Consumer interest in specific issues tends to rise and fall based on a number of factors, including fashion, marketing and media coverage. While here in the UK the top news at the moment is the weather, for the last couple of years the focus has largely been on the economy – a situation that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, as cuts in public sector spending take their toll on those directly and indirectly generating income from government expenditure (including mobile operators).

This somewhat unexpected focus on money matters has pushed other topics down the agenda, and one of the main casualties has been the environment and sustainability. That’s not to say that it has been completely ignored: just that it has been overtaken in the consumer mindset by other, some would argue more immediately relevant, factors. But perhaps now is the time for operators to consider promoting their green credentials as a competitive differentiator, in order to stand out from their rivals in an increasingly commoditised marketplace.

Several of our recent blogs have noted the lack of opportunity for operators to innovate with new services, and that vendor product portfolios have become increasingly homogenous. This has meant that the only real differentiator left is price, creating a race to the bottom that, while good for consumers, causes real headaches for the industry as a whole. Perhaps the way forward is to look for new areas to innovate, and new ways to differentiate, and an operator that is able to prove itself the “greenest” would certainly pick up some kudos from certain parts of the customer base.

A quick scan of the activities of many of the top operators shows that their sustainability work remains largely confined to the corporate social responsibility pages of the annual report. But it is clear the industry is doing some good work: at a recent industry event, Elaine Weidman, VP of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at Ericsson, noted: “what we see is that the operators are doubling and in some cases tripling the number of subscribers, but holding energy consumption at a fairly constant rate over time, because of massive improvements that are being made in the underlying infrastructure.” In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, this work can also have positive effects on operating expenditure, by controlling power costs while serving a larger customer base.

The big question is how this “greenness” can be measured and communicated to consumers. While some groups including Greenpeace have produced metrics based on tear-down analysis of products, this is not such an easy task for service providers – the number of aspects which have to be considered across the business from network rollout through operation (where Ericsson notes the majority of emissions are generated, due to the power consumption) to replacement and decommissioning is overwhelming. Efforts like the GSMA’s Mobile Energy Efficiency (MEE) Network Benchmarking Service, announced in November 2010, are intended to help operators’ to this end, and has been created in partnership with China Mobile, Telefonica and Telenor.

Of course, it would certainly not be unknown for a business to undertake a spot of “greenwashing” in order to paint themselves in the best possible light, especially when there are no established benchmarks by which to assess their performance. And mobile operators also have something of a track-record when it comes to inventive marketing – just ask the team of creatives that added the “4G” label to T-Mobile USA’s HSPA+ network…