You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India

A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  ”drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

Paul Polman: A radical CEO

Paul-Polman-chief-executi-005“We’re the world’s biggest NGO,” Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, sometimes likes to joke.

Literally, he is correct: “We’re a non government organization. The only difference is, we’re making money so we are sustainable.”

Lots of money, in fact. As one of the world’s biggest consumer products companies, with such brands as Dove, Hellman’s, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever generated about $67 billion in revenues and $7.2 billion in profits last year.

But while Polman has led a turnaround at Unilever since becoming CEO in 2009, he is best known because he is outspoken about his belief  that “business should serve society.” He sounds more like the leader of an NGO like Oxfam or Greenpeace than your typical CEO. He’d rather blather on  about the Millenium Development Goals than boast about his company’s earnings.

More important, Polman’s Unilever uses its global to work for change, around a set of big issues, ranging from curbing climate change to eradicating poverty to deforestation.

That’s why the Center for Global Development, a DC think tank, honored Polman the other night with its “Commitment to Development: Ideas in Action” award. Previous winners include Global Witness, the One Campaign and Oxfam. Polman is the first business guy to get the award, as best as I can tell.

One reason: Unilever’s strong commitment to reducing deforestation, which helped drive the decision late last year by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil producer, to sign a “no deforestation” pledge. Wilmar’s commitment has the potential “to create a global revolution in how we grow food,” Scott Poynton, executive director of The Forest Trust, wrote last month in Guardian Sustainable Business. Palm oil is used in a variety of foods, as well as personal care products, like soap.

At the awards dinner, Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, said of Polman:  ”He is surely the most outspoken and effective advocate for reducing the amount of deforestation that takes places to produce consumer goods.”

I went to the award ceremony not because I hadn’t heard Polman before — we spent time together last year when I profiled him in Fortune, under the headline Unilever’s CEO has a green thumb — but because he is such an outlier in the business world and I wanted to hear what was on his mind.

He didn’t disappoint. Some highlights from his remarks:

On the need for government policy to curb climate change: “We need to have the business community in the US speak up more, and then the Republicans will have to listen.”

On the urgency of dealing with global problems: ”First and foremost, I am a businessman. I like to get to action. This worldis very long on words and very short on action.”

On the importance of sustainable development: “It is desperately needed that we build a new economic world order where we live within planetary boundaries.”

On global inequality: “The top 1.2 billion people consume 75 percent of the world’s resources. That is a system that is not in equilibrium.”

On the exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh, who are paid 11 cents an hour“That’s as close as you can get to modern-day slavery.”

On the opportunity to have an impact: ”In the next 15 years, we as a generation have the opportunity to be the people who eradicate poverty in a meaningful and sustainable way.”

On the need for business to step up to deal with social and environmental issues: “If you don’t make a positive contribution, you will be rejected…I  don’t understand why more CEOs don’t see this.”

Chocolate, and the Congo

Joe Whinney, in the DRC

Joe Whinney, in the DRC

I met Joe Whinney, the chief executive and founder of Theo Chocolate, last month here in Washington, and liked him right away–he’s an unpretentious high school dropout, with a great deal of enthusiasm for his work. It’s important work: Theo Chocolate is helping to alleviate poverty in one of the world’s most godforsaken places, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I wrote about Joe and Theo today for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Buying a Theo chocolate bar will not put a stop to the long-running conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But it will help, at least a little.

Seattle-based Theo sources cacao beans from war-torn eastern Congo and pays premium prices for them. By doing so, the chocolate maker provides a livelihood to about 2,000 farmers and indirect benefits to perhaps another 20,000 people in the Congo.

As a small company, with revenues of about $12m last year, Theo can only do so much. But its work in the Congo demonstrates how companies, big or small, can find ways to attack some of the world’s most intractable problems, if they have the will to do so.

“We’re trying to build a business that can change the way an entire industry conducts itself,” says Joe Whinney, Theo’s founder and CEO. His hope is that other chocolate companies invest in the livelihood of cacao farmers, as Theo has.

I hope you read the rest of the story. This is the second time this week that I’ve written about the DRC, where more than 5 million people have died in the past two decades; my previous story looked at Intel’s progress in eliminating conflict minerals from the Congo from its supply chain.

While I’m by no means an expert on the DRC, both stories suggest to me that businesses can play an important role in resolving conflicts and promoting economic development in even the poorest places in the world. NGOs like the Enough Project, which is working closely with Intel, the Eastern Congo Initiative, a group supported by the actor and activist Ben Affleck that is allied with Theo, are doing good work in the DRC, but it will take enlightened businesses like Intel and Theo Chocolate to provide sustainable livelihoods for people living there.

Theo’s work is especially impressive because of the way the company goes well beyond Fair Trade to support cacao farmers. It will be interesting to see if the world’s biggest chocolate companies follow this pioneering small one into the DRC.

