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.

How “evil” Monsanto aims to protect the planet

Ethanols Environmental Damage

Iowa cornfield shows signs of erosion and fertilizer runoff. Climate Corporation aims to help farmers use fertilizer more efficiently. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Monsanto has been called one of the US’s most hated companies (see this, which is credible, and this, which is not). Maybe that’s because the St. Louis-based agricultural giant has enemies who are determined, as well as self-interested. (See this petition to Hillary Clinton from the so-called Organic Consumers Association.) Maybe it’s because the  St. Louis-based ag giant historically has done a poor job of explaining itself to the public. (Farmers appear to like Monsanto, which sold them $16 billion worth of seeds and crop-protection chemicals last year.) Whatever the explanation, Monsanto has been dogged by a series of misunderstandings and outright lies.

As David Friedberg, the CEO of Climate Corporation, wrote in an email to employees after he sold his San Francisco-based data startup to Monsanto in 2013:

Calling a company evil is easy. And if you do it enough times it can become the “reality”—because reality is just the most common perception. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth…

When I did my own research—to the source and in the science—I was amazed at how far these inaccurate statements had gone and how wrong so many people were, thinking they were right because they repeated the same things others did.

In the email, which was reported in The New Yorker, Friedberg, a former Google employee, goes on to say:

Did you know: Google sues more of its customers each year than Monsanto does? Google spends 3 times as much as Monsanto on Federal lobbying? There are more ex-Googlers in the Obama administration than there are ex-Monsanto employees?

Read the rest, please. You may be surprised by how much you’ve heard about Monsanto is wrong.

Recently, I went to see Friedberg in San Francisco to learn more about Climate Corp. and the potential for what’s often called precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is  a growth business (pun intended) and that’s a very good thing. A bunch of companies, including well-established firms like John Deere and DuPont’s Pioneer, as well as startups like FarmLogs and Farmers Business Network, are competing to unlock the power of agronomic data and make farming more efficient. It’s one more example of how technology is helping to drive sustainability.

The Guardian published my story about Friedberg and Climate Corp. today. Here’s how it begins.

David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corporation, expected pushback when he decided to sell his San Francisco-based big data company to Monsanto. He was surprised, though, when some of the loudest criticism came from his own father.

Lionel Friedberg – a Los Angeles filmmaker whose 1989 documentary, Crisis in the Atmosphere, was one of the first films to highlight the problem of global warming – reacted to the news by berating his son. “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world?” Friedberg recalled his father saying. “I thought you were trying to make the world a better place!”

As Friedberg the younger wrote in an email to Climate Corp employees after the 2013 sale, being chastised by his own dad “was really hard”. But he’s nothing if not a believer in facts, and so he marshaled enough evidence to persuade his father that the $930m sale to Monsanto was not just good for his business, but good for the planet. His email is worth reading, particularly if, like Friedberg’s dad, you’re a critic of Monsanto.

Now Friedberg and his colleagues need to persuade the world’s farmers that Climate Corp will help them save money, improve yields, adapt to climate change and improve the environment. And if the company manages to turn around a few more Monsanto critics, that would be a bonus.

Founded in 2006, Climate Corp is a leading player in the fast-growing business of precision agriculture. Using a data-driven approach, it seeks the most efficient use of fertilizer, seed, pesticides, land and water. It’s the next big idea in farming, Friedberg claimed when we met at his office in San Francisco. He compared the approach to the industrialization of agriculture, the green revolution and modern plant breeding.

The story goes on to explain how Climate Corp. hopes to deliver environmental benefits as well as financial returns to farmers. You can read the rest here.

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.

Sparking sustainable aquaculture

photoOn a recent visit to Cambodia, I visited a poor fishing village not far from Siem Reap where thousands of tiny forage fish, pulled from a large freshwater lake called Tonle Sap, were left to dry in the sun by the side of a road. They were, as best as I could determine, bound for Thailand where they would ground up and made into feed for fish or chicken, which wind up in supermarkets, mostly in Asia. There’s nothing sustainable about this kind of fish farming, or poultry raising.

Yet aquaculture, done right, can be an important source of produce healthy protein. Aquaculture today provides almost half of all fish that humans eat. Its share is projected to rise to 62 percent by 2030 as catches from wild capture fisheries level off and an emerging global middle class demands more fish, according to the FAO.  “If responsibly developed and practised, aquaculture can generate lasting benefits for global food security and economic growth,” the UN organization says in a recent report.

