Ramez Naam, ecomodernist

ramez

Ramez Naam

I was introduced to a set of ideas known as “ecomodernism” back in 2009, when I read Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, argued that cities are “greener” than the countryside, that low-carbon nuclear power will be need to curb climate change and that genetically-modified crops allow farmers to grow more crops on less land, thus preserving nature.

Ecomodernist ideas have gathered steam since then, driven in large part by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, the founders of The Breakthrough Institute. Recently, Michael and Ted herded together a group of scientists and economists — including Stewart, David Keith, Mark Lynas and Roger Pielke Jr. — to publish An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They write:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

In mid-June, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Breakthrough Dialogues, a conference in Sausalito where many of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto spoke. I’m increasingly persuaded that their arguments make more sense than the low-tech, anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, all “natural,” small-is-beautiful, local-beats-global approach to environmental issues pushed by the most traditional environmentalists. And even those green groups that are market-friendly, technology-friendly and science-friendly hesitate to stand up in favor of nuclear energy or GMOs.

All this is by way of introduction to Ramez Naam, the author of a book called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. He, too, is an ecomodernist, and a believer that regulated capitalism and technology will help us solve our environmental problems. I wrote about Ramez and his book today in The Guardian, in a story headlined: Ramez Naam: Capitalism is not the enemy of climate.

Here’s how the story begins:

Futurist and author Ramez Naam is an optimist, even when it comes to the problem of climate change, and for good reason.

As a student of world history, Naam has seen how humanity has flourished in the last century. People live longer and suffer less than before. Doom-and-gloom predictions have not just been proven wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Take food: some forecast that the world would starve by the 1970s. While population has doubled since then, the food supply has grown by two-and-half times, and today there are more obese people than malnourished people in the world.

“This is the best of times,” Naam writes in his 2013 nonfiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. “We live in a period of health, wealth and freedom never seen before.”

Natural resources – notably the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases – may be limited, Naam argues, but ideas and innovation are not.

The story goes on to talk about why, when it comes to climate change, the most important idea is a carbon tax, coupled with investment in energy R&D. You can read the rest of the story here. I’d also encourage you to read the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

Catching up, “creating” jobs and coffee pods

b3fe755a-d70b-48c4-a0a6-efece9924a03-620x372I’m just back from a wonderful vacation in Italy, and spending this week at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. To my surprise, I see that I haven’t posted here in more than a month. Lately, I’ve been writing more for my Nonprofit Chronicles blog, about how nonprofits and  foundations can become more effective. If you’re interested, please subscribe to the blog or “like” my Facebook page, which is devoted to the world of NGOs. I’m hoping to play a small role in the growing Effective Altruism movement, which aims to “do good better.”

Meantime, Guardian Sustainable Business published two of my business stories in May. The first story profiles an impressive investment firm called Huntington Capital which aims to invest in companies that create good jobs in places that need them. Here’s how it begins:

At the heart of the American Dream – the idea that anyone in the US, by dint of hard work and determination, can climb the economic ladder – is the American dream job. This is, the kind of job that can become a career, the sort of work that provides employees with decent wages, benefits, training and opportunities to better themselves. It’s the type of job that underlays a thriving economy.

It’s the type of job that San Diego-based investment firm Huntington Capital is trying to encourage companies to create.

On the surface, Huntington looks like a fairly standard fund company. It manages three funds that have a total combined investment of about $210m, most of which comes from pension funds, banks, insurance companies, foundations and wealthy families. Huntington, in turn, has invested this money in about 50 companies since its launch in 2001.

…What sets Huntington apart is its commitment to have – in its words – “a positive impact on underserved businesses and their communities”. The company calls itself an impact investor, meaning that it aims to generate returns that are social or environmental, as well as financial. Rather than focusing on Silicon Valley startups, a fairly well-worn investment landscape, it helps finance established, small and medium-sized companies in California and the southwestern US. Most of its target companies sell goods and services to other businesses, like air filtration products, janitorial work and enterprise software.

