A modest proposal for big green NGOs

da9cdecb-7922-49b2-b8a2-3ff0969881e4-1020x612Here’s an idea for big environmental NGOs that work with corporate partners: Kindly recommend to those partners that they raise their voices in Washington in support of the EPA’s proposed coal plant rules.

The coal plant rules are the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change policy. Yet they are being strongly opposed by mainstream Washington business lobbies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

The big corporate partners of the green groups could make a difference. They could support the rules on their own–few have done so–and, just as important, speak up inside the halls of the chamber and NAM, asking them to halt their opposition to the rules.

No climate issue matters more, Mindy Lubber of Ceres told me, for a story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business, which we’ll get to in a moment.

In a report on corporate engagement [PDF], WWF lists more than a dozen “corporate engagements with an annual budget greater than US$250,000.” Partners include Avon Products, Bank of America, The Coca-Cola Co., Domtar, Ecolab, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Mars, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Sealed Air, Sodexo and Toyota.

The Nature Conservancy says on its website that “the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission” and publishes a long list of partners, including 3M, Alaska Airlines, AT&T, Avon, Bank of America, BHP Billiton, Boeing, BP, Bunge, Cargill, Caterpillar, CH2MHill, Coca-Cola, CSX Transportation, Delta, Disney, Dow Chemical, EcoLab, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Harley Davidson, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Kimpton Hotels, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Monsanto, Mosaic, Patagonia, PepsiCo, Rio Tinto, SABMiller, Shell, Target, TDBank, Uber and Xerox.

The Environmental Defense Fund, for its part, works with AT&T, Caterpillar, DuPont,  KKR, McDonald’s, Ocean Spray, Starbucks and Walmart, among others.

I could go on but you get the point. Now contrast those lists with the challenges faced by Mindy Lubber and Ceres, as they try to line up companies to back the EPA rules. That’s why my story is about, and here is how it begins:

As the US political fight over climate change moves from Washington DC to 50 state capitals, companies that are serious about sustainability need to support theEPA’s proposed rules to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

So, at least, says Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a nonprofit that brings together companies, investors and public-interest groups to advocate for sustainability.

“Companies have the strength and power – the footprint to make a huge difference,” Lubber told me at a lunch earlier this month. Ceres celebrates its 25th anniversary Tuesday.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the proposed power plant rules, which are the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. Power plants account for nearly 40% of all US greenhouse gas emissions.

What Ceres has found, Mindy told me, is that it’s hard to get big companies to support  the EPA and the president, and overcome their habitual, instinctive resistance to government regulation.

Last month, as I wrote in the Guardian, Ceres released a statement supporting the rules that was signed by more than 200 companies but most were small or midsized. Big firms to sign on included Ikea, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nestle, Nike, Novelis, VF and Unilever. They are to be commended.

Ceres’s list would carry a lot more weight if other NGOS like WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense persuaded  most or all their corporate partners to sign on.

Until they do, conservative trade associations like the US Chamber, NAM, the National Mining Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which have joined together to oppose the EPA rules, will be speak for business in Washington. I’ve never understood why so many companies that profess to care about the environment — and, in my view, actually do care about the environment — have allowed that to happen.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Healthy junk food? Hey, why not?

brian-wansink-hero2Let them eat kale is not a recipe for solving America’s obesity crisis. Trust me. I’ve tried kale. I like Indian food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, Mexican food. I like spinach. But kale? It ain’t happening. Not for me, not for most people.

Instead, re-engineering the foods that most of us already enjoy – pizza, burgers and the like – might help all of us to become healthier. That, at least, is what Hank Cardello, a former food-industry executive and author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s Really Making America Fat, would like us to believe.

I interviewed Hank for a story for Future Food 2050, a website about “how ingenuity will feed the world” sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here’s how my story begins:

Future consumers should be able to have their cake and eat it too—without getting fat.

So says Hank Cardello, who directs the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute and wrote the best-selling book “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat and How the Food Industry Can Fix It” (Harper Collins, 2009). Products like soft drinks, burgers, fries, pizza and cupcakes should all be reconfigured as lower in calories and “better for you” to help alleviate the ongoing obesity crisis in America and other developed nations, argues this noted consultant to food industry powerhouses. Cardello contends this will enable the industry to grow even as the waistlines of consumers shrink.

