Ride on: The bike sharing boom…and its limits

Citi Bikes New YorkI haven’t been on a bike from Capital BikeShare in months because of the nasty winter here in  Washington. But before long, your nation’s capital will once again be home to one of the US’s most popular bike-sharing programs. I’ve raved about bike sharing before (See Pedal Power: Why I love bike sharing) and today my story about the phenomenon was posted on Guardian Sustainable Business.

Yes, bike sharing truly is a phenomenon, spreading rapidly across the US, now in well over 40 cities. But not in all the expected places–bike sharing, as the story explains, has been embraced by cold weather cities like Boston and Minneapolis, but it has yet to launch in such Sunbelt cities as Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta.

What’s more, even the most successful bike-sharing programs depend on taxpayer support, at least for their initial capital outlays.

Here’s how the story begins:

As the bike-sharing business gains traction in cities across America, two small companies, Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Oregon, and B-Cycle of Madison, Wisconsin, are making a big difference in the lives of tens of thousands of cyclists.

Alta Bicycle Share operates bike-sharing systems in partnership with local governments in eight cities: New York, Washington DC, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, Columbus and Chattanooga, as well as Melbourne, Australia.

B Cycle, a joint venture of the Trek Bicycle Corp, healthcare provider Humana and marketing agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, manages systems in about 30 cities, including Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Madison and Boulder, as well as Santiago, Chile.

Together, they have made bike-sharing one of America’s fastest growing “green” businesses. “Bike sharing has experienced the fastest growth of any mode of transport in the history of the planet,” according to findings from the Earth Policy Institute.

Bike-sharing systems reduce carbon emissions, cut local air pollution, make it easier for people to get exercise and, importantly, build political support for safe bicycling infrastructure. Some studies show that protected bike lanes enhance retail sales and real state values.

But the bike-sharing industry has yet to answer a couple of questions that could slow its growth. First, can bike sharing become a sustainable business, or will it forever require taxpayer support? Second, can it grow into a national phenomenon by attracting more ridership in car-centric, Sunbelt cities?

You can read the rest of the story here.

Small is beautiful. Maybe.

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There’s lots to like about Alter Eco, a San Francisco-based food company that aims to do social and environmental good. The company supports poor farmers, sources from cooperatives, offsets its carbon footprint, etc. Better yet, its products are tasty. I’m partial to the organically-grown, fairly-traded Dark Quinoa Chocolate Bar, which you could think of as a politically correct (and pricey) version of Nestle’s Crunch.

There would be even more to like about Alter Eco if it was a bigger company. The challenge for its founders,  Mathieu Senard and Edouard Rollet, who I visited last fall in San Francisco, is to figure how to drive growth without compromising their values.

My story about Alter Eco, which ran this week at  Guardian Sustainable Business, begins like this:

What would a truly sustainable food company look like? That’s hard to say, but a small company called Alter Eco, which sells quinoa, rice, chocolate and sugar grown in Latin America, Asia and Africa, offers a clue or two.

Striving to hit the very highest environmental and social standards, Alter Eco sources only Fair Trade commodities, buying from small-farm co-operatives. Its products are certified organic. It offsets its carbon emissions. And, when the founders could not find packaging that satisfied them, they designed their own: a bio-based, backyard-compostable package with no petroleum or chemicals or genetically modified corn.

“We are trying to push the envelope towards full sustainability,” CEO Mathieu Senard says.

The trouble is, Alter Eco is small – it reported just $7m in revenues in 2012. When I visited co-founders Senard and Edouard Rollet at Alter Eco’s headquarters in San Francisco, they told me that sales topped $10m in 2013 and are expected to jump 44% to $14.5m this year. “We can go to $100m in the next five to 10 years,” Senard claims.

That said, big food companies measure their sales in billions, not millions. General Mills booked sales of nearly $18bn in the 2013 fiscal year, meaning it does more business in a day than Alter Eco does in a year. For small, socially responsible companies like Alter Eco to have a big impact, they either need to grow rapidly, or influence their much larger competitors, or both.

