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.

Has success spoiled Green Mountain Coffee?

image“Doing well by doing good” has become a cliche on the corporate-responsibility circuit. And for good reason–smart companies that serve their customers, provide opportunity to their workers and connect with their communities are likely to deliver superior shareholder returns.

But doing well can complicate the desire to do good. That’s been the challenge lately for the company formerly known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and now called Keurig Green Mountain Coffee.  Thanks to the sales of Keurig coffee machines and literally billions of single-serve coffee pods — which cannot be recycled — the Vermont-based firm has been on a tear, rapidly growing its revenues and stock price, while generating enormous amounts of waste. And to what end?

My story about Green Mountain was posted today at Guardian  Sustainable Business.  With apologies for my formatting problems today (I’m working on an iPad) here is a link that you can copy into a browser –  http://flip.it/sSCuG  – and here is how the story begins:

Not long ago, Green Mountain Coffee and it’s chief  executive, Bob Stiller,  were hailed as corporate responsibility pioneers. Green Mountain was the world’s largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee. The company offset the carbon emissions of its energy use and won a “green power” award from EPA. Twice, it topped CR Magazine’s list of the 100 best corporate citizens.

Today, Keurig Green Mountain (KGM), as it is now known, remains a corporate-responsibility standout. But the Vermont-based firm has a dark stain on its reputation. Since acquiring Keurig, the inventor of a single-serve coffee machine and its patented K-Cups, the company has become the driving force behind what critics say is an environmental scourge – the throwaway coffee pods made of plastic and aluminum foil that waste energy and materials, and are all but impossible to recycle.

Meanwhile, Stiller, an ex-hippie who briefly became a billionaire, was forced out of KGM after going on a spending spree with borrowed money, acquiring a 164-foot yacht, a $10m, 7,500-square-foot Palm Beach mansion and a $17.5m Manhattan condo formerly owned by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Green living, that’s not.

What went wrong with Green Mountain? In a word, success. Its story challenges easy pieties about doing well by doing good. This is a company that has done very well – but only by setting aside, at least for now, the environmental values it once held dear.

Green Mountain shareholders certainly aren’t complaining. Shares of Keurig Green Mountain (NASDAQ:GMCR) have grown 50% in the last year and 548% in five years. Sales have skyrocketed to $4.4bn last year from $492n in 2008. Those Keurig machines and the little plastic cylinders that pop into them have driven that growth, accounting for more than 90% of revenues.

Keurig Brewing Systems are now used in 16m US homes, about one in six, the company estimates. In 2013, KGM says it sold roughly 8.3bn “portion packs”.

To be fair, Keurig Green Mountain recognizes that the waste created by its coffee pods is a problem and promises to reduce it. Monique Oxender, the company’s senior director of corporate responsibility, told me: “Recycling is one of those areas where we have a lot of work to do, and we know that.”

This isn’t a simple story.  Keurig Green Mountain says it intends to make 100% of K-Cup packs recyclable. And the company argues that the single serve machines save resources in the the coffee-growing supply chain because the machines waste less coffee than traditional brewing methods.

But Keurig also has announced alliances with Coca Cola and Campbell Soup to develop single serve machines for cold drinks and soups. In the company’s latest annual report, CEO Brian Kelly writes: “Our mission is to have a Keurig® System on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.” That sounds like a recipe for a whole lot more waste.

By now, we should know better. As author and activist Amy Larkin told me:  “We now understand waste, water usage, manufacturing, mining, freight transport and packaging and their impact on the world. It seems madness to develop a product line that increases all of the above.

That said, Green Mountain remains a sustainability leader in other arenas, particularly as a strong support of the Fair Trade movement. I’m told that its coffee buying team is one of the most progressive and creative in the industry.

In other words, it’s complicated–a lot more complicated than “doing well by doing good. ”

 

The art and science of systems change

pdfnewThe corporate sustainability movement, such as it is, has made enormous progress in the last decade. Just not enough. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of forward-thinking companies, greenhouse gas emissions are rising, species are dying, forests are shrinking, etc. Smart companies have come to understand that acting alone, they can’t bring about the change we need.

