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Sustainability: The business imperative

The sustainability crisis is evident all around us, from the dire state of the climate and natural world to the ongoing battle to provide a safe, secure life for all people.


Sustainability: The business imperative

The sustainability crisis is evident all around us, from the dire state of the climate and natural world to the ongoing battle to provide a safe, secure life for all people. As the backbone of all modern economies, the business community is essential to reducing carbon emissions and achieving a more sustainable world. In 2019, US industry accounted for 23% of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and the UK business sector was responsible for 18.2% of the country’s 2020 carbon emissions. The choices made by companies, from how they source materials and manage their emissions, to their policies on supply chain governance, community investment and humanitarian support, are all decisive for building a better world.

Along with the moral or ethical obligations for businesses to focus on sustainability, there is also an economic imperative. Climate change may expose organisations to direct physical risks. Extreme weather hazards, natural disasters or rising temperatures and sea levels can harm property, people and business operations. Research from the United Nation’s Development Programme estimated climate change-related workplace disruption could reduce productivity by more than US$2 trillion by 2030.

Public and political pressure also exposes companies to transition risks. Changes in technologies, markets and regulation can increase business costs, make existing products or services obsolete, or affect asset values. Some businesses in heavily polluting industries are already being impacted by policy measures and market trends related to transitions to a low-carbon economy. For example, since 2011, three of the biggest five American coal firms have filed for bankruptcy and the Dow Jones US Coal Index has fallen by over 85%.


Setting sustainable goals

This combination of ethical and economic incentives has increased the corporate will to tackle climate change. Over net zero emissions throughout all products by 2039 and ensuring that all plastic and packaging is completely reusable by 2025.

Sustainable development is at the heart of ZTE’s vision to be a driver of the digital economy. Already committed to the UN Global Compact, a voluntary initiative to encourage businesses to adopt more sustainable business practices and models, ZTE is focused on five core domains as it seeks to build, strengthen and measure sustainability.


Innovation in the digital economy

Sustainability requires innovation, from materials science to new technologies. ZTE is leveraging its own strengths in R&D to enable the digital transformation of industries with new technologies, and to achieve sustainable development. The company has applied for over 80,000 patents, over 40,000 of which have been authorised, and the company is among the top three globally in terms of families of 5G-related Standard-Essential Patents (SEPs) to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

5G is critical for achieving sustainability objectives in key sectors including smart cities, energy efficient buildings and environmental monitoring. A new generation of connected and smart products could increase energy use and electronic waste (e-waste) and intensify natural resource depletion and pollution as companies search for the metals and minerals required by digital products.

ZTE is making sure that 5G is a force for progress through technologies that both reduce its environmental footprint and empower sustainability projects. At the forefront of innovation, ZTE, together with China Telecom and China Unicom, developed and piloted a smart ‘metasurface’—a mirror-like technology that allows 5G signals to be intelligently configured and directed without increasing the physical presence and quantity of base stations, thereby reducing construction costs and energy use. The company is using more environmentally-friendly materials and updating its production processes, thereby reducing the total emissions of volatile organic compounds from 46 tons annually to 4.5 tons. ZTE has also replaced separate packaging with assembly packaging in pilot projects, saving 8,071 cubic metres of delivery volume annually.


Supporting the circular economy

The circular economy has become an increasingly important lens through which companies think about their environmental and social footprint. ZTE is actively promoting environmental management in its daily work, production and operation activities, to reduce the consumption of and impact on natural resources. The company is supporting the greening of industries through technology that optimises energy consumption, cuts emissions, reduces waste management and continuously lowers the impact of business operations on the environment. Recent operational milestones include the reconstruction of the cooling system in a production line at the company’s Shenzhen base, which cut energy consumption by 280,000 kWh per year.

ZTE has established strategic cooperation with suppliers to guide and support partners across the value chain to achieve sustainable development. To improve supply chain sustainability, ZTE is working with its vendors to improve awareness and education. It hosted a global partners event for over 300 strategic and core suppliers in 2020, and provides an online and offline learning programme for outsourced engineering services personnel—the initiative trained over four thousand people in 989 days.