A small investment firm called Aqua-Spark is trying to promote best practices in aquaculture. I reported on their efforts in a story posted today to Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

For better or worse – often for worse – aquaculture is the fastest-growing animal-based food industry. Half the seafood eaten in the US is farmed, and most of that is imported. Yet it’s not unusual for fish farms to pollute local waters, damage coastal habitatand deplete the oceans of feeder fish. Or, as the Guardian reported last year, exploit slave labour.

Aqua-Spark, a global investment fund based in the Netherlands, aims to do better. The fund, which focuses exclusively on aquaculture, recently made its first two investments, putting $2m into a biotech company called Calysta, whose technology makes fish feed out of methane gas, and another $2m into Chicoa Fish Farm, a tilapia-farming startup in Mozambique that intends to build up aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa.

These small steps won’t have much impact on the global aquaculture industry, which was valued at US $135bn in 2012 by IBIS World. But Aqua-Spark isn’t alone. Brands and retailers, including Unilever and Walmart, as well as NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, are all working to limit the environmental impacts of fish farming.

“There aren’t a lot of perfect models out there,” says Amy Novogratz, who founded Aqua-Spark with her husband, Mike Velings. “If we make investment available to the ‘best in class’ companies, they will help set a bar for sustainability. And if we can help them succeed, others will follow.”

And if you’re wondering, yes, Amy Novogratz is the younger sister of well-known social entrepreneur, activist and author Jacqueline Novogratz.

You can read the rest of my story here.

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.

Google: Much more than an Internet company

google_flat_logoIt’s hard to imagine life without Google–not just the search engine, but Gmail, maps, calendar and cloud storage. I could give up Twitter, Facebook and (reluctantly) Amazon, but Google and Apple are embedded deeply into my life. It’s not just me, of course. Google and Apple are among the world’s most valuable companies.

To its credit, Google has decided to invest some of its vast wealth in bold, world-changing ideas that could take years to pay off. Why? That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

In 2008, Google pranked everyone. It was April Fool’s Day and the tech giant uploaded a fake website claiming to be starting the first human settlement on Mars, with a little help from the airline company, Virgin.

Project Virgle had a 100-year development plan and an application for would-be Mars colonists.

Virgle does not sound quite as far-fetched now as it did then. More than any other company, Google has proven willing to support bold, costly and unorthodox projects far from its core business. But unlike the fictional Virgle, a plan to escape the Earth, many of Google’s biggest bets, including its investments of more than $1.5bn in renewable energy, aim to save it.

These efforts are spread across the company – software to track forests at Google Earth Engine, clean tech investments at Google Ventures, and Nest and its energy-saving thermostat, which Google acquired last year for $3.2bn. The most audacious, though, are found in a unit known as Google[x], where inventors, scientists and engineers seek solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

Google[x] is developing self-driving cars, which would make automobile travel radically more efficient, as well as energy-generating kites, self-flying vehicles to deliver goods and high-altitude balloons to provide cheap internet to people living in rural or remote areas.

We’ve come to expect this kind of thing from Google, but no other US company that I’m aware of has shown such boldness:

Imagine if General Motors invested in drought-resistant crops, or Disney decided to build small nuclear power plants, or Microsoft got into the algae business. That is the kind of boundary crashing that has become commonplace at Google.

This is about more than “doing good,” I’m sure. If even one of Google’s big, long-shot projects turns into a real business, the company will do very well for itself. Now, it’s being widely reported, Apple is at work on an electric car. This is all very encouraging.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Bug bites

criquet_1_l_In a comprehensive 2013 report, the UN’s FAO declared that the time has come to unlock “the huge potential that insects offer for enhancing food security.” The reaction was predictable.

“Of course the problem with eating insects is that it’s kind of gross and they don’t taste very good,” wrote one commentator.  Another said: “You are probably cringing reading this post.”  A third asked: “Care for a serving of grasshopper goulash?”

Well, why not? Two billion people around the world consume insects. Bugs are nutritious, high in protein,  low in fat and good for the planet: Insects efficiently convert feed into food, require less land and water than cattle or pigs, and they are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases by the UN. As for the cringe factor, chef Jose Andres, a James Beard Foundation award winner, serves a chapulín taco, made with Mexican grasshoppers, at his Washington, D.C., restaurant Oyamel. The menu at Typhoon, a chic Pan Asian restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, includes Singapore-style scorpions, Taiwanese crickets and Manchurian Chambai ants. And Exo protein bars, made with cricket flour, will soon be part of snack boxes on Jet Blue.

But, even if we come to love munching on mites, there’s a big problem with growing insects for food. No one knows how to do it efficiently, and at scale. Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and CEO of  Tiny Farms, a startup based in Oakland, CA, aims to change that by bringing modern agricultural technology to insect farming.