Healthy junk food, Cardello maintains, need not be an oxymoron. “If we are going to make progress, we are going to have to focus on taking the most popular foods and modifying them,” he says. “That should be a rallying call for food scientists, kind of like putting a man on the moon. We’ve got to take french fries and burgers and everything else and … find ways to make them better for you without compromising them. This way, you don’t ask the consumers to change their eating habits.”

In fact, companies are already moving in this direction, Cardello explains. McDonald’s hamburgers are, as it happens, leaner than those of competing chains, and Chick-Fil-A has reduced the amount of chicken in its sandwiches—saving the company money and reducing calories for the consumer.

Cardello goes on to say that he’d like to get past polarization that has characterized much of the obesity debate, with activists blaming Big Food, and putting business executives on the defensive. I think he’s right about that. The causes of obesity are complex. The solutions are likely to come, at least in part, from the food industry.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Brainstorm Green: What’s next?

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

In 2007, Andy Serwer, the managing editor of FORTUNE, where I was then a senior writer, asked me to work with the magazine’s conference division to create a conference about business and the environment. His timing was excellent. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain had promised to act to curb climate change. A global climate agreement seemed possible. A wave of clean technology startups were attracting attention and investment in Silicon Valley. And big companies like General Electric and Walmart had put sustainability squarely on their corporate agendas.

On Earth Day in 2008, the inaugural Fortune Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton Huntington hotel in Pasadena. Speakers included Michael Dell, Doug McMillon (who’s now the CEO of Walmart), venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, David Crane of NRG Energy, Gov. Jerry Brown (then the attorney general of California), Dave Steiner of Waste Management, Stewart Brand, Mark Tercek (then at Goldman, now head of The Nature Conservancy), Gary Hirshberg, Janine Benyus,  J. Craig Venter, Andy Karsner, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, and Shai Agassi, the founder of electric-car company Better Place. Some of America’s most important environmental leaders–Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, Peter Seligmann, Mike Brune, Mindy Lubber and John Passacandanto–spoke. Chuck Leavell played keyboards and Shawn Colvin sang. It was too much fun to be called work.

In 2009, Brainstorm Green moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA, where it has remained. The theme of the event never changed: How can business profitably solve the world’s most important environmental problems? I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green for these past seven years, and it has been, for the most part, a rewarding experience.

About a year ago, I decided that I no longer wanted to co-chair Brainstorm Green, for a variety of reasons. I liked programming the conference and I enjoyed moderating interviews and panels, but the process of recruiting speakers year after year, which requires the patient massaging of corporate egos, had become tiresome. What’s more, a good deal of the excitement that had gathered around corporate sustainability during the event’s early years has since faded. Unhappily, the politics of environmentalism turned bitterly partisan, dooming Obama’s cap-and-trade plan. The financial crisis dampened corporate enthusiasm for all things green. Clean tech slumped, and Better Place flamed out.

Last fall, Fortune rebranded Brainstorm Green as Brainstorm E: Where Energy, Technology and Sustainability Meet.  It will be held on September 28 and 29 in Austin, Texas. The powers-that-be at the magazine decided that selling a “green” event to corporate sponsors had become too difficult. Perhaps they’re right.

The best thing about Brainstorm Green, I daresay, were the relationships forged there. A deal or two came out of the event — one year, Bill Ford met Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and later Ford Motor bought a stake in Zipcar — and I know a couple of people landed new jobs there. That’s typical of conferences. But, at least for me, Brainstorm Green felt like more than just another “networking” event. For a few days every spring, a community of sorts formed around a shared belief that business could do good. Collectively, we were trying to make that happen. I’m going to miss many of the Brainstorm Green regulars (yes, that means you, Dhiraj Malkani) as well as the Fortune colleagues with whom I worked so closely over the years, particularly the incomparable Tony Hansen.

These days, I’m spending most of my time writing for Guardian Sustainable Business. But stepping away from Brainstorm Green will give me time for other pursuits. I’ve got a new project in mind (watch this space) and I’m also hoping to moderate at other conferences and corporate events. To that end, I’ve put together these excerpts from my moderating work.

