Sustainability advocates who deserve thanks

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I ran into Hunter Lovins last week at a meeting of business leaders at the UN. She’s wearing a black hat but she’s one of the good people. Author, activist, sustainability consultant, force of nature — Hunter always has plenty to say, and she says it bluntly and passionate.

At the UN gathering of executives from companies that are part of the UN Global Compact LEAD group, Hunter got into a friendly debate with Joel Bakan, a law professor and corporate critic, whose 2004 documentary, The Corporation, likened corporations to psychopaths.

Hunter argued that business, not government, is more likely to lead us to a sustainable future. Joel took the opposite view. I wrote about the debate here, in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

“We’re in a horse race with catastrophe,” Hunter told me afterwards. “Can corporations move fast enough? Government cannot. It will not. Corporations might. Will they? I don’t know. On that turns the future of the world.”

Not a bad summary of where things stand today. Hunter’s not just a good talker but a do-er, working with a variety of companies — her future and past clients include Walmart, Unilever, Patagonia, Clif Bar, Interface –to help them become not just sustainable but, ideally, regenerative.

With Thanksgiving approaching, this is a good time to thank people like Hunter–those who, as insiders or advisers, are working in the trenches of corporate America, trying to persuade their companies to become part of the solution to big social and environmental problems.

It can be a tough slog, but it’s important work. That’s while this fall in Guardian Sustainable Business, we’ve been running a series of brief q-and-a’s that showcase sustainability executives. Some are with people who I know well, and others I hardly know at all. But I persuaded my colleagues to run the series because they don’t get enough credit for the work they do.

Here are some of the people I’ve talked to, in no particular order:

Tim Mohin of AMD, about an electronics industry coalition that is seeking to improve factory conditions in the developing world.

Frank O’Brien-Bernini of Owens-Corning, about the need to be rigorous when dealing with environmental issues.

Kathrin Winkler of EMC, about electronic waste.

Rhonda Clark of UPS, about carbon emissions reductions.

Adam Mott of North Face, on the responsible cycling of down.

Vince Digneo of Adobe, about green teams.

Paulette Frank of Johnson & Johnson, about recycling.

Amy Hargroves of Sprint, about the importance of standards.

Marcus Chung of The Children’s Place, about the need to go beyond factory auditing.

If you’d like to nominate someone (or yourself) for this series, let me know. Meantime, thanks to all for participating–and for all the good work you do.

A burger grows in Brooklyn, and musings about meat

Fresh hamburger with fried potatoesThe other day, at Net Impact’s annual conference in Minneapolis, I moderated a panel called the “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” about eating meat in a carbon constrained world. It’s becoming a familiar conversation. Every other day, it seems, Guardian Sustainable Business, where I do most of my writing, runs a story about alternative proteins, like seaweed and insects. Regular readers know that I write a lot about meat, not just for the Guardian but for Fortune, which ran this story about a company called Beyond Meat and for YaleEnvironment360 where I wrote an essay that asked: Should Environmentalists Just Say No to Eating Beef?

So, during the Net Impact panel, I must admit that I was surprised to see a chart from Ian Monroe, the CEO of a startup called Oroeco, that put the climate-change impact of beef in context. This isn’t the exact chart, but the numbers are similar (carbon footprinting is a very inexact science). You will see that the GHG footprint of beef (combined with lamb, it’s 0.9t CO2e) is smaller than driving, or using electricity at home. For those of us who travel a lot, flying generates far more GHG emissions than anything we eat. Beef, to put it simply, is not that big a deal when it comes to #climate change.

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In that context, I wanted to ask Peggy Neu, the president of Meatless Mondays, who also spoke at Net Impact: “Why not carless Mondays?” Or, for that matter, “turn-out-the-lights Mondays”? If the problem at hand is climate change, maybe we are paying a disproportionate attention to beef.

And yet, as Ian Monroe pointed out during the panel, while we can see pathways to low-carbon or zero-carbon transportation electric cars, biofuels) and, at least in theory, we can generate low-carbon electricity using wind, solar and nuclear power, it’s hard to imagine low-carbon or zero-carbon beef. There’s just no getting around the fact that cows, when compared to pigs or chickens or fish, are inefficient converters of feed to protein, and so they generate a bigger environmental footprint. What’s more, globally, meat consumption is growing, as emerging middle class people in China and India eat more beef.