Cooperation and sustainability

Technology can also help societal stakeholders tackle the environmental crisis. For example, bees are an endangered species that provide vital biodiversity and ecological services. In Austria, ZTE partnered with Hutchison Drei Austria and IoT40 to carry out the 5G Bee-o-Meter research and pilot project, which uses 5G technology to improve the living environment of bees. This technology can count bees in real-time, detect intruders, and spot bee sicknesses, all of which can help the agricultural industry and regional environmental authorities to better protect this vital species.

Other sustainable projects include a smart transport collaboration between ZTE and China Mobile in Guangzhou which is helping to lower emissions and congestion, and the Ocean Big Data Application Support (OaS) Platform. OaS brings together satellites, remote sensors, mobile communications, big data and artificial intelligence to build sea, space and shore-based ocean observation networks. This platform could provide early warning and post-disaster assessment for ocean events like typhoons and inform coastal planning and research into marine life. For example, one of its functions is collecting and processing both historical typhoon data from the past 70 years and real-time data about current typhoon patterns. This information can help protect a fragile, essential ecosystem as well as the millions of humans who rely on the oceans for their livelihood—and those that are vulnerable to its extreme events.

Elsewhere, in potentially dangerous industries such as mining, ZTE is deploying 5G to improve worker safety. In June 2021, the company collaborated with China Unicom to implement a 5G panoramic video integration in a remote-control coal mine. This meant the number of employees in a tunnel was reduced from 20 to 8 and cut mechanical and electrical failure rates by one fifth—making the mine significantly safer. This automaton also increased work efficiency by 30%, boosting the mine’s productivity.


Securing trust, defending people’s rights and interest

Cybersecurity may not be as visible a threat as climate change, but as people spend more and more time in the digital sphere, online security is becoming an increasingly important part of a safe and inclusive society. It is also essential to keeping public services and utilities working for the benefit of society. These issues will become even more important in an era of 5G and remote work. As organisations deploy remote systems and networks to support staff working from home, criminals can take advantage of increased security vulnerabilities. Interpol—an international policing agency—reported that its member countries saw a rise in cyberattacks in 2020; with a 36% increase in malware attacks and 59% increase in phishing or fraud.

To tackle these threats, ZTE guarantees cybersecurity for customers, putting their protection above commercial interests, complies with all network security laws and regulations, and ensures end-to-end delivery of secure products and services. For example, to raise its performance and build cross-border partnerships, ZTE set up a network of security labs in Rome, Brussels and Nanjing to understand the needs and requirements of different customers and regulators. The company is also the first telecommunications vendor to pass the CC EAL3+ certification across the entire 5G RAN series (the radio network that connects users and devices to networks), the highest certification level. It is also a leading manufacturer globally in passing the BSIMM (Building Security in Maturity Model) version 11, achieving above-average scores in areas including security features, design, standards and risk management.

In July 2020, ZTE’s 5G NR and 5GC series of products completed the development and life cycle security assessment of the GSMA, the mobile operator association. In October 2020, ZTE released a new security vulnerability feedback reward program to encourage global security practitioners and organizations to provide feedback on vulnerabilities. Over 60 categories of ZTE products have now passed the ISO 9000 quality control global certification scheme.


Shouldering responsibility

Many organisations have ambitions to build a more sustainable future, but this must be backed up with action and resources. To make its vision a reality, in 2020, the ZTE Foundation invested US$2.2 million in public welfare-oriented initiatives via 37 projects. The company is also working to contribute the value of its people’s time, energy and skills, rather than only fund project. Its volunteer initiatives include setting up Covid-19 support branches in China and India, and the company’s foundation also donated pandemic prevention materials like face masks, goggles, protective suits and ventilators in over 50 countries and regions.

No single actor can solve today’s sustainability crisis. Only by working together, with each contributing their capabilities and assets, can the global community achieve the UN SDGs. ZTE is continuously finding ways that its core technology offering, and its financial and manpower resources, can be part of the solution.

ZTE: Ultimate Network

The telecoms industry finds itself in a challenging era, with stagnating revenues and suffering a heavy blow from the pandemic. At the same time, operators need to invest heavily in their network infrastructure to meet the rising demand from consumers and enterprises.



This article was produced by (E) BrandConnect, a commercial division of The Economist Group, which operates separately from the editorial staffs of The Economist and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Neither (E) BrandConnect nor its affiliates accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any party on this content.