MillerCoors: A trickle-down theory of corporate sustainability

Beer-on-Bar-007Every big company understands that saving energy, water and raw materials in its own operations is good for business. You don’t need an MBA to grasp that efficiency reduces costs, which can lead to lower prices, gains in market share and higher profits.

Not as well understood are the opportunities that await companies that dig into their supply chains to drive efficiencies. If big companies can work with their suppliers to save energy, water and materials, everyone should gain, and we’ll waste fewer resources.

That’s the theme of my story today for Guardian Sustainable Business, about MillerCoors, water and barley farmers. It’s an example of what I’m calling the “trickle-down down theory of corporate sustainability.” By that I mean that  sustainability initiatives taken by the biggest companies trickle their way down into remote corners of the global economy.

Here’s how the story begins:

So you think you have a cool app on your smart phone? Meet Gary Beck, an Idaho barley farmer who, from the comfort of his living room couch, can control giant irrigation systems miles away, turning sprinklers on and off or adjusting their spray.

Every drop counts. “Right now, we’re in a huge drought,” Beck says. “Some of the old timers have never seen it this dry before.”

Beck manages a farm that grows about 2,500 acres of barley for MillerCoors, the US’s second-largest beer company (behind Anheuser-Busch InBev), with revenues of nearly $9bn last year. His thorough water-conservation efforts – including redesigning equipment, abandoning some fields and using more compost – have paid off big time, saving water, energy and money.

Even more notable, they have been guided – and partly financed – by his biggest customer, MillerCoors, with a nudge from its biggest customer, Walmart; by local utility Idaho Power, which wants to help its customers save energy; and by The Nature Conservancy, which owns the Silver Creek Preserve, a nearby high-desert fly-fishing destination that attracts an abundance of wildlife, including eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions – all of which, of course, need water.

It’s an example of how companies such as MillerCoors are reaching beyond their own boundaries to help solve environmental problems.

Note a few things about this story. First, although my focus is MillerCoors, you could easily argue that Walmart, with its supplier sustainability index, is equally responsible for the water-saving projects on barley farms. By asking aits suppliers–about 60,000, at last count–to track the lifecycle impacts of their products, Walmart forces them to think about where their environmental impacts are greatest, and urges them (to put it kindly) to make improvements.

Second, unlike Walmart, MillerCoors is getting its hands dirty and spending its own money as it works with suppliers. It’s investing in best practices on one barley farm, and helping to spread them. It’s the kind of thing Starbucks has done for years with its coffee farmers.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that the first (and, as of now, only) reader comment on this story says: “Adfomercial. Naughty Guardian.” This may be because SABMiller is a sponsor of the Guardian’s water coverage–a fact that I only learned when, to my dismay, the story was accompanied by a banner ad for SABMiller. All water-related stories on Guardian Sustainable Business, it turns out, run with a banner from SABMiller. You’ll have to trust me when I say I didn’t know that when I began to report this story.

But there’s a bigger issue here. My role, as I see it, isn’t to be a full-time corporate critic. Instead, I try to jeer companies when they screw up and cheer those that try to do the right thing. If I’m wrong about MillerCoors, by all means let me know. But I’d find it too depressing to spend all my time looking for bad news.

Are your investments tied to genocide?

SP1119147That’s a refugee camp in Sudan. If you are an investor in mutual funds, it’s possible–perhaps even likely–that you own a small share of one of a number of foreign oil companies that are doing business with the government of Sudan, and thereby helping to finance a genocidal, outlaw government that is directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and the displacement of many more.

I’m returning to the subject of “genocide-free” investing with a column this week at Guardian Sustainable Business, about the puzzling and troubling refusal of a mutual fund managed by ING US to even consider divesting in holdings in foreign oil companies that do business in Sudan. US oil companies are prohibited by law from operating there, but US-based mutual funds are free to invest in Chinese, Indian and Malaysian oil companies that help finance the Sudanese authorities.

Despite the best efforts of an advocacy group called Investors Against Genocide, big US mutual fund companies including Fidelity, Vanguard, JP Morgan Chase and Franklin Templeton continue to invest those foreign oil companies. It’s not because they are unaware of the issue. I’ve covered the topic of “genocide-free” investing since 2007, beginning with a story for Fortune.com headlined Fidelity’s Sudan Problem, and followed a few months later by another called Warren Buffett and Darfur. By then, Harvard, Yale and Stanford had divested their holdings in PetroChina and Sinopec, demonstrating that divestment is both possible and practical. In 2009, as an investor in mutual funds managed by Fidelity and Vanguard, I voted for divestment (and blogged about it here).