And, of course, animal agriculture has negative impacts that go beyond carbon pollution. It consumes lots of water. Livestock, particularly pigs and chickens, are often treated badly. I recently visited southwestern Minnesota (hello Mankato!) and I can tell you that the odor from pig farms, when the manure is not well-managed, can be unpleasant.

All this is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about Modern Meadow, a venture-funded start-up company that one day hopes to grow beef in a lab. You won’t see anything from Modern Meadow in a supermarket anytime soon, although its lab-grown leather could reach the market in a few years.

But at least some investors believe that alternatives to conventional beef could someday become real businesses. Here’s how my story begins:

Most of us embrace modern technology. We constantly upgrade our phones, connect with each other through Facebook, pay our bills online, demand the most advanced medical treatments available when we get sick and drive cars that have more computing power than the system that guided Apollo astronauts to the moon.

But, for many of us, food is another matter. We want our food to be pure, free of artificial additives, dangerous pesticides and natural – a term that, incidentally, is all but meaningless. Genetically-modified foods arouse anxiety. We want, in the words of influential journalist Michael Pollan, to avoid eating anything that our “great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”.

And according to a Pew Research survey, only 20% of Americans would eat meat grown in a lab.

That’s a problem for Andras Forgacs. He’s the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based startup that intends to use tissue engineering – also known as cell culturing or biofabrication – to create livestock products that require fewer inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals than conventional animal agriculture.

What’s more, Forgacs says, his company’s products will also require no animal slaughter.

You can read the rest here.

Aluminum, and the circular economy

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Aluminum is an amazing material, as I’ve written before (here and here). It’s infinitely recyclable, lightweight and strong.

Ford is making more of America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup, out of aluminum. Other automakers, too, are designing more aluminum into their cars.

The typical aluminum beverage can in North America is made of about 68 percent recycled content and, according to the industry, a can that’s recycled becomes a new can in less than 60 days. Some craft brewers are turning to cans.

Nevertheless, somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans are thrown away and wind up in landfalls in the US, I’m told. Only because we are such a rich country can we afford to waste so much. But why should we?

One company that is aiming to drive aluminum recycling is Atlanta-based Novelis. Novelis is the industry leader when it comes to recycling–the company, unlike its competitors, owns no mines–and it talks a lot about the idea of a circular economy. Last week, I wrote a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about the company and its new product, the evercan, which is made of 90 percent recycled aluminum.

The evercan is, by all accounts, an environmentally superior product to conventional aluminum beverage cans, and arguably a better single-serve beverage package that PET bottles–but so far, no major beverage company has adopted it. My story asks why.

The story is getting some pushback, in the comments as well as privately from readers I respect. They say that no company has the right expect other companies or consumers to buy a “greener” product. Of course, that’s correct. My point is that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser Busch and Miller Coors all say they want to promote recycling, but none has yet committed to the most recycled beverage container on the market.

Criticism came, as well, because I was hired earlier this month by Novelis to moderate a panel on the circular economy, at the opening of the company’s new aluminum recycling plant in Nachterstedt, Germany. This was disclosed in the Guardian. I knew there was a risk in writing about Novelis under those circumstances but I felt the story was still worth doing. [For a much longer explanation of how I manage conflicts or potential conflicts of interest, see this. The short version: I’m transparent about my paid moderating and speaking work.]

While in Germany, I spent a good deal of time with Novelis and its head of sustainability, John Gardner, and I came away impressed. I’m sure this influenced my approach to the story. But I’m not alone in believing that the company is a sustainability leader. Its include such respected environmental thinkers as Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future, Matt Arnold of JPMorgan Chase and author-academic Stu Hart.

What I learned while reporting the story is that inventing and manufacturing a greener product isn’t enough to drive change. Other business issues–in this case, what appears to be the understandable reluctance of the big beverage companies to depend on a single supplier–can stand in the way. Changing systems is hard.