This is why companies are collaborating to drive what’s being called systems change — that is, efforts to remake complex systems such as supply chains or marine fisheries. Recently, I heard a consultant named Joe Hsueh (it’s pronounced Shway) talk about systems change at an event sponsored by Guardian Sustainable Business and Forum for the Future.

Joe has a PhD from the Sloan school at MIT, so he understands the science of how systems work and knows how to deploy tools like systems maps (like the one above). Perhaps more important, though, he spent a year volunteering with Buddhist nuns in Taiwan, his native land, so he has practiced listening and empathy.

I wrote about Joe this week in the Guardian. Here’s how my story begins:

Until recently, the momentum driving US businesses toward greater sustainability came from big, influential companies: GE with itsecomagination campaign, Walmart with its bold environmental goals, Google with more than $1bn in renewable energy investments and Nike with its pioneering design work, among others.

Lately, though, much of the most exciting work in sustainable business has focused on systems change – sometimes within an industry, sometimes up and down corporate supply chains and sometimes across industries and geographies. Systems-change initiatives like the The Sustainability Consortium, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and ZHDC, which stands for Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, differ in their approach and structure, but they are all tackling problems too sprawling and too complicated for even the biggest companies to solve on their own.

The process of changing large-scale systems is a mix of art and science, and its practitioners can be found inside companies, in consulting firms and in academia. The consulting firm BluSkye helped the dairy industry reduce its carbon emissions and was hired by Alcoa to try to give US recycling rates a big boost. Starbucks engaged MIT professor Peter Senge to take a systems-based approach to the challenge of recycling the billions of cups the food service industry uses every year to hold hot liquids. Nonprofit WWF has dived into system-change efforts such as theRoundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a standard-setting group that brings together producers, processors, traders, brands, retailers and NGOs.

To grow systems change, a group of individuals and organizations formed the Academy for Systemic Change in 2012. Joe Hsueh, one of its founding members, recently sat down with me to talk about systems change, how it works and why it matters.

You can read the rest here.

Biz Stone: A good guy who’s doing very well

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, speaks at the Charles Schwab IMPACT 2010 conference in BostonI’m a big fan of Twitter. It’s how I keep up with  the news that I need to know, so I follow Jo Confino, Heidi MooreJoel Makower,  Andy RevkinBryan WalshTom PhilpottDavid Biello, Marcus Chung and Aman Singh. It’s also how way I keep up with the news that I want to know, so I follow Adam Kilgore, Buster Olney, Keith Law, Sam Miller@GioGonzalez47 and @ThisisDSpan. I follow colleagues at Fortune like Adam Lashinsky, economists who write for the public (thanks, @EconTalker!)Twitter has become what the newspaper industry once wanted to create on the Internet, a product informally dubbed “the daily me” that gave each reader news tailored to his or her interests.

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So when I heard that Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, and author of a new book about values and business was coming to Washington, I decided to hear what he had to say. I wasn’t disappointed. I wrote about Biz’s talk and his new book, Things a Little Bird Told Metoday in the Guardian Sustainable Business.

Even if you have little interest in Twitter, the book is worth reading. Here is how my Guardian story begins:

How should we define success in business? Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, says that to be judged successful, a company needs to make money, make the world a better place and bring joy to the people who work there.

“It’s a ridiculously high bar,” he says. “But if you don’t set the bar high, you’re never going to get there.”

Stone has written a new book called Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. The book is less about the mind than the heart, less about creativity than values and less about Twitter (and that little bird) than about Stone, an unabashed idealist and, it would appear, a genuinely nice guy. This is the rare Silicon Valley story with little to say about technology, venture capitalists, monetizing users and IPOs but a lot to say about how listening, empathy and generosity can help build a sustainable business and change the world.

“It may sound like a lofty goal,” Stone writes,”but I want to redefine capitalism.”

You can read the rest of the story here. You also might want to check out Biz’s new venture, Jelly, whose ultimate aim is to “build worthwhile empathy.”

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.”

Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and the “good jobs strategy”

zton_book-257x300As the issue of income inequality takes center stage in Washington, creating risks to the reputations of some of America’s biggest employers, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, Zeynep Ton’s new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, could not be more timely.