Part of the problem facing Alter Eco is pricing. Paying Fair Trade prices, sourcing from smaller coops and carbon offsets all cost money, costs which have to be passed along to consumers. (That 2.82 oz. quinoa bar retails for about $3.50.) Higher prices, of course, limit demand–and growth. This is a challenge that has been overcome by a handful of values-driven food companies, including Starbucks and Stonyfield Yogurt. But not many.

You read the rest of my story here.

A socially-responsible energy bar

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Until I met Danny Grossman, I didn’t think America needed another energy bar. You may not have noticed but this great land of ours has entered what might be described as a golden age of energy bars. There’s Clif Bar, PowerBar, Balance Bars, Kind Bars, Chia Bars, LaraBar, Promax Bars, vegan, gluten-free, all-natural, cereal, protein, crunchy and gooey bars. Humble, old-fashioned granola bars and high-tech, scientifically-engineered superfood bars. And of course, as The Onion reported a while ago in a story headlined Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does, energy bars fortified with nutrients especially for women have become popular:

Unlike traditional, phallocentric energy bars, whose chocolate, soy protein, nuts, and granola ignored the special health and nutritional needs of women, their new, female-oriented counterparts like Luna are ideally balanced with a more suitable amount of chocolate, soy protein, nuts, and granola…Proto-feminist pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony could never have imagined that female empowerment would one day come in bar form.

Then there’s the the Yaff Bar, “an all-natural bar made to share.” To share with your dog, that is. This is not a creation the Onion. You could look it up.

But back to Danny Grossman. He’s the founder of Wild Planet Toys, which made socially-responsible toys, and he has been involved with the world of socially-responsible business for decades. He and his friends Mel and Patricia Ziegler have just launched Slow Food for Fast Lives, an energy-bar startup, that I wrote about last week in the Guardian. Like most entrepreneurs, Danny and his partners are optimists.

Here’s how my story begins:

At 55, Danny Grossman already has lived a full life.

He enjoyed a fascinating career in the foreign service: He was stationed in India and in Soviet Union-era Leningrad, where he was doing human rights work before he was accused of being a spy and expelled.

And 20 years ago, he started a company called Wild Planet Toys, which sells socially responsible toys designed to spark childrens’ imaginations. The company grew to have revenues of $60m before it was sold to Spinmaster, a bigger firm, in 2012.

Now Grossman is back in startup mode, this time with a company called Slow Food for Fast Lives that sells healthy, natural energy bars for people on the go. His partners in the venture are also serial, purpose-driven entrepreneurs: Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who founded Banana Republic and Republic of Tea.

indian-bar-final-smx5001The Slow Food for Fast Lives energy bars will stand out from the crowd mostly because they are savory, not sweet. Flavors include California, Moroccan, Indian and Thai. I tried them when I visited with Danny a while back near his home in the West Portal neighborhood of San Francisco, where he grew up; they’re quite tasty.

So crowded is the energy-bar market that consumers can choose among socially-responsible bars.

Clif Bar sources organic ingredients, offsets its carbon emissions, has a LEED platinum headquarters and promotes community service.

Two Degrees (which I wrote about here) provides a meal for a hungry child for every bar it sells.

Is there room in the market for another energy bar? Hard to say, but Danny Grossman is a good guy, so I hope Slow Food for Fast Lives finds its niche, too.

Mushrooms: They’re good for more than eating

It looks like Styrofoam but it's made from mushrooms

It looks like Styrofoam but it’s made from mushrooms

One of the more exciting themes coursing through the world of sustainable business is the circular economy–the idea that we can eliminate waste, and turn stuff we no longer need into something else. That’s why I got excited when I heard about a startup company called Ecovative, which uses mushroom and crop waste to make substitutes for plastics.

I wrote about Ecovative this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Mushrooms, as any cook knows, are versatile: they enhance soups, stews, pasta, salads and omelettes, and they can be stuffed, baked, fried or sautéed.

As it turns out, they are equally versatile outside of the food world. They can produce packaging, home insulation, fiberboard for furniture, even a surfboard.

