Nine and a half years ago, I started this blog with a post titled, simply, This blog. One thousand, two hundred and forty-three posts later — roughly two per week — I’m ending it. It has been a great ride.
I’ve been a reporter for 41 years. When I began, we didn’t have blogs, or Twitter or Facebook, or the Internet or even desktop computers. We wrote stories on machines known as “typewriters.” Somehow we managed.
We’re better off now.
There are those who argue that the Internet has been bad for journalism. I can’t agree. To be sure, online media have taken readers and advertisers away from newspapers and magazines. Local newspapers have been hollowed out and, as a result, local news coverage has suffered terribly. But when it comes to national or international news, business reporting, sports news, movie or TV or book reviews, opinion writing and just about everything else, there’s more good journalism available today than ever before.
The Internet has transformed my professional life. (It has been “berry, berry good to me,” in the words of Chico Escuela.) Twenty years ago, as part of my audition for a job at FORTUNE magazine, I wrote a story about what was then called ESPN Sportzone. (With 140,000 users a day, it was then “one of the most popular destinations on the Web, the multimedia portion of the Internet that is experiencing hypergrowth.”) My first FORTUNE cover story profiled Steve Case and America Online. FORTUNE made so much money during the tech bubble that Time Inc. once sent a bunch of editors and reporters to Hawaii for an offsite. Those were the days.
Since 2006, when I started this blog, I’ve been able to connect with readers as never before. Being a “publisher” was heady stuff. For better or worse, I was liberated from editors for the first time in my reporting career.
You might wonder which have been my most popular posts. Two were personal. In December 2008, I wrote a post headlined The recession hits home. I’d just lost my staff position at FORTUNE, which kept me on part-time with a contract. The blog post generated all kinds of offers, as well as personal support at a time when I needed it.
I wrote Edgar Gunther, RIP about my father after he died in 2009. Writing it was cathartic. His career ended before the Internet era, so it’s essentially the only online record of his life. Comments from his friends and colleagues arrived for years afterwards.
The two other most-read posts challenged conventional wisdom. Is organic food the answer? went viral and global when it ran in 2011. How ‘evil’ Monsanto aims to protect the planet attracted thousands of readers, most via Facebook.
Why I am saying goodbye now? Not because I’m tired of blogging. But after 20 years of reporting about business, I’m ready to try something new. While I expect to write occasionally about business and sustainability, I’ve given up my position as editor at large of Guardian Sustainable Business US.
Going forward, I expect to spend most of my time reporting on foundations and nonprofits, with a focus on their effectiveness. I’ll also be writing about global poverty, animal welfare and sustainable/impact investing. I’ll be freelancing and writing weekly for a blog, Nonprofit Chronicles, that I began last spring. I invite you to subscribe to the blog here and to “like” Nonprofit Chronicles on Facebook.
Thank you for giving me a precious gift — your time and attention — for these past nine years.
If you, like me, have puzzled over the many labels on egg cartons — natural, organic, cage-free, pastured, free range — you might want to read my story about the egg industry that was published yesterday in the Guardian.
It’s fundamentally a story about how animal-welfare groups, led by the Humane Society of the United States, have used the power of ballot initiatives and market pressures to begin to transform the way hens are treated in the US. This is a big victory for the animal-welfare movement.
Here’s how it begins:
Americans eat about 265 eggs per person per year, according to the American Egg Board, and roughly nine in 10 are laid by hens confined in cages with little room to move.
That’s changing. McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, General Mills and Nestle all said this fall they are gradually switching to cage-free eggs in the US. Consumers are buying more cage-free and organic eggs. Laws in five states, including California, ban caged hens.
But what do terms like “cage-free” and “organic” really mean? Not what you might imagine. According to a new report from the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit that promotes organic food policy and farming, eggs labeled “organic” or “cage-free” can be produced in industrial-sized barns by hens that rarely see the light of day. No wonder consumers are confused.
More hens are uncaged today than ever before. The numbers will continue to grow, as some of the US’s biggest producers expand their cage-free operations. Indeed, cage-free is on its way becoming the new standard for eggs in the US. That’s the good news.
The trouble is, cage-free is nothing to crow about. It means just what it says. Hens aren’t kept in cages. But they can be kept indoors for their entire lives, crowded into industrial-sized barns. (Some conventional egg producers argue that cage-free methods are worse for the hens than conventional cages. Jesse LaFlamme, the president of Pete & Gerry’s Eggs, disagrees. “I grew up with cages,” he told me. “They’re awful.)