Books I liked in 2014

For my last blog post of the year, I’d like to share with you some of the books that I enjoyed reading in 2014. I made a conscious effort this year to do less work-related reading, which isn’t always easy — so many books about business, sustainability and the environment come my way from publishers and authors — but I’m glad I did.

imageMy favorite nonfiction book of the year was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs. It’s the story of an extraordinary young man named Rob Peace, who grew up in a poor, violent, drug-addled suburb of Newark but managed to escaped–temporarily–in part because he was blessed with devoted parents. His father, known as Skeet, was a street hustler who spent the final years of his life in jail, convicted of murder, yet managed to teach Rob both perfect penmanship and the dirty street-fighting tactics to deploy in a tight spot. His mother Jackie had little education and not  enough money, at one point, to pay a few hundred dollars a year of tuition to keep Rob in a Catholic elementary school where he was thriving, but she instilled in him a sense that he was destined to do great things. He was, in fact, not only brainy but tough and possessed of an insatiable curiosity and lifelong quest for new experience that  carried him, not just to Yale, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, but to Ipanema beach in Rio (after teaching himself Portugese) and Croatia, with a high school buddy–trips that he was able to afford after taking a job as a baggage handler at Continental Airlines because the perks included free standby travel. Rob also provided for himself and helped support his mother and grandparents by dealing marijuana, in copious quantities, to his priviliged classmates at Yale.

Rob’s freshman year roommate was as aspring novelist named Jeff Hobbs, a well-to-do son  of a doctor whose father, brother and sister were all Yale grads. Rob and Jeff, who Rob mockingly calls “Da Jeffrey.” become unlikely and close friends who live together throughout their time at Yale and, while Hobbs remains mostly in the background,  his connection to Rob Peace, and admiration for him, lends this book a deeply-felt emotion. Hobbs also turns out to be a dogged reporter who reconstructs Rob’s life before and after Yale in vivid and mesmerizing detail.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my favorite novel of the year, is alsoimage about race, class, privilege and identity. It’s the coming of age story of a spirited young girl from Nigeria named Ifemelu, who comes to New York on a student visa and, after stints as a nanny and worse, finds fame as a blogger. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, and it’s hilarious. (She writes a lot about hair.) Eventually, Ifemelu makes her way back to Nigeria where she re-encounters her teenage boyfriend, Obinze, who has made his fortune in England. The book, which pushes 500 pages, sprawls a bit but it is never dull, and Adiche is a shrewd observer of human foibles.

Like many of us baby boomers, especially those with aging parents, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about growing old. I read two terrific, but very different, books on the topic. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes a compelling case that the America’s health care system has valued longevity above all else, without much consideration of the question of how we want to pass our final years. That makes it sound like a treatise and it’s not; it’s a series of stories about people growing old, including not only Gawande’s patients but his father. Equally moving is Roz Chast’s laugh-out-loud and cry-to-yourself graphic novel, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, about what happens to her parents (and to her) when they are no longer able to live in the Brooklyn apartment they had inhabited for nearly half a century.

I’ve always been attracted to books that explain complex, arcane, even obscure subjects in entertaining ways. Michael Lewis and Elizabeth Kolbert are willing to bring their gifts for storytelling to the toughest of subjects, so I’ll read just about anything they write. Lewis’s Flash Boys is an unexpectedly lively book about high-speed trading on Wall Street, of all things. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert travels far and wide, from Costa Rica and Paris to the Great Barrier Reef, to show us how we are on a path to destroying fully half of the world’s species this century. It’s not as grim as it sounds, perhaps because she brings a wry sense of humor to science writing.

There’s been an explosion of smart journalism about food lately that has brought forth a number of excellent books, two of them written journalist colleagues and friends. In American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, Paul Greenberg explores the roots of the US’s seafood deficit, and argues that we should buy more fish that are caught (or farmed) nearby. Sam Fromartz, a Washington, DC-based writer and a skilled baker, travels across the US and Europe — baking baguettes in Paris, rye bread in Berlin and sourdough in California–to bring us In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Baker’s Odyssey. Sam’s book will inspire you to try baking. I haven’t done so yet, but maybe next year.

Other books that I enjoyed this year:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Does spending time with groups of people invigorate you–or deplete you? If it’s the latter (as it is with me), you must read this book.

The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, by Megan McArdle. The columnist and blogger argues that one of the secrets of America’s success is that we don’t hold it against people when they screw up.

All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai. A New York Times writer’s account of the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is fresher and more relevant to today’s world of journalism and entertainment than you might expect.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts. A moral philosopher as well as an economist, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments to guide people on how to live, as Roberts explains in this reader-friendly volume.