I learned about Huntington after reading “Managing vs. Measuring Impact Investment,” an excellent story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Morgan Simon, who co-leads Pi Investments, which invests in Huntington. She makes an important point–that creating jobs is not nearly as important as what kinds of jobs are created. Indeed, she goes so far as to argue that companies that create low-wage, no-benefit jobs actually make poverty worse because

“job creation” is a slippery concept: Outside of true innovation and demand generation, we can’t do much more than move jobs from one zip code to another. And even when jobs are created in a low-income community, if they are low paying, then by definition they are precisely what keep those communities locked into cycles of poverty.

How does that work? In general, we don’t just have a national unemployment problem; we have an employment problem, where more than two-thirds of children in poverty live in households where one or both parents work. The vast majority of these households are led by people of color, notably African Americans and Latinos who are twice as likely to be working poor.

…Rather than counting jobs, we were interested in the migration of low-quality jobs to high-quality jobs.

Last week, the Guardian published my story headlined The good, the bad and the ugly: sustainability at Nespresso. Here’s how it begins:

The sustainability story at Nespresso, a company that sells coffee machines and single-serve capsules, is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

On coffee sourcing, the company – part of Swiss multinational Nestle – is an industry leader, training coffee farmers and paying premium prices. In the last few years, it has invested in reviving coffee production in war-weary South Sudan. That’s good.

But the company’s single-serve aluminum pods create unnecessary waste. A valuable, energy-intensive resource winds up in landfills. That’s bad.

Nespresso won’t say how how many of its pods get recycled. Transparency is an essential ingredient of sustainability. So that’s ugly.

Like most companies, Nespresso is complicated. You can read the rest of the story here.

Gap’s Kindley Walsh Lawlor has a daunting job

f8cb190b-8aa5-4771-80f8-10a1ee04a3fa-400x600Nearly 20 years after retailers like Gap, Nike and Levi Strauss agreed to take a modicum of responsibility for the health and well-being of the workers who make their apparel and shoes around the world, progress has been made. How much? That’s what I wanted to talk to Kindley Walsh Lawlor, vice president of global sustainability at Gap, about when I went to see here some time ago.

Those companies have made a serious and persistent effort to eliminate child labor and abusive practices in the factories where their clothes are made, most agree. And the young women who work in garment factories are thought to be better off than those who work in agriculture or the informal company; otherwise, they might well have stayed in their villages. But garment workers remain low paid–just a few dollars a day, depending om which poor country we are talking about. A 2013 study found that wages for workers in most garment-exporting countries actually declined between 2001 and 2011. Competitive pressures to keep costs low are intense.

Lawlor’s one of the most respected corporate-responsibility executives in the industry. My story about her ran today in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Gap Inc, the parent company of Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy, sells about $16bn worth of clothing a year. Most of it is made by in Asia, by roughly 1 million workers in approximately 900 factories in China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

The daunting job of protecting their human rights belongs to Kindley Walsh Lawlor, the company’s vice president of global sustainability. Lawlor is the point person when a crisis hits factories where Gap clothes are made.

In 2010, 29 people died and more than 100 were injured when fire swept through a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that supplied Gap, among others. In 2013, a labor rights group charged that a Gap supplier, also in Bangladesh, forced workers to toil for more than 100 hours a week, kept two sets of books to cheat them of their pay and fired women who became pregnant. And two years ago, when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed, the spotlight again trained on global retailers – including those, like Gap, that didn’t have any contracts with factories there – and their supply chains.

What keeps Lawlor going? Her belief that progress is being made.

You can read the rest here.

Ceres and the “inside” game

Oil-rig-pumpIt’s been 45 years since the first Earth Day, and, as I was reminded when reading this brief history, some 20 million Americans — one in 10 of us — participated on April 22, 1970. That took organizing. And it delivered results: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, laws regulating the disposal of hazardous waste and the quality of drinking water, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, regulating chemicals in food, drugs and cosmetics. Such was the power of the environmental movement.

