I’m sorry to inform you that your pet is bad for the planet

PetProtectionAside from, perhaps, GMOs, few topics in the sustainable business arena are as emotional as pets. When my friend Erik Assadourian wrote a well-researched story for the Guardian last year asking whether pets are bad for the environment, he was assailed in the comments as a a “dumbass,” an “animal hater” and “an overpaid media commentator.” (The last allegation, I can assure you, is false.) It goes without saying that people love their pets. “My dogs are my family,” one commenter said. And we certainly can’t blame pets for the world’s pollution problems. As Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a pet owner and a defender of all four-legged creatures, once said, dogs and cats “aren’t driving to work.”

True enough. But dogs and cats have environmental impacts. They make waste. They’re eat, and many are overfed. They consume resources, including plastic toys and costly health care. And while, yes, they provide companionship, improve health and get us to spend more time outdoors meeting people, as Erik noted, couldn’t all those things be provided just as well by, er, people? Do we really need dogs to get us to talk a walk around the neighborhood.

When I recently revisited the topic for the Guardian, focusing this time on the impact of pet food, an editor told me that my story wasn’t good enough to run. I learned long ago not to argue with editors–they’re powerful and, occasionally, right–so I took the story to the Worldwatch Institute, where Erik works, and it then made its way to GreenBiz.

The story is anything but an assault on pets. Instead, it’s an effort to show how the giant food company Mars, which makes more pet food than candy bars, is trying to reduce its environmental impact, focusing on cat food, seafood and the oceans. Here’s how the story begins:

The United States is home to 85.8 million cats and 77.8 million dogs. They all have to eat. And that’s a problem — particularly when owners decide to feed their pets as if they were people.

The environmental impact of pet food is big, although no one knows just how big. Like the rest of us, dogs and cats consume meat, fish, corn and wheat, thus creating pressures on the global food system, along with carbon emissions as the food is manufactured and transported.

What we do know is that pet food is big business, generating about $22 billion in sales a year, industry groups estimate.

Much could be done to “green” pet foods — dogs and cats are getting more meat and fish than they need, for starters — but the industry is just starting to grapple with its sustainability issues.

Privately held Mars is leading the way, at least when compared to its big rivals. Better known for chocolate bars and M&Ms, Mars is the world’s biggest pet food company: Mars Pet Care has revenues estimated at $17 billion, employs 39,000 people, operates about 70 factories and owns the Pedigree, Whiskas, Nutro, Sheba, Cesar, Royal Canin and Iams brands.

The story goes on to say that Mars has

promised to buy fish only from fisheries or fish farms that are certified as sustainable by third parties. Importantly, Mars also said it would replace all wild catch whole fish and fish fillet with either by-products or farmed fish — so that demand for pet food does not compete directly with food that could be served to people.

That’s a step in the right direction. Other pet food companies, including Nestle and J.M. Smucker, have yet to follow. You can read the rest of my story here.

There was more bad news this week for pet owners. Did you happen to see the massive New York Times series about slavery at sea? The headline reads Sea Slaves: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock. In four long stories, The Times reports on harsh, inhumane, just plain awful way that people are treated in the Thai fishing industry, which is being driven by “an insatiable global demand for seafood even as fishing stocks are depleted.”

Here’s where pets come in:

The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.

Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.

“How fast do their pets eat what’s put in front of them, and are there whole meat chunks in that meal?” asked Giovanni M. Turchini, an environmental professor at Deakin University in Australia who studies the global fish markets. “These are the factors that pet owners most focus on.”

So should you give up your cats and dogs? Not necessarily. But small pets are better than big ones. And if you feed them fish and meat, you might want to go vegetarian more often, to offset their impact.

The fossil fuel divestment movement is failing. Except it’s not.

