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AT&T’s Charlene Lake: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable

Give young people a voice. They will be living the future of our decisions today, so listen to what they have to say. Purposefully reach out to your youngest employees when seeking answers to environmental challenges. Encourage your children to join or form school clubs. Support their ideas with investment. Help them build a network of community support. When youth feel they are involved in activities that affect them, they are more motivated and inspired.

As part of our series about how companies are becoming more sustainable, we had the pleasure of interviewing Charlene Lake.

Charlene Lake is chief sustainability officer and senior vice president, corporate social responsibility and ESG, at AT&T, responsible for leading the company’s social innovation, environmental, philanthropic and civic engagement endeavors, driving stakeholder impact measures on behalf of the corporation, and coordinating initiatives to connect social needs with business objectives. She began her professional life as a journalist at daily newspapers in Kansas before starting her career at Southwestern Bell Telephone, where she served in management roles in Kansas, Missouri and Texas. After leading SBC’s corporate advertising and sports marketing departments, she created a public affairs discipline for the company and in 2007 designed and launched AT&T’s centralized corporate responsibility function, which she still leads today.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in Journalism and spent a couple of years in that field before joining AT&T in 1986. Public affairs and community impact have always been a strong interest of mine and something that I carried through while dabbling in various communications roles, including media relations, financial, and employee communications before I was asked to help start a public affairs program. Then I acquired the philanthropic and volunteering efforts and went on to build out an advocacy function for the company.

Sustainability has arguably been a practice at AT&T for all 140+ years of its existence, but it wasn’t always a formally orchestrated effort. In 2007, we realized the need to become more disciplined, and a few colleagues and I brought our CEO and board of directors on the same page, resulting in a new corporate citizenship and sustainability charter becoming part of the board’s existing public affairs committee. With that, we were off to the races.

Today, I oversee AT&T’s centralized Corporate Responsibility function, which is a sustainability lens including ESG and CSR. My team’s role is to ensure that the goals we set are aligned with our business strategies and address a real need in the world. We work to drive change and progress throughout the company to help achieve those goals.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

At AT&T, we view societal good through the lens of connecting people and communities to greater possibilities. As the world’s largest telecommunications company in America, connectivity is inherently baked into our business purpose, which includes some of the biggest challenges facing our world today: the digital divide and global climate change. As we work to help bridge the digital divide and connect families and students to the resources they need to reach their full potential, we are also working hard to reach net-zero carbon emissions across our global operations. And, we’re helping other businesses do the same through the adoption of advanced broadband technologies that help them operate more efficiently.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

AT&T has a three-pronged strategy for addressing climate change. First, we’re mitigating our impacts. We have set a science-based target to reduce emissions from our operations by 63% by 2030 and a goal to reach net-zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2035. We will achieve these commitments by engaging employees at every level of the business to participate in energy efficiency efforts, renewable energy purchases and transitioning to a low-emissions fleet.

Second, we’re committed to becoming America’s best broadband provider. As we reignite the growth engines of 5G and fiber, we believe we are at the “dawn of a new age of connectivity,” with a unique opportunity to tackle big, global challenges like climate change in ways that play into the heart of our company. We know technology has the power to help businesses reduce emissions and improve efficiency by scaling efficiencies and enabling low-carbon technologies. In fact, research shows communications technology could help reduce global emissions 15% by 2025. To support this, we formed the Connected Climate Initiative (CCI), bringing together industry peers, AT&T business customers, universities, and environmental nonprofits to develop and scale connected climate solutions. Our business customers want to reduce emissions and we want to help — by exploring the possibilities of 5G, co-creating solutions with customers, fueling innovation and collaborating on product offerings. To capture all of this, we set a goal to enable our business customers to reduce 1 gigaton (one billion metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

Third, we’re managing against climate-related risks arising out of strengthening storms and changing weather and environmental patterns. Working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, we developed the Climate Change Analysis Tool to help visualize the risks climate change poses on our networks and the communities we serve up to 30 years in the future. Resilience is critical for the many consumers, businesses and communities in the path of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters and relying on our network. We continue to expand our use of CCAT, with projections for high-intensity winds, drought and wildfires. And, this raw data is available to the public so all organizations can create informed resiliency plans.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

I’ve never seen more passion for progress or desire by leaders to unite purpose and ESG commitments with their operations. Businesses can — and are — doing their part to lessen impact on the environment and improve social mobility. And in the process, many are becoming models of how to drive impact while generating business opportunity and growth.

At AT&T, we’re seeing cost savings from actions to reduce emissions. For example, we have implemented more than 151,000 energy efficiency projects, resulting in annualized energy savings of nearly 8.1 billion kWh and cost savings of $735.5 million since 2010

AT&T is also well positioned to benefit from the transition to a net-zero economy because a key part of our business is providing the technology and connectivity needed to scale climate solutions. Our tech, and other broadband connectivity, including 5G, have a role to play in enabling our business customers to be more efficient and reduce emissions. For example, we supported Lineage Logistics®, a leading food cold storage operator, with AT&T IoT connectivity to collect detailed temperature data. ndustrial.io set out to optimize energy costs and usage by combining temperature, energy and food throughput data to create heat maps, alerts and reports that enable Lineage to actively manage its cooling operations.

