After Years of Halfhearted Green Initiatives, the KPN-Led Sustainability Initiative Might be a Sign of a Real Movement Afoot

John Byrne – Service Director, Service Provider Infrastructure

Summary Bullets:

• KPN is taking a leadership position in driving its vendor community toward more sustainable practices. Other operators are likely reviewing KPN’s “Circular Manifesto” as a template for how they should revise their own sustainability initiatives.

• Telecom technology and software vendors are increasingly being pushed by their key operator customers to commit to adopt manufacturing and production practices that rely on reusable or recyclable components, as well as renewable energy sources.

Dutch network operator KPN, which provides mobile and fixed-line service to nearly 40 million customers in The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France and Spain, caused a stir in October, announcing an aggressive environmental initiative that could become a model for operators looking to beef up their “sustainability” credentials.
That initiative, dubbed the “Circular Manifesto” details KPN’s goal of minimizing its carbon and environmental degradation footprint even as data traffic on its networks continues to grow exponentially. As part of its sustainability initiatives, KPN announced agreements with numerous vendors that provide KPN’s network equipment, conferencing solutions, set-top boxes, and modems, as well as additional vendors that specialize in providing refurbishing and recycling services. KPN is pressuring its vendors to make infrastructure that is more durable and longer lasting, uses fewer raw materials, and is built in such a way that by 2025 close to 100% of the parts and resources can be reused or recycled. By 2050 KPN intends to be fully transitioned internally to a “circular economy” based on these principles.


Source: KPN Circular Manifesto (October 2017)

KPN has been a leader among network operators in driving sustainability – the company reports it has been “climate neutral” – essentially reducing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it adds – since 2015, and has lowered its energy consumption for six consecutive years despite an eightfold increase in data volume on its networks during that time. In total, KPN expects to bring its energy consumption down by half between 2010 and 2030. So embracing the “Circular Manifesto” is just the next step in what has been an ongoing focus area.

The concept of the “circular economy” isn’t new: since as early as 1976, economists have used the term to describe an environment in which resources are used for as long as possible, the most efficient technologies are deployed, and renewable resources and materials are utilized as much as possible. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, circular systems provide a systemic alternative to increasingly unsustainable “linear” approaches that rely on legacy “make, use, and dispose” economics. However, until recently it had been more common in verticals like retail and auto manufacturing.

Recently, the Webscale operators that increasingly compete with mobile and fixed networks have been considerably more proactive in driving internal sustainability measures; for example, Google which claims to already be powering its data centers using 100% renewable energy sources. By contrast, “green” initiatives in the telecommunications industry have come and gone over the past ten years, in part because they have tended to be vendor-driven, limited in scope, and inconsistent, motivated as much by competitive reasons as altruistic ones.

The “Circular Manifesto” may be the first sign that things may actually be changing. Now that KPN has taken this ambitious step, other operators may be feeling pressure to take a more aggressive stance that demands more out of their vendor communities in the name of sustainability and responsible corporate citizenship (albeit still with the additional goal of helping drive down operational costs and increasing competitiveness vs. the Webscales). If so, then true, long-term, industry-wide change may finally be coming. With seven telecommunications vendors already signed on, including major vendors such as Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE, HPE and ARRIS, mobile and fixed networks are likely to be increasingly built with a continued short-term focus on improving capacity, throughput and customer satisfaction – but a long-term focus on sustainability.

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