I’m inclined to think that environmentalists today ought to devote more of our money and time towards building or rebuilding that movement. Some–Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace–are trying to do so, but other, big, well-funded organizations continue to play the “inside” game, working to persuade elites–federal, state and local officials, corporate executives, investors–to change. Success will require both grass-roots power and policy change, to be sure, but without a more powerful movement, “inside” strategies aren’t going to get us where we need to go.

Last week in The Guardian, I wrote about the Carbon Asset Risk initiative, a campaign coordinated by Ceres and Carbon Tracker, with support from the Global Investor Coalition. To succeed, this campaign will require action by the SEC, investors and the boards of directors and executives of oil companies who, if all goes according to plan, will shift their capital outlays into low-carbon energy.

Here’s how my story begins:

Can fossil fuel companies be transformed into allies in the fight against climate change?

As unlikely as it might seem, a coalition of environmental groups and investors is trying to persuade coal, oil and gas companies to turn away from carbon-polluting sources of energy and invest in low-carbon alternatives.

Ceres, a Boston-based network of investors, companies and nonprofits, andCarbon Tracker, a London-based nonprofit that has popularized the notion of a “carbon bubble,” have organized a new campaign around carbon asset risks.

The campaign aims to get fossil fuel companies first to disclose the risks created by their dependence on carbon-intensive assets, and then, as Ceres puts it, “ensure they are using shareholder capital prudently” in a world that takes “the economic threat of climate change seriously.” Not today’s world, needless to say, but a world that the groups fervently hope will arrive in the not too distant future.

I dearly hope to be proven wrong but, much as I admire the people at Ceres, my gut reaction to this strategy is….are you kidding me?

As The Guardian reported last week, BP (“Beyond Petroleum”) invested billions of dollars in clean and low-carbon energy in the 1980s and 1990s “but later abandoned meaningful efforts to move away from fossil fuels.”

Now Ceres wants the SEC and Wall Street to persuade BP to invest in clean energy. Again.

I’m tempted to wrap up with the overused cliche about insanity, but I’ll resist.

You can read the rest of my story here.

One hundred low-cost tools for global women

A microfinance circle outside Hyderabad, India

A microfinance circle outside Hyderabad, India

In a gorgeous new large-format book called 100 under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women , author and activist Betsy Teutsch spotlights, uh, yes, 100 tools for empowering global women.

That’s what makes this book both inspiring and puzzling–the realization that so many different things can be done, at a relatively low cost, to help poor women climb out of poverty, without knowing which of those tools will work best.

I wrote about Betsy’s book for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

About 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. Solar panels might help, but rural people don’t often have the cash to buy them, or the ability to access bank loans.

Azuri Technologies, a UK-based firm that does business in 10 African nations, thinks that it might have the answer. It charges customers a one-time installation fee and then lets them use their mobile phones to make regular payments that – it claims – are less than what they now spend for kerosene or phone charging. In return, customers get eight hours of lighting a day and the ability to charge their phones. If all goes well, they own the system in about 18 months.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this business model: cash-strapped US shoppers have been buying on the layaway plan since the Great Depression. But pay-as-you-go solar lighting in Africa is a new twist, made possible by the declining costs of photovoltaic panels, the spread of cheap mobile phones, ubiquitous connectivity and cloud computing.

Environmentalist Betsy Teutsch highlights pay-as-you-go solar in her new book,100 under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, which looks at low-cost, high-impact tools that drive global development.

“This is integrating microcredit, mobile money and the solar panel,” Teutsch says. “If it brings you lights, if it brings you cell phone charging, if it brings you radio and if you get rid of kerosene, it’s transformative.”

