Aluminum, and the circular economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

Paul Hawken’s next big idea

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

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

Here’s how my story begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of my story here.

The circular economy at Disney World

Harvest Power Orlando - Energy Garden copy

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

On second thought, you may not want a tour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old clothes

045be76d-5287-489c-ac5f-0b33a13e6fe4-620x372Last month was one of the busiest I’ve had in a long while, with trips to Boston, Singapore, New York and Berlin over a four-week span. All for the good, but I’ve fallen behind on this blog, so I’m looking back today at a story that I wrote and posted last month on Guardian Sustainable Business.

As regular readers know, I’ve been paying attention to the circular economy, a term that describes an economy where nothing goes to waste, everything is made into something else at the end of its life, and the whole shebang is powered by clean, renewable energy. We’re a long way from there, obviously, but I see bits of the circular economy arriving in unexpected places.

One  is the textile industry, which even as it has become dominated by cheap, throwaway “fast fashion” is  simultaneously embracing recycling. That has created some unexpected tensions between old-fashioned charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, and newer, for-profit companies that see a business opportunity in collecting, reusing and recyling textiles.

Thus, the”clothing bin wars,” as I explained in this story in the Guardian:

Welcome to the clothing bin wars, a battle that comes complete with lawsuits alleging dirty dealing, lobbying of local and state politicians, rogue operators who put bins on other people’s property and even bizarre allegations that some big players in the clothing recycling industry are front groups for a mysterious Danish cult.

Who knew that recycling T-shirts and towels could get so complex?

This is basically a good-news story: Lots of people want your old clothes, sheets and towels because they have value. What you do with them is up to you–there is no perfect solution. (As a commenter in the story pointed out, even charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army face questions about their conduct.) There are bins everywhere (but read the fine print before you dump your clothes in one) and, as I’ve written before, retailers including H&M take back clothes in their stores. You can even mail them at no cost to a company called Community Recycling that I wrote about in the story. So there’s no excuse for dumping textiles in a landfill.

One more thing struck me when reporting the story: People seem to want something in return when they giveaway their old clothes–a tax deduction from a charity,  a discount on future purchases (which H&M offers), the feeling that they are doing the right thing. Even though we no longer want them, giving away clothes is an emotional decision in a way that recycling plastic bottles or newspapers is not.

Game changer: Walmart’s focus on food and ag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of my story here.

Was Climate Week a good week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

Patagonia’s CEO, marching for climate action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should bike sharing be subsidized? Or privatized?

Capital_Bikeshare_station_outside_Eastern_Market_MetroI’m a fan of bike sharing, as regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), and a satisfied, albeit irregular, customer of Capital Bikeshare, the convenient and well-managed public bike-sharing system in Washington, D.C., which now extends into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.

There’s a potential cloud over bike sharing, though, and it is this: So far, at least, no big-city bike sharing system of which I am aware is financially self-supporting.

This doesn’t trouble me. Bike sharing is form of mass transit. If you believe, as I do, that subways and buses deserve taxpayer support, bike sharing does, too. It creates a slew of positive externalities, including reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, reduced traffic congestion, a healthier populace and the mobility that city dwellers without cars need to get to work or school. (You may be wondering, are cars subsidized, too? Perhaps, but not by as much as you would think, some say. But it’s complicated. A few years back in Slate, Dan Gross argued just the opposite, that governments provide massive subsidies to private car owners.)

In any event, we’ve learning from the bike sharing boom that bike sharing is very popular, but that at the current pricing levels — $75 for an annual membership, $15 for a three-day membership in Washington — it can’t pay for itself. New York’s Citibike was touted as a bike sharing system that would pay for itself with user fees and Citi’s marketing dollars, but it is millions of dollars in the red. Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog wrote a good analysis of the economics of the two systems.

A startup bike-sharing company called Zagster offers an alternative: private bike sharing. It provides bike sharing systems to companies, universities (including Yale and Duke), apartment buildings and hotels for their employees, students and guests. Lately, it’s been making headway in Detroit.

I wrote about Zagster this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Of all the big cities in America, Detroit is among the least hospitable to bike sharing. The city is bankrupt. Its residents are poor. And it sprawls over 142 sq miles (367.8 sq km), nearly enough area to fit San Francisco, Boston and New York within its borders. Winters can be harsh, public transit is dismal and it is, after all, the Motor City.

But a nimble little bike-sharing startup called Zagster is making inroads in Motown. Last year, Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans who has invested more than $1.3bn in Detroit, turned to Zagster to start a private bike-sharing network for his employees. The local utility company DTE Energy, as well as the United Way of Southern Michigan and several small companies, followed. This week, General Motors announced that Zagster will make its bikes available to 19,000 employees at the 330-acre GM Tech Center in Warren.

What’s more, Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co, has invested in Zagster through Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in “next-generation mobility”.

Tim Ericson, the 28-year-old co-founder and CEO of Zagster, told me: “We’re creating what is almost becoming a citywide bike sharing program, with no public funds and no use of public space.”

As you might imagine, I have some reservations about Zagster’s model. The more we privatize goods and services — private schools, private parks in the form of country clubs, Google’s private bus from SF to its campus, and the like — the less political support there will be for public schools, parks and transport.

Then again, I can’t envision bike sharing come to Detroit in any other way.

You can read the rest of my story here.

PR firm Edelman has more than a PR problem

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

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

Here’s how my story begins:

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

So … which side are you on, boys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an interesting test of a company’s values.

The end of garbage

p12608In nature, nothing goes to waste. The excrement of one species (forgive me if you are reading over breakfast) becomes food for another.

Why can’t we design the industrial economy to be like nature?

This isn’t a new idea. During the American Revolution, iron pots were melted down to make armaments. I take notes with a pen made out of recycled bottles. The gospel of “natural capitalism” or “cradle to cradle” has been spread by  such pioneering environmental thinkers as Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough.

Lately, though, I’m pleased to report, the idea of eliminating waste is gaining traction among big global companies, which increasingly are talking about — and acting to bring about — what is called the circular economy.

As regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), I’ve long been excited by the idea of a zero-waste world. I wrote a story for FORTUNE called The End of Garbage in 2007. Recently, I revisited the topic for Ensia, a magazine and website about environmental solutions.

Here’s how my story begins:

Don’t let fashion go to waste,” says H&M, the global clothing retailer that booked $20 billion in revenues last year. So I brought a bag of old T-shirts, sweaters and khaki pants to an H&M store in Washington, D.C., where it took them, no questions asked, and gave me a coupon for 15 percent off my next purchase. H&M takes back clothes in all of its 3,100 stores in 53 countries.

Next, I pulled an ancient iPod and an iPhone 4S with a cracked screen from a desk drawer. On the website of a company called Gazelle, I answered a few questions and learned that the company would pay me $37 for the pair. (Without the cracked screen, the iPhone would have been valued at $135.) I printed out a free shipping label, and they were on their way. Not to landfills, but to a new life.

Meanwhile, not far from my home, a garage owned by the Washington Metrorail system is about to undergo a makeover. Existing lighting fixtures will be replaced by LEDs that are expected to reduce energy usage by 68 percent. The LEDs will be manufactured, owned and monitored by Philips, which will take them back when they need to be repaired or replaced.

Welcome to the emerging world of the circular economy.

I go on to write about McKinsey & Co., Philips, Sprint, Best Buy, all of whom are getting serious about circular business models. This is getting real, folks. You can read the rest here.