The organic label, meantime, assures only a marginal improvement over cage-free. It requires hens to have access to the outdoors. But extensive research by Mark Kastel and his colleagues at the Cornucopia Institute found that big organic farms can meet that requirement by building a small porch around their barns. His researchers flew over big organic egg farms and found no hens outside.
Put simply, neither cage-free nor organic means that hens get to run around a sun-dappled pasture, pecking at the grass, as hens like to do.
So what is a consumer who cares about animal welfare to do? Cornucopia’s scorecard of egg brands is a useful guide. Its top-ranked brands tend to be small and local. You can also look for third-party certification of producers from groups like Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. I look for Pete & Gerry’s. Vital Farms, a Texas-based chain, gets high marks from Cornucopia.
You can read the rest of my story here.
Have you heard? Monsanto is going on trial in The Hague for “crimes against nature and humanity, and ecocide.” The Organic Consumers Association had the story:
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), IFOAM International Organics, Navdanya, Regeneration International (RI), and Millions Against Monsanto, joined by dozens of global food, farming and environmental justice groups announced today that they will put Monsanto MON (NYSE), a US-based transnational corporation, on trial for crimes against nature and humanity, and ecocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, next year on World Food Day, October 16, 2016.
The steering committee organizing this citizens tribunal — which has nothing to do with the International Court of Justice, a real court located in the Hague — includes Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, the activist Vandana Shiva and scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini, all of them unrelenting critics of genetic engineering who allegations bear only a loose resemblance to the facts. (See this and this and this.) Somehow I don’t think this trial will end well for Monsanto.
I bring this up because I recently interviewed Hugh Grant, the chief executive of Monsanto, about climate change and GMOs for a story in the Guardian. He told me, among other things, that he wishes the debate about genetic engineering would become more science-based and less polarized. (Good luck with that.) Fortunately, Monsanto has retained the trust of thousands of corn and soy farmers who rely on its seeds and crop protection products.
My story describes how Monsanto now intends to work farmers to help them farm in more climate-friendly ways, and to help them adapt to the threat of climate change. Here’s how it begins:
You have an easy job,” I tell Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto, as we sit down at the W Hotel in New York City. He looks puzzled, so I explain: “I just read on the Internet that Monsanto controls the world’s food supply.”
Grant, 57, jokes that it’s all effortless. The idea that Monsanto controls the world’s food is a canard, but there’s no doubt that it’s a major player in the food chain. The St Louis-based agribusiness giant produced 35.5% of the corn seeds and 28% of the soybean seeds planted in the US in 2014, with sales topping $15.8bn last year.
Success hasn’t been easy: the agriculture business is competitive, and farmers are constantly looking for ways to increase yields, says Grant, who has been with Monsanto for 34 years. “We have to win their business every year.”
It’s true that Monsanto is a big player in the ag biz, but notice that most farmers choose not to buy its seeds. It’s hardly in control of anything.
Whether or not they are customers of Monsanto, US farmers are incredibly productive. While some critics question whether the US should export its agricultural methods to poor countries, Grant notes that
while US corn farmers generate yields of 150 to 160 bushels per acre, farmers in Brazil, Mexico and India get about 100 bushels per acre and those in Africa produce only about 20 bushels. There’s enormous room for improvement in Africa, he says.
I wonder what, exactly, the anti-GMO forces who are going to spend their time and money to put Monsanto “on trial” intend to do for farmers in Africa.
More to the point, I wonder why the anti-GMO forces believe they are in a better position than farmers to know what’s good for them. In a competitive marketplace, where there are no obvious information asymmetries, farmers every year choose to do business with Monsanto. Are they misguided?
Like all companies, Monsanto has made mistakes. Perhaps more than its share. But I honestly don’t understand why this company is so maligned.
I wish I could be optimistic about COP21, the climate negotiations coming to an end in Paris. I can’t. Even if the world’s countries keep their promises — known, in the mind-numbing argot of the UN as Intended Nationally Determined Commitments — the climate reductions they are promising don’t go far enough. As Coral Davenport reported in The Times as the talks got underway:
Together the more than 170 national plans for Paris would still allow the planet to warm by as much as 6 degrees, according to several independent and academic analyses. Scientists say that that level of warming is still likely to cause food shortages and widespread extinctions of plant and animal life.