A few mutual fund companies–notably T. Rowe Price and TIAA-CREF–have agreed to purge their holdings of the Asian oil companies, but most have resisted. Among the most egregious is ING US, whose own shareholders voted for divestment. If nothing else, this is a reminder that we’re a long way from achieving “shareholder democracy” in corporate America.

Here’s how my story for Guardian Sustainable Business begins:

Call me old school but, in my view, companies should be accountable to their owners.

They should also try to stay away from repressive governments like the one in Sudan, where millions of people have been killed in a long-running genocide.

So when, as part of a campaign to stop the flow of money to Sudan, investors voted to ask a mutual fund managed by ING US to sell its holdings in companies that “contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity,” you’d think that ING US would comply.

It has not.

You can read the rest here.

To put this in perspective: It has been more than 15 years since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sudan, and nine years since the killings in Darfur were declared to be a genocide by the U.S. Congress. Yet financial institutions are still investing in the worst companies funding the genocide.

It’s another reason, not that we need one, why so much of Wall Street is rightly held in such low esteem by so many Americans.

My beef with B Corps

logoThere’s lot to like about the fast-growing B Corps movement, and one thing to dislike, as I explain in my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business US.

If you’re reading this blog, you are probably aware of B Corps. The idea takes a bit of explaining. B Corps are businesses that are certified by a nonprofit organization called B Lab to meet what its backers call “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” These businesses win certification much in the way that buildings are certified to have meet LEED environmental standards by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council; they have to complete an assessment of their performance, provide documentation and be open a review from B Lab, as the group explains here.

But the term B Corps is also used to describe “benefit corporations,” a corporate legal structure that has been set up by legislation that has now been passed by 20 states, including, most recently, Delaware. Benefit corporations need not be certified by B Lab, although many are.

It’s unavoidably confusing, but my beef with B Corps is simple.

The voluntary certification system makes sense to me, for reasons that I explain in the story–it’s a way to signal employees, customers and investors that a B Corps aims to do better than conventional companies. Most B Corps are small and privately held. Among the best known are Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, which is a unit of a conventional C Corps, Unilever.

The legal “benefit corporation” purportedly gives companies more freedom to serve society as a whole than conventional corporations have. I’m skeptical about this claim, to say the least, and I worry that it could be counterproductive–because it implies that conventional companies, which make up the bulk of the global economy, need to pursue profits, at the expense of broader social and environmental goals. This seems wrong on the face of it. After all, if Ben & Jerry’s can be certified as a “good” B Corps, doesn’t that mean that its parent company, Unilever, can be “good” too?

My worry is that the implicit argument — that most of the world’s companies don’t have the freedom to do the right thing for society — undermines faith in capitalism (which is fragile, at best, for good reason) and that it discourage reformers inside and outside of big companies who are pushing corporate America to do business better. It’s a bit smug to suggest that traditional companies can’t do as much good for the world as B Corps can.

Here’s how my story begins:

To the supporters of B Corps - benefit corporations that say they aim to serve workers, communities and the environment, as well as their owners – 1 August 2013 was an historic day. In what B Corps described as “a seismic shift in corporate law,” the state of Delaware, where one million businesses are legally registered, enacted legislation that will “redefine success in business” by giving the owners and managers of legally recognised B Corps protection as they pursue “a higher purpose than profit.”

The B Corps movement has much to be proud of: it has built a brand that stands for good business, attracted hundreds of committed followers and sparked debate about the role of business in society. But claims – sometimes made explicitly, sometimes implicitly – that B Corps have more freedom to take an expansive view of their social and environmental responsibilities is not only mistaken, but potentially damaging to the cause of sustainable business.

After all, if conventional companies have no choice but to focus narrowly on maximising short-term profits, at the expense of workers, communities and the planet, then we’re in a heap of trouble and unlikely to get out, because 99% of US businesses today are conventional C Corps, and most are likely to remain so.

You can read the rest here.

Will better disclosure help transform business?

accountingWhose sustainability performance is better, PepsiCo or Coca-Cola? Dell or HP? Microsoft or Google? Tracking sustainability metrics isn’t easy, but that hasn’t stopped numerous organizations from trying.

One of the newest and most ambitious efforts comes from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), a non-profit group based in San Francisco,which is trying to set standards for sustainability reporting, much in the way that the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), has done for financial reporting.

I took a look at SASB (it’s pronounced sazz-bee) in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

In the annual report known as a Form 10-K that is filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Coca-Cola outlines a variety of risks to its business, as public companies are required to do.

The global beverage giant, which booked $48bn in revenues in 2012, talks about how water is “a limited resource in many parts of the world, facing unprecedented challenges from over exploitation, increasing pollution, poor management and climate change.” Coca-Cola says that its plastic bottles could be subject to “deposits or certain eco taxes or fees.” And the company worries that growing concern about “the potential health problems associated with obesity and inactive lifestyles represents a significant challenge to our industry.”

