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…]

Edelman’s climate problem

magnifying-glass-valuesLast summer, the big PR company Edelman faced a problem that no amount of spin could resolve. Kert Davies, the former head of research for Greenpeace who now leads the Climate Investigations Center, had surveyed big public relations companies to see where they stood on the issue of climate change.

Edelman waffled. The company published a position on climate change that raised as many questions as it answered. Last August, I wrote a story about the issue for the Guardian that began like this:

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

Since then, an insider told me, “a struggle for the soul” of Edelman as been unfolding inside the firm,which has more than 5,500 employees and reported worldwide revenues of $768m in FY2014. Some of those employees work for fossil-fuel clients who oppose efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and want to extract as much oil and gas from the ground as they can. Others work for companies like Unilever, Starbucks and The North Face that have lobbied for meaningful climate regulation.

Yesterday, I revisited the story and reported in the Guardian that Edelman has lost four valued staff members, all of them leaders of Edelman’s “Business and Social Purpose Practice,” and two influential clients, the We Mean Business coalition and Nike, at least in part because of its refusal to take a stand on climate change.

Does this mean that the fossil-fuel crowd inside Edelman has won? It sure looks that way, but it’s hard to know. Edelman executives declined to be interviewed for my story. No one was willing to explain what the climate position means if, indeed, it means anything at all. 

Richard Edelman, in Davos

Richard Edelman, in Davos

This surprised me, not because Edelman execs are obligated to talk to reporters (they’re not), but because I took at face value the company’s platitudes about trust, values, corporate responsibility and openness. Company president Richard Edelman: “Transparency is not optional.” And: “We strongly urge business to take the chance to redefine value as being also about values.”

As a reporter, I’ve dealt with the Edelman firm for more than a decade; my relationships with people there have been excellent, until this climate issue came along. Shortly after I was laid off by FORTUNE in 2008, I did some writing and consulting for Edelman. I soon learned I wasn’t cut out for PR, but again, my experience with the firm was good. Call me naive, but I thought Edelman was a different kind of PR firm.

Now I can’t help but conclude that they are no different from their peers, as yesterday’s story indicates:

Some clues about where Edelman is headed can be gleaned from a new set of values and a statement of purpose published last month. The statement makes explicit the company’s willingness to work on both sides of controversial issues, including climate change:

We believe that independently held, opposing views deserve to be heard in the court of public opinion and we assert our role as a firm to being advocates for our clients.

Doing so doesn’t condone every action every client takes or imply implicit support for every position a client may adopt, but does reflect our absolute commitment and support of their right to exercise their freedom of expression.

It also grants each employee the “right to elect not to work on a piece of business that does not align with his or her personal beliefs.”

In a recent video to employees about the new statement of purpose, Matt Harrington, Edelman’s global chief operating officer, said simply: “We exist to be advocates for our clients.”

Which is OK, I guess, and wouldn’t even be a story if Edelman hadn’t tried to have it both ways on climate.

The upshot is that Edelman has lost some talented people and a couple of clients.

We’ll never know what would have happened had the company taken a different path. Instead of mumbo-jumbo about how “marketing communications” has to become “communications marketing,” Edelman could have adopted a bold, values-based position on climate change. It could have worked with its more forward-thinking fossil-fuel clients, like Shell, to bring them along on the issue. It could have positioned itself as the go-to PR shop for companies and NGOs that take sustainability seriously.

It could have walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

That’s a story I would have liked to write.

Catching up, “creating” jobs and coffee pods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gap’s Kindley Walsh Lawlor has a daunting job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

Ceres and the “inside” game

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

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

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

Here’s how my story begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of my story here.

How “evil” Monsanto aims to protect the planet

Ethanols Environmental Damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how my story begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping a close eye on all the world’s forests

Deforestation in the Andes

Deforestation in the Andes

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

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

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

Here’s how it begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of my story here.

Green business, and its limits

2015-3-clean-energy-ss-ph1-WBLast week, Sierra Magazine, the magazine of the Sierra Club, published my story headlined The 100% Club, about the impressive commitments that a growing number of big companies are making around renewable energy. The story highlighted Ikea, Intel and Mars, but I could just as easily have written about Apple or Google or Walmart, all of whom are buying lots of wind and solar power. Here’s how the story begins:

Steve Howard, a 49-year-old Brit, has devoted most of his career to fighting climate change. He spent seven years as CEO of the Climate Group, a global nonprofit whose goal is “a prosperous, low-carbon future for all.” He sounds the part: “There is no peak sun, there is no peak wind,” he declares. “We struck sun and we struck wind before we struck oil.”

These days, Howard pursues his climate activism as chief sustainability officer of the IKEA Group, the world’s largest furniture retailer. IKEA has invested $2 billion in wind and solar power to meet its goal of producing as much renewable energy as it consumes by 2020. “We clearly see them as our future sources of energy,” he says.

IKEA is just one of dozens of big companies that are making significant investments in clean energy. In fact, a majority of Fortune 100 companies have invested in solar or wind power or have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, or both, according to Power Forward 2014: Why the World’s Largest Companies Are Investing in Renewable Energy, a report from the sustainability advocacy group Ceres. They are doing so because they believe it makes good business sense: The costs of solar and wind are falling, state and federal governments offer generous subsidies, and fossil fuel prices can be volatile. Some see green energy commitments as a way to burnish their reputations. Still others are responding to carbon regulation–Europe, California, nine northeastern states, and British Columbia all tax or cap greenhouse gas emissions, and some business leaders believe that many other governments will, and should, follow suit. Whatever the reasons, these companies are signaling that they accept the reality of climate change and proving that renewable energy is neither a job killer nor a drag on economic growth.

The list of companies that have promised to purchase all of their energy from renewable power by 2020– the so-called 100% club — includes insurer Swiss Re, British telecommunications group BT, H&M, Mars, Nestle, and Philips. Kohl’s, Whole Foods Market, Staples, TD Bank, Herman Miller, REI, and the Philadelphia Phillies are already there, although some are getting there by buying Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs, which may or may not be effective, depending on who you ask.

But here’s the thing: It’s not nearly enough. The most telling data point in the story is this:

The 1,300 companies and nonprofits that have joined the EPA’s Green Power Partnership, a voluntary program to promote clean energy, collectively use 28 billion kilowatt-hours of green power annually. That sounds like a lot, and it is–but total U.S. electricity consumption is 3.832 trillion kWh.

This underscores the limits of voluntary action. Then there’s this: Self-reported greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s 500 largest businesses – which include many of the companies named above — actually grew by 3.1% between 2010 and 2013, according to a Thomson Reuters report released in December.

So while plenty of “good” companies are stepping up to do their part, their efforts are being more than offset by others. That’s why government action to curb GHG emissions, particularly the EPA’s Clean Power Plan here in the US, is so important. Those companies that are serious about climate change will demonstrate it by spending some of their political capital to back the EPA.

You can read the rest of my story here.