Vietnam, Now by David Lamb. A Los Angeles Time reporter who covered the war in the 1960s returns in the late 1990s to see what has changed, as capitalism arrives in Vietnam. I read this to prepare for my holiday trip to Vietnam and, in fact, I am posting this blogpost from Hanoi–a sentence that certainly could not have been written 10 or 15 years ago. Vietnam was part of my adolescence. I opposed and protested the war during high school (where my anti-war speech on graduation day drew catcalls) and I’m excited to be visiting this vibrant  nation of 90 million people for the first time. One thing I can tell you already–Vietnam is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in its history, and that can be said about a surprising number of places in the world today. The world has its troubles, to be sure, but for all its woes, tomorrow is likely to be better than today, and next year is likely to better than this. And that’s one reason to look forward to 2015.

Enjoy the holidays and happy new year.

Sustainable business, from the bottom up

fishermen-were-supported-by-fao-in-fishing-equipemnt-and-capacity-building

For the most part, corporate sustainability programs drive change from the top down. If Apple wants to improve safety at the factories where its products are made, or Walmart wants to reduce fertilizer runoff in agriculture, or McDonald’s pledges to buy beef raised in environmentally friendly ways, those companies set targets and goals, they deploy a mix of carrots and sticks to bring their suppliers along, those suppliers push further down the chain and, if all goes well, workers, farmers and maybe the planet are all a little better off.

Whatever one thinks of this theory of change–my view is that it works quite well–it does little for the billions of people who are untouched by global supply chains. In my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, I write about a project called Fish Forever that is designed to help fishermen and women who work beyond the reach of global supply chains.

I heard about Fish Forever from Brett Jenks, the chief executive of a conservation group called Rare, which is based in Arlington, VA.

Interestingly, Fish Forever is a collaboration of Rare with the Environmental Defense Fund and the sustainable fisheries group at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). It’s uncommon but welcome to see NGOs working together this way.

Here’s a bit more about the program, from my story:

Fish Forever is launching this year in five countries – Belize, Brazil, Indonesia, Mozambique and the Philippines. It targets fishers with a single boat or two, as well as those who fish from shore. In developing countries, these mostly poor, small-scale fishers account for half of all fish caught, the vast majority of which is consumed domestically….

Each Fish Forever partner brings expertise to the partnership. Environmental Defense has been a pioneer in rebuilding fisheries through what is often called rights-based management. Rare specializes in mobilizing communities in poor countries on behalf of conservation. And the scientists at UCSB are experts in monitoring and measuring the health of fisheries.

Here’s how the program works: with the backing of state or national governments, local fishers get exclusive fishing rights to a community fishing areas – a bay or stretch of coast. The community then has good reason to adopt conservation practices because it will reap the benefits if they work.

Typically, those practices include the establishment of a marine preserve, also known as no-take zone, located inside the community fishing area, or nearby. These no-take zones give fish in the area the opportunity to recover and regenerate themselves. Local fishers enforce the no-take zones themselves.

The idea is to create incentives for the community to think long-term about the value of their natural asset, and take steps to protect it.A sense of ownership leads to stewardship. As a wise man once said, no one washes a rental car.

Rare isn’t a high-profile NGO but it has attracted support from some big names. Michael Bloomberg, Hank and Wendy Paulson and Jeremy Grantham are all donors. Which leads me to conclude that Brett Jenks and his group must be doing something right.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Some reason for optimism on climate change

photo (18)Not since the ill-fated UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 has there been as much optimism as there is now about curbing the risks of climate change. Government negotiators converged this week in Lima, Peru, to lay the foundation for a possible global climate agreement next year in Paris. Veteran reporter Andrew Revkin has a typically excellent and thorough post on the state of play at his Dot Earth blog.

In hopes of learning a bit more myself, I went to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington today to hear Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, discuss the climate negotiations, in conversation with Mark Tercek, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

They, too, sounded hopeful.

“The agreement between the US and China is an extremely important milestone,” Kim said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. I’m much more optimistic than I was a year ago.” The bank’s commitment to driving economic development in poor countries, he argued, can be aligned with the goal of moving the world toward a low-carbon economy.

But how? Kim’s presentation was short on specifics and, to be honest, a bit disappointing. He arrived nearly half an hour late, citing security concerns around a visit to the World Bank by Prince William, of all things, and then read a wonky speech, without showing much passion or even a sense of urgency around the climate threat.