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Harvard divestment activists sit in

Despite all of the sound and fury set off by the campaign to divest fossil fuels — and there has been plenty — Bill McKibben, 350.org and their allies have persuaded only a handful of big institutions to sell off the coal, oil and gas holdings in their endowments. They’ve had little or no direct effect on publicly-traded oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, and none on the government-owned oil companies of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq that are shielded from chants of rag-tag college students telling them to “leave it in the ground.”

That said, by any measure other than financial, the divestment campaign has been a big success.

That’s the argument I make in a story about divestment, published today by YaleEnvironment360 under the headline Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement May Ultimately Win. Here’s how it begins:

Nestled in Vermont’s bucolic Champlain valley, Middlebury College is a seedbed of environmental activism. Middlebury students started 350.org, the environmental organization that is fighting climate change and coordinating the global campaign for fossil-fuel divestment. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmentalist who is spearheading the campaign, has taught there since 2001. Yet Middlebury has declined to sell the oil, gas, and coal company holdings in its $1 billion endowment.

McKibben’s alma mater, Harvard University — which has a $36 billion endowment, the largest of any university — also has decided not to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Indeed, virtually all of the United States’ wealthiest universities, foundations, and public pension funds have resisted pressures to sell their stakes in fossil fuel companies. And while a handful of big institutional investors — Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, Stanford University, and AXA, a French insurance company — have pledged to sell some of their coal investments, coal companies account for less than 1 percent of the value of publicly traded stocks and an even smaller sliver of endowments.

Put simply, the divestment movement is not even a blip on the world’s capital markets.

Yet McKibben says the campaign is succeeding “beyond our wildest possible dreams.”

Why? Well, you can read the rest of the story to find out, but in essence, the divestment campaign has in short order built a vibrant global climate movement, which is exactly what McKibben and his allies set out to do nearly three years ago. (See Do the Math: Bill McKibben takes on big oil, my 2012 interview with him.) Hundreds of US college campuses, cities and foundations have been forced to respond to divestment demands. They’ve debated and analyzed the climate threat. And, as the story explains, even when institutions decide not to divest — often for good reason, I might add — they almost always do something. What’s more, the campaign has spread wildly, er, widely to Europe and  Asia, thanks to social media, and it has taken on a life of its own, as a decentralized but loosely connected series of campaigns that are gathering momentum.

As a practical matter, divestment has re-opened an important conversation about whether and how institutions and individuals are investing with their values in mind. Last week, writing on my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles, I asked: Why won’t foundations divest fossil fuels? Most of the big ones have not, but they are all talking about “impact investing,” that is, aligning more of their endowment money with their programming goals. Some of that money is flowing to climate solutions including renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.And it would not surprise me to see one or two big foundations–Bloomberg Philanthropies, maybe?–decide to divest.

I invite you to comment on the divestment debate, preferably at YaleE360 or at Nonprofit Chronicles where the stories can be found.

Hershey’s, and the limits of certified chocolate

ft-hersheySilly me. I thought the world’s cocoa farmers, most of whom are poor, would surely benefit when global chocolate companies, including Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle, made major commitments to buy certified cocoa. Hershey’s and Mars pledged to certify 100 percent of their cocoa as sustainably produced by 2020, while Nestle has made a variety of commitments to certification.

It’s more complicated than that, as I should have known. It always is, isn’t it? I learned a little more about cocoa farmers and certification while reporting a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about Hershey’s.

The top of the story, unfortunately, was inadvertently mangled a bit in the editing process (it happens, but rarely) and so while you are free to read it as published in the Guardian, I’m going to post an earlier version here, and I’ll add a comment at the end. Here’s the story:

*     *     *

Three years ago, following a campaign by activist groups, the Hershey Company announced that it would use 100% certified cocoa in its chocolate products by 2020. The activists, including the International Labor Rights Forum, Green America and Global Exchange, declared victory, albeit with reservations.

Since then, things have grown complicated. Hershey’s is making progress in its sustainable sourcing: the company says that, in 2014, 30% of its cocoa came from certified, sustainable sources. It expects to hit 50% in 2016, a full year ahead of schedule. “This has become a way of doing business in the future,” J.P. Bilbrey, Hershey’s chief executive, told Guardian Sustainable Business.