One of ways we continue to innovate for more solutions is through our Connected Climate Initiative. According to a 2021 Forrester report, at least fifty-five percent of Fortune Global 200 companies have established targets for the partial or total elimination of GHG emissions, and we believe broadband technologies can help them get there through smart IoT (Internet of Things) solutions, innovative AI management and monitoring solutions, and other connected technologies.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to engage with the next generation in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. Keep young people motivated despite the complexity of issues. One of the biggest challenges we face in our sustainability journey is fighting two battles at once: tackling the effects of climate change and building resilience for the future. But when our youth only hear the negative, it’s easy for them to evoke feelings of climate anxiety or helplessness. Discuss climate solutions and discuss progress. Connect them with technology hackathons or nature conservancies. Once they know what it takes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect nature, and see actions being taken, today’s youth will be even better advocates for change.
  2. Model sustainable behavior. Identify actions you can take in your everyday life and make sure your children catch you in the act. Individual lifestyle choices won’t be enough to solve the climate crisis, (we need technology innovation, good policy and structural change) but they can make a difference. Your actions drive awareness, signal buying power, and create momentum for change.. Steps like recycling and reducing consumption can teach the next generation about the importance of caring for our planet, and importantly, will show them that older generations care..
  3. Get involved in your community together. Gen Z is more engaged than previous generations and wants to make a difference. Seek organizations that are doing this work at a local level and volunteer together for an organization making a positive impact on the environment.
  4. Show young people what climate careers look like. While there are jobs that require deep knowledge in environmental issues or technology, candidates can apply their passion for good anywhere. For example, our energy team at AT&T has in the last few years become one of the biggest corporate buyers of renewable energy in the U.S. I want the next generation to know that no matter what their professional interests are, they can find ways to promote sustainability.
  5. Give young people a voice. They will be living the future of our decisions today, so listen to what they have to say. Purposefully reach out to your youngest employees when seeking answers to environmental challenges. Encourage your children to join or form school clubs. Support their ideas with investment. Help them build a network of community support. When youth feel they are involved in activities that affect them, they are more motivated and inspired.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Keep purpose front and center. This comes to life through our commitments to help close the digital divide and connect families and students to the resources they need to reach their full potential. Traditionally, this work was tied only to philanthropy, but to be most effective, it must be integral to the business core, its purpose and people.
  2. Sustainability is not a department, it’s everyone’s job. We make progress toward our sustainability goals with the work our employees do day-in and day-out, from those laying new fiber networks that are more energy efficient, to sales and services teams helping business customers reduce emissions.
  3. Collaborate to tackle big issues. For example, the AT&T Connected Climate Initiative draws from the expertise of our engineers, product marketers and ESG experts, combined with university researchers, leading NGOs and other businesses, including Microsoft and Salesforce, to drive measurable impact on climate change.
  4. Listen to the experts. There are several reporting frameworks and groups with guidelines for measuring social impact that have changed drastically since I entered this field. Keep a pulse on the trends and latest standards.
  5. Practice your patience. The very nature of sustainability is long-term, and can run counter to today’s fast-paced world, which thrives on quarterly results and immediate gratification. Setbacks will happen. Take a deep breath and keep your eye on long-term value creation.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Without hesitation, I give the most gratitude to my parents. They were the hardest working people I’ve ever known. They taught me persistence, resiliency, and the value of an honest day’s work. Their motivation was to leave this earth having given their children the very best chance for a fulfilling life, which has inspired the same in me for my children and grandchildren. Being from a long line of farmers, they respected the earth and how it sustains us, and they looked beyond a single season’s challenge to create a life of non-material value. It was only when I inherited their small farm that I realized how much they gave with how little they had.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Imagine a world where everyone and everything are connected with high-speed internet. People in our most rural areas could run successful global businesses and reduce overcrowding and poor air quality in big cities. Our economically disadvantaged populations would have every-day access to high quality healthcare and job opportunities. The economies of low-income countries would dramatically improve. Carbon emissions would drop as we better monitor efficiencies and eliminate geographic barriers. As we realize more and more that our world’s problems are connected, we will understand more intrinsically that connectivity itself can solve them.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has made a profound impact on our world, and he understood that service not only makes it a better place, it’s also a great equalizer of humankind. One of my favorite quotes from him is: ‘Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve…you only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.’

These words inspire our commitment to our communities, and I try to apply them in my own life, as a citizen of my community, and as a mentor and leader working to engage our employees in volunteerism and overall respect for one another.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

You can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/charlene-lake-472b09a https://www.linkedin.com/in/charlenelake/. And you can learn more about AT&T’s environmental sustainability efforts at att.com/environment.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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