So says Eben Bayer, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Ecovative, a small company that’s developing an array of environmentally friendly materials that perform like plastics but are made by mushrooms – specifically, by their webs of thread-like roots, known as mycelium, which consume crop waste. These materials can be grown and recycled, as opposed to being drilled, pumped, refined and discarded.

“We’re able to compete with an entrenched billion-dollar plastic industry because we’re not extracting things,” Bayer said last week, at the fall conference of the Social Venture Network (SVN) in Baltimore. “We’re leveraging the power of biology.”

Founded in 2007 in the aptly named village of Green Island, New York, near Albany, Ecovative is a small company with big ambitions. It already has generated a lot of buzz: It won the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, a global $750,000 sustainable business prize. The World Economic Forum named the company a technology pioneer in 2011. Bayer even delivered a TED talk. And Ecovative won grants by the US EPA, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture.

More important than all the acclaim, as the story goes on to say, is that Ecovative last year signed an agreement to license its Mushroom Packaging technology to Sealed Air, a $7.6-billion company. Sealed Air had adapted a factory in Iowa to produce Mushroom Packaging, using corn stalks as feedstock. This is evidence that Ecovative may have a real business.

When I first read about Ecovative (in a long story earlier this year in The New Yorker), I immediately thought of biomimicry — the idea designers can learn from nature, and then use its designs and processes to solve business or human problems. But, as Eben noted in his talk at SVN, Ecovative isn’t imitating nature. It is actually deploying nature–i.e., those mushroom roots–in its factory.

Ecovative is planning to make home insulation and a substitute for fiberboard using similar processes. Here’s a link to a video of Eben talking about how the company built a “tiny house,” in part using the mushrooms. You can read my story here.

The travails of a family farmer

Food for sale at a farmers market in London.Last week, I traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which is always a stimulating event. One tour offered by the SEJ took us to a family farm, and to a couple of nonprofit organizations that are promoting local, environmentally-friendly agriculture.

My story this week for The Guardian looks at the work of a farmer named Bill Keener, who works a relatively small (300-acre farm) where he lives with his wife, her parents, his son and daughter. What I tried to do in the story was get behind the romance and mythology often associated with small-scale family farmers and see how their businesses work, or don’t. Bill is a very bright guy–on his way to a career as a farmer, he studied philosophy in grad school at Yale–but his business is harder than it might appear, at least to those who browse by his stall at a farmer’s market.

Here’s how the story begins:

Everyone loves a farmers’ market. It’s pleasing to wander among the stalls, chat with farmers, sip coffee and mingle with like-minded, ecologically-aware, health-conscious folks who buy local, sustainable and organic foods. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s this: Bill Keener, who owns a family farm in Sequatchie, Tennessee, has thousands of pounds of raw milk cheese to sell and can’t make money selling it at the farmers’ market. By the time he pays someone to cut a big wheel of cheese into family-sized wedges, transports the cheese to the market in Chattanooga, about 35 miles away and staffs a stall for four hours, he’s barely covered the costs of producing his batches of Cumberland, Coppinger and Dancing Fern cheeses. That’s true even though his cheese, which is lovingly made by a French-trained cheesemaker, costs as much as $15 a pound – a lot more than Kraft’s.

Five years since getting into the cheese business, Keener is undeterred, using earnings from his beef and lamb sales to subsidize his creamery.

“That’s the thing about agriculture,” Keener says. “It’s slow money.”

Keener, the story goes on to say, has tried to make his business work every which way–through community supported agriculture, by selling to local supermarkets including Whole Foods, through pick-your-own opportunities, and by cultivating shitake mushrooms, which he came to love while studying in Japan. He’s now operating one good business, selling local grass-fed beef and lamb, and one not-so-good one, his creamery. But it turns out that what he really needs was a support system of marketers and distributors–people to advertise and sell his products. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; big commodity farmers rely on a system of marketing, distribution and retail outlets that have evolved over half a century to ecome very efficient.