Her book presents an array of similar tools that, according to Teutsch, have enormous potential to prevent disease, deliver clean energy, lift incomes and promote human rights. They range from simple and time-tested technologies like breastfeeding, hand-washing, bikes and vaccines to high-tech innovations like Solar Ear, a low-cost hearing aid powered by solar-charged batteries, and Inesfly, an insecticide-infused paint that protects against the blood-sucking vinchuca beetle, which spreads Chagas disease.

I go on to say, however, that

a problem with the 100-under-$100 model is that we don’t know as much as we should about how to alleviate poverty and empower women.

Microfinance, malaria nets and clean cookstoves are among Teutsch’s favored tools. Yet microfinance has suffered a series of setbacks in India and Bangladesh, and now there’s spirited debate among economists about whether it leads to gains in income, consumption or education. While mosquito nets clearly help stop the spread of malaria, many are used for fishing – and perhaps overfishing. And while clean cookstoves undoubtedly reduce indoor air pollution and save fuel, field studies indicate that underprivileged women have not embraced them. A reporter for Nature who spent months in India found that they often sit unused in corners, broken or simply abandoned.

book-cover-100-Under-100_miniIf any of you are reading my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles–and I do hope you will check it out, and subscribe–you’ll know that this is a current obsession of mine: Many nonprofit groups do a poor job, or make no effort at all, to measure their impact. So it’s difficult to donors, whether they be governments, foundations or individuals, to know how to be spent their charitable dollars.

This is not an excuse for inaction. I recently read Peter Singer’s excellent 2010 book, The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, in which he argues, persuasively, that most of us in the rich world are not doing nearly as  much as we could to alleviate suffering among the poor. He’s got a new book out exploring similar themes called The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. Read one of those, or watch his TED talk, then read Betsy’s book, and you will be well equipped to make a difference.

How “evil” Monsanto aims to protect the planet

Ethanols Environmental Damage

Iowa cornfield shows signs of erosion and fertilizer runoff. Climate Corporation aims to help farmers use fertilizer more efficiently. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Monsanto has been called one of the US’s most hated companies (see this, which is credible, and this, which is not). Maybe that’s because the St. Louis-based agricultural giant has enemies who are determined, as well as self-interested. (See this petition to Hillary Clinton from the so-called Organic Consumers Association.) Maybe it’s because the  St. Louis-based ag giant historically has done a poor job of explaining itself to the public. (Farmers appear to like Monsanto, which sold them $16 billion worth of seeds and crop-protection chemicals last year.) Whatever the explanation, Monsanto has been dogged by a series of misunderstandings and outright lies.

As David Friedberg, the CEO of Climate Corporation, wrote in an email to employees after he sold his San Francisco-based data startup to Monsanto in 2013:

Calling a company evil is easy. And if you do it enough times it can become the “reality”—because reality is just the most common perception. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth…

When I did my own research—to the source and in the science—I was amazed at how far these inaccurate statements had gone and how wrong so many people were, thinking they were right because they repeated the same things others did.

In the email, which was reported in The New Yorker, Friedberg, a former Google employee, goes on to say:

Did you know: Google sues more of its customers each year than Monsanto does? Google spends 3 times as much as Monsanto on Federal lobbying? There are more ex-Googlers in the Obama administration than there are ex-Monsanto employees?

Read the rest, please. You may be surprised by how much you’ve heard about Monsanto is wrong.

Recently, I went to see Friedberg in San Francisco to learn more about Climate Corp. and the potential for what’s often called precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is  a growth business (pun intended) and that’s a very good thing. A bunch of companies, including well-established firms like John Deere and DuPont’s Pioneer, as well as startups like FarmLogs and Farmers Business Network, are competing to unlock the power of agronomic data and make farming more efficient. It’s one more example of how technology is helping to drive sustainability.

The Guardian published my story about Friedberg and Climate Corp. today. Here’s how it begins.

David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corporation, expected pushback when he decided to sell his San Francisco-based big data company to Monsanto. He was surprised, though, when some of the loudest criticism came from his own father.