These unenforceable “commitments” are, at best, a step in the right direction and, at worse, a way for government leaders to try to fool their citizens and, perhaps, themselves into thinking they are doing the right thing.
One reason for my skepticism is that these voluntary efforts resemble the voluntary measures taken by companies to curb their carbon emissions for the past decade or so. Even the most mainstream and business-friendly green groups are discouraged by the scale of those efforts, so they have launched an initiative called Science Based Targets to try to persuade big companies to do better.
In a story headlined Where’s the Science?, I wrote big companies and their climate targets the other day in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:
As the UN climate meetings in Paris come to an end this week, diplomats from around the world are under pressure to reach an agreement that would reflect the plans they presented to cut their countries’ greenhouse gas emissions. These voluntary plans include targets and starting points set by each government. The US vows to cut emissions by 26% below 2005 levels by 2025; the EU by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030; and China will starting reducing in 2030.
If this sounds familiar, it should: big companies have been promising to cut their carbon output for a decade or more, setting targets and timelines of their own choosing.
It hasn’t worked. Emissions from the world’s 500 largest businesses are rising,according to Thomson Reuters. Scientists say emissions must fall to avoid catastrophic climate risks.
Science Based Targets intends to push companies to do better. It’s an initiative formed by the World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) and the UN Global Compact – business-friendly, mainstream organizations that are frustrated by the arbitrary and unscientific nature of corporate climate targets.
Voluntary carbon targets–for companies or countries–are not likely to get us where we need to go, I’m afraid. They make about as much sense as voluntary speed limits or tax rates.
You can read the rest of my story here.
I’m all for the fossil-fuel divestment movement, at least as a way to start a conversation about climate change and build a movement. I’m undecided about whether it makes sense as an investment strategy, at least for individuals. With that caveat, let me point you to a story that I reported for the Guardian on fossil fuel-free investment options for people who don’t have access to sophisticated tools or high-priced portfolio advisors. Here’s how the story begins:
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the University of California and the World Council of Churches are among about 460 faith-based groups, pension funds, colleges and nonprofits that have pledged to divest some or all of their fossil fuel holdings.
They can do so with the help of consultants who will advise them on how to minimize their financial risk. High net worth individuals, with assets of $1m or more, can access such sustainable investment managers as Generation Investment Management, the London-based firm led by Al Gore, which has done very well for its investors, according to this deep look in The Atlantic.
But what about people who lack this same kind of wealth and want to divest? Few have the knowledge, time or assets to construct their own diversified portfolios. So-called green mutual funds may not be an answer, either, because many own shares in fossil fuel companies, particularly natural gas.
The story goes on to describe four choices–a new exchange traded fund (ETF) called the Etho Climate Leadership Index with the stock symbol ECLI, an older ETF known as GIVE and two mutual funds managed by Green Century Capital Management.
Why might you want to divest fossil fuels? Well, over the long term, it’s certainly possible that shares of coal, oil and natural gas companies will underperform the rest of the market. So divestment could drive superior returns.
Then there’s the moral argument for divestment, As activist Bill McKibben puts it: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”
Both arguments, I think, have merit.
That said, I’m not going to invest my own money in these ETFs or mutual funds for a couple of reasons. First, they have higher expenses that plain vanilla index funds. Those expenses eat away at returns. Academic research, meantime, has shown that index funds outperform all but the most skillful active managers over time–and picking out the best active stock pickers in advance is all but impossible for the amateur investor.
Second, these ETFs and funds screen out companies and entire industries in ways that don’t make a lot of sense to me. The ECLI ETF screens out McDonald’s because of its reliance on beef and its labor practices–even though the chain outperforms its peers when it comes to climate intensity. Monsanto also gets nixed over GMOs, which strikes me as, well, nutty, because crops that are modified to survive drought or flooding are potentially an important climate solution. Nuclear power, which provides more low-carbon energy that solar or wind in the US and globally, is also screened out; it’s hard for me to see a way out of the climate crisis that doesn’t require lots more nuclear energy, but I could well be wrong about that, if the costs of solar power continue to drop.
All that said, I’m glad these fossil-free investing choices are out there. You can read the rest of my story here and if you are serious about investing, please follow the links and dig deeper.
A company that makes drones for humanitarian purposes, another that makes plant-based egg substitutes and still another that wants to mine asteroids for precious minerals would not seem to have much in common. All belong to the portfolio of an unusual venture capital fund called the OS Fund.