PepsiCo also acknowledges the problem of water scarcity in its Form 10-K. But the company doesn’t cite the potential regulation of plastic bottles as a concern. And the word “obesity”does not appear anywhere in its annual filing.

What’s going on here? It’s possible that Coca-Cola is more aware of social and environmental risks than is its arch rival. More likely, the Coke and Pepsi lawyers don’t agree on what constitutes a “material” risk to their business, and thus has to be reported.

If nothing else, the different Form 10-Ks are evidence that the quality of sustainability disclosure varies widely – even though public companies are legally obligated to tell the SEC and investors about the social, political and environmental risks they face. [click to continue...]

What Ben Franklin can teach US companies about climate

Benjamin-Franklin-006Given the inability, or unwillingness, of political and business leaders to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s no surprise that governments and companies are increasingly talking about adaptation or resilience. It’s only prudent. We need to prepare for climate disruption.

But it seems strange that businesses would tackle the question of adaptatation without, simultaneously, doing all they can to push for climate regulation. At least, that was my reaction last month when I attended a Washington event on adaptation organized by the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). Everyone acted as if extreme weather and a warming planet were all but inevitable.

And perhaps they are. But as companies, understandably, prepare for a warming world, it’s incumbent upon them to engage politically in any way they can to slow down emissions. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. [click to continue...]

Launching: Guardian Sustainable Business US

GP_SusBus-logo_RGB_colourGreetings, blog-readers! I’m just back from vacation, in time for the launch of Guardian Sustainable Business US. Much as I enjoy my work, I confess that I enjoy my time away from work even more. I felt fortunate to be able to spend a week in the south of France, hiking and biking with my wife, two daughters and their spouses, enjoying the scenery, the food and the wine, and not necessarily in that order. I’m more of a beer guy than a wine drinker but the chilled rosé in Provence is a perfect complement to the warm summer days and nights. Nearly as good as our local Dogfish Head. But I digress.

My new part-time gig as editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business is going great. It’s enormous fun to be part of what feels like a startup inside a media organization that is nearly 200 years old. Working with the Brits is a treat–they are a lively and irreverent bunch, none more so than Jo Confino, who is an executive editor of The Guardian and founder of the sustainable business site.

I’m now dividing my time between Fortune and The Guardian, which, I suppose, goes to show that the sustainability agenda can cross political, cultural and national boundaries. Or maybe it’s just evidence that biology is destiny. My father worked for Fortune back in the 1950s and 1960s, and I remember as a kid visiting him in the Time & Life Building. And we spent a summer or two back then in Manchester, England, my mom’s home town, where the local paper was The Guardian, then known as the Manchester Guardian. I would search the paper for baseball scores, and toss it aside when I couldn’t find them. Only recently has The Guardian begun to cover America’s pastime. You could look it up. But I digress, again.

The Guardian has hired Jennifer Kho, formerly of GreenBiz, to be the managing editor of the US site. Charlie Wilkie has moved to New York from London to lead the business side. Over the next few weeks and months, Jenn and I will be looking for contributors, as well as story ideas, so please feel free to be in touch.

Here’s how Jo explained our plans for the site in an introductory essay:

Today we officially launch the US edition of Guardian Sustainable Business, focusing our unique style of journalism on how American companies can rise to the sustainability challenges of our age.

This is an exciting time, given the increasing recognition that the business of business is much more than just business.

How times have changed. When I was a Wall Street correspondent back in the heady days of the 1980s, there was little if any space to talk about the role of business in society. [click to continue...]

The end of consumer culture as we know it?

ErikI wanted to eat insects with Erik Assadourian. Erik is a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute who directs its Transforming Cultures project, and he believes that we need to think differently about everything we consume, including our food. We’d first hoped to cook up some cicadas, but the much-anticipated bugs never made it to my neighborhood in Bethesda, Md. The Dutch Embassy served crickets and mealworms at a dinner last month to talk about the future of food, but I had a prior engagement. (Really.) Then we’d hoped to sample an appetizer called Cazuela de Chapulines, i.e., grasshoppers, at Casa Oaxaca, a Mexican restaurant, but they were closed for lunch. Bummer.

So we settled on Thai food, no bugs and a conversation about why western consumer culture as we know it has to come to end, at least in Erik’s view. He tells me that consumer culture could end more-or-less happily because we choose to make the transformative changes needed to adapt to a world of finite resources. Or it could end badly.