When Hershey’s made its commitment, some in the industry feared that there would not be enough certified cocoa to satisfy Hershey’s, Mars, Ferrero and other sustainability-minded companies. But, as Bilbrey says, “Capitalism is a wonderful thing. If you demand something, those that supply it to you will provide that particular product.”

What’s less clear is how much of a difference this sustainable sourcing is making in the lives of cocoa farmers. Hershey’s, which had revenues of $7.4bn last year, won’t say how much of its profits have trickled down to suppliers, nor will it say how much business it does with each of its three nonprofit certifiers – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. However, the chocolate maker – as well as its certifiers and the activists who pushed it to source certified cocoa – all agree that certification alone isn’t enough to lift the incomes of cocoa farmers.

And that hits at the heart of long-term sustainability. If those incomes don’t rise, there’s a very real risk that the next generation of farmers will give up on the business. “Even with the highest premium paid (for certified cocoa), farmers are way deep in poverty,” says Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

Han De Groot, executivee director of UTZ Certified, a nonprofit based in Amsterdam, agrees. After visiting certified cocoa farmers in Cote D’Ivoire, he wrote: “There is still too much poverty to have a decent and sustainable life.”

Hershey’s efforts go beyond certification  [click to continue…]

Ramez Naam, ecomodernist

ramez
Ramez Naam

I was introduced to a set of ideas known as “ecomodernism” back in 2009, when I read Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, argued that cities are “greener” than the countryside, that low-carbon nuclear power will be need to curb climate change and that genetically-modified crops allow farmers to grow more crops on less land, thus preserving nature.

Ecomodernist ideas have gathered steam since then, driven in large part by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, the founders of The Breakthrough Institute. Recently, Michael and Ted herded together a group of scientists and economists — including Stewart, David Keith, Mark Lynas and Roger Pielke Jr. — to publish An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They write:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

In mid-June, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Breakthrough Dialogues, a conference in Sausalito where many of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto spoke. I’m increasingly persuaded that their arguments make more sense than the low-tech, anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, all “natural,” small-is-beautiful, local-beats-global approach to environmental issues pushed by the most traditional environmentalists. And even those green groups that are market-friendly, technology-friendly and science-friendly hesitate to stand up in favor of nuclear energy or GMOs.

All this is by way of introduction to Ramez Naam, the author of a book called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. He, too, is an ecomodernist, and a believer that regulated capitalism and technology will help us solve our environmental problems. I wrote about Ramez and his book today in The Guardian, in a story headlined: Ramez Naam: Capitalism is not the enemy of climate.

Here’s how the story begins:

Futurist and author Ramez Naam is an optimist, even when it comes to the problem of climate change, and for good reason.

As a student of world history, Naam has seen how humanity has flourished in the last century. People live longer and suffer less than before. Doom-and-gloom predictions have not just been proven wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Take food: some forecast that the world would starve by the 1970s. While population has doubled since then, the food supply has grown by two-and-half times, and today there are more obese people than malnourished people in the world.

“This is the best of times,” Naam writes in his 2013 nonfiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. “We live in a period of health, wealth and freedom never seen before.”

Natural resources – notably the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases – may be limited, Naam argues, but ideas and innovation are not.

The story goes on to talk about why, when it comes to climate change, the most important idea is a carbon tax, coupled with investment in energy R&D. You can read the rest of the story here. I’d also encourage you to read the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

Ceres and the “inside” game

Oil-rig-pumpIt’s been 45 years since the first Earth Day, and, as I was reminded when reading this brief history, some 20 million Americans — one in 10 of us — participated on April 22, 1970. That took organizing. And it delivered results: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, laws regulating the disposal of hazardous waste and the quality of drinking water, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, regulating chemicals in food, drugs and cosmetics. Such was the power of the environmental movement.