Small changes, it’s often said, add up to huge results. But don’t tell Bryan Johnson that.
The 38-year-old technology investor has no interest in incremental improvements. His venture capital firm, the OS Fund, backs entrepreneurs who are working towards “quantum-leap discoveries” that promise to rewrite “the operating system of life”.
The metaphor is intentional. “Software allows us to do anything we want,” Johnson said over coffee in suburban Virginia. “We have this remarkable ability to create any kind of world we can imagine.”
Software can’t rewrite the rules of physics, but Johnson does have a point. “With new tools such as 3D printing, genomics, machine intelligence, software, synthetic biology and others, we can now make in days, weeks or months things that previous innovators couldn’t possibly create in a lifetime,” Johnson wrote when he unveiled the OS Fund last October. “Where DaVinci could sketch, today we can build.”
Interesting guy. Unassuming, too. We met at a Starbucks in McLean, Va., and talked for about an hour. Bryan was raised as a Mormon, and a missionary trip that he took to Ecuador seems to have sparked in him a desire to try to attack some of the world’s biggest problems. You can read the rest of the story here.
It’d be nice if the world could be powered with zero-carbon energy but wishing it so doesn’t make it so. We’re going to be burning fossil fuels, for better or worse–actually, for better and worse–for many years. So we need to figure out how to deal with CO2 emissions from burning coal, natural gas and oil..
The XPrize Foundation this week announced a $20 million prize for recycling CO2, and I covered the story for the Guardian. Here’s how my story begins:
Given the threat of climate change, what should the world do with its reserves of fossil fuels? Some say keep it in the ground. Others say fossil fuels are needed to in order to provide electricity to the poorest areas of the world.
With the announcement Tuesday of its new $20m Carbon XPrize, the non-profit XPrize Foundation is taking a middle ground – launching a competition to find new uses for carbon dioxide (CO2) , the greenhouse gas emitted by coal and natural gas plants. It’s intended to allow the continued burning of fossil fuels while reducing or eliminating their climate impact.
“How do we take that CO2 that’s coming from power plant emissions, and incentivize teams to create novel products?” said Paul Bunje, senior scientist for energy and the environment at the XPrize Foundation. “The CO2 could be turned from a waste into a valuable product.”
The award, not surprisingly, is sponsored by fossil fuel interests: NRG Energy, a coal-burning utility as well as a strong advocate for solar and wind power, and the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), a coalition of companies that extract oil from Alberta’s oil sands, which are a mixture of sand, water, clay and heavy oil.
With all the excitement over the rapid growth of wind and solar power–excitement that’s merited–it’s easy to forget that, according to the International Energy Agency, 82% of the world’s energy supply is derived from fossil fuels and that overall energy demand is expected to grow 37% by 2040.
The idea of recycling CO2 isn’t new. If it were easily done, it would have been done by. See my 2012 feature story for YaleE360, Rethinking carbon dioxide: From a pollutant to an asset, which look at capturing CO2 from the air. Or this 2012 story, also for YaleE360, Can environmentalists learn to love a Texas coal plant? That plant, which was designed to capture CO2 and use it to extract oil from deep wells, hasn’t secured the financing it needs to be built.
Which is no reason to give up. I’m a big fan of prizes. Maybe this one will produce a breakthrough project.
You can read the rest of my story here.
Will socially-responsible investing (SRI) ever grow up?
With roots in religious communities and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, SRI funds have long shunned investments in tobacco, alcohol, guns and (low-carbon) nuclear power. Much as I admire the pioneers of the field–folks like Amy Domini and Wayne Silby–this never made sense to me, particularly after I attended the SRI industry’s annual confab in the Rockies and found that where ample quantities of wine and beer were poured.
This wasn’t hypocrisy. It was a reflection of the fact that the early SRI funds never came up with a rigorous or consistent definition of “socially responsible.” This became even more clear a few years ago when the fossil-fuel divestment movement was launched, and it turned out that some “socially responsible” mutual funds owned oil and gas companies, including those exploiting the Canadian tar sands.
Nor, for the most part, did the socially responsible investment firms have the resources that would enable them to do the deep research needed to identify those companies that are committed to socially and environmentally sound practices, and those who are not.
That may–may–be changing.
