The elusive fortune at the base of the pyramid

cimg7634It’s been an exceptionally busy week, beginning with the 2014 edition of Fortune Brainstorm Green (selected videos are online here) and ending with a holiday weekend visit from my new grandson, so I’m going to quickly post a link to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

It’s a long-ish story about doing business at the bottom of the pyramid, an idea popularized by the late C.K. Prahalad in a book published a decade ago. Here’s how the story begins:

When CK Prahalad‘s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, was published in 2004, the book made an immediate splash. Its argument was irresistible: The world’s poorest people are a vast, fast-growing market with untapped buying power, Prahalad wrote, and companies that learn to serve them can make money and help people escape poverty, too.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates called the book “an intriguing blueprint for how to fight poverty with profitability”. BusinessWeek’s Pete Engardio described Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan business school, as a business prophet. He was awarded honorary degrees and sought out by CEOs.

Ten years later, businesses big and small continue to pursue profits at the bottom of the pyramid. The global uptake of mobile phones has proven that poor people will buy cell service if it’s available at low prices. (It costs a fraction of a cent per minute in India.) Single-serve packages of shampoo, toothpaste and soap dangle from shelves of tiny storefronts in rural villages. Products ranging from eyeglasses to solar panels are being designed and marketed to people earning $2 a day.

The bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) market leader, arguably, is Unilever, with its Anglo-Dutch colonial heritage and a chief executive, Paul Polman, who is determined to improve the world. Unilever generates more than half of its sales from developing markets, with much of that coming from the emerging middle class. Its signature BOP product is Pureit, a countertop water-purification system sold in India, Africa and Latin America. It’s saving lives, but it’s not making money for shareholders.

And there’s the rub. If there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, it remains elusive. Partly that’s because doing business with the poor is unavoidably complex, and partly that’s because the notion was oversold, says Mark Milstein, director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell’s business school and an expert on the BOP.

“I haven’t seen anyone making a fortune,” Milstein told me. “Unilever’s made money on some products, but they’ve been challenged. Other companies are making profits, but not enough to matter to their organization.”

The story goes on to report on successful and not-so-successful efforts to do business with the world’s billion or two poor people. We’ll be considering this topic again next month at the Guardian, with a live tweet chat on Tuesday, June 10, at noon. You can read the rest of my story here.

Walmart’s food czar

Jack SinclairNational Geographic is running a months-long project about the future of food in the magazine, online and at live events, including one last Friday here in your nation’s capital. It’s an impressive journalistic undertaking, one very much worth following. I learned last week that a couple of top editors at Nat Geo are farm boys with ag degrees. Who knew? In any event, last week’s confab featured a series of lively and civil conversations about the global food system, and how to fix it.

One of a handful of speakers from business was Jack Sinclair, who oversees the grocery business for Walmart. Walmart, of course, sells more food than any other company in America, and the Bentonville giant is willing to throw its weight around, for better or worse.

Mostly for the better, in my view. Just in 2014, Walmart has supported (with its dollars) better working conditions for Florida farmworkers and a major rollout of organic foods under the hitherto defunct Wild Oats brand. Meantime, it is pushing its big suppliers to dig into their supply chains to make farming practices more efficient.

I sat down with Jack Sinclair before the conference last week, and wrote about him in a story posted today at The Guardian. Here’s how it begins:

One of the most powerful people in the US food industry is a 52-year-old native of Scotland who got his start in the business stacking groceries on supermarket shelves. Today, as an executive vice-president in charge of all the grocery operations at Walmart, Jack Sinclair is still stacking shelves – albeit on a grander scale.

Sinclair, who has been with Walmart since 2007, doesn’t just help to decide which products will make their way onto the shelves of America’s biggest retailer: he also exercises influence over how and where they are grown. In fact, joining Sinclair at a panel discussion at the National Geographic Society last week, former US agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said: “If you ask me what is the most important force in the agriculture today, I’d point to Walmart.”

It’s a startling claim, but there’s little doubt that Walmart’s impact on food and agriculture is vast. More than half of its annual revenues, which topped $476bn last year, come from groceries, and its market share is growing. Increasingly, the retailers has shown a willingness to use its buying power to influence the way that food is grown.

Last week, for example, Walmart invited the CEOs of Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg and PepsiCo, among others, to its Bentonville headquarters for a sustainability summit. Several of these top food execs promised to persuade farmers in their supply chains to use less fertilizer and water to grow crops, and to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

I liked Jack Sinclair, although after seven years at the company he has been thoroughly indoctrinated into the “everyday low prices” mantra of Walmart. He must have told me a half dozen times that Walmart’s food initiatives will lower costs and drive out inefficiencies, and will therefore make the food system more sustainable. That’s almost surely true — using less fertilizer on farms saves money and protects waterways from being polluted by runoff — but it will take more than a narrow focus on efficiency to produce affordable, healthy, sustainable food.

For example, those of us in the rich world will need to shift our diets away from meat and especially beef with its heavy carbon and water footprint. A healthy food system means people will drink less soda and eat fewer foods that are heavily processed and high in sugar, salt and fat. Those changes are part of a “sustainable food” movement. Will Walmart be supportive? That’s an open question.

You can read the rest of my store here.

The art and science of systems change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycling CO2, and the oil sands

650px-Coal_power_plant_Datteln_2_Crop1Capturing the CO2 emissions from coal or natural gas plants is a climate solution–but one that has sharply divided environmentalists.

Mike Brune and his colleagues at the Sierra Club want the US and the world to go entirely Beyond Coal, as do other activist groups like Greenpeace and 350.org. Others, including David Hawkins of NRDC (see this press release) and the folks at the Clean Air Task Force, argue that it’s unrealistic to expect countries like China and India to leave their coal reserves in the ground. They say investing in carbon capture from power plants are essential.

By all accounts, carbon capture and storage (CCS)  is costly and complicated. One way to bring down those costs would be to recycle the CO2 captured from coal and natural gas plants, and turn into useful products–fuels, chemicals, animal feed, building materials, whatever. CO2 recycling is an exciting idea–as I explain in this story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business.

I reported the story at Globe 2104, a conference on business and the environment held last week in Vancouver, one of North America’s greenest cities and, not incidentally, perhaps its most beautiful big city. I had the chance to moderate one panel at Globe, and speak on another, and in between I went to a panel on carbon recycling, where I learned that there’s growing support for the idea in Alberta, home to Canada’s fossil fuel industry, including the now notorious oil sands development.

Here’s how my story begins:

We recycle paper, plastic, aluminum and glass. So why not carbon?

Taking carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and making it into something useful could help solve the climate crisis, if it could be done on a large scale. But capturing carbon emissions from power plants and turning them into fuels, feed, chemicals or building materials has so far proven to be an expensive and difficult proposition.

Lately, though, a burst of financial and technical support for recycling carbon emissions has come from an unexpected source: the Canadian oil sands industry.

Reviled by environmentalists, pilloried by Canadian rock legend Neil Young and denounced by crusading climate scientist James Hansen, the oil sands industry seems an unlikely partner in the battle against carbon emissions. But its interest in finding a carbon-dioxide solution actually makes sense.

After all, the coal, oil and natural gas industries produce more CO2 than anybody else. And given current legal trends, it’s clear that they don’t expect to be able to dump it into the atmosphere, willy-nilly, for free and forever. Alