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.”

Untangling the lexicon of sustainability

Douglas Gayeton

Douglas Gayeton

Words can illuminate. Words can mislead. Words matter.

That’s one reason why I’m intrigued by Douglas Gayeton’s videos, books and “information artworks,” all of which are part of a vast and sprawling series called The Lexicon of Sustainability. They’re designed to help people separate what’s b.s. from what’s real in the world of sustainability.

Gayeton’s focus, so far, has been on food, and that’s smart. Nowhere is there more confusion about what’s sustainable, and what’s not, than in the supermarket — where claims like “all natural” and “multigrain” and “no sugar added” hide as much as they reveal.

I wrote a story about Gayeton the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Art has long inspired environmental activism. The photographer Ansel Adams, whose iconic black-and-white images of the American west helped to build support for the US National Park Service, served on the board of the Sierra Club for 37 years, working closely with David Brower, the club’s first executive director.

So it’s fitting that The Lexicon of Sustainability, a collection of artworks and short films by Douglas Gayeton that are designed to educate and activate people, have come to the David Brower Center, the nerve center of green business and environmental activism in Brower’s hometown of Berkeley.

Gayeton’s Lexicon of Sustainability artworks and films are based on a simple premise, he said. He explained that people can’t be expected to live “greener” lives, or act on behalf of the planet, until they better understand the language of sustainability. “Remember,” the films say, “your words can change the world.” This first series of works exploresfood and farming; future series will explain water and climate.

“The term sustainability has been totally debased,” Gayeton told me. “You can find sustainable shoes. You can find sustainable soda. Anything can be sustainable. People have hijacked the term. My wife and I thought, ‘Why not take it back?

The best way to understand what Gayeton is up to is to check out his artworks or watch one of his films. here’s one about eggs that told me things I didn’t know. The film is courtesy of PBS.org and you can read the rest of my story here.

Watch The Story of an Egg on PBS. See more from The Lexicon of Sustainability.

Yet another reason to eat less meat

chickens-4The more I learn about the way most chickens, pigs and cows are raised and slaughtered in America, the less appetite I have for meat. I’m not a vegetarian, and may never become one. But, hey, I’ve given up the NFL. I’d like to give up industrial meat, too.

I’ve long been aware of the negative environmental impacts of factory-produced meat. There’s plenty of evidence that the meat-heavy American diet isn’t good for our health. We’re learning than the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture puts human health at risk. And chickens and pigs raised for food are confined in cages and crates barely larger than their bodies. It’s not a pretty picture.

Last week. at a forum organized by the New America Foundation called The New Meat Monopoly: The Animal, The Farmer, and You in the New Age of Global Giants, I heard about another reason to avoid factory-farmed meat: Big meat companies, and in particular Tyson Foods, have grown so powerful that they have made life harder than it needs to be for small-scale farmers and ranchers. At the Washington event, farmers, ranchers, anti-trust experts and animal welfare advocates lined up to pillory the big guys.

Among the speakers at the event was  New America Foundation fellow Christopher Leonard, the author of a well-reviewed new book called The Meat Racket:  The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Leonard argues in the book (which I haven’t read, but hope to) that companies like Tyson “keep farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.” They are able to do so in part because many farmers have only one or two customers to sell to, so the customers hold all the cards.

Subsequently, I read Obama’s Game of Chicken, an excellent 2012 article Lina Khan in the Washington Monthly about abuses of power by companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, and how Obama’s USDA and DOJ have failed to curb them. Khan, who’s also affiliated with the New America Foundation, describes in rich detail what she calls “the stark and growing imbalance of power between the farmers who grow our food and the companies who process it for us, and how this imbalance enables practices unimaginable in any competitive market.”

I wrote about the New America event last week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Like politics, industrial-scale meat production creates strange bedfellows. Animal welfare advocates are joining up with farmers, environmentalists and supporters of stronger antitrust laws in the hope of engaging consumers on the issues involving the meat they buy. The aim? To counter the power of big meat companies like Tyson Foods and JBS, the world’s largest protein company and the owner of brands including Pilgrim’s Pride and Kraft.

“Maybe it’s time for a citizens revolt,” said Barry Lynn, director of the markets, enterprise and resiliency initiative at the New America Foundation. Lynn was speaking at a half-day forum in Washington called “The New Meat Monopoly: the animal, the farmer and you in the new age of global giants“.