To be sure, Kim said all the right things. He called for the regulation of carbon pollution and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. He didn’t put it this way but it’s bonkers to allow people (all of us, not just the fossil fuel industry) to emit carbon pollution into the atmosphere for free, while providing hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies that encourage people to burn more oil, coal and natural gas. That’s a recipe for disaster.

“All countries should commit to put a price on carbon,” Kim said. “It’s a necessary if not sufficient step on the road to zero net emissions.” The Canadian province of British Columbia, he noted, enacted a carbon tax that has grown from $10 CN to $30 CN, and “British Columbia’s GDP has outperformed the rest of Canada’s since implementing the tax.”

Meantime, he said, “removing harmful fossil fuel subsidies is long overdue.” This will harm the poor in some countries by raising fuel prices, he acknowledged, so the elimination of subsidies could be accompanied by  “safety nets and cash transfers” to the poor.

Solving the climate problem will take the world economy into uncharted territory, Kim said. No rich country has ever reduced poverty and created prosperity for its citizens without burning cheap fossil fuels.

In that light,  it’s not surprising that some politicians in the developing world–notably Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi–say they need to focus on development now, and climate at some future date.

(Kim didn’t say so but India can also make the case that it was the US and EU that created the climate problem, and they should clean it up–the issue sometimes described as “climate justice.” See below for a fantastic interactive timeline of climate emissions from major polluting countries from the World Resources Institute.)

“We’re going to do everything we can to help India down a cleaner path,” Kim said, again without saying precisely how. “Four hundred million people living on less than $1 a day. That is also his (Modi’s) responsibility.”

Poor countries like India and Bangladesh, of course, stand to suffer from climate-related storms and drought–a compelling reason for them to act.

As Kim put it: “The science is pretty astounding.” Not to mention frightening.

Here’s the WRI timeline. If you click on “emissions” at the top and then the “loop” button below, you will see how climate emissions provide a window into the rise and fall of the world’s powers in the last 150 years.

Business and human rights

palaisdesnations
I’m just back from a few days in Geneva, where I moderated a panel at the 3rd annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. I met some interesting people—Mo Ibrahim, the African telecom billionaire, who is now a prominent philanthropist, and Ambassador Keith Harper, a lawyer and advocate for Native Americans who is the US representation on the UN Human Rights Council–and learned a bit about business’s involvement with human rights issues around the world.

Traditionally, of course, governments have been entrusted with the job of protecting human rights. But in the last decade, human rights activists have drawn business into the fray. Yahoo was excoriated for providing information about a Chinese dissident, Shi Tao, who was then sentenced to a 10-year prison term. Internet service providers have had to wrestle with censorship issues around the world. Meantime, pressures on retailers and brands to improve factory conditions in their supply chains put them in the position of enforcing labor laws in poor countries, including China, where governments failed to do that job.

Several years ago, the UN asked Harvard law professor John Ruggie to draw up a set of principles to guide businesses on human rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were endorsed by the UN in 2011, and this week’s forum was intended, in part, to figure out how to further advance those principles. About 2,000 people from governments, NGOs and business attended.

Alas, like many UN events, this one was stilted. CEOs and activists alike droned through prepared speeches suffused with platitudes and generalities. (One exception: Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, who was terrific.) With the support of some excellent UN staff people, I tried as a moderator to bring things down to earth and to provoke some honest conversation, but I didn’t succeed as well as I had hoped to.

But the forum stimulated my own thinking about the roles of governments and business when it comes to  human rights. The Guiding Principles are careful to define those roles—governments, it says, should “protect” human rights and business should “respect” them—and the intention is clearly to limit the role of business to those places where they have influence, notably their operations and supply chains. But discussions at the forum (and elsewhere) blurred those distinctions.

That led me to write a story for Guardian Sustainable Business suggesting that that we may be asking too much of business. Here’s how it begins:

Scan the headlines about modern day slavery in Qatar, forced labor in Uzbekistan, a ban on trade unions in Swaziland, a draconian anti-gay law in Uganda andwidespread economic and social discrimination against women – as well asmillions of children who are abused, neglected or exploited – and it is hard to argue that global corporations are being asked to do too much to protect human rights.

And yet as the number of human-rights demands placed on business – and particularly on global companies with supply chains in poor countries – continues to escalate, there’s a risk that governments will be let off the hook. After all, governments are obligated, if not always willing or able, to protect human rights.