Ton, who teaches at MIT’s business school, argues that smart companies invest in their employees, who provide superior service to customers, who become loyal, thus generating profits and shareholder returns. What’s more, she says, this strategy works in the brutally competitive, low margin retail industry, at such companies as Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and the big Spanish retailer Mercadona.

I met Zeynep Ton last week at the Hitachi Foundation in Washington, and wrote about her book, and her ideas, today in Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

About 46 million Americans, or 15% of the population, live below the poverty line, and about 10.4 million of them are the working poor. They bag groceries at Walmart or Target, take your order at McDonald’s or Burger King, care for the sick, the elderly or the young.

Conventional wisdom says that’s unavoidable: to stay competitive, keep prices low and maximize profits, companies, particularly in the retail and service industries, need to squeeze their workers. But in a provocative new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, author and teacher Zeynep Ton argues that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Instead, she says, smart companies invest in their employees, and they do so to lower costs and increase profits.

Of course, the idea that companies need to properly reward their key employees is hardly radical. That’s how business works on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, where the competition for talent is fierce. But Ton, who teaches at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that a good jobs strategy can also work in retail. In fact, she makes her case after a close study of four mass-market retailers who invest in their employees, keep costs low and deliver superior shareholder returns.

“It’s not the case that success comes from cutting labor costs,” Ton says. “Success can come from investing in people.” What’s more, she says, executives need to understand that that treating workers well “does not depend on charging customers more”.

You can read the rest here.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I’m inclined to agree with Ton. Ten years ago, in my own book, Faith and Fortune, I reported on companies like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and UPS that pursue their own version of a “good jobs strategy.” To her credit, Ton has shown that the strategy works in retail, and that it can actually help drive prices lower–a potentially valuable lesson for companies like Walmart and McDonald’s.

Zeynep Ton

Zeynep Ton

That said, her book raises a question that is hard, at least for me, to answer: If the good jobs strategy is so good, why don’t more companies embrace it? For that matter, why haven’t those companies that treat their employees well trounced their competitors? In theory, the companies that practice a “good jobs strategy” should be able to attract the best people, deliver the best customer service and force their rivals to copy them or suffer. That’s the way markets are supposed to work.

I put this question to Ton and she offered two answers. First, markets are imperfect. Second, the “good jobs strategy” is hard to execute because it requires redesigning workplaces, providing lots of training, finding the right balance between standardizing tasks and empowering employees, and so forth. Maybe. But I suspect there are other reasons why the “good jobs strategy” has not swept across America. Your thoughts are most welcome.

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.]

Chip Bergh: Vegan, triathlete, Levi’s CEO

Levi's Wellthread

Levi’s Wellthread

You’ve heard about slow food.

You may have heard about slow money.

Now it’s time for slow fashion.

Last night, Levi Strauss & Co. unveiled a new collection of sustainable mens clothing called Wellthread, part of its Dockers brand. Wellthread, which the company has described as the antithesis of fast fashion–the cheap, throwaway stuff that is sold by places like Zara and Forever 21–is an attempt to produce a line of clothing that meets the very highest standards for environmental and social responsibility. I wrote about Wellthread for The Guardian, here.

chip-bergh-ls-co-ceoAt the dinner, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss. He’s an engaging guy, and while I can’t quote from our conversation–we were having dinner, and so we decided to keep his comments off the record–I can tell you that he is not your run-of-the-mill CEO. He’s a vegan, for health reasons, he told me. (The second vegan CEO I’ve met–Coca Cola’s Neville Isdell was the first.) Chip is marathon runner, biker and triathlete who has raised thousands of dollars for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. (His parents and grandparents died of cancer.) He’s also committed to the values that have made Levi’s a social-responsibility leader for more than two decades. Those facts may sound random but they are likely connected–so many people I meet in the world of sustainable business are outdoor lovers or athletes who take care of their own health, and thus understand the connections between what they do at work and the health of the planet. That may sound like a stretch, but the sheer number of marathon runners in the sustainability world has persuaded me that it’s true.