By the way, I’m delighted that Joe Whinney will be joining us in May for the FORTUNE Brainstorm Green conference, about business and the environment.

Theo Classic Bars

Intel: Taking a stand on “conflict minerals”

International-CES-Sets-Trends-for-Future-2Last week, I attended my first International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It’s a big  deal: 1.8 million square feet of noisy exhibition space inside a gigantic convention center, 3,200 exhibitors, all of them clamoring for attention, and 152,000 attendees, which explains, among other things, why there were about 1,000 people, no exaggeration, on the line waiting for taxis at the airport. All against the backdrop of Vegas.

I was there to moderate a panel about conflict minerals for Intel, about which, more below, but I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the rest of the show. Most of the gadgetry on display at the show struck me as expensive or useless, or both. No, I don’t want or need an 85-inch bendable TV. No, I don’t want or need wearable computers. (Nor does my dog need an integrated health and wellness platform.) The BMW i3 is a very cool new electric car but I am perfectlyu capable of making my own restaurant reservations, thanks, and I have Pandora on my phone, so I don’t need it built into the vehicle.

In fact, I have just about everything electronic or digital that I need on my phone, my iPad and laptop. As an industry expert named Brian Lam told Nick Bilton of The Times in this excellent summary of CES:

“You only need a phone and a tablet and a laptop, and maybe you need a TV and some headphones, but that covers 90 percent of the needs for 90 percent of the population,” said Mr. Lam, the editor of The Wirecuttera gadget website. “But this industry that employs all of these engineers, and has all of these factories and sales people, needs you to throw out your old stuff and buy new stuff — even if that new stuff” is only slightly upgraded.

That said, I enjoyed learning about the issue of conflict minerals, and meeting Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, who has led the company (and the electronics industry) effort to do something about the fact that the sales of tantulum, tungsten, tin and gold are helping to finance a two-decade old war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I wrote about conflict minerals today for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcased 110-inch curved TV sets, watches that monitor your vital signs, self-driving cars … and the technology industry’s efforts to curb violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those efforts are being led by Intel, the giant (annual revenues of $52bn) maker of microprocessors for computer, tablets and mobile phones, among other things, and its new CEO, Brian Krzanich.

Near the end of a high-profile keynote address in which he demonstrated “smart earbuds”, 3D printing, advances in video gaming and an embedded processor designed to enable “wearable computing“, Krzanich paused and said:

“Okay. I’m going to switch gears for a minute now. … This is not an issue we would normally talk about at CES, but it is an issue that is very important and personal to me. That issue is conflict minerals.”

After he showed a somber video about the devastation in the Congo, where more than 5 million people have died since 1994 – many killed by armed groups using profits from the mining of four minerals, tantulum, tungsten, tin and gold – Krzanich promised that every Intel microprocessor will henceforth be conflict-free. The world’s first conflict-free processors will be validated as not containing minerals sourced from mines that finance fighting in the Congo, he said.

The story goes on to say that not all companies are on board with the effort to curb conflict minerals. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have filed a lawsuit challenging a provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that requires companies to report on their use of conflict minerals.

So this unorthodox, corporate-backed antiwar effort has sparked its own backlash–from business groups. It’s remarkable how the chamber winds up on the wrong side of so many issues.

You can read the rest of my story here. If you are really interested in the topic, here’s the video of my panel with Krzanich, Sasha Lehznev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright, who, I was pleased to read, won a Golden Globe last night for her performance on House of Cards.

[Disclosure: Intel paid me to moderate the panel at CES.]

Investing in Bangladesh factories–for a profit

bangladesh-garment-workersOliver Niedermaier is selling a “capitalist solution to one of capitalism’s worst problems” — the unsafe, exploitative, polluting factories in the global south. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

After more than a decade of corporate investment in social responsibility programs, codes of conduct, teams of inspectors and public reporting – all of it intended to improve the working conditions of factories in poor countries – anyone paying attention knows the system isn’t working very well. The Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh were poignant symbols of its failure.

Maybe it has failed because Western clothing brands and retailers – Nike, Gap, Walmart and the rest – have been behaving like regulators by writing rules and meting out punishment. At least, so argues Oliver Niedermaier, the founder and CEO of Tau Invesment Management. He advocates that businesses should instead try acting like capitalists, using markets and the potential of investment gains to reform their global supply chains.

Tau plans to raise $1bn to turn around factories in poor countries, beginning with the garment industry. Tau promises to deliver “improved transparency, greater dignity for workers, cleaner environments for communities, and enhanced performance and value for stakeholders”.

As the story goes on to say, this is an intriguing–but very much untested–idea. Can Tau raise the money? Will brands partner with the company, a newcomer to supply-chain issues? Most important, can factories in places like Bangladesh that adhere to the highest standards compete effective with those who do not?

I don’t have answers. But I do know that a new approach to the problem is desperately needed.

