Amazon, Best Buy and the free rider problem

Pedestrians pass in front of a Best Buy Co. store in this photo taken with a tilt-shift lens in New York, U.S., on Sunday, June 12, 2011. Best Buy Co., the world's largest consumer electronics retailer, is scheduled to announce quarterly earnings on June 14 before the opening of U.S. financial markets. Photographer: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gap, Nike and Walmart can police their global supply chains to outlaw child labor but what about discount retailers and no-name brands?

McDonald’s can become a leader around animal health and welfare but other fast-food chains need not follow.

IKEA plans to power itself with 100 percent renewable energy while rivals who buy cheaper, coal-fired electricity can gain a competitive edge.

These examples point to a couple of obvious problems with voluntary corporate-responsibility initiatives. First, there’s no assurance that such initiatives are going to solve whatever problem it is that they are targeting; in fact, they won’t unless they are universally adopted or codified into law. Second, unless and until those companies that lead the way are rewarded by consumers (unlikely) or their workers (more probable), the leading companies can find themselves at a disadvantage.

This week at Guardian Sustainable Business, I look at the contrast between Best Buy, a corporate-responsibility leader, particularly around recycling, and Amazon.com, which until recently has been a CSR laggard.

Here’s how the story begins:

When my wife’s printer recently went on the fritz, she ordered a new one from Amazon, which arrived two days later. I took the broken printer to Best Buy, which offers free and easy recycling of electronics.

Is this a problem for Best Buy, I wondered? Collecting and recycling electronics costs money, and Best Buy’s program is open to anyone with electronic waste, from any manufacturer. No purchase necessary.

By contrast, Amazon, a key competitor – and the seller of both our old and new printers – offers little in the way of recycling and more broadly has been a laggard when it comes to corporate responsibility.

The Seattle-based online retail giant says on its website that it “recognizes, as do many of our customers, the importance of recycling electronic equipment at the end of its useful life”. But the company offers only a mail-in take-back programlimited to its own products, like the Kindle e-reader.

“It’s not quite break-even,” said Alexis Ludwig-Vogen, Best Buy’s director of corporate responsibility, of the program. This means, to put it bluntly, that Best Buy is collecting trash generated by Amazon, Walmart and other competitors.

The dynamic between Best Buy and its competitors is analogous to what economists call a free rider problem. Best Buy is providing what could be considered public goods, free recycling, at its own expense, and Amazon, Walmart and, for that matter, all the rest of us benefit. Electronics make up the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet, and recycling preserves metals and plastics, and reduces pressures on landfills. Efforts like Best Buy’s also help fend off regulation, which could benefit other companies.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I’m sorry to inform you that your pet is bad for the planet

PetProtectionAside from, perhaps, GMOs, few topics in the sustainable business arena are as emotional as pets. When my friend Erik Assadourian wrote a well-researched story for the Guardian last year asking whether pets are bad for the environment, he was assailed in the comments as a a “dumbass,” an “animal hater” and “an overpaid media commentator.” (The last allegation, I can assure you, is false.) It goes without saying that people love their pets. “My dogs are my family,” one commenter said. And we certainly can’t blame pets for the world’s pollution problems. As Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a pet owner and a defender of all four-legged creatures, once said, dogs and cats “aren’t driving to work.”

True enough. But dogs and cats have environmental impacts. They make waste. They’re eat, and many are overfed. They consume resources, including plastic toys and costly health care. And while, yes, they provide companionship, improve health and get us to spend more time outdoors meeting people, as Erik noted, couldn’t all those things be provided just as well by, er, people? Do we really need dogs to get us to talk a walk around the neighborhood.

When I recently revisited the topic for the Guardian, focusing this time on the impact of pet food, an editor told me that my story wasn’t good enough to run. I learned long ago not to argue with editors–they’re powerful and, occasionally, right–so I took the story to the Worldwatch Institute, where Erik works, and it then made its way to GreenBiz.

The story is anything but an assault on pets. Instead, it’s an effort to show how the giant food company Mars, which makes more pet food than candy bars, is trying to reduce its environmental impact, focusing on cat food, seafood and the oceans. Here’s how the story begins:

The United States is home to 85.8 million cats and 77.8 million dogs. They all have to eat. And that’s a problem — particularly when owners decide to feed their pets as if they were people.

The environmental impact of pet food is big, although no one knows just how big. Like the rest of us, dogs and cats consume meat, fish, corn and wheat, thus creating pressures on the global food system, along with carbon emissions as the food is manufactured and transported.

What we do know is that pet food is big business, generating about $22 billion in sales a year, industry groups estimate.