In any event, you can judge the story for yourself. Here is how it begins:

Imagine an infinitely recyclable product that performs as well as the alternative, costs less to make, and is unquestionably better for the environment. You would bet on its success, wouldn’t you?

Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum, has made that bet. Since 2012 the Atlanta, Georgia-based company has invested half a billion dollars in recycling by building, among other things, the world’s biggest aluminum recycling plant. This $260m high-tech marvel officially opened earlier this month in Nachterstedt, Germany.

Novelis uses the facility to produce materials for its “evercan”, a beverage container made of 90% recycled aluminum.

As an infinitely recyclable metal, aluminum is a poster child for shifting from a linear take-make-waste model of industrial production to a circular model in which everything, at the end of its useful life, is made into something else.

On its website Novelis endorses the circular economy, stating that it is moving its “whole business model” toward a closed loop. “We are embracing an entirely new way of thinking and operating, in order to radically transform our company – and, in the process, lead the way in our industry.”

But Novelis is having trouble finding followers. None of the world’s major beverage companies have adopted the evercan. So far, the product has just one customer: Red Hare Brewing Co., a small craft brewer based in Marietta, Georgia.

You can read the rest here.

Paul Hawken’s next big idea

98b56975-55f2-45d2-9e39-19578c3bbc70-620x372I’ve learned a lot over the years from Paul Hawken, and when our paths have crossed, I’ve always enjoyed the time we’ve spent together. He was an early supporter of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green, and I recall a delightful walk along the beach in Laguna Niguel where he told me about the work he’d been doing with Lee Scott, then the CEO of Walmart. Some years later, I spent an afternoon with him at his offices in Sausalito, talking about the shortcomings of the socially responsible investment industry. He also delivered a great talk about the high costs of cheap food a few years back at the Cooking for Solutions conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

So when I first got wind of Project Drawdown, Paul’s latest project, I was eager to hear more. We talked by phone the other day, and the idea was unveiled last night at the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans. I wrote about Project Drawdown for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Ten years ago, in a landmark article in Science Magazine, Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote, “Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.” They identified a series of so-called climate stabilization wedges – among them efficient cars and buildings, increasing solar, wind and nuclear power, and reducing deforestation – that if adopted would eventually maintain atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at about 500 parts per million (ppm), a level they said “would prevent most damaging climate change.” At the time, atmospheric concentrations stood at about 375 ppm.

A decade later, annual emissions continue to grow and atmospheric concentrations have topped 395 ppm – and they are rising steadily. The situation appears grim.

It is not, argues pioneering environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken. Climate solutions abound, he said, and today, at the opening plenary of the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans, he will unveil Project Drawdown – a new compendium of climate solutions that are designed not just to stabilize, but to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Stabilization at 450, 500, 550 ppm is chaos,” Hawken said. “Our goal should be drawdown.”

Project Drawdown will begin as a lavishly illustrated book and online database, to be released late next year. Its purpose is to re-frame the climate debate, by showing that solving the climate crisis will bring, not sacrifice, but “more security, more prosperity, more jobs, more well-being and better health,” Hawken said.

I’m skeptical of what appears to be easy solutions to the climate crisis because, in my view, if it were easy to become radically more efficient and shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, well, why haven’t we done it already? But some of the solutions in the book, which is still being researched, are growing fast–distributed solar power, LEDs, utility-scale wind farms. Others are creative. Educating girls in the developing world, which isn’t ordinarily regarded as a climate solution, would, it turns out, be of enormous benefit because girls who get more education have fewer children, and fewer children mean fewer emissions.

You can read the rest of my story here.

The circular economy at Disney World

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Alas, you won’t be able to take a tour of this new “attraction” next time you visit Disney World. But inside those giants vats, through a process called anaerobic digestion, something cool is happening — food waste, used oils, fats, grease and treated human sewage are being turned into electricity and compost.

On second thought, you may not want a tour.