The accusations thrown at the global meat giants were mostly familiar. By raising and slaughtering chicken, pigs and cattle on a large scale – about eight billion chickens will be raised and killed this year in the US – these companies squeeze out family farmers, treat animals cruelly, create waste and air pollution, and feed their livestock antibiotics that, over time, put human health at risk and raise healthcare costs, at least according to their critics.

What’s more, these critics argue, is that the meat industry’s consolidation and power have been supported by government policy. Subsidized corn and soy reduce the price of meat. Bank loans to farmers are backstopped by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Government regulations make it harder to build and operate small-scale slaughterhouses.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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.

The future

9780300176483The bet between the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon, which was described as  ”the scholarly wager of the decade” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was settled without drama–or graciousness. As Paul Sabin writes in The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future:

One day in October 1990, Julian Simon picked up his mail at his house in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, California, Simon found a sheet of metal prices along with a check from Paul Ehrlich for $576.07. There was no note.

It was a victory not just for Simon but for optimists everywhere, and so a fitting way to start the year of 2014. The two men–who did not like one another–had in 1980, at Simon’s urging, placed a $1,000 bet on the price of five metals ten years hence. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb warning of a coming global catastrophe had made him a celebrity, as well as one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, believed that food, energy and commodities would all grow scarce, and thus more expensive over the decade. Simon, a free-market economist, had enormous faith in the power of markets, prices and innovation to solve problems. (Before the bet, Simon was best known as the inventor of the auction system used by airlines to pay passengers not to take overbooked flights.) Between 1980 and 1990, the prices of the five minerals–chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten–had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.

Simon was lucky as well as smart. A global recession in the early 1980s depressed the prices of metals, and they never recovered. As Sabin reports in his first-rate and very readable book, economists who ran simulations of the bet during every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008 found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. Yet the history of the past 45 years, since Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, weighs heavily in favor of Simon’s worldview. Market signals, human ingenuity and technological progress have solved problems that Ehrlich said would doom us all. [click to continue...]

The NFL and brain injury: That’s entertainment?

Are you ready for some brain injuries?

Are you ready for some brain damage?

Fifteen years ago, with my friend and co-author Bill Carter, I wrote a book about the TV show Monday Night Football, which helped build the phenomenal popularity of the NFL. I was a big football fan then. So much so that I didn’t notice until last week that the opening sequence of Monday Night Football — ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!!! — featured the helmets of the opposing teams crashing together.

A prescription, in other words, for brain injury.

The image flashed by briefly in the gripping and occasionally horrifying PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial, based on the book of the same name by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. Watch the program if it comes around again, or watch it on the web.

As regular readers of this blog know, I gave up watching the NFL about a year ago. But I decided to revisit the topic in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Garment workers in Bangladesh and coal miners in India risk injury or death on the job. Their plight evokes outrage from advocacy groups and corporate-responsibility gurus.

Players in the National Football League are at risk, too – at risk of losing their mind, quite literally. Yet professional football remains America’s favorite sport, generating close to $10bn a year, with not much more than an occasional murmur of concern.

Strange.

Of course, any football fan knows that the game is violent and dangerous, especially at the pro level. Powerful men collide at high speed, and a bone-jarring tackle can break a leg or, occasionally, a neck.

But football is dangerous in another, more insidious way, as we were reminded last week by the publication of League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, an examination of football’s concussion crisis by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. As the book and an accompanying PBS Frontline documentary vividly demonstrate, football also is inherently dangerous to the brain – an inconvenient truth that the NFL went to extraordinary lengths to hide, deny and muddle.

Of course, as I note in the story, NFL players are paid a lot better than garment workers or coal miners. And today’s players surely are aware of the risks they face.  But the price they pay – brain damage that robs them of their very sense of self – is terribly steep. And to what end? To make our Sunday afternoons and Monday nights a little more fun? So corporate sponsors can sell beer and cars?

Frontline is produced by a PBS station in Boston, which sent a reporter out to get reaction from Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and star quarterback Tom Brady.

Belichick said:

First of all, I’m not really familiar with whatever it is you’re referring to, whatever this thing is. But it doesn’t make any difference whether there is or isn’t one going on. We have our protocol with all medical situations, including that one and that’s followed by our medical department, which I’m not a doctor and I don’t think we want me treating patients.

What we do in the medical department, that’s medical procedures that honestly I don’t know enough to talk about. But I can say this, there’s nothing more important to a coach than the health of his team. Without a healthy team, you don’t have a team. We try to do everything we can to have our players healthy, to prepare them, to prevent injuries and then to treat injuries and to have them play as close to 100 percent as we can because without them, you have no team.