Much could be done to “green” pet foods — dogs and cats are getting more meat and fish than they need, for starters — but the industry is just starting to grapple with its sustainability issues.

Privately held Mars is leading the way, at least when compared to its big rivals. Better known for chocolate bars and M&Ms, Mars is the world’s biggest pet food company: Mars Pet Care has revenues estimated at $17 billion, employs 39,000 people, operates about 70 factories and owns the Pedigree, Whiskas, Nutro, Sheba, Cesar, Royal Canin and Iams brands.

The story goes on to say that Mars has

promised to buy fish only from fisheries or fish farms that are certified as sustainable by third parties. Importantly, Mars also said it would replace all wild catch whole fish and fish fillet with either by-products or farmed fish — so that demand for pet food does not compete directly with food that could be served to people.

That’s a step in the right direction. Other pet food companies, including Nestle and J.M. Smucker, have yet to follow. You can read the rest of my story here.

There was more bad news this week for pet owners. Did you happen to see the massive New York Times series about slavery at sea? The headline reads Sea Slaves: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock. In four long stories, The Times reports on harsh, inhumane, just plain awful way that people are treated in the Thai fishing industry, which is being driven by “an insatiable global demand for seafood even as fishing stocks are depleted.”

Here’s where pets come in:

The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.

Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.

“How fast do their pets eat what’s put in front of them, and are there whole meat chunks in that meal?” asked Giovanni M. Turchini, an environmental professor at Deakin University in Australia who studies the global fish markets. “These are the factors that pet owners most focus on.”

So should you give up your cats and dogs? Not necessarily. But small pets are better than big ones. And if you feed them fish and meat, you might want to go vegetarian more often, to offset their impact.

Hershey’s, and the limits of certified chocolate

ft-hersheySilly me. I thought the world’s cocoa farmers, most of whom are poor, would surely benefit when global chocolate companies, including Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle, made major commitments to buy certified cocoa. Hershey’s and Mars pledged to certify 100 percent of their cocoa as sustainably produced by 2020, while Nestle has made a variety of commitments to certification.

It’s more complicated than that, as I should have known. It always is, isn’t it? I learned a little more about cocoa farmers and certification while reporting a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about Hershey’s.

The top of the story, unfortunately, was inadvertently mangled a bit in the editing process (it happens, but rarely) and so while you are free to read it as published in the Guardian, I’m going to post an earlier version here, and I’ll add a comment at the end. Here’s the story:

*     *     *

Three years ago, following a campaign by activist groups, the Hershey Company announced that it would use 100% certified cocoa in its chocolate products by 2020. The activists, including the International Labor Rights Forum, Green America and Global Exchange, declared victory, albeit with reservations.

Since then, things have grown complicated. Hershey’s is making progress in its sustainable sourcing: the company says that, in 2014, 30% of its cocoa came from certified, sustainable sources. It expects to hit 50% in 2016, a full year ahead of schedule. “This has become a way of doing business in the future,” J.P. Bilbrey, Hershey’s chief executive, told Guardian Sustainable Business.

When Hershey’s made its commitment, some in the industry feared that there would not be enough certified cocoa to satisfy Hershey’s, Mars, Ferrero and other sustainability-minded companies. But, as Bilbrey says, “Capitalism is a wonderful thing. If you demand something, those that supply it to you will provide that particular product.”

What’s less clear is how much of a difference this sustainable sourcing is making in the lives of cocoa farmers. Hershey’s, which had revenues of $7.4bn last year, won’t say how much of its profits have trickled down to suppliers, nor will it say how much business it does with each of its three nonprofit certifiers – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. However, the chocolate maker – as well as its certifiers and the activists who pushed it to source certified cocoa – all agree that certification alone isn’t enough to lift the incomes of cocoa farmers.

And that hits at the heart of long-term sustainability. If those incomes don’t rise, there’s a very real risk that the next generation of farmers will give up on the business. “Even with the highest premium paid (for certified cocoa), farmers are way deep in poverty,” says Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

Han De Groot, executivee director of UTZ Certified, a nonprofit based in Amsterdam, agrees. After visiting certified cocoa farmers in Cote D’Ivoire, he wrote: “There is still too much poverty to have a decent and sustainable life.”

Hershey’s efforts go beyond certification  [click to continue…]

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.

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.

Bug bites

criquet_1_l_In a comprehensive 2013 report, the UN’s FAO declared that the time has come to unlock “the huge potential that insects offer for enhancing food security.” The reaction was predictable.

“Of course the problem with eating insects is that it’s kind of gross and they don’t taste very good,” wrote one commentator.  Another said: “You are probably cringing reading this post.”  A third asked: “Care for a serving of grasshopper goulash?”