But this facility, which is owned and operated by a company called Harvest Power, is a potential solution to the problem of food waste, which is a bigger problem that you might think. Food that winds up in landfills is not only a waste of money, and a source of methane pollution, but the water and energy required to grow that food (and the greenhouse gas emissions created in the process) are also wasted. Addressing the problem of food waste requires taking steps up and down the supply chain, from the farm to the table, if you will, but anaerobic digestion will likely be part of the solution.

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

Millions of people a year visit Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the world’s most popular theme park. These days, some of the food that they don’t eat – as well as some of the food they do – ends up being used to make electricity for the resort’s theme parks and hotels.

How? Food waste – including table scraps, used cooking oils and grease – is collected from selected restaurants in the Disney World complex, as well as area hotels and food processors, and sent to a system of giant tanks at a facility near the park. There, the food waste is mixed with biosolids – the nutrient-rich organic materials left over after sewage is treated – and fed to microorganisms that produce biogas, a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas is combusted in generators to make electricity, and the remaining solids can be processed into fertilizer.

The circular economy at Disney World may not be as pretty as Cinderella’s Castle, but this process for turning organic waste into energy, which is known asanaerobic digestion, could turn out to be the best way to extract value from food scraps and treated sewage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.

“We’re able to turn all of the waste stream into productive products,” saysKathleen Ligocki, the chief executive of Harvest Power, a venture capital-funded clean-tech company that built the Florida facility. “This is our goal – pumpkins to power, waste to wealth.”

I met Kathleen Ligocki recently at a clean tech event in DC. Impressive lady–she’s had a long and successful career in the auto industry, then joined Kleiner Perkins as a partner before taking over as CEO of Harvest Power early this year. The company is a bit disjointed and unfocused; it was put together through the acquisition of composting operations around the country. Her job is to scale up the operation, and eventually take the company public. You can read the rest of the story here.

Game changer: Walmart’s focus on food and ag

28e0e549-367c-467e-9f67-41c34a470b91-620x372Lately, I’ve come to believe that the food industry is moving to become more sustainable with a seriousness that few other industries, particularly energy, can match.

Since Labor Day, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to top execs from Cargill (Greg Page), DuPont (Ellen Kullman), Monsanto (Hugh Grant and Robb Fraley) and Walmart (Doug McMillon) talk about a variety of initiatives to increase crop yields, better manage nitrogen pollution, reduce food waste, improve living standards for small farmers in emerging markets and confront the obesity crisis. These are real, and they are aimed at producing more affordable, nutritious food, without destroying the planet in the process. All these companies could be moving faster and doing more–in particularly, I’d like to see them become more active in the climate-policy arena–but there’s no doubt in my mind that they recognize that climate change is a growing threat to their businesses, and they want to do what they can to respond.

On Monday, Walmart held one of its quarterly sustainability milestone meetings, this one focused on food and ag. I wrote about it in a story that was posted this morning at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Nearly a decade after setting a series of bold sustainability goals, Walmart has struggled to curb its climate pollution and buy more renewable energy. But the company has already changed the way food is grown around the world – curbing agricultural pollution, pushing healthier choices, supporting local growers and promoting transparency. And the world’s largest retailer (fiscal year 2014 revenues: $473bn) is just getting started.

This week, Walmart showcased food and agriculture during its latest sustainability summit, while saying little about energy and emissions. It’s easy to see why. The company remains a long way from being powered by 100% renewable energy, one of its aspirational goals.

Currently, it gets about 24% of its electricity from clean energy, and its fleet mostly runs on fossil fuels. That’s because wind, solar power and alternative fuels generally cost more than coal, oil and natural gas, and Walmart is all about delivering low prices to customers.

Nor has Walmart been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. While the company has become more efficient, its absolute emissions are rising as Walmart grows its market share to satisfy Wall Street. This year, Walmart plans to open about 115 super centers (surrounded by vast parking lots, in most cases) along with 270 to 300 smaller stores. Tensions between its business model – which depends on selling more stuff to more people everywhere – and its environmental aspirations remain unresolved.

But when it comes to food and agriculture, Walmart has found a sweet spot, a place where its low-cost mantra is nicely aligned with the social and environmental need to deliver safe and affordable food to the world, using less land, less water and fewer chemical inputs to do it.