Sustainable business: What’s ahead in 2014?

equipmentprotection3So the answer to the question above is, honestly, it’s anybody’s guess.

As a reporter, I’ve always resisted the idea of what editors like to call “forward looking” stories. Predictions are fun, but it’s hard enough to fully understand the present and the past. My preference is to leave the future to fortune cookies.

So when an editor at Guardian Sustainable Business asked me to write about the year ahead in sustainable business, I’d ignored her and took a look back instead. Here’s how my story begins:

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, the baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly said. (Or was it the physicist Neils Bohr? Or Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn?)

Whoever said it, I agree – so instead of trying to forecast 2014, let’s look back at the the big stories in sustainable business from 2013, knowing that they will shape whatever lies ahead. As the US editor-at-large ofGuardian Sustainable Business, I’ll offer what is unavoidably a US-centric perspective.

My story goes on to look at five themes of the year just past:

  1. The decline in greenhouse gas emissions in the US
  2. Solar power, mainstream at last
  3. The aftermath of Rana Plaza
  4. Industrial-strength sustainability, by which I mean collaborative efforts to change entire industries or systems.
  5. Inequality, on  the political agenda

You can read the rest of the story here.

I see reason to be optimistic about all of these themes. Each offers opportunities for forward-thinking companies. That said, the challenge for business in 2014 will be to accelerate and scale its efforts to deal with the world’s big environmental and social problems. That’s one prediction I will comfortably make.

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...]

David Griesing: “Everyday low prices” hurt us all

Griesing-Medium-003Today’s guest post comes from David Griesing. A student of religion and ethics, David has been a non-profit manager, a caregiver, a corporate attorney, a teacher in a school for autistic kids, a company executive, retail clerk (of women’s shoes!), an arbitrator, and an entrepreneur. If nothing else, his peripatetic career has made him an expert on work–particularly how we can make it more productive and satisfying for ourselves and for those impacted by it. From his home base in Philadelphia, David helps parties to resolve their commercial disputes when he’s not writing and speaking about how all of us can do a better job of bringing our values into our work. He’s a regular on Twitter @worklifereward and blogs at http://www.davidgriesing.com/

David writes today about the downside of the “everyday low prices”  offered by discount retailers like Walmart, one of which is the inability of many of its workers to earn a living wage. A week or so ago, Business Week did an excellent cover story on Costco that complements David’s arguments here. Having said that, the counterargument is that Walmart’s low prices puts billions of dollars of savings into the pockets of the low and middle-income people who shop there, and even those of us who do not, since rival retailers reduce their prices to compete with Walmart.

Our expectation that we’ll always pay less for consumer products has an impact on the people in the supply chain who bring us those products—and it’s not a good one.

I’m talking about those who mine the metals in your cell phone, pick the cotton in your socks, process the rubber in your running shoes. Workers in places like Indonesia or Peru put your toaster together, stick the pins in your dress shirt so it looks good in its package, or pack the parts you’ll assemble into an IKEA bookcase. American sales clerks, stock boys and checkout girls get the final product into your hands.

To bring you “everyday low prices,” the people in these supply chains are paid as little as their labor markets will bear so that the factory owners, shippers and retailers can make a profit. With fewer dollars to go around and cutthroat competition between the on-line and bricks & mortar stores, every link in the consumer product supply chain is squeezed. This includes workers along the arc of production—including those in America.

How is our addiction to cheap stuff making the work that many of our neighbors do everyday a losing proposition—and why should we care? [click to continue...]

In Haiti, philanthropy could lead to profits for NRG Solar

NRG Energy volunteers in Haiti

NRG Energy volunteers working in Haiti

A startling encounter with a young boy got David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, hooked on Haiti.

It was his first night in the Caribbean nation, months after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses.

As Crane tells the story, he and his daughter, who had traveled to Port au Prince to volunteer with the Clinton Global Initiative, left a cocktail reception to return to their hotel when she said, “Daddy, there’s a body under the car.”

A security guard gently kicked a boy of about 10, who emerged naked from beneath their SUV.

“This kid looked up at me,” Crane remembers. “There was no life in his eyes. No hope. Complete nothingness. I was so shocked. There were any number of things that I could have done for that kid. I just stood there and did nothing, except act like a dumb American.”

Since then, Crane and NRG Energy, its suppliers and its employees have done a great deal. He’s been back to Haiti a half dozen times, often accompanied by his wife and five children. NRG  made a $1 million commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative and  in partnership with Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) to bring solar power to rural areas of Haiti.

“I didn’t mean to get so emotionally caught up in Haiti, but I did,” he told me, when we spoke by phone the other day.

Now, Crane says, he is hoping that what began as a charitable initiative will demonstrate the power of solar energy to spur economic development in poor countries. It could also help create business opportunities in the Caribbean for NRG. [click to continue...]