A support system for small-scale farmers, happily, is developing in and around Chattanooga. One of the best things to happen to Keener’s Sequatchie Cove Farm was the opening of a specialty butcher shop in Nashville to sell local, high-quality meat.

As I write, Keener is “the kind of farmer who environmentalists and foodies from Brooklyn to Berkeley (and, yes, places in between, such as Chattanooga) are counting on to feed them.” I’m hoping that he can make farming work for him, as well as for his customers.

 

Easy rider: Can e-bicycles take off in America?

The Faraday Porteur e-bicycle

The Faraday Porteur e-bicycle

As a way to get from here to there, bicycles have a lot to offer. Biking is good for your health. It’s good for the planet. It’s cheaper than driving or public transit. Getting people out of cars and onto bikes eases traffic congestion, too.

But, for a host of reasons, not everyone can bike for transportation. Electric bicycles will expand the number of people who can — by making cycling easier, a bit quicker and less sweaty (which matters if you are commuting to work.)

Outside of the US, electric bicycles are doing really well–much better than electric cars, it turns out. Can they make it America? That’s the topic of my story which has just been published on the excellent YaleEnviromment360 website.

Here’s how it begins:

Most Americans know about Tesla, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Leaf. But what about Evelo, the eZip Trailz, and the Faraday Porteur?

The first three are, of course, electric cars. They benefit from a lot of media attention and generous government subsidies, including a $7,500 tax credit for buyers in the United States. The latter are electric bicycles, and they attract neither.

Yet Americans bought as many electric bicycles as they did electric cars last year. About 53,000 electric bicycles were sold, according to Dave Hurst, an analyst with Navigant Research who tracks the industry. Electric car sales came in at 52,835.

Globally, electric bicycles outsell electric cars by a wide margin. An estimated 29.3 million e-bicycles were sold in 2012, with perhaps 90 percent of those selling in China, which has more electric bikes than cars on its roads. E-bicycles are popular in Europe, too, selling about 380,000 a year in Germany and 175,000 in the Netherlands in 2012. By comparison, about 120,000 electric caris were sold worldwide.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I hope electric bicycles find a market here. They should appeal to  young people in bike-friendly cities and to aging baby boomers (like me!) I tested an e-bike from Evelo last week (here’s my account), and I’m hoping to check out some other models soon.

Cause: Eat, drink, be merry, do good

IS2C6024 smallImagine a bar and restaurant that, like Newman’s Own, gives all of its profits to charity.

Beer and benevolence, it’s been called. Drafts and donations. More fun, in any case, than salad dressing.

That’s the idea behind Cause, a philanthropub (“a bar where having a good time helps a great cause”) that opened last October in the U. Street/Cardozo neighborhood of Washington, D.C., at 1926 9th St. N.W.  I’ve been three times–first to kick off the new year with the D.C. chapter of Net Impact, then to interview founder Nick Vilelle and this past week to have dinner with my wife.

Cause isn’t alone. “Have a pint, save the world,” says the Oregon Public House, which plans to open soon in Portland, a hub of both craft beer and NGO activity. In downtown Houston, bar owners came together last year to open the Okra Charity Saloon; customers, who get a vote with every drink, decide which charity should receive the next month’s profits. The ideas for these charity pubs evidently arose spontaneously and independently. They’re the latest in a wave of mission-driven businesses that blur the lines between the for-profit and non-profit worlds. [click to continue...]

d.light: Solar power for the poor

A girl in India, studying with d.light

A girl in India, studying with d.light

About three decades ago, Donn Tice was an MBA student at the University of Michigan, studying with the late C.K. Prahalad, who was developing his argument that companies can make money and do good by creating products and services for the world’s poorest people. It’s an exciting notion, popularized in Prahalad’s  influential 2004 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

Today, Donn Tice is the CEO of d.light, which sells solar-powered lanterns to the poor. He’s trying to prove that his teacher was right, that a fortune awaits those who can create and sell life-changing products that help the very poor.

