Mobile and sustainability: Focusing on the issues that matter

The mobile industry’s purpose is to “Intelligently connect everyone and everything to a better future”. As a sector with more than five billion unique mobile subscribers and more than 8 billion mobile connections, the scope of the mobile sector to influence sustainability is huge. To build on this opportunity and support the industry’s purpose, the GSMA has been working to increase understanding and integration of sustainability across the whole mobile sector.

Taking a whole-industry approach

One of the first industry-wide steps in 2016 was to commit the mobile sector as a whole to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were launched in 2015. Known as the Global Goals, the SDGs are a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity. They provide a universally agreed definition of a better future and provide the roadmap for delivering the UN’s 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

Every year, the GSMA publishes the Mobile Industry Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals  outlining the sector’s progress towards meeting the SDGs. The fifth edition of the report was launched in late 2020 and showed the industry increased impact across all 17 of the SDGs for the 5th year in a row.

The GSMA’s second industry-wide commitment was setting the milestone ambition in 2019 for the whole industry to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. In April 2021, the Mobile Net Zero: State of the Industry on Climate Action, the first report outlining the state-of-play on the industry reaching this goal was launched.

The GSMA has just made bold commitments on behalf of the mobile industry to tackle the mobile gender gap and promote digital inclusion for women and girls at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris. These commitments include specific goals around access, skills and leadership. More information on this can be found in a recently published blog.

Assessing the sector’s sustainability performance

Beyond the specific challenge of climate change, the GSMA has developed a Sustainability Assessment Framework as a tool to examine and better understand mobile operator efforts across the full spectrum of social and environmental sustainability issues.

The Framework, designed in collaboration with Yale University, assesses sustainability performance in three strategic areas:

  1. Operating Responsibly – how mobile operators are managing sustainability in their own operations, focusing on sustainability issues relating to: Customers and Society; Employees and Supply Chain; and Environment
  2. Delivering Value for Society – assessing the shared value the company creates with society, including: Connecting Business and Social Outcomes; the company’s Operating Context and Regionality; and Supporting the SDGs
  3. Values-led Leadership – assessing three different types of leadership mobile operators can show: Multi-stakeholder Leadership; Industry Leadership; and Incentive Alignment Leadership.

Focusing on the most important issues

The Operating Responsibly pillar of the Sustainability Assessment Framework focuses on mobile operators’ systems to improve sustainability performance within their own operations and supply chains.

To know what issues are most relevant, or material, to mobile operators and their pursuit of sustainability, the GSMA researched the issues most often covered in mobile operators’ annual sustainability reports. The research was first conducted in 2018 and 14 material issues were identified as critical to mobile operators’ sustainability. These were first published in the GSMA’s 2018 report, “The Journey to Responsible and Sustainable Leadership – A Guide to Operating Responsibly.”

Earlier this year, the GSMA updated its research on the most material issues for the mobile sector in advance of a 2021 update to its Guide to Operating Responsibly. Although a big shift in the overall sustainability focus of the sector was not expected, some relevant changes were identified from a review of 30 mobile operators and other useful guidance.

The now revised list of 16 issues is outlined below and although there were some changes to the detailed definitions of most issues, a summary of the main changes are as follows.

Human rights’ has been removed as a catch-all issue. This is because a number of other issues on the list relate to human rights issues or impacts, such as child online safety, freedom of expression, diversity, health and safety, and supply chain management.

Freedom of Expression’ has been identified as a standalone issue. It was previously combined with the issue of privacy (‘Privacy and Freedom of Expression’). Privacy has now been combined into ‘Privacy and Cyber Security’ to reflect the increasing importance of cyber security, especially in relation to individual and data privacy.

The previous issue ‘Anti-Bribery and Corruption’ has been renamed ‘Business Ethics’, to reflect a broader collection of ethical issues alongside anti-bribery and corruption, including corporate governance, compliance, and political and social advocacy.

Responsible Employer’ is new on the list of material issues. It captures both labour rights and other employee issues, such as reward, training and development, and attracting and retaining talent.

Recognising the dialogue on mobile and health is broader than mobile masts alone, the previous issue, ‘Mobile Masts and Health’, has been renamed ‘Mobile Communications and Health’ to reflect stakeholder concern and mobile operators’ approach and communications on the issue.

Material issues for the mobile sector in 2021

Below is a list of all 16 material issues. Full descriptions for each of the issues can be found in the 2021 edition of “The Journey to Responsible and Sustainable Leadership – A Guide to Operating Responsibly.”

Customer and Society

  • Business Ethics
  • Customer Service
  • Child Online Safety
  • Digital Inclusion
  • Freedom of Expression (new)
  • Mobile Communications and Health (revised)
  • Privacy and Cyber Security (revised)
  • Tax Transparency

Employee and supply chain

  • Responsible Employer (new)
  • Health and Safety
  • Employee Diversity
  • Responsible Sourcing
  • Supplier Capacity Development


  • Waste and E-waste
  • Climate Impact
  • Climate-related Risks