video conferencing saved over 150 million miles of travel in 2000, contributing to a total saving of saving of 1 million tons in CO2 emissions. At AT&T, increased teleworking by staff in 2000 cut car travel by 110 million miles, translating into a reduction of almost 50,000 tons in carbon dioxide emissions. From 1996 to 2000, Deutsche Telekom reduced pollutant emissions from their vehicle fleet by 25 percent.

Reducing waste and increasing efficient energy use is another area where telecommunications companies can make an impact. In December 2000, telecommunications hardware and software supplier Marconi started a best practice “waste management project” at their Liverpool, UK facility. They installed an auto waste-to-heat recovery system to burn waste and convert the heat to usable energy. The benefits included less landfill, “free” hot water and lower carbon dioxide emissions from the reduction in fuel transportation.

The member companies are also beginning to adopt a “life-cycle” approach to their products. This approach looks at the development and delivery of all products and services in terms of environmental impact, seeking to minimize the use of natural resources in production and maximize reuse and recycling at the end of the product’s life. The firms are working closely with customers, suppliers, trade and industry associations and standards organizations to develop and promote sustainable management systems and solutions.

Cable & Wireless, for example, has incorporated environmental criteria into its Request for Quote document for all suppliers in the UK. Suppliers are asked for details about their environment policy, management systems, main impacts, audits and regulatory compliance.

Over the next two years, the GeSI will support research on the role that information and communications technology can play in advancing sustainable development. Members will also be looking into how to disseminate their knowledge and experience in helping other firms achieve their business goals while incorporating social and environmental responsibility.