For now, this remains an unproven hope. Dozens of startups have ventured into the global south, selling everything from $100 laptops, cheap bikes, clean cook stoves and solar panels to the poor. Some have enjoyed success [See, for example, my blogpost, Clean Star Mozambique: Food, fuel and forests at the bottom of the pyramid] but few have achieved meaningful scale. Or made anything approaching a fortune.

The good news is that d.light is getting there. The company is now selling about 200,000 solar-powered lanterns and lighting systems a month in about 40 countries. By its own accounting, d. light has sold nearly 3 million solar lighting products and changed the lives of more than 13 million people. And, if all goes according to plan, the company will turn profitable this year.

“In addition to bring lighting to people who need it and power to people who can’t acccess it –which is our mission–we think we have the ability to demonstrate that this is a business model that works,” Donn told me, during a recent visit to the d.light offices  in San Francisco. Earlier this year, d.light was recognized with the $1,500,000 Zayed Future Energy Prize.

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Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

It’s Black Friday. Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

Yerdle is a sharing and shopping website and mobile app being launched today by two stalwarts of corporate sustainability — Adam Werbach, the former Sierra Club leader and Saatch & Saatchi marketing guy, and Andy Ruben, Walmart’s first sustainability director.

Andy and Adam, who are both 39 and live in San Francisco (natch), have come up with a very cool idea. Yerdle is a way for people who have stuff to give away, or other stuff they want, to share with one another–before heading out to the store to buy something new. By today, after a beta test in the Bay Area, they expect that more than 10,000 items will be offered on Yerdle.

I took a sneak peek at the site the other day and found, among other things, a Ikea children’s table and chairs, a yoga DVD, Sesame Street DVDs, red Baby Gap sweats, a dustbuster, a radio alarm clock, a laptop sleeve, a pasta maker, kids books, a collection of little wooden dress-up dolls, and more–and that’s before inviting my friends to join. [click to continue...]

What a long strange trip it’s been: How the Social Venture Network changed business in America

Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s renown, is asking me for money, and he’s not selling ice cream. I give him a dollar bill, he stamps it in red ink — NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS — and returns it to me. It’s part of his new crusade to get corporate money out of politics.

“Corporations are not people, and money is not free speech,” Cohen declares.

The 61-year-old ice-cream mogul sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 2000.  (He’s on the left, without his trademark beard, next to his longtime pal Jerry Greenfield.) The T-shirt says: “Stamp Money Out of Politics.” These days,  as “Head Stamper” at StampStampede, Cohen is working for an amendment to the US Constitution to get money out of politics.

It sounds improbable but no more improbable than this: That a gathering of about 70 people, including Ben and his partner Jerry Greenfield, at the rustic Gold Lake Mountain Resort not far from Boulder, Colorado, Colorado back in 1987 could spawn a movement that has changed the way millions of Americans think about and do business. The Gold Lake get-together led to the creation of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of business people, investors and philanthropists, many of them shaped by the political and cultural movements of the 1960s, who believe that business can change the world for the better. About 700 SVN members, friends and family gathered last week in New York for a 25th anniversary dinner and celebration–a time to assess how far their movement to remake business has come, and how far it needs to go.

The dinner was a star-studded affair, at least for those of us who pay attention to businesses that aim to build a more just and sustainable economy. On hand along with Ben and Jerry were Eileen Fisher of the eponymous clothing company, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Organic, George Siemon of dairy co-op Organic Valley, Jeffrey Hollender, formerly of Seventh Generation, Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, Roger Brown and Linda Mason of Bright Horizons, Amy Domini of Domini Social Investments, all of whom were named to the SVN “Hall of Fame.” Spotted in the crowd of 700 or so were Gifford Pinchot III, president of of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, my friends Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and author Mark Albion (More Than Money: Questions Every MBA Needs to Answer), Danny Kennedy of Sungevity–the closest thing to a power elite of the sustainable business movement.

None of them, to be sure, run FORTUNE 500 companies. But the movement birthed by SVN powered the field of corporate social responsibility, opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs, raised expectations that big companies now need to meet and helped shape the way companies ranging from Google (“Don’t be Evil”) to Walmart do what they do. [click to continue...]