Lionel Friedberg – a Los Angeles filmmaker whose 1989 documentary, Crisis in the Atmosphere, was one of the first films to highlight the problem of global warming – reacted to the news by berating his son. “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world?” Friedberg recalled his father saying. “I thought you were trying to make the world a better place!”

As Friedberg the younger wrote in an email to Climate Corp employees after the 2013 sale, being chastised by his own dad “was really hard”. But he’s nothing if not a believer in facts, and so he marshaled enough evidence to persuade his father that the $930m sale to Monsanto was not just good for his business, but good for the planet. His email is worth reading, particularly if, like Friedberg’s dad, you’re a critic of Monsanto.

Now Friedberg and his colleagues need to persuade the world’s farmers that Climate Corp will help them save money, improve yields, adapt to climate change and improve the environment. And if the company manages to turn around a few more Monsanto critics, that would be a bonus.

Founded in 2006, Climate Corp is a leading player in the fast-growing business of precision agriculture. Using a data-driven approach, it seeks the most efficient use of fertilizer, seed, pesticides, land and water. It’s the next big idea in farming, Friedberg claimed when we met at his office in San Francisco. He compared the approach to the industrialization of agriculture, the green revolution and modern plant breeding.

The story goes on to explain how Climate Corp. hopes to deliver environmental benefits as well as financial returns to farmers. You can read the rest here.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

59a428e7-4ca9-4d6c-a14e-79964bedde8c-1020x612Back in January, I wrote a blog post headlined A modest proposal for big green NGOs that suggested, in what was intended to be a helpful way, that the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy urge their corporate allies to speak up in support of the EPA’s proposed rules to regulate coal plants, a cornerstone of the Obama administration climate policy.

They all assured me that they are doing the very best they can to persuade big companies to do so.

Well, it turns out they’re not having much success.

Today, The Guardian published my story about those corporate allies, headlined Why Corporate America is Reluctant to Take a Stand on Climate Action. I surveyed 50 companies that have worked with EDF, WWF or The Nature Conservancy asking them for their position on the EPA Clean Power Plan.

Guess how many of the 50 told me that they are working alongside their environmental partners to support the plan? Three–Google, Mars and Starbucks.

Most are staying out of the fight but as Anne Kelly of Ceres, which is lobbying for the plan, told me, their “silence isn’t neutrality.” Instead, their silence allows the US Chamber of Commerce and other conservative trade associations to speak for the business community on climate and energy issues. And, as you probably know, the chamber is no fan of climate regulation.

Here’s how my story begins:

Many environmental groups consider the Obama administration’s plan to regulate carbon-spewing coal plants, which aims to cut carbon pollution by 30%, as one of our last chances to win the fight against climate change.

But the vast majority of their top corporate partners – companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, FedEx, UPS, Target and Walmart, which have worked with environmental NGOs for years – aren’t backing them up, according to a Guardian survey.

The survey consisted of calls and emails to nearly 50 corporations that work with three environmental groups – Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund US – that have identified the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan as a top priority. These are Fortune 500 global companies that tout their sustainability efforts and celebrate their environmental partnerships.

Just three of them – Starbucks, Mars and Google – support the Clean Power Plan, which is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change efforts. Caterpillar and CSX Corp, a coal-carrying railroad, oppose the EPA plan. The vast majority take no position.

The reluctance of companies to take a stand raises questions about the depth of partnerships between companies and NGOs. By remaining quiet, these companies make it harder for the EPA to roll out the plan in the face of vehement opposition from fossil fuel companies and Republicans. “Silence isn’t neutral,” says Anne Kelly of Ceres, who is organizing companies to support the EPA.

The lack of public support could jeopardize the clean power plan, and – if the US isn’t able to make a strong climate commitment as a result – could ultimately undermine the success of the global climate talks in Paris this year.