I wrote about Daniel and his work for the Future of Food 2050 websiteHere’s how my story begins:

Two billion people worldwide think nothing of munching on a tasty insect snack or entree, but until recently very few of them were Americans.

That’s changing as edible insects inch their way into mainstream fare in the United States, with crickets rapidly emerging as the “gateway bug.” Hip startups in Brooklyn, Boston and San Francisco are already baking cookies and snack chips with cricket flour, and cricket flour protein bars will soon be part of snack boxes on JetBlue airline flights.

The trouble is, demand for edible crickets exceeds the supply. Only a handful of companies are raising the chirpy insects, and they aren’t nearly as efficient as they could be, says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Tiny Farms, a startup based in Oakland, Calif.

“The entire U.S. farmed output of crickets is still fairly small,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “In order to have a cricket bar next to the checkout of every Safeway in the country, you need a lot more scale and a lot more productivity.”

This could be the start of something big–or not. Remember, though, that if you think eating insects is weird, well, that’s what Americans thought about raw fish when sushi restaurants, which served Japanese immigrants, came to the west coast in the 1960s. Today you can buy sushi at Walmart.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Who lobbies for the outdoors?

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Increasingly, I’m struck by the power of conservative business lobbies in Washington, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. They speak effectively on behalf of fossil fuel interests, and often claim to speak for all of business when it comes to the issue of climate change — even though broad sectors of the US economy, notably agriculture and tourism (not to mention coastal real estate), are threatened by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Last week in the Guardian, I looked at what’s called the outdoor economy — a sector that is big and growing.The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation, which includes hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and motorcycling, supports 6.1m jobs in the US. That’s more than fossil fuels, some say, although the numbers are disputed.

What’s inarguable is that the oil, gas and coal industries carry a lot more clout in DC than does the outdoor industry. Here’s how my story begins:

Two small California ski resorts, Dodge Ridge and Badger Pass, shut down in January as temperatures climbed to near-record highs and weeks passed without snow. With the Sierras suffering a historic drought, it’s hard to say for certain if they’ll reopen.

The ski-industry closings are a small but representative setback for what a new report calls the outdoor economy — that is, “the stream of economic output that results from the protection and sustainable use of America’s lands and waters when they are preserved in a largely undeveloped state”.

Outdoor recreation is a powerful economic force. It accounts for “more direct jobs than oil, natural gas and mining combined”, according to the report published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, in January.

But in the political arena, those businesses that depend upon nature are decided underdogs when they battle adversaries, such as the fossil fuel industry, which would like to see more exploration for oil and gas on federal lands.

If you’ve ever visited one of the big national parks out west, you can see why the outdoor industry is outgunned (pardon the expression) in your nation’s capital. Typically, the hotels, motels, restaurants, fishing outfitters and the like on the perimeter of the  parks are small businesses. They can’t hire lobbyists or make meaningful campaign contributions.

One company that has done a fine job of promoting the outdoors is The North Face. They ran a great Internet and TV ad campaign last year, encouraging more people to spend time in beautiful places. As more Americans spend more time outdoors, it seems likely that they will want to see this nation’s most beautiful places protected. Admittedly, that’s a slow and indirect way to build a constituency for climate action.

Take two minutes and enjoy this North Face commercial, set to the music of Woody Guthrie, performed by My Morning Jacket. And is it just me or did Jeep steal this idea for its Super Bowl ad?

You can read the rest of my story here.

A rank ‘em and spank ‘em study on packaging

A Dunkin Donuts--with throwaway cups--opens in Beijing

A Dunkin Donuts–with throwaway cups–opens in Beijing

Twenty-five years after McDonald’s, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed to get rid of foam clamshells for its burger–in what is now called the first corporate environmental partnership–the problem of wasteful, polluting, throwaway packaging is, if not worse than ever, no better.

With industry leaders like McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have invested in more sustainable packaging, others have failed to follow. This is the conclusion of a thorough packaging study released last week by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council that I covered for the Guardian.

Here’s how my story begins:

Big brands, including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Kraft Foods and MillerCoors, are wasting billions of dollars worth of valuable materials because they sell food and drinks in subpar packaging, according to a comprehensive new report on packaging and recycling by the fast food, beverage, consumer goods and grocery industries.

The 62-page rank-‘em-and-spank-‘em study, Waste and Opportunity 2015, was published Thursday by advocacy nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They found that few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle packages. Indeed, no company was awarded their highest rating of “best practices.”