In any event, Bergh these days has more to worry about than the sustainability performance at Levi Strauss. The company has been in a long slide, and he was hired in 2011 to turn it around. Levi’s sales had fallen from a peak in 1996 of $7.1 billion to $4 billion, give or take a few hundred millions, for much of the 2000s. Even as a privately-held company that doesn’t have to answer to Wall Street, that was unacceptable.

Bergh, who spent 28 years at Procter & Gamble before joining Levi Strauss, has reorganized the company, replaced much of the senior leadership team and exited some business. In FY2012, net revenues fell slightly to $4.6 billion and net income was $144 million, up a tick. For the first three quarters of FY2013, Levi’s has enjoyed modest top-line and bottom-line growth. Through it all, he said, the company’s commitment to doing business in a principled way has remained intact.

He seemed genuinely excited by the potential of Wellthread, which for now is a modest venture–almost like a beta test, or pilot project–but nevertheless represents a forward-thinking approach to sustainable fashion, one that begins with the commitment of a designer. here’s how my story begins:

Sixteen years of work as a fashion designer in New York was enough for Paul Dillinger. He quit and took a job teaching design at his alma mater, Washington University in St Louis. “I had become somewhat disillusioned – really challenged morally or ethically – by the industry,” he says.

Then a friend recruited Dillinger to work for Levi Strauss & Co Today, he’s leading a cutting-edge initiative to take sustainable design to new heights at the 160-year-old company: a Dockers line of clothes called Wellthread. The line brings together the best practices in materials sourcing and garment manufacturing, providing social and economic benefits to factory workers in Bangladesh and delivering durable khakis, jackets and T-shirts to consumers.

Dillinger wants to weave responsibility into every stage of design, manufacturing and usage, from the cotton fields to the factories to the market and beyond.

“I saw all these different nodes of activity in the company that were tackling different problems,” Dillinger said, when we met this week at Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab, a research and development unit near the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “The opportunity, to me, was to string all of these ideas together and create a systems approach to change.”

You can read the rest here.

What Warren Buffett could learn from Bill Gates

Buffett and GatesBill Gates and Warren Buffett have been billionaire buddies for decades. There’s a lot to admire about both men. They have promised to give away most of their vast fortunes and, even better, created The Giving Pledge to persuade many of the world’s richest people to do the same.

But on the issue of climate change, Gates has been a leader and Buffett a laggard. That’s the topic of my column this week for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Last week, Bill Gates wrote an essay for LinkedIn called Three Things I’ve Learned from Warren Buffett.

Gates and Buffett have been friends for decades. They play contract bridge together, they travel together and together they launched theGiving Pledge, an estimable campaign that has persuaded dozens of billionaires to commit half their wealth to good causes. Buffett sits on the board of the Gates Foundation; Gates is a director of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s holding company.

In the essay, Gates wrote that he is “very lucky” to be able to ask the 82-year-old Buffett for advice on a regular basis. One of the lessons he cited is: use your platform. That got me thinking that Gates has an important lesson of his own to teach to Buffett: that climate change matters.

The story goes on to describe how Gates invited some of the world’s leading climate scientists and economists to teach him about the issue, how he has spoken out in Washington and elsewhere about climate change and clean energy, and how he has invested his own money in energy and climate research, as well as a nuclear power startup and an algae company. Gates has also taken an interest in geoengineering research, which I wrote about in my e-book, Suck it up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis.

Buffett’s track record is mixed. Berkshire Hathaway’s utility company, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, has invested in solar and wind power, but Berkshire’s BNSF Railway has lobbied on behalf of the coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest and on behalf of the coal industry in Washington. BNSF is also trying to build a coal-carrying railroad in eastern Montana, a story I reported on for Sierra Magazine, under the headline, Warren Buffett’s Coal Problem.

As a director of Berkshire Hathaway, isn’t it time for Bill Gates to have a talk with his friend Warren Buffett about climate? Imagine the difference that Buffett could make if he spoke out on the issue.