This is one of the themes that arose at this week’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, an annual meeting that attracted about 2,000 people from business, government, labor groups and nonprofits to the sprawling Palais de Nations compound in Geneva. The meeting comes three years after the UN endorsed a set of guiding principles on business and human rights, which define the private sector’s responsibilities in broad terms.

One of the difficulties for companies taking on the responsibility of protecting human rights is that the definition of the term “human rights” is infinitely expandable. The UN says it includes labor rights, gender rights, children’s rights, gay rights, cultural rights, freedom of expression, the right to food and water, land rights, indigenous people’s rights, the rights of development and self-determination, all of which are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. One panel at this week’s conference pondered the question: “Does the world need a human-rights-based convention on healthy diets?”

It’s no wonder some companies duck and hide what they are doing to protect human rights.

In retrospect, I wish had noted the distinction in the guiding principles between government’s obligation to “protect” and business’s to “respect.” Still, if human rights activists and the UN hope to win broader adoption of the principles, particularly in the US, where anything having to do with the UN is met with skepticism, people need to be clear about what they are asking of business. It may be that when it comes to human rights, the most important job of business is to get governments to do their job.

You can read the rest of my story here.

The trouble with local food

nicollet-mall-farmers-marketI enjoy shopping at the farmers market in Bethesda, Md., where I live. It’s a pleasant way to pass time on a Sunday morning, and a chance to run into friends and neighbors.  I feel good about supporting farmers who work nearby. Sure, it’s pricey–I was shocked to pay $8 for a sliver of cheese a while back and if I remember correctly, fresh tuna sells for $30 per pound–but the food at the farmers’ market is pricey the way a Venti Starbucks yada-yada-yada is pricey. You’re not buying cheese, tuna or coffee. You’re partaking of an experience.

What you are not doing is saving the planet.

The best thing for the environment is to not to grow food locally but to grow crops in the places where they grow best–places where the soil, rainfall and climate suit whatever is being grown.

So, at least, says Greg Page, the former CEO and current executive chairman of Cargill, the giant food company that grows, processes and ships agricultural and food products around the world. Of course you would expect Page, who is 62 and has worked his entire career at Cargill, to favor a globalized food system. But, as he notes, there’s no particularly good reason to treat food differently from other consumer goods that are produced efficiently and then shipped to where they are needed. We don’t worry about local big-screen TVs or local running shoes or local auto parts.

I interviewed Page last month in Washington, and wrote about him this week at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Long before Greg Page became the executive chairman of Cargill, one of the world’s largest food companies, the company dispatched him to Thailand to build a chicken plant in a rural province north of Bangkok. “It was a chance”, he said, “to start a business from scratch in an overseas location, while having access to the resources of Cargill”. Plus, he noted with a smile, he was “12 hours from headquarters … I loved it”.

Today, Cargill Meats Thailand imports soymeal from Brazil and Argentina to feed chickens, which are raised, slaughtered, processed, cooked and frozen into a wide range of products, most destined for restaurants and supermarkets in Japan, Europe, Canada and Hong Kong. Chicken parts that don’t appeal to western appetites — feet, heads and the like — are consumed locally or exported to nearby Asian markets.

To locavores who want to look their farmer in the eye, to the advocates of food sovereignty, and to those who argue that ‘cooking solves everything’, this is a nightmarish way to produce food. But to Greg Page, who has spent 41 years at Cargill and is now its executive chairman, global trade in food and agriculture is not only good for producers and consumers — it’s also a key element of a sustainable food system.

“Trade facilitates sustainability,” Page said when we met recently at Cargill’s Washington, D.C., office. “The world was not endowed with good soil and good rainfall equally. You want to move production to the right soil and the right climate, where it belongs.”

Of course, as Page knows, it’s not quite that simple. All other things being equal (and they rarely are), buying locally makes environmental sense, keeps food fresher and reduces waste. We may want to restrict agricultural imports from certain places because of food-safety concerns. And, as some of the commenters on my Guardian story say, the globalization of agriculture raises issues about land and water use and trade’s impact on poor farmers who can’t compete with large-scale agriculture.

But I’m trying to make a simpler point here–that local does not equal sustainable. Trade can be a glorious thing, Fair Trade is even better, and agriculture is no exception.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Fish story: The potential of aquaponics

UrbanOrganics_RackWithPools_LowRes

During my trip to Minneapolis for last month’s Net Impact conference, I found time to visit a fascinating little startup called Urban Organics (above) in nearby St. Paul. Located in an abandoned brewery (where Hamm’s used to brew beer), Urban Organics now raises tilapia and basil, practicing aquaponics.