I say that because several big Wall Street banks–Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch–are becoming increasingly interested in SRI which, interestingly, has been rebranded “sustainable, responsible and impact” investing by US SIF, an industry group. Today in the Guardian, I wrote about Goldman’s new head of environmental, social and governance (ESG), Hugh Lawson. Here’s how the story begins:
Wall Street’s big banks are becoming increasingly interested in sustainable investing. The most recent convert is Goldman Sachs: in June, it named Hugh Lawson, a partner and managing director, as its global head of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. This move was part of a larger trend: a month later, Goldman acquired Imprint Capital, a boutique investment firm that seeks measurable social and environmental impacts on top of financial returns.
“We think ESG is going, in essence, mainstream,” Lawson said. “A wider set of clients is interested.”
Those clients include public pension funds, insurance companies, universities and foundations that want their investments to take social and environmental issues into account. Given the size and scope of these large institutional investors, it’s not surprising that some of Wall Street’s major players are getting involved: Goldman and its rivals, including Morgan Stanley and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, are following the money, as they always do.
In addition to attracting big clients, the sustainable investing initiatives being led by Lawson and others – including Audrey Choi, who leads Morgan Stanley’s global sustainable finance group, and Andy Sieg, head of global wealth and retirement solutions for Merrill Lynch – have the potential to steer more capital into investments that promote corporate sustainability. “Clients are telling us that they want their portfolios to reflect their values and help improve the world they live in,” Sieg has said.
When we met a couple of weeks ago, Lawson told me that he became interested in sustainable investing while serving as a trustee of the investment committee at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which divested from fossil fuels last year. Lawson analyzed the relationship between divestment and financial returns, and came to believe that eliminating fossil fuel holdings from the fund’s $857m portfolio would not necessarily limit returns or increase risk.
What’s promising about about all this is that Goldman and its rivals intend to bring more rigor, sophistication and scale to the field of sustainable investing. As an example, Lawson told me that investment advisors could construct a portfolio that overweights companies that are carbon-efficient and underweights those that are high emitters. This could reward companies with the most favorable social and environmental profiles; over time, it might even generate above-market returns. In any event, bringing more resources and brainpower to sustainable investing is almost surely going to be a good thing.
Gap, Nike and Walmart can police their global supply chains to outlaw child labor but what about discount retailers and no-name brands?
McDonald’s can become a leader around animal health and welfare but other fast-food chains need not follow.
IKEA plans to power itself with 100 percent renewable energy while rivals who buy cheaper, coal-fired electricity can gain a competitive edge.
These examples point to a couple of obvious problems with voluntary corporate-responsibility initiatives. First, there’s no assurance that such initiatives are going to solve whatever problem it is that they are targeting; in fact, they won’t unless they are universally adopted or codified into law. Second, unless and until those companies that lead the way are rewarded by consumers (unlikely) or their workers (more probable), the leading companies can find themselves at a disadvantage.
This week at Guardian Sustainable Business, I look at the contrast between Best Buy, a corporate-responsibility leader, particularly around recycling, and Amazon.com, which until recently has been a CSR laggard.
Here’s how the story begins:
When my wife’s printer recently went on the fritz, she ordered a new one from Amazon, which arrived two days later. I took the broken printer to Best Buy, which offers free and easy recycling of electronics.
Is this a problem for Best Buy, I wondered? Collecting and recycling electronics costs money, and Best Buy’s program is open to anyone with electronic waste, from any manufacturer. No purchase necessary.
By contrast, Amazon, a key competitor – and the seller of both our old and new printers – offers little in the way of recycling and more broadly has been a laggard when it comes to corporate responsibility.
The Seattle-based online retail giant says on its website that it “recognizes, as do many of our customers, the importance of recycling electronic equipment at the end of its useful life”. But the company offers only a mail-in take-back programlimited to its own products, like the Kindle e-reader.
“It’s not quite break-even,” said Alexis Ludwig-Vogen, Best Buy’s director of corporate responsibility, of the program. This means, to put it bluntly, that Best Buy is collecting trash generated by Amazon, Walmart and other competitors.
The dynamic between Best Buy and its competitors is analogous to what economists call a free rider problem. Best Buy is providing what could be considered public goods, free recycling, at its own expense, and Amazon, Walmart and, for that matter, all the rest of us benefit. Electronics make up the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet, and recycling preserves metals and plastics, and reduces pressures on landfills. Efforts like Best Buy’s also help fend off regulation, which could benefit other companies.
You can read the rest of the story here.