The story goes on to quote Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s senior vp of sustainability, as saying: “We have very bold aspirations for systemic change. We’re not playing small here. This is a whole company, a whole industry, a whole system effort.” I don’t doubt it.

I met Kathleen last month during Climate Week in New York, and she’s impressive. A former McKinsey consultant, she uprooted her husband and kids from Toronto, where they had lived, to move to Bentonville, Arkansas, mostly because she wants her work to make a difference. She oversees the Walmart Foundation, as well as sustainability programming, so she’s in position to make sure they are supporting one another.

Walmart is in a perfect position to drive change. It has influence over big food brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, MillerCoors and many more–and, as Doug McMillon noted the other day, they are all ready to act. Environmental Defense Fund, with its Bentonville staffers led by Michelle Harvey, is bringing its scientists and activists to the task, particularly around the important (but not very sexy) issue of nitrogen pollution. Other NGOs are stepping up, too.

What’s more, as I wrote, new farming technologies will help drive efficiency efforts, so the timing is good:

There was talk at the sustainability summit about AdaptN, a web-based tool to manage fertilizer in the corn industry, and Harvest Mark, which traces food from farm to fork. Monsanto, a key partner, last year acquired The Climate Corp, which uses big data to help farmers increase crop yields, manage chemical inputs and increase crop yields.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Was Climate Week a good week?

climate_summit_2014A reporter’s job is sometimes fun and glamorous, often not. My trip to New York for “Climate Week” was not. It was, in fact, a bit of a fiasco. I had hoped to cover a Climate Group event on Monday but was told that I had to be there by 10 a.m., without luggage, for security reasons. This was all but impossible since I was coming up from DC that morning. So I watched a live stream of the event, which froze and skipped during an interview with Apple CEO Time Cook.

Meanwhile, I twice tried to pick up my UN credentials and both times found lines winding up 45th Street, with estimated wait times of about two hours. Crazy, no? The UN knows how many credentials, roughly, it will have to give out because they all required advance approval, and still it can’t staff its desks properly. These are the people want to oversee a global regulatory scheme to manage greenhouse gas emissions. Good luck with that.

I say this not to complain–I have a great job, mostly–but to explain that my less-than-sunny mood during the week might have affected my coverage. (I hope not but we’re all human.) I wrote two stories for Guardian Sustainable Business, one pegged to Tim Cook’s interview, which eventually found its way online, and another looking at the yawning gap between the rhetoric at Climate Week events and the reality that the world is losing the battle, such as it is, to curb climate change.

Needless to say, I don’t think it’s time to give up. I’d like to do some more reporting before coming to any conclusions but it seems increasingly possible that the US and China can lead the way to global GHG reductions, outside of the UN process, with support from the EU and Japan. Getting a dozen so-called major emitters to work on the problem might prove more fruitful hat another confab of 190 countries at COP-20-something-but-who’s-counting.

Later, I was heartened to read about an agreement announced this week called the New York declaration on forests under which governments and global companies agreed to bring a halt to deforestation by 2030. Again, I need to do some more reporting on this. but the commitments from such big firms as Cargill and Asia Pulp and Paper are signs that we may actually be winning the battle to slow or stop deforestation. A big deal, if true.

In any event, here’s how my story on Tim Cook and the Climate Group event begins:

Tim Cook is the CEO of Apple, possibly the world’s most innovative company and inarguably its most valuable – just ahead of fossil-fuel giant ExxonMobil. So his appearance at the opening of Climate Week 2014 on Monday lent a little celebrity buzz to a day which otherwise had a been-there-done-that feeling about it.

The climate change issue, Cook told a gathering of business and political leaders in New York, resonates with Apple’s workers and with its customers, which is why the company has moved from environmental laggard to green leader in recent years, winning plaudits even from Greenpeace.

“The long-term consequences of not addressing climate are huge,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can overstate that.”

You can read the rest here.