Well, why not? Two billion people around the world consume insects. Bugs are nutritious, high in protein,  low in fat and good for the planet: Insects efficiently convert feed into food, require less land and water than cattle or pigs, and they are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases by the UN. As for the cringe factor, chef Jose Andres, a James Beard Foundation award winner, serves a chapulín taco, made with Mexican grasshoppers, at his Washington, D.C., restaurant Oyamel. The menu at Typhoon, a chic Pan Asian restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, includes Singapore-style scorpions, Taiwanese crickets and Manchurian Chambai ants. And Exo protein bars, made with cricket flour, will soon be part of snack boxes on Jet Blue.

But, even if we come to love munching on mites, there’s a big problem with growing insects for food. No one knows how to do it efficiently, and at scale. Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and CEO of  Tiny Farms, a startup based in Oakland, CA, aims to change that by bringing modern agricultural technology to insect farming.

I wrote about Daniel and his work for the Future of Food 2050 websiteHere’s how my story begins:

Two billion people worldwide think nothing of munching on a tasty insect snack or entree, but until recently very few of them were Americans.

That’s changing as edible insects inch their way into mainstream fare in the United States, with crickets rapidly emerging as the “gateway bug.” Hip startups in Brooklyn, Boston and San Francisco are already baking cookies and snack chips with cricket flour, and cricket flour protein bars will soon be part of snack boxes on JetBlue airline flights.

The trouble is, demand for edible crickets exceeds the supply. Only a handful of companies are raising the chirpy insects, and they aren’t nearly as efficient as they could be, says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Tiny Farms, a startup based in Oakland, Calif.

“The entire U.S. farmed output of crickets is still fairly small,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “In order to have a cricket bar next to the checkout of every Safeway in the country, you need a lot more scale and a lot more productivity.”

This could be the start of something big–or not. Remember, though, that if you think eating insects is weird, well, that’s what Americans thought about raw fish when sushi restaurants, which served Japanese immigrants, came to the west coast in the 1960s. Today you can buy sushi at Walmart.

You can read the rest of my story here.

A rank ’em and spank ’em study on packaging

A Dunkin Donuts--with throwaway cups--opens in Beijing
A Dunkin Donuts–with throwaway cups–opens in Beijing

Twenty-five years after McDonald’s, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed to get rid of foam clamshells for its burger–in what is now called the first corporate environmental partnership–the problem of wasteful, polluting, throwaway packaging is, if not worse than ever, no better.

With industry leaders like McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have invested in more sustainable packaging, others have failed to follow. This is the conclusion of a thorough packaging study released last week by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council that I covered for the Guardian.

Here’s how my story begins:

Big brands, including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Kraft Foods and MillerCoors, are wasting billions of dollars worth of valuable materials because they sell food and drinks in subpar packaging, according to a comprehensive new report on packaging and recycling by the fast food, beverage, consumer goods and grocery industries.

The 62-page rank-‘em-and-spank-‘em study, Waste and Opportunity 2015, was published Thursday by advocacy nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They found that few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle packages. Indeed, no company was awarded their highest rating of “best practices.”

The environmental groups did identify a number of leaders, albeit flawed ones. In the beverage industry, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters and PepsiCo won praise. Starbucks and McDonald’s are said to be a cut above their competitors in fast food and quick-serve restaurants. As for consumer goods companies and grocery stores, the report offers qualified praise for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever.

Broadly, though, this study paints a discouraging picture. What progress has been made is incremental and spotty, not comprehensive. As often than not, single-use packages of food and drinks are made from virgin materials and then tossed in the trash.

As the report notes, with an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51%, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14% of plastic packaging — the fastest-growing form of packaging — is recycled. Recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted annually.

The interesting question is, what have we learned from NGO and government efforts to curb packaging waste and pollution? I’m not quite ready to give up on voluntary corporate efforts–not yet, anyway. Walmart reduced packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent between 2006 and 2013; that’s a big deal. It’s now pushing suppliers to use more recycled content.

An alternative approach is increased government regulations–deposit bills on bottles and, more recently, plastic bag bans and taxes. (New York City has just banned polystyrene packaging, joining 100 other jurisdictions, reports Mark Bittman.) But these are also halfway measures.

Bolder would be an economy-wide effort to impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, which are in place in much of the EU. I don’t know enough about how these work and what they cost to have an informed opinion.

I did buy a set of headphones for my iPhone the other day and had the hardest time getting them out of the ridiculous plastic package. Surely a company that’s as good at design as Apple can do better. But what’s the incentive for them to do so? Saving a few pennies from a $29.95 (!) set of headphones clearly isn’t enough.

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.

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.