Making the business case for sustainability

05 July 2021 | Melanie Mingas

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Built from scratch for those who want sustainability and service, MVNO Honest is the back-of-a-beermat idea on a mission to shake up the UK mobile market. Melanie Mingas talks to CEO and co-founder Andy Aitken

As the sustainability movement continues at pace, a raft of operators and providers are making their carbon-neutral pledges. But for those who cannot wait until mid-decade for a sustainable mobile operator, there are limited options on the market.

Enter Andy Aitken and Josh Mihill, school friends since age 11 who, after a catch-up at the pub, set out to launch Honest, an MVNO on a mission to prove the business case for a sustainable mobile operator – which also puts the customer first.
“We didn’t know how to set up an MVNO, that’s not what either of us is experienced in. Josh is a physical product engineer and a product designer, I’m an accountant and a geek at heart,” says Aitken (pictured below).

Mihill had spent much of his career in start-ups, including one telecom start-up, while Aitken’s background was predominantly corporate. After five years working in Deloitte’s telecoms investigation team, in 2016 Aitken established a new team at the firm, specifically focused on start-ups, and grew it to “about a £5 million run rate business” over the next five years.

That night at the pub the two got talking about their professional lives and how they both saw major sectors being disrupted.

“We were talking about what Monzo was doing in banking, what Bulb was doing in utilities. I was telling him what I was seeing in start-ups and Josh was telling me about the hard time he was having negotiating with major network operators in his other telco start-up. We thought there’s just got to be a better way – it feels like the whole market is broken,” Aitken says.

“We thought that if we could build a mobile network that put the customer front and centre, that didn’t rip them off, that provided amazing customer service and that was built to be sustainable from day one, there ought to be something there. We didn’t know what it was, but we pictured it as the Monzo of mobile, effectively,” he adds.

Building a business
At the time of writing, in the UK there was no truly sustainable network for such an MVNO to run on. Vodafone changed that on 1 July, however, the approach taken by Honest comprises offset and B Corp certified operations, meaning the focus is on people, planet and profit. “We aren’t a charity, we still have serious investors on board who expect to make a return,” Aitken says.

“We had to set ourselves up to do things right.”

In claiming its carbon neutral title, the idea behind Honest is to fill the gaps in its competitors’ pledges, whether that is four-year lead times on targets or pledges that are light on detail. Basically, being as sustainable as possible, today.
To do this, Aitken and Mihill’s offset calculations are inspired by Mike Berners-Lee’s book How Bad are Bananas?
“It looks at the everyday carbon footprint of stuff, including bananas, but also what the CO2 footprint is of sending a text message, making a phone call, using a gigabyte of data,” Aitken explains.

Multiply those figures by the actual usage across the network every month, double it and turn the units into tonnes of carbon and you should arrive at the figure that Honest offsets. For that, the process is 95% focused on reforestation, in partnership with On a Mission; 4% biochar, which sequesters carbon; and the final 1% is direct air capture. While the third is the most exciting method – a technique performed in Iceland and powered by local geothermal activity – in Aitken’s words it is, “unbelievably expensive… but also unbelievably permanent”.

Honest will hold its investment in this technology as the price drops, allowing it to increase the share offset by this method. In addition, it offsets the carbon footprint of handset manufacturing twice over per customer, as well as the amount of energy needed to charge each handset on its network.

“Our dream is that by showing the industry that people are willing to pay a small premium, it will encourage the industry as a whole to move much more quickly,” Aitken says.

The tech underpinning the customer piece is a custom-built, fully cloud-based billing platform and app. “I put my tech hat on and… we got a virtual network running in about six weeks… in the end,” Aitken says, recalling how such drastic measures followed a £750,000 quote he and Mihill once received for a one-day batch billing platform.

Now in its third year, Honest is riding the trend for smaller brands that offer more personalised or ethical services and products, with a long-term goal to scale across the UK and take the concept overseas, “when the time is right”.