My broader look at Climate Week begins this way, and later references a new study on how the world is building coal plants faster than it is dismantling them:

Covering UN meetings is not a job for the faint of heart, and this week’s climate summit in New York has been no exception. Two-hour waits for credentials are common. Staffers are plentiful, polite and ineffectual. Barricades, private security forces and squadrons of New York’s finest protect the UN compound on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from unwanted incursions from the world beyond.

The summit itself consists of a series of carefully-scripted speeches from business and political leaders. They mix dire warnings with calls to action. Invariably, we are told, no country, company or NGO can solve the problem on its own; we must all work together. Partnerships are key. Climate is the defining issue of our time. The problem is urgent. The time to act is now. The future depends on us.

It is all depressingly familiar to anyone who has been to Durban, Cancun or Copenhagen for summits past.

“You can make history or be vilified by it,” says the newly appointed UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, as the official proceedings began on Tuesday. Why, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio of Titanic fame, who knows a disaster in the making when he sees one.

You can read the rest here.

Patagonia’s CEO, marching for climate action

6a00d8341d07fd53ef01b7c6e24a7d970b-500wiRecently, I had lunch with Mary Wenzel, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo who directs the bank’s environmental projects. The bank’s efforts are laudable–it intends to provide $30 billion of financing by 2020 to business opportunities that protect the environment, it’s making its offices more efficient, it’s a big-time supporter of a nonprofit called Grid Alternatives that delivers solar power to low-income people, etc. But when I asked Mary whether Wells Fargo has declared itself to be in favor of  a carbon tax or a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, she told me that, no, that’s a step the bank has not yet been willing to take.

In that regard, Wells Fargo is typical of most big companies in the US. None of the big Wall Street banks–Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase or Citi–has taken a strong political position on the climate issue, as best as I can tell. And although a dozen or so big companies, including an oil company (Shell), utilities (NRG Energy, Duke Energy) and GE joined together back in 2008 to form the U.S. Climate Action Partnership to call for regulation of greenhouse gases, their efforts are now dormant.

With the exception of the work being done by the BICEP group around its Climate Declaration (weakly-worded as it is), America’s corporate leaders have largely been missing in action when it comes to the climate issue.

I thought about all that when I heard today that Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, is closing its New York stores this Sunday until 3 p.m. so that its employees can join the People’s Climate March. Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s CEO, will join the march. Patagonia has also taken out a full-page ad in today’s New York Times about the march.

In a blog post, Marcario writes about her great-grandfather, an immigrant laborer who with others worked to build on the city’s streets because “they wanted to create a better future for their children and grandchildren.” That’s what this march is about, she writes:

It is the work of this generation to make clear we reject the status quo—a race toward the destruction of our planet and the wild places we play in and love. We cannot sit idly by while large special interests destroy the planet for profit without regard for our children and grandchildren.

We have to keep the pressure on. That means being loud and visible in the streets, in town halls and our capitals, and most important, in our elections—voting for candidates who understand we are facing a climate crisis.

Meantime, Patagonia has launched a crowd-sourced art campaign called Vote the Environment that is designed to inspire voters – especially young people – to support candidates who will act on behalf of the future and the climate in the upcoming midterm election.

Now–I understand that Patagonia is a private company, and a relatively small one, that markets itself to consumers who love the outdoors. It’s a low-risk proposition for Patagonia and Marcario to join a climate march. Cynics will suspect that Patagonia is inviting marchers to gather in its Central Park West store for coffee and bagels on Sunday morning in the hope that they will come back later to buy its pricey gear.

But, even acknowledging that Patagonia is sui generis, I’m struck by the fact that the distance between Patagonia (and a handful of other forward-thinking companies) and mainstream corporate America is so vast. Imagine the CEOs of the big banks or GE or Walmart marching for climate action. It’s inconceivable.

What is conceivable — and what’s fair — is to ask those CEOs to follow the lead of Rose Marcario and a handful of other business leaders (like the Risky Business trio of Hank Paulsen, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer)  by engaging, in a serious way, in the climate debate. That means putting climate regulation at the top of their companies’ Washington agendas, and refusing to support political candidates who don’t have a plan to deal with the climate crisis. If not now, when?

