When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.

The upside of outsourcing

To match Insight INDIA-OUTSOURCING/I heard an excellent, in-depth interview this week with William Easterly, the development economist and author of a new book called The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Easterly, a controversial figure, is critical of top-down development experts — he names Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, among others — who push technocratic, centralized approaches to alleviating poverty. Instead, he argues that the best way to promote economic development is for westerners to push for democracy, human rights and free markets in the world’s poorest countries.

Easterly cites, among others, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Others disagree, noting that parts of India came perilously close to famine just a decade ago. What’s more, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while suppressing human rights, but allowing economic freedom.

I’m in no position to try to adjudicate the debate about how poor countries become rich, but I was thinking about Easterly’s faith in markets and global trade as I wrote my story this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The story looks at an idea called “socially-responsible outsourcing” or simple “impact sourcing,” and a nonprofit called DDD that tries to put that idea into practice. (DDD stands for Digital Divide Data.) DDD operates businesses in Cambodia, Kenya and Laos that employ young people, typically high school age, to provide information technology and web research, mostly to clients in the US. The goal of the enterprise is to provide economic opportunity to the poor, DDD’s founders told me.

Here’s how my story begins:

So much attention is paid to deplorable factory conditions in poor countries that it’s easy to forget that global supply chains for electronics, apparel and toys have helped lift masses of people out of poverty. Since 1980, 680 million people have risen out of poverty in China which has seen its extreme-poverty rate fall from 84% to about 10%, largely because of trade, reports The Economist.

Now, a small number of companies, nonprofits and foundations want to see if the rapidly growing global supply chains that process data and operate call centers — an industry usually described as business processing outsourcing, or BPO — can be deployed to help alleviate poverty in Africa and South Asia. Can outsourcing, a business driven by the search for cheap labor, reconfigure itself to do good?

“By responsibly and ethically employing hundreds of thousands of people, BPOs have a role to play in shifting the social landscape in emerging economies around the world,” says a report called Outsourcing for Social Good from Telus International, a Canadian outsourcing firm, and Impakt, a social responsibility consultancy.

Others agree. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $100m to a project called Digital Jobs Africa that aims to improve one million lives in six African nations. A nonprofit called Samasource organizes poor women and youth in Africa and Asia to deliver data services to such businesses as Microsoft and Google. And a company called Cloud Factory that operates in Kenya and Nepal says digital outsourcing can “flatten the world, connect people into the global economy and raise up leaders to fight poverty and change their communities.”

The pioneer of what is called socially-responsible outsourcing or simply impact sourcing is DDD (Digital Divide Data), a New York-based nonprofit that operates for-profit data centers in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya. DDD and its impact-oriented peers set themselves apart from outsourcing giants such as Tata, Accenture and Infosys because, they says, they deliberately seeks out workers in the some of the world’s poorest places and provides them not just with jobs, but with the education, training and career counseling they need to rise into the middle class.

“Our ultimate mission is to alleviate poverty,” says Jeremy Hockenstein, 42, the founder and CEO of DDD. “We focus on students who are finishing high school, who are very motivated and very smart and who come from low-income homes.”

Having met Jeremy Hockenstein (via Skype) and his co-founder Michael Chertok (face to face), I have no doubt of their good intentions. Both gave up more lucrative careers to start the nonprofit. DDD is about helping its global employees, not exploiting them.

But their work raises an intriguing question about how much intentions matter when it comes to infotech outsourcing, or all of global trade, for that matter. Despite all the the abuses in the global manufacturing supply chain, it seems inarguable that the factory jobs created in China, Mexico, India and Bangladesh have benefited the poor in those countries. Is it possible the Walmart and Apple have done more to alleviate poverty than Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs?

You can read the rest of my story here.

The elusive fortune at the base of the pyramid

cimg7634It’s been an exceptionally busy week, beginning with the 2014 edition of Fortune Brainstorm Green (selected videos are online here) and ending with a holiday weekend visit from my new grandson, so I’m going to quickly post a link to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

It’s a long-ish story about doing business at the bottom of the pyramid, an idea popularized by the late C.K. Prahalad in a book published a decade ago. Here’s how the story begins:

When CK Prahalad‘s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, was published in 2004, the book made an immediate splash. Its argument was irresistible: The world’s poorest people are a vast, fast-growing market with untapped buying power, Prahalad wrote, and companies that learn to serve them can make money and help people escape poverty, too.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates called the book “an intriguing blueprint for how to fight poverty with profitability”. BusinessWeek’s Pete Engardio described Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan business school, as a business prophet. He was awarded honorary degrees and sought out by CEOs.

Ten years later, businesses big and small continue to pursue profits at the bottom of the pyramid. The global uptake of mobile phones has proven that poor people will buy cell service if it’s available at low prices. (It costs a fraction of a cent per minute in India.) Single-serve packages of shampoo, toothpaste and soap dangle from shelves of tiny storefronts in rural villages. Products ranging from eyeglasses to solar panels are being designed and marketed to people earning $2 a day.

The bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) market leader, arguably, is Unilever, with its Anglo-Dutch colonial heritage and a chief executive, Paul Polman, who is determined to improve the world. Unilever generates more than half of its sales from developing markets, with much of that coming from the emerging middle class. Its signature BOP product is Pureit, a countertop water-purification system sold in India, Africa and Latin America. It’s saving lives, but it’s not making money for shareholders.

And there’s the rub. If there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, it remains elusive. Partly that’s because doing business with the poor is unavoidably complex, and partly that’s because the notion was oversold, says Mark Milstein, director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell’s business school and an expert on the BOP.

“I haven’t seen anyone making a fortune,” Milstein told me. “Unilever’s made money on some products, but they’ve been challenged. Other companies are making profits, but not enough to matter to their organization.”

The story goes on to report on successful and not-so-successful efforts to do business with the world’s billion or two poor people. We’ll be considering this topic again next month at the Guardian, with a live tweet chat on Tuesday, June 10, at noon. You can read the rest of my story here.

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...]