Daily Footprint, #10 – Cell Phone, Mobile Network Operators

Like the last post on cell phones I wanted to take a look at phone network operators and see how close I could get to a decision in one day. Also, like the last post, I’m going to start by checking for ethical guides to phone networks. The only guide  I could find (besides Ethical Consumer, which requires a subscription) was from The Good Shopping Guide, covering European (mainly UK) networks . The figure below shows their ratings but unfortunately they don’t provide any details behind their scores. 

Phone Networks UK Rankings - Better Shopping Guide.PNG
Ranking of phone network operators (UK) by The Good Shopping Guide.

Credo & The People’s Operator

These are the two best-known “positive-impact” phone companies – Credo operates in the US and The People’s Operator in the UK. They are both Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), meaning that they use existing networks from larger companies – Credo uses the Verizon network while The People’s Operator uses Three.

Credo may be considered by some in the US to be a “no-brainer” best choice from a social and environmental perspective because it donates to charitable causes. I’m all for companies that donate a percentage of profits to good causes, but in this case, it’s good to take a look at the numbers. Their cheapest plan (1 GB of data) costs $70 per month and requires a two year contract. Other MVNOs (e.g., Virgin Mobile and Boost) are half this price while including more data and requiring no contract. Even Verizon, whose network Credo uses, is significantly cheaper. Only 1% of your Credo bill goes to charitable causes – that’s about 70 cents per month with their 1 GB plan. I reckon you’d be better off saving $35 per month by going with a different MVNO and then donating some of that to a good cause.

You could argue that they are a progressive company – for example they run campaigns for social and environmental causes (Credo Action). But, I’m a bit skeptical here too about Credo’s motives. For example, Credo used to use the Sprint network and at that time ran a campaign against Verizon for Supporting Tea Party members. What does it tell you about Credo that they have now switched to Verizon? Bear in mind that also that their privacy policy for their campaigns states: “Credo may sell or trade mailing lists containing your name and street address.”

The People’s Operator in the UK has a similar model, but their monthly charges are more reasonable and 10% of customers’ bills go to charitable causes (voted by customers).   Here’s a guide to their company and phone plans – the comments section highlights possible downsides: reliability and customer service.

Bottom line: I like companies that are trying to change things. In the case of Fairphone (covered in the last post) they have done some concrete things to attempt to make the phone industry more equitable. In the case of Credo, I’m not convinced that they are a genuinely progressive company.  The People’s Operator makes more sense financially, although you may have to put up with poor service. Also see comments below this post regarding charitable donations from The People’s Operator. Another option in the UK is the Phone Co-op – a co-operative that pays a living wage, supports social and environmental causes, and avoids sneaky tax avoidance strategies.

Employees Ratings – Glassdoor

One quick way to check how happy employees are at their company is to look up employee ratings on Glassdoor. I didn’t use this approach when researching phones in the last post because the workers who spend their day down mines or on assembly lines are not likely to be voting on Glassdoor. In this case, it may be useful to see how network employees feel about their company:

Phone Network Operators - Glassdoor ratings
Employee ratings of phone network operators, from Glassdoor (compiled on March 8, 2017)

Quite often you’ll also learn something that you didn’t know. For example T-mobile has the top-ranked CEO in the US for 2016 and also won these awards:

  • Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality, Human Rights Campaign, 2016
  • World’s Most Ethical Companies, Ethisphere Institute, 2016
  • Recognized as one of America’s Best Employers, Forbes, 2016

The only other mobile network company to receive a “World’s Most Ethical Company” award in 2016 was Singtel in Singapore. In fact they have both been the only winners for three years running.

Personal Experience

It’s always worth taking into account any personal experiences you’ve had with the company over time. For me, the thing that stands out is AT&T’s relentless marketing campaigns – insidious envelopes with “important message” printed on the outside. AT&T really ticked me off when they switched to a flyer that was actually made out of plastic. This was the first (and, thankfully, only) time I’ve received a piece of mail made primarily from plastic. That’s a slippery slope, my friends, and shows absolutely no commitment to the planet.