PR firm Edelman has more than a PR problem

640px-Edelman_Logo_ColorI’m an admirer of Edelman, one of the world’s biggest and most respected PR firms, and I’m friendly with a number of people who work there. The firm has been ahead of the curve on corporate-responsibility issues, managing effective campaigns for the likes of GE and Walmart. Richard Edelman, who runs the place,  approached me about coming to work for Edelman after I was laid off from Fortune at the end of 2008 and, while I had some great conversations with their senior execs in New York, I ultimately decided to stick with journalism.  (Disclosure: I did a very limited amount of consulting work with Edelman in 2009. It didn’t suit me well.)

Part of the problem with big PR firms — the same goes for big law firms and accounting firms — is that, for the most part, they need to take whatever work comes in the door if they want to keep their door open and keep their people employed. (Edelman, which is privately held, has more than 5,000 employees in 65 offices around the world. This need to grow is even more intense at the publicly-owned PR shops.) Some of the work that comes in will be unseemly. Lately, this has become a problem for Edelman, and for its reputation–as I wrote today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

A 1930s union song, popularized by the late great Pete Seeger, asks pointedly: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

On the issue of climate change, that question now confronts Edelman, one of the world’s largest and most admired public relations companies.

In the wake of a survey of the top 25 global PR firms by the Guardian and the Climate Investigations Center, released 4 August, [Edelman said:]

Edelman fully recognizes the reality of, and science behind, climate change, and believes it represents one of the most important global challenges facing society, business and government today. To be clear, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.

Beyond that, for nearly a decade, Edelman has built a reputation as the go-to PR firm for corporate sustainability by managing campaigns for the likes of GE (“Ecomagination”), Walmart and Unilever. Richard Edelman, the firm’s high-profile president and CEO, blogs about having dinner at the home of Jeffrey Sachs, his Harvard classmate and a noted climate hawk, and quotes Sachs as saying that “the world is on a very dangerous path.”

And yet.

The Edelman firm works for the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based trade association for the oil and gas industry, which opposed the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate change bill favored by some energy companies and utilities, supports the Keystone XL pipeline and exploration of the Canadian tar sands and says, in limp language on its website, that burning fossil fuels “may be helping to warm our planet.”

Until recently, Edelman worked for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a coalition of coal, mining and railroad interests that promotes coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that are strongly opposed by environmental groups. Another Edelman client is said to be ALEC, a conservative lobbying group that opposes regulations on carbon pollution. GE, Walmart and Unilever are among about 70 companies that have reportedly cut their ties with ALEC, although not over the climate issue.

So … which side are you on, boys?

Elsewhere in the press, including in The Times the other day, this has been covered as a PR “faux pas” for the big PR firm. That’s accurate: Edelman bungled its initial reply to the Guardian survey, after which Richard Edelman made matters worse by calling a reporter and saying that a senior exec at the company had been fired as a result. Embarrassing? Sure, but we all make mistakes.

The harder and more important challenge for Edelman and others will be to navigate the climate controversy going forward. The firm cannot be seen as a “thought leader” (ugh, hate that phrase) on corporate sustainability and work on behalf of coal exports or the American Petroleum Institute, which has opposed regulation of greenhouse gases.

Will Edelman have to give up its fossil fuel clients, in a Bill McKibben-style divestment? I think not. Just about all of us depend on fossil fuels to get us around and heat our homes, so we’re not about to give up fossil fuels. But I do think that Edelman (and others) may  have to make distinctions between those fossil-fuel companies that are willing to be part of a constructive solution to the climate crisis–Shell, say, or BP in its better days–and those companies or trade associations that want only to obstruct. That’s not an easy distinction to make, but so it goes.

I had a couple of interesting reactions today to my Guardian story, both on background. This came in via email from a former Edelman employee:

I’ve personally struggled with this a lot….I worked really hard on sustainability for Walmart, GE and others while at Edelman and truly believed in our work. At the time the support was top-down from people like Richard Edelman and Leslie Dach, but once Leslie left, the DC office took on API and dove into the “energy” space. I’ve been very uncomfortable with the DC office’s transformation and am personally glad to see their hypocrisy being exposed. You can’t work both sides of the issue.