The companies that won’t get involved say it’s because the regulation of power plant emissions is not core to their business. Environmentalists maintain that climate change is everybody’s business.

I hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of the story, and share it. I also put together a sidebar compiling the corporate responses that I collected to my survey.

I’m sorry to say that all of this points to the shallowness of much  corporate rhetoric about “sustainability.” It also tells me that, more than ever, we need a political movement to demand government action to stop climate pollution. Companies need to know that if they don’t take a stand on behalf of the climate, they’re going to hear about it from activist groups (where are you, Greenpeace, now that we need you?) and they’re going to risk losing the support of their employees and customers.

Put simply, without a whole lot more people pushing them in the right direction, GE, Goldman Sachs, IBM and Walmart aren’t going to get us where we need to go. Not even close.

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’m feeling that way. I must add that none of this is personal. I like and respect the people I know at EDF, WWF and The Nature Conservancy. They’re smart, dedicated and hard-working. But they’re mostly playing the same insiders game that failed to get climate legislation through Congress back in 2009.

I also admire the sustainability executives at many of the companies that are sitting on the sidelines of the climate fight. They’re great internal advocates for the cause, and they’re not to blame for this widespread corporate indifference. It’s their CEOs who need a wake-up call.

In the end, the issue of global warming is really not all that complicated: It’s time to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for carbon pollution. That’s just wrong, and that’s why the EPA rules should be everybody’s business.

Sparking sustainable aquaculture

photoOn a recent visit to Cambodia, I visited a poor fishing village not far from Siem Reap where thousands of tiny forage fish, pulled from a large freshwater lake called Tonle Sap, were left to dry in the sun by the side of a road. They were, as best as I could determine, bound for Thailand where they would ground up and made into feed for fish or chicken, which wind up in supermarkets, mostly in Asia. There’s nothing sustainable about this kind of fish farming, or poultry raising.

Yet aquaculture, done right, can be an important source of produce healthy protein. Aquaculture today provides almost half of all fish that humans eat. Its share is projected to rise to 62 percent by 2030 as catches from wild capture fisheries level off and an emerging global middle class demands more fish, according to the FAO.  “If responsibly developed and practised, aquaculture can generate lasting benefits for global food security and economic growth,” the UN organization says in a recent report.

A small investment firm called Aqua-Spark is trying to promote best practices in aquaculture. I reported on their efforts in a story posted today to Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

For better or worse – often for worse – aquaculture is the fastest-growing animal-based food industry. Half the seafood eaten in the US is farmed, and most of that is imported. Yet it’s not unusual for fish farms to pollute local waters, damage coastal habitatand deplete the oceans of feeder fish. Or, as the Guardian reported last year, exploit slave labour.

Aqua-Spark, a global investment fund based in the Netherlands, aims to do better. The fund, which focuses exclusively on aquaculture, recently made its first two investments, putting $2m into a biotech company called Calysta, whose technology makes fish feed out of methane gas, and another $2m into Chicoa Fish Farm, a tilapia-farming startup in Mozambique that intends to build up aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa.

These small steps won’t have much impact on the global aquaculture industry, which was valued at US $135bn in 2012 by IBIS World. But Aqua-Spark isn’t alone. Brands and retailers, including Unilever and Walmart, as well as NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, are all working to limit the environmental impacts of fish farming.

“There aren’t a lot of perfect models out there,” says Amy Novogratz, who founded Aqua-Spark with her husband, Mike Velings. “If we make investment available to the ‘best in class’ companies, they will help set a bar for sustainability. And if we can help them succeed, others will follow.”

And if you’re wondering, yes, Amy Novogratz is the younger sister of well-known social entrepreneur, activist and author Jacqueline Novogratz.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Keeping a close eye on all the world’s forests

Deforestation in the Andes

Deforestation in the Andes

Corporate commitments to protect forests are numerous. Unilever says it is “determined to drive deforestation out of our supply chains.” The giant paper company Asia Pulp and Paper promised to “eliminate all natural forest derived products” from its supply chain by 2020. Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, launched a “sustainability dashboard” to report its “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation” policy. Cargill, McDonald’s…the list goes on.