I’m inclined to think that environmentalists today ought to devote more of our money and time towards building or rebuilding that movement. Some–Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace–are trying to do so, but other, big, well-funded organizations continue to play the “inside” game, working to persuade elites–federal, state and local officials, corporate executives, investors–to change. Success will require both grass-roots power and policy change, to be sure, but without a more powerful movement, “inside” strategies aren’t going to get us where we need to go.

Last week in The Guardian, I wrote about the Carbon Asset Risk initiative, a campaign coordinated by Ceres and Carbon Tracker, with support from the Global Investor Coalition. To succeed, this campaign will require action by the SEC, investors and the boards of directors and executives of oil companies who, if all goes according to plan, will shift their capital outlays into low-carbon energy.

Here’s how my story begins:

Can fossil fuel companies be transformed into allies in the fight against climate change?

As unlikely as it might seem, a coalition of environmental groups and investors is trying to persuade coal, oil and gas companies to turn away from carbon-polluting sources of energy and invest in low-carbon alternatives.

Ceres, a Boston-based network of investors, companies and nonprofits, andCarbon Tracker, a London-based nonprofit that has popularized the notion of a “carbon bubble,” have organized a new campaign around carbon asset risks.

The campaign aims to get fossil fuel companies first to disclose the risks created by their dependence on carbon-intensive assets, and then, as Ceres puts it, “ensure they are using shareholder capital prudently” in a world that takes “the economic threat of climate change seriously.” Not today’s world, needless to say, but a world that the groups fervently hope will arrive in the not too distant future.

I dearly hope to be proven wrong but, much as I admire the people at Ceres, my gut reaction to this strategy is….are you kidding me?

As The Guardian reported last week, BP (“Beyond Petroleum”) invested billions of dollars in clean and low-carbon energy in the 1980s and 1990s “but later abandoned meaningful efforts to move away from fossil fuels.”

Now Ceres wants the SEC and Wall Street to persuade BP to invest in clean energy. Again.

I’m tempted to wrap up with the overused cliche about insanity, but I’ll resist.

You can read the rest of my story here.

One hundred low-cost tools for global women

A microfinance circle outside Hyderabad, India
A microfinance circle outside Hyderabad, India

In a gorgeous new large-format book called 100 under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women , author and activist Betsy Teutsch spotlights, uh, yes, 100 tools for empowering global women.

That’s what makes this book both inspiring and puzzling–the realization that so many different things can be done, at a relatively low cost, to help poor women climb out of poverty, without knowing which of those tools will work best.

I wrote about Betsy’s book for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

About 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. Solar panels might help, but rural people don’t often have the cash to buy them, or the ability to access bank loans.

Azuri Technologies, a UK-based firm that does business in 10 African nations, thinks that it might have the answer. It charges customers a one-time installation fee and then lets them use their mobile phones to make regular payments that – it claims – are less than what they now spend for kerosene or phone charging. In return, customers get eight hours of lighting a day and the ability to charge their phones. If all goes well, they own the system in about 18 months.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this business model: cash-strapped US shoppers have been buying on the layaway plan since the Great Depression. But pay-as-you-go solar lighting in Africa is a new twist, made possible by the declining costs of photovoltaic panels, the spread of cheap mobile phones, ubiquitous connectivity and cloud computing.

Environmentalist Betsy Teutsch highlights pay-as-you-go solar in her new book,100 under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, which looks at low-cost, high-impact tools that drive global development.

“This is integrating microcredit, mobile money and the solar panel,” Teutsch says. “If it brings you lights, if it brings you cell phone charging, if it brings you radio and if you get rid of kerosene, it’s transformative.”