Actually, many PR firms, law firms and accountants do work both sides of the issue, on the grounds that everyone is entitled to a flack/lawyer/accountant. The trouble with that is their companies then don’t stand for anything beyond providing service to whoever pays the bills.

I asked an Edelman friend/colleague for a reaction, and got this reply:

 I am glad to work at one of a very few large PR companies who have exclusions that include climate change denial in addition to the “usual” easy targets of tobacco and guns. But the tough part comes in when it deals with how we implement that exclusion. And that is the positive from all of this – we are now having a really robust and tough internal discussion on this.

 I actually do think that Edelman is one of the few large agencies or service companies where we can develop a true leadership position on this. It is very much a values driven company and if we can’t get it right here then I don’t have much hope for public companies.

What an interesting test of a company’s values.

A smarter approach to biofuels

A field of sorghum–it grows tall and fast!

The US biofuels industry has not covered itself in glory. It has consumed billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars, as much if not more from investors and in return delivered economic and environmental benefits that are murky at best, at least according to its critics.

You’ll hear a different story from the industry, which is desperately trying to retain its support in Congress and the White House. The  importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses virtually assure that no candidate for president can oppose support for corn ethanol, the dominant US biofuel. It was the Bush administration, you may recall, that launched the current push into biofuels, with the enthusiastic support of a corn state US Senator Barack Obama.

The thing is, biofuels need to be part of a low-carbon US economy. About 40 percent of emissions come from transportation–cars, trucks, trains, planes, buses, farm and construction equipment, etc.  These existing fleetss can’t be electrified en masse, anytime soon, if ever. So for decades ahead it’s fossil fuels or biofuels–an easy choice.

That said, it has become increasingly clear that corn ethanol “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today,” according to this excellent analysis from Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

In their 2013 investigation, they write:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies..

And as for the climate benefits of corn ethanol, the AP reporters say:

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. 

Great.

The trouble is that corn needs fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), requires irrigation (at least in some parts of the country) and, in an ideal world, would be used to feed people (or animals, if you insist), but not cars and trucks.

About the best thing you can say about corn ethanol is that it will pave the way (oops, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) for advanced biofuels that are cleaner and greener. Some of these are on the way–a bunch of cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to begin commercial operations this year, including the Project Liberty plant from Poet and DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a DuPont facility in Nevada, Iowa. Both will use corn waste.

Why, though, can’t we make biofuels from crops that are designed and bred for energy? That’s the question that led a young entrepreneur named Anna Rath to start a company called NexSteppe, whose current focus is sorghum. I invited Anna to Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, where she won the “Great Green Ideas” competition, and wrote about NexSteppe the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

As scientists around the world research biomass feedstocks — trees, shrubs and grasses that are designed to produce energy — a California startup called NexSteppe is betting that fast-growing, drought-resistant sorghum will emerge as a crop to sustainably fuel cars, trucks and power plants.

Sorghum, a millenia-old cereal grain, today feeds animals and people. It is turned into flour, syrups and beer, and used in gluten-free products. In Asia, sorghum is made into couscous, and across Africa, it’s consumed as a porridge.

Last year, though, NexSteppe introduced two new brands of sorghum seeds, dubbed Palo Alto and Malibu, that were bred expressly to be energy crops. They grow on marginal land and in a variety of climates, and they climb to a height of 20 feet after only four months of growth.

“Sorghum is naturally very heat and drought tolerant,” says Anna Rath, NexSteppe’s founder, president and CEO. “It originated in Africa. It’s a camel of a crop, if you will.”

Although NexSteppe has done almost no marketing outside of Brazil, its biggest market, the company’s sorghum is now being grown by farmers in 15 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the US.

Sorghum may not be the ideal feedstock for biofuels. It’s used for food, after all. But it appears to offer major advantages over corn.

More important is the idea behind NexSteppe–that we should breed crops for energy, just as we have very successfully bred crops for food since the invention of agriculture. Government and university scientists are trying to do just that, as the story goes on to say. You can read the rest here.