The environmental groups did identify a number of leaders, albeit flawed ones. In the beverage industry, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters and PepsiCo won praise. Starbucks and McDonald’s are said to be a cut above their competitors in fast food and quick-serve restaurants. As for consumer goods companies and grocery stores, the report offers qualified praise for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever.

Broadly, though, this study paints a discouraging picture. What progress has been made is incremental and spotty, not comprehensive. As often than not, single-use packages of food and drinks are made from virgin materials and then tossed in the trash.

As the report notes, with an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51%, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14% of plastic packaging — the fastest-growing form of packaging — is recycled. Recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted annually.

The interesting question is, what have we learned from NGO and government efforts to curb packaging waste and pollution? I’m not quite ready to give up on voluntary corporate efforts–not yet, anyway. Walmart reduced packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent between 2006 and 2013; that’s a big deal. It’s now pushing suppliers to use more recycled content.

An alternative approach is increased government regulations–deposit bills on bottles and, more recently, plastic bag bans and taxes. (New York City has just banned polystyrene packaging, joining 100 other jurisdictions, reports Mark Bittman.) But these are also halfway measures.

Bolder would be an economy-wide effort to impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, which are in place in much of the EU. I don’t know enough about how these work and what they cost to have an informed opinion.

I did buy a set of headphones for my iPhone the other day and had the hardest time getting them out of the ridiculous plastic package. Surely a company that’s as good at design as Apple can do better. But what’s the incentive for them to do so? Saving a few pennies from a $29.95 (!) set of headphones clearly isn’t enough.

A modest proposal for big green NGOs

da9cdecb-7922-49b2-b8a2-3ff0969881e4-1020x612Here’s an idea for big environmental NGOs that work with corporate partners: Kindly recommend to those partners that they raise their voices in Washington in support of the EPA’s proposed coal plant rules.

The coal plant rules are the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change policy. Yet they are being strongly opposed by mainstream Washington business lobbies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

The big corporate partners of the green groups could make a difference. They could support the rules on their own–few have done so–and, just as important, speak up inside the halls of the chamber and NAM, asking them to halt their opposition to the rules.

No climate issue matters more, Mindy Lubber of Ceres told me, for a story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business, which we’ll get to in a moment.

In a report on corporate engagement [PDF], WWF lists more than a dozen “corporate engagements with an annual budget greater than US$250,000.” Partners include Avon Products, Bank of America, The Coca-Cola Co., Domtar, Ecolab, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Mars, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Sealed Air, Sodexo and Toyota.

The Nature Conservancy says on its website that “the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission” and publishes a long list of partners, including 3M, Alaska Airlines, AT&T, Avon, Bank of America, BHP Billiton, Boeing, BP, Bunge, Cargill, Caterpillar, CH2MHill, Coca-Cola, CSX Transportation, Delta, Disney, Dow Chemical, EcoLab, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Harley Davidson, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Kimpton Hotels, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Monsanto, Mosaic, Patagonia, PepsiCo, Rio Tinto, SABMiller, Shell, Target, TDBank, Uber and Xerox.

The Environmental Defense Fund, for its part, works with AT&T, Caterpillar, DuPont,  KKR, McDonald’s, Ocean Spray, Starbucks and Walmart, among others.

I could go on but you get the point. Now contrast those lists with the challenges faced by Mindy Lubber and Ceres, as they try to line up companies to back the EPA rules. That’s why my story is about, and here is how it begins:

As the US political fight over climate change moves from Washington DC to 50 state capitals, companies that are serious about sustainability need to support theEPA’s proposed rules to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

So, at least, says Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a nonprofit that brings together companies, investors and public-interest groups to advocate for sustainability.

“Companies have the strength and power – the footprint to make a huge difference,” Lubber told me at a lunch earlier this month. Ceres celebrates its 25th anniversary Tuesday.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the proposed power plant rules, which are the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. Power plants account for nearly 40% of all US greenhouse gas emissions.

What Ceres has found, Mindy told me, is that it’s hard to get big companies to support  the EPA and the president, and overcome their habitual, instinctive resistance to government regulation.

Last month, as I wrote in the Guardian, Ceres released a statement supporting the rules that was signed by more than 200 companies but most were small or midsized. Big firms to sign on included Ikea, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nestle, Nike, Novelis, VF and Unilever. They are to be commended.

Ceres’s list would carry a lot more weight if other NGOS like WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense persuaded  most or all their corporate partners to sign on.

Until they do, conservative trade associations like the US Chamber, NAM, the National Mining Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which have joined together to oppose the EPA rules, will speak for business in Washington. I’ve never understood why so many companies that profess to care about the environment — and, in my view, actually do care about the environment — have allowed that to happen.

You can read the rest of my story here.