Last week, I wrote about the company for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Backyard hobbyists, university researchers, nonprofits, restaurants and even inmates at a federal prison in Indiana are growing food using aquaponics, a technology for raising fish and plants together in a recirculating system. So far, though, no one has been able to build a large-scale, commercial aquaponics business.

In an abandoned brewery in St Paul, Minnesota, a startup company called Urban Organics is trying to change that. Since last spring, Urban Organics has been raising tilapia, basil and lettuce, with the help of a much-bigger neighbor – a $7bn industrial company called Pentair that believes that aquaponics is on the verge of becoming a viable form of farming.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). Fish – in this case, about 3,200 tilapia – are raised in big tanks made of high-density polyethylene. Their wastewater flows out of the tanks, gets cleaned up a bit and is pumped to the growing beds, where it becomes food for the plants. After the plants extract nutrients from the water, it’s filtered again and returned to the fish tanks. While the process is energy-intensive – the plants need artificial light to grow indoors – food can be grown year-round in urban areas, near to markets.

Aquaponics is a cool idea. There’s something appealing about using the waste from the fish to feed the plants. Producing food near to where it is consumed sounds logical; the food will be fresh, and you save money on transport.

But it’s by no means clear that aquaponics will be able grow from a hobby into a scalable business. All those plants need lights, so the electricity costs are significant. The environmental benefits, if any, of aquaponics remain to be seen.

Still, the science and technology are relatively new and the fact that a big company like Pentair has high hopes for aquaponics got my attention. Chicago has its own fast-growing aquaponics startup, called Farmed Here, which sells its greens at Whole Foods.

You can read the rest of my story here.

How green are green bonds?

corp-bondSome $34 billion in bonds labeled as green have been sold so far in 2014, three times as much as last year. Some experts predicting that as much as $100 billion of green bonds will be sold in 2015. These bonds — issued by governments, companies and international financial institutions like the World Bank — will help to finance solar and wind energy, hybrid cars, efficient buildings, cleaner waterways.

This sounds like unalloyed good news–and it may be. It’s just hard to know.

Today, the YaleEnvironment360 website posted my story about green bonds, headlined with a question: Can Green Bonds Bankroll A Clean Energy Revolution? Again, the answer is maybe. That unsatisfying, perhaps, but that’s the way it is.

That’s because, for the moment, a green bond is any bond that an issuer decides to label as green. Big banks and NGOs are working to set stricter standards, but they will take a while to arrive. So, for example, corn ethanol, nuclear power and methane capture while fracking could all be deemed green.

The bigger question, though, is whether green bonds are financing projects that, without them, would not get done. Again, that’s hard to say. But if all we are getting with green bonds are labels on bonds that would have been issued anyway, we’re wasting our time.

That said, there’s potential here–at heart, the potential to attract new money to finance low-carbon infrastructure. So the boom is green bonds is worth watching.

Here’s how my story begins:

Looked at from one angle, climate change is an infrastructure problem. To limit global warming to 2 degrees C and avoid the worst effects of climate change, about $44 trillion will need to be invested in low-carbon projects like wind farms, solar panels, nuclear power, carbon capture, and smart buildings by 2050, the International Energy Agency estimates. That’s more than $1 trillion a year — roughly a four-fold jump from current investment levels.

Where’s the money going to come from? Maybe from green bonds, say bankers and environmentalists alike. Green bonds, which are also known as climate bonds, are fixed-income investments that are designed to finance environmentally friendly projects. Pioneered by international development banks — the European Investment Bank issued the first climate bond in 2007, followed a year later by the World Bank — they are today issued by state and local governments (Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and the cities of Stockholm and Spokane, Washington, among others) and by big companies (Bank of America, Unilever, and the French utility GDF Suez).

Uses of the bond proceeds are varied. The World Bank sold green bonds to raise funds for geothermal energy in Indonesia and free compact fluorescent bulbs for the poor in Mexico. Massachusetts raised money to clean up a superfund site. Energy company EDF’s green bond financedwind farms in France, and Toyota used the proceeds from a green bond to make loans to American consumers who buy hybrid cars.

The story goes on to explain why “green bonds may not be all they’re cracked up to be.” You can read the rest here.