Hmm. The Pats do “everything we can to have our players healthy…because without them, you have no team.” And if they lose their minds after they retire, well, you win some and you lose some.This guy has a heart of gold.

In fairness, the NFL is doing a better job these days of treating and preventing concussions. There have been rules changes, medical personnel on the sidelines, better understanding among all of the real risks of contact. Finally. But, remember, football is played in college and high schools, too, where kids model themselves on the hard-hitting pros. Frontline put a spotlight on a college and a high school player who, shockingly, suffered from brain injuries that appeared to be–no, we can’t be sure–related to football.

Do they understand the risks they are taking? Who’s looking out for them? Clearly not the NFL.

How to read a sustainability report

voices_gunther2It’s no exaggeration to say that a new corporate sustainability report is published nearly every day of the year. After all, most of the Fortune 500 now generate reports, many of which read like paeans to exemplary business behavior. If companies behaved as well as they are portrayed in these reports, the world would be a much, much better place.

Still, CSR or sustainability reports can be a useful starting point for looking at a company and its impact. In my latest story for the environmental website Ensia, I offer a guide to reading these reports. Here’s how it begins:

Corporate sustainability reports have been around since … well, it’s hard to say.  The first report may have been published by “companies in the chemical industry with serious image problems” in the 1980s, or by Ben & Jerry’s in 1989 or Shell in 1997. No matter — since then, more than 10,000 companies have published more than 50,000 reports, according to CorporateRegister.com, which maintains a searchable database of reports.

But who really reads them? As a reporter who covers business and sustainability, I do. Maybe you do, too — as an employee, investor, researcher or activist.

Here, then, are five tips to help you make sense of the next report that lands on your desk or arrives via email.

You’ll have to read the Ensia story to learn more but the key word to remember is context. The best corporate reports put their data in context, by comparing it with prior years or previous goals or industry peers or even the needs of the earth. Few reports meet this standard, alas.

Thanks to Steve Lydenberg and Bill Baue for their help with this story.

Illustration courtesy of Ensia

Launching: Guardian Sustainable Business US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our misguided fetish for “natural” foods

fresh-frozen-7

Fresh Frozen Vegetables: Which is it?

The supermarket has become a festival of oxymorons.

Fresh-frozen peas. Jumbo shrimp. Boneless ribs. Chanukah ham.

And the most common of all:  Natural food.

If you are eating wild-caught fish or mushrooms gathered from the woods, you’re eating natural food.

Otherwise, probably not.

There’s nothing “natural” about agriculture, whether it’s practiced on the industrial-sized soy and corn fields  in the midwest, on the sprawling fruits and vegetable farms in the Salinas Valley of California or on the local and regional farms whose owners truck their crops to the  7,800 farmers’ markets across America. Agriculture is, by definition, about the management of nature– fertilizing the soil, getting rid of weeds, insuring that crops get the water they need. Even if you grow a few tomatoes or cucumbers in your backyard, you’re enjoying the product of decades of selective breeding.

The misguided fetish for the “natural” is a problem for a couple of reasons, as I’ll explain. But first, if you doubt that the claim of “natural” is a selling point, take a look at a few of the labels that I came across the other day at the Whole Foods Market in Bethesda, Md., where I live: [click to continue...]

Cows save the planet

Cows Save the Planet coverCows Save the Planet. How can you resist a book with a title like that? I couldn’t. The subtitle is Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change, Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients to Our Food, and the author is Judith D. Schwartz, a freelance writer who lives in Bennington, Vermont, and a colleague of mine through the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). The book looks at our many environmental challenges from the perspective of soil–an under-appreciated resource, and one that could be a key to addressing the climate crisis. Surprisingly, one way to improve soil on a large scale is through cattle ranching.

I’ve written just a bit about this myself. (See my March post, Meat lovers, rejoice! Cattle could be a climate-change solution). Jim Howell, a rancher and entrepreneur who appears in Judith’s book, spoke in May at Fortune Brainstorm Green. While the science of what is known, awkwardly, as Holistic Planned Grazing, remains controversial, I’m convinced that the idea deserves more attention. So Judith kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about her book.

Marc: Judith, in your introduction, you write about the issue of carbon emissions:

The trouble isn’t the carbon itself; it’s that there’s too much of it in the air rather than in the ground, where it lends fertility to the soil. Soil, it turns out, is the natural and most cost-effective carbon sink.

Can soil store enough carbon to matter? [click to continue...]