Controversies

When researching companies, it’s often useful to take a look at their Wikipedia pages to get an overview of controversies. Without going into every detail, AT&T has the most “dirty laundry” on its Wikipedia page. Of course, Wikipedia can be helpful in pointing you in the direction of reasons not to choose a company (which you can look up independently) but it’s best not to assume that the absence of information is terribly meaningful.

Carbon Footprint of Cell Phone usage

As mentioned in this post, the carbon footprint of powering your mobile phone is very small – around 3 kg of CO2 per year. Phone use in the form of voice, video and data transfer has a bigger footprint – averaging around 50 kg of CO2 per year, according to a Guardian article. That’s if you talk on your phone for about 2 minutes per day – talking for an hour each day “adds up to more than 1 ton CO2 equivalents per year – the equivalent of flying from London to New York, one way, in economy class”. Texting has a much lower carbon cost than talking.

To get a crude idea of the carbon footprint per user for various phone companies I divided their reported GHG emissions by the number of customers. It worked out at around the 50 kg on average, matching the estimate above. The two European companies I looked at, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom (T-mobile) worked out at around half this footprint. Some of the companies that had a higher than average footprint also provide other services (TV, internet, etc.) so that should be taken into account (and I won’t name them because I haven’t done in-depth calculations).

Which option is best?

Based on everything above, I’m least likely to go with AT&T and it looks like T-Mobile is a decent option in the US. One way of approaching it is to go with an affordable provider and put the money you save to better use. I’d rather save on money going to the phone company and spend it on good coffee 🙂

Opinions? Please share!

7 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #10 – Cell Phone, Mobile Network Operators

    1. Hi Tasha. I was curious as to why the Good Shopping Guide gave Three such a low rating (particularly on things like animal and human rights). Their parent company Hutchinson Whampoa reportedly has involvement with the military in Myanmar (Burma) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutchison_Whampoa#Criticisms and their subsidiary Watson’s (http://www.aswatson.com/our-brands/) has been criticized in the past for stocking certain controversial products and for their animal testing policy. Ethical Consumer is not a fan either – they give Superdrug (owned by Watson’s / Hutchinson Whampoa) a low score: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/scoredetails.aspx?ProductId=1322302

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  1. TPO is not actually giving 10% of customer revenue to nominated causes, though. It’s more like 3.8%, as you can see here (http://www.londonstockexchange.com/exchange/news/market-news/market-news-detail/TPOP/12984626.html ) and searching for “nominated causes” and doing the math. A complaint is on file with the Advertising Standards Authority. TPO Mobile is not what it seems — it’s been running on investors’ cash since November 2012, and they still don’t forecast profitability until sometime in 2018.

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  2. Thanks for your comment Gregory (and diligence in looking into this). In the doc that you cite they do say “For customers who choose to nominate a charity or cause, below we break out the relevant 10% of their billings that is passed on by TPO.” So I wonder if the reason for the discrepancy is that not all customers nominate a charity? (Or an alternative explanation could be they have gross income other than customer payments?). It’s true that they have come under a lot of fire for their financial performance – as a shareholder, I’d certainly be frustrated with them. Which mobile network operator do you think is the best option from a social / environmental perspective?

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    1. jkaybay, don’t you think a transparent, charitable organization should be willing and able to answer those simple questions? “What percentage of your customers do not nominate a charity, and is something done to set aside 10% of their monthly bill for something?” “What portion of your revenues come from non-recurring customer billing?” These are not difficult questions. But when I asked them of TPO’s media outreach contact, I was flatly ignored, multiple times. Also, does it strike you as mysterious that the organization that was set up to donate 25% of the company’s profit to charity was *dissolved* at the end of 2014? (https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/08213781 ) I mean, I understand that the company is not profitable, so that component is not feasible at this time, but to disband the entire organization dedicated to non-profit aid, suggests that the company doesn’t even want to invest thought-resources to the project.

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