In the 2013 edition of  the Worldwatch Institute’s annual state of the world review, titled Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Erik writes:

…given that consumerism and the consumption patterns that it fuels are not compatible with the flourishing of a living planetary system, either we find ways to wrestle our cultural patterns out of the grip of those with a vested interest in maintaining consumerism or Earth’s ecosystems decline and bring down the consumer culture for the vast majority of humanity in a much crueler way.

Erik, who is 36, is not your typical environmentalist. He studied anthropology and religion at Dartmouth, and he’s as interested in economic “de-growth,” pet care and burial rituals as he is in Washington politics or electric vehicles. He’d like to see a broader and deeper environmental movement, one that helps people find their purpose in life. [click to continue...]

Garment industry deaths in Bangladesh: The end of the beginning?

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAGarment workers in Bangladesh have  labored in unsafe conditions for years. They will likely suffer for years to come.

But in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire last November, which killed at least 117 people, and the Rana Plaza building collapse in April, which killed more than 1,100, European and US retailers–operating on separate but parallel paths–have come together to act. Actually, to be more specific, they have come together to promise to act.

There’s lot of controversy about the US effort, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, because it does not include the meaningful participation of organized labor, at least not yet. But, as I write today in Guardian Sustainable Business, it’s a step forward.

Here’s how my story begins:

At long last, US apparel retailers have joined together to improve safety for garment workers in Bangladesh – most of them poor women, toiling in hazardous workplaces at the bottom of the bottom of the global supply chain.

Gap, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, VF Corporation and a dozen other companies that formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety say they will set common safety standards, inspect all their factories in Bangladesh, make the results public, provide loans for repairs and give workers more power to protect themselves.

Is that sufficient? Labour rights groups say no. As the US companies unveiled their alliance in Washington, student protesters gathered outside, chanting “Shame on Walmart” and decrying the plan as a “fake safety scheme.”

It’s not. It’s a serious plan, with some money behind it, that includes a commitment to transparency, and mechanisms to enable workers to speak out about unsafe conditions. It’s not perfect – the alliance’s glaring flaw is a lack of participation from unions – but the US companies hope to bring in Bangladeshi and international labour groups.

The story goes on to describe the key role played by Gap and its executives in bringing the US retailers together. Gap has been deeply engaged in Bangladesh since December 2010–before Tazreen and Rana Plaza–when a fire at one of its suppliers’ factories killed 29 workers. [click to continue...]

You remember carbon offsets, don’t you?

SUV-vs-Carbon-OffsetsYou remember carbon offsets, don’t you? When companies like Dell, Yahoo!, News Corp. and HSBC promised to go carbon neutral, they decided to do so, in part, by financing projects to develop clean energy, or plant trees, or capture methane gas from landfills or farm animals that would, in theory, offset their own emissions. In regulated markets, mostly in Europe, traders bought and sold billions of dollars in carbon credits. Carbon finance was going to be the next big thing.

That was so, well, 2007. These days, you don’t hear much talk about carbon neutral. And the price of carbon credits on regulated markets has collapsed; you can buy a credit, once worth 32 euros (about $42), for about 4.5 euros ($6) these days on the European exchange. Here in the US, cap-and-trade was rejected by Congress. Carbon offsets came under attack, rightly or wrong, as a scam.

So it came as a surprise to me to learn recently that the market for voluntary carbon credits is alive and well and growing, at least by some metrics.  A report by a nonprofit called Ecosystem Marketplace put the size of the market at 101 million tons of carbon offsets in 2012, which is up 4 percent over the previous year. In dollar terms, the value of the voluntary offset market fell by 11% to $523 million, as the prices that buyers were willing to pay fell. Even so, a not-insignificant number of companies and individuals are willing to act ahead of governments when it comes to curbing climate change. [click to continue...]

My new gig

GP_SusBus-logo_RGB_gdn-colourThis week, I begin work as editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business US. I’m excited. My introductory column is here.

I’ve been writing for Guardian Sustainable Business in the UK for about six months, on such topics as urban greenhouses, salmon aquaculture, Amazon’s corporate irresponsibility and self-imposed carbon taxes at Disney, Shell and Microsoft. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Jo Confino, an executive editor of the Guardian and chair of Guardian Sustainable Business, Caroline Holtum, head of content for the site and Charlie Wilkie who leads the commercial operation.

When they asked me to take on the role of editor-at-large of a new, soon-to-be-launched US site, I readily accepted. I’ll be writing a weekly column for the site, and helping guide coverage of sustainable business in the US. (It’s not a full-time job. I will continue to contribute to FORTUNE and lead the magazine’s annual conference on business and the environment, Brainstorm Green.) The Guardian will soon hire a New York-based editor to run the editorial side, and Charlie has moved from London to New York to run the business side. [click to continue...]