Her book presents an array of similar tools that, according to Teutsch, have enormous potential to prevent disease, deliver clean energy, lift incomes and promote human rights. They range from simple and time-tested technologies like breastfeeding, hand-washing, bikes and vaccines to high-tech innovations like Solar Ear, a low-cost hearing aid powered by solar-charged batteries, and Inesfly, an insecticide-infused paint that protects against the blood-sucking vinchuca beetle, which spreads Chagas disease.

I go on to say, however, that

a problem with the 100-under-$100 model is that we don’t know as much as we should about how to alleviate poverty and empower women.

Microfinance, malaria nets and clean cookstoves are among Teutsch’s favored tools. Yet microfinance has suffered a series of setbacks in India and Bangladesh, and now there’s spirited debate among economists about whether it leads to gains in income, consumption or education. While mosquito nets clearly help stop the spread of malaria, many are used for fishing – and perhaps overfishing. And while clean cookstoves undoubtedly reduce indoor air pollution and save fuel, field studies indicate that underprivileged women have not embraced them. A reporter for Nature who spent months in India found that they often sit unused in corners, broken or simply abandoned.

book-cover-100-Under-100_miniIf any of you are reading my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles–and I do hope you will check it out, and subscribe–you’ll know that this is a current obsession of mine: Many nonprofit groups do a poor job, or make no effort at all, to measure their impact. So it’s difficult to donors, whether they be governments, foundations or individuals, to know how to be spent their charitable dollars.

This is not an excuse for inaction. I recently read Peter Singer’s excellent 2010 book, The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, in which he argues, persuasively, that most of us in the rich world are not doing nearly as  much as we could to alleviate suffering among the poor. He’s got a new book out exploring similar themes called The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. Read one of those, or watch his TED talk, then read Betsy’s book, and you will be well equipped to make a difference.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

59a428e7-4ca9-4d6c-a14e-79964bedde8c-1020x612Back in January, I wrote a blog post headlined A modest proposal for big green NGOs that suggested, in what was intended to be a helpful way, that the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy urge their corporate allies to speak up in support of the EPA’s proposed rules to regulate coal plants, a cornerstone of the Obama administration climate policy.

They all assured me that they are doing the very best they can to persuade big companies to do so.

Well, it turns out they’re not having much success.

Today, The Guardian published my story about those corporate allies, headlined Why Corporate America is Reluctant to Take a Stand on Climate Action. I surveyed 50 companies that have worked with EDF, WWF or The Nature Conservancy asking them for their position on the EPA Clean Power Plan.

Guess how many of the 50 told me that they are working alongside their environmental partners to support the plan? Three–Google, Mars and Starbucks.

Most are staying out of the fight but as Anne Kelly of Ceres, which is lobbying for the plan, told me, their “silence isn’t neutrality.” Instead, their silence allows the US Chamber of Commerce and other conservative trade associations to speak for the business community on climate and energy issues. And, as you probably know, the chamber is no fan of climate regulation.

Here’s how my story begins:

Many environmental groups consider the Obama administration’s plan to regulate carbon-spewing coal plants, which aims to cut carbon pollution by 30%, as one of our last chances to win the fight against climate change.

But the vast majority of their top corporate partners – companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, FedEx, UPS, Target and Walmart, which have worked with environmental NGOs for years – aren’t backing them up, according to a Guardian survey.

The survey consisted of calls and emails to nearly 50 corporations that work with three environmental groups – Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund US – that have identified the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan as a top priority. These are Fortune 500 global companies that tout their sustainability efforts and celebrate their environmental partnerships.

Just three of them – Starbucks, Mars and Google – support the Clean Power Plan, which is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change efforts. Caterpillar and CSX Corp, a coal-carrying railroad, oppose the EPA plan. The vast majority take no position.

The reluctance of companies to take a stand raises questions about the depth of partnerships between companies and NGOs. By remaining quiet, these companies make it harder for the EPA to roll out the plan in the face of vehement opposition from fossil fuel companies and Republicans. “Silence isn’t neutral,” says Anne Kelly of Ceres, who is organizing companies to support the EPA.