Unilever’s Paul Polman: Pushing the boundaries of sustainability

Paul Polman in the store in Unilever house for the employees.More than any other big-company CEO, Paul Polman is serious about sustainability. Polman is serious about pretty much everything, actually. He’s serious about a vast array of problems facing the world, ranging from climate change to malnutrition to obesity to water scarcity to inequality to human rights to global governance, and he’s serious, of course, about his company and its long-term financial performance and especially about its ability to help solve any and all of those problems. He can, and will, pontificate about topics like the UN Millenium Development Goals, the important message of Global Handwashing Day, the social mission of brands like Dove and Lipton and Ben & Jerry’s.

A fun guy? Not really. A fascinating guy? Yes.

I spent time with Paul Polman, as well as other executives at Unilever–including US president Kees Kruythoff, global marketing head Keith Weed, sustainability honchos Gail Klintworth and Jonathan Atwood–while researching a story on the company for FORTUNE. It appears in the June 10 issue of the magazine, under the headline Unilever’s CEO Has A Green Thumb. (The story is behind a pay wall, for now.)

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Unilever, which takes a uniquely expansive view of its role in the world. Far more than IBM, GE, Walmart or any other big company, Unilever puts sustainability at the core of its business — its strategy, its operations, its R&D and its marketing. (Patagonia, a much smaller, privately held firm, strikes me as similarly driven by broad concerns.) Polman’s theory, put simply, is “to put the challenges facing society smack in the middle of the business.” So Lifebuoy soap helps prevent the spread of disease in poor countries. Dove stands for the self-esteem of women. Lipton’s sustainable supply chain will help tea growers earn a livelihood. Operations, of course, are efficient, and the global supply chain of tea, tomatoes, onions, etc. aims to become sustainable.

In Port Sunlight, a tidy little suburb of Liverpool where the company got its start back in the 19th century, I visited a research and development lab where some of the scientists are focusing on coming up with laundry soap that can clean clothes using very small amounts of water, at any temperature. Much of the R&D at Unilever, in fact, revolves around planning for what the company expects to be a resource-constrained world.

Will the strategy pay off? So far, Unilever under Polman has done very well, outperforming consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble. But whether the firm’s financial results are driven by its focus on sustainability is very much an open question; more likely, it’s a result of the fact that Unilever has a strong commitment to emerging markets, which have been growing more than the US and EU.

There is, however, one way in which I’m convinced that Polman’s determination to make Unilever a better company has paid off on the short run, and that is with its employees. People I met, as best as I could tell, come to work at Unilever with energy and a strong sense of purpose.  That’s invaluable. As Polman told me, proudly, Unilever is one of the five most searched-for employers on LinkedIn, behind Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. That’s impressive.

Here’s how my story begins:

Paul Polman calls himself a “hard-core capitalist.” Sometimes you have to wonder. The day he became the chief executive of Unilever in 2009, Polman said the consumer products giant would stop providing earnings guidance and quarterly profit reports. “I figured that the day they hired me, they can’t fire me,” he says, “so that was probably the best moment to do that.” The stock fell and analysts grumbled. Not long after came word from the CEO that Unilever, whose brands include Dove, Lipton, Hellmann’s, and Ben & Jerry’s, was determined to tackle big social and environmental problems like climate change, disease, and poverty. “If you buy into this long-term value model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us,” Polman told investors. “If you don’t buy into this, I respect you as a human being, but don’t put your money in our company.” Shareholder return, he insists, cannot and will not trump nobler aims. “Our purpose is to have a sustainable business model that is put at the service of the greater good,” he says. “It is as simple as that.”

This sounds like the boilerplate that fills corporate responsibility reports, but Unilever, which has headquarters in London and Rotterdam, has gone beyond big U.S. Companies like GE, IBM and Wal-Mart by putting sustainability at the core of its business. In a 2010 manifesto called the Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever promised to double its sales even as it  cuts its environmental footprint in half and sources all of its agricultural products in ways that don’t degrade the earth by 2020. The company also promised to improve the well-being of 1 billion people by, for example, persuading them to wash their hands or brush their teeth, or by selling them foods with less salt or fat.

The Fortune story goes on to talk about Polman’s background (he once wanted to be a priest), the company’s paternalistic past and Unilever’s commitment to a water-purification product called Pureit that has little chance of ever making a profit. I hope you’ll find a copy of the magazine and enjoy the story.