But how can governments, NGOs and customers be assured that these promises will be kept? Just as important, how can companies make good on their promises.

An ambitious effort to track the world’s forests, called Global Forest Watch, and launched a bit more than a year ago by the World Resources Institute, will be a big help. I visited Nigel Sizer, who leads the project, at WRI’s Washington office not long ago, spoke to users of the platform and then filed this report for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

The forestry website Mongabay recently reported that United Cacao, a London-listed company that promises to produce ethical, sustainable chocolate, had “quietly cut down more than 2,000 hectares of primary, closed-canopy rainforest” in the Peruvian Amazon. The company claimed that the land had been previously cleared, but satellite images showed otherwise.

The satellite images came from an online platform called Global Forest Watch, which provides reliable and up-to-date data on forests worldwide, along with the ability to track changes to forest cover over time.

Launched a year ago by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the platform has brought an unprecedented degree of transparency to the problem of deforestation, pointing to ways in which big data, cloud computing and crowdsourcing can help attack other tough sustainability problems.

Before Global Forest Watch came along, actionable information about forest trends was scarce. “In most places, we knew very little about what was happening to forests,” said Nigel Sizer, the global director of the forests program at WRI. “By the time you published a report, the basic data on forest cover and concessions was going to be years out of date.”

Several technology revolutions have changed that. Cheap storage of data, powerful cloud computing, internet connectivity in remote places and free access to US government satellite images have all made Global Forest Watch possible. None were widely available even a decade ago.

This last point has stuck with me. It’s the latest example, of many, of how rapid advances in technology can drive sustainability, and give us reason to be hopeful.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Nonprofit Chronicles: my new blog

IH012802-PCall me a contrarian. I read this just the other day about writing on the web:

Blogging?—? I mean, honey, don’t even say the word. No one actually blogs anymore, except maybe undergrads on their first week of study abroad.

Well, I’m starting a new blog.

The blog is called Nonprofit Chronicles, and it will explore a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: How are nonprofits performing?

It’s a question may have occurred to you when you donate money to charities.

It’s an important question. Nonprofit aim to alleviate poverty, save the environment, cure disease, educate people, promote social justice and protect human rights. In the US, the nonprofit sector accounts for about $2 trillion in economy activity and employs nearly 10 percent of the workforce. There are about 1.1 million nonprofits in the US, and another 80,000 foundations.

It’s also an exceptionally difficult question to answer. Measuring the impact of a nonprofit is much harder than gauging the success of a business. Happily, a lot of smart people in the world of foundations and NGOs are working hard to develop answers. I’ll going to begin my exploration by writing about some of them.

Over time, I’ll broaden the focus on Nonprofit Chronicles  to examine the best and worst nonprofits. What difference do they make? How do they set goals and measure success? How transparent are they? What have they learned from their mistakes?

Nonprofits are everybody’s business because they depend on US tax policy for their support; donations to charities are tax deductible. The Center for American Progress estimated in 2011 that the tax break would cost the US Treasury $315 billion over five years. Like tax deductions for mortgage interest and college-savings accounts, the charitable tax deduction disproportionately benefits those who are relatively wealthy–and their favorite causes.

For all these reasons, I’m certain that nonprofits deserve more journalistic attention.

I’m excited about this new venture, but I’m not quitting my day job. I’ll continue to write about the social and environmental impact of business as editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business US and here at marcgunther.com. Meantime, I hope you join me at Nonprofit Chronicles.

P.S. Just in case it’s true that no one reads blogs anymore, I’ll be posting my writings about nonprofits on my page at Medium. Medium is a simple and beautiful platform for story-telling on the web that was created in 2012 by Ev Williams and Biz Stone, the founders of Twitter.