The lack of public support could jeopardize the clean power plan, and – if the US isn’t able to make a strong climate commitment as a result – could ultimately undermine the success of the global climate talks in Paris this year.

The companies that won’t get involved say it’s because the regulation of power plant emissions is not core to their business. Environmentalists maintain that climate change is everybody’s business.

I hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of the story, and share it. I also put together a sidebar compiling the corporate responses that I collected to my survey.

I’m sorry to say that all of this points to the shallowness of much  corporate rhetoric about “sustainability.” It also tells me that, more than ever, we need a political movement to demand government action to stop climate pollution. Companies need to know that if they don’t take a stand on behalf of the climate, they’re going to hear about it from activist groups (where are you, Greenpeace, now that we need you?) and they’re going to risk losing the support of their employees and customers.

Put simply, without a whole lot more people pushing them in the right direction, GE, Goldman Sachs, IBM and Walmart aren’t going to get us where we need to go. Not even close.

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’m feeling that way. I must add that none of this is personal. I like and respect the people I know at EDF, WWF and The Nature Conservancy. They’re smart, dedicated and hard-working. But they’re mostly playing the same insiders game that failed to get climate legislation through Congress back in 2009.

I also admire the sustainability executives at many of the companies that are sitting on the sidelines of the climate fight. They’re great internal advocates for the cause, and they’re not to blame for this widespread corporate indifference. It’s their CEOs who need a wake-up call.

In the end, the issue of global warming is really not all that complicated: It’s time to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for carbon pollution. That’s just wrong, and that’s why the EPA rules should be everybody’s business.

Keeping a close eye on all the world’s forests

Deforestation in the Andes
Deforestation in the Andes

Corporate commitments to protect forests are numerous. Unilever says it is “determined to drive deforestation out of our supply chains.” The giant paper company Asia Pulp and Paper promised to “eliminate all natural forest derived products” from its supply chain by 2020. Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, launched a “sustainability dashboard” to report its “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation” policy. Cargill, McDonald’s…the list goes on.

But how can governments, NGOs and customers be assured that these promises will be kept? Just as important, how can companies make good on their promises.

An ambitious effort to track the world’s forests, called Global Forest Watch, and launched a bit more than a year ago by the World Resources Institute, will be a big help. I visited Nigel Sizer, who leads the project, at WRI’s Washington office not long ago, spoke to users of the platform and then filed this report for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

The forestry website Mongabay recently reported that United Cacao, a London-listed company that promises to produce ethical, sustainable chocolate, had “quietly cut down more than 2,000 hectares of primary, closed-canopy rainforest” in the Peruvian Amazon. The company claimed that the land had been previously cleared, but satellite images showed otherwise.

The satellite images came from an online platform called Global Forest Watch, which provides reliable and up-to-date data on forests worldwide, along with the ability to track changes to forest cover over time.

Launched a year ago by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the platform has brought an unprecedented degree of transparency to the problem of deforestation, pointing to ways in which big data, cloud computing and crowdsourcing can help attack other tough sustainability problems.

Before Global Forest Watch came along, actionable information about forest trends was scarce. “In most places, we knew very little about what was happening to forests,” said Nigel Sizer, the global director of the forests program at WRI. “By the time you published a report, the basic data on forest cover and concessions was going to be years out of date.”

Several technology revolutions have changed that. Cheap storage of data, powerful cloud computing, internet connectivity in remote places and free access to US government satellite images have all made Global Forest Watch possible. None were widely available even a decade ago.

This last point has stuck with me. It’s the latest example, of many, of how rapid advances in technology can drive sustainability, and give us reason to be hopeful.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Nonprofit Chronicles: my new blog

IH012802-PCall me a contrarian. I read this just the other day about writing on the web:

Blogging?—? I mean, honey, don’t even say the word. No one actually blogs anymore, except maybe undergrads on their first week of study abroad.

Well, I’m starting a new blog.

The blog is called Nonprofit Chronicles, and it will explore a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: How are nonprofits performing?

It’s a question may have occurred to you when you donate money to charities.

It’s an important question. Nonprofit aim to alleviate poverty, save the environment, cure disease, educate people, promote social justice and protect human rights. In the US, the nonprofit sector accounts for about $2 trillion in economy activity and employs nearly 10 percent of the workforce. There are about 1.1 million nonprofits in the US, and another 80,000 foundations.

It’s also an exceptionally difficult question to answer. Measuring the impact of a nonprofit is much harder than gauging the success of a business. Happily, a lot of smart people in the world of foundations and NGOs are working hard to develop answers. I’ll going to begin my exploration by writing about some of them.

Over time, I’ll broaden the focus on Nonprofit Chronicles  to examine the best and worst nonprofits. What difference do they make? How do they set goals and measure success? How transparent are they? What have they learned from their mistakes?

Nonprofits are everybody’s business because they depend on US tax policy for their support; donations to charities are tax deductible. The Center for American Progress estimated in 2011 that the tax break would cost the US Treasury $315 billion over five years. Like tax deductions for mortgage interest and college-savings accounts, the charitable tax deduction disproportionately benefits those who are relatively wealthy–and their favorite causes.

For all these reasons, I’m certain that nonprofits deserve more journalistic attention.

I’m excited about this new venture, but I’m not quitting my day job. I’ll continue to write about the social and environmental impact of business as editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business US and here at marcgunther.com. Meantime, I hope you join me at Nonprofit Chronicles.

P.S. Just in case it’s true that no one reads blogs anymore, I’ll be posting my writings about nonprofits on my page at Medium. Medium is a simple and beautiful platform for story-telling on the web that was created in 2012 by Ev Williams and Biz Stone, the founders of Twitter.

Impact investing with The Nature Conservancy

B88tMs3IIAEAUpPImpact investing is said to be a growth business. Loosely defined, impact investing is the practice of putting money into a business or nonprofit, with the expectation of generating social or environmental change, along with a financial return. It’s somewhere between a purely mercenary investment and a donation.

Last week in The Guardian, I wrote about a unit of The Nature Conservancy called NatureVest that was set up last year to attract impact investments. Here’s how my story begins:

Even for the Nature Conservancy, which attracts more money than any other US environmental nonprofit – revenues were $1.1bn last year – buying 165,000 acres of land in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley for $134m is, quite literally, a very big deal.

To raise the money in a timely manner and to negotiate the acquisition, which closed last week, the conservancy relied on NatureVest. Launched last spring, NatureVest is a division of the conservancy that functions much like a bank, albeit a bank whose purpose is to protect nature.

NatureVest raises money from institutions and high-net-worth individuals who care about the environment but want to get their investment back, perhaps with a modest return. It then invests that money in conservation projects – land acquisitions, sustainable ranching, green infrastructure or eco-tourism – that can generate money so it can pay back its investors.

This strikes me as a smart idea, if not a new idea. Ten years ago, I wrote Social Investing That Hits Home, a brief story for FORTUNE about community development financial institutions, including the Calvert Foundation, my neighbor in Bethesda, MD, that practice what would now be called impact investing. But there’s momentum behind the concept now. Impact Alpha, a website that tracks impact investing, run by a former Wall Street Journal reporter David Bank, has a database of more than 2,000 “impact deals.”

Impact investing should have special appeal to foundations because they should, in theory, want to align their investment portfolios with their programming goals. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for a foundation that gives environmental grants to invest in coal companies, for example.

On the other hand, isn’t all investment a form of impact investment? For better or worse, all of our investments have impact. A shareholder in, say, Apple is backing a company that delivers a great deal of social good (pleasure, efficiency, etc.) without sacrificing return.

The term “impact investing” reminds me a little of “social entrepreneur.” As opposed to what? An anti-social entrepreneur? Just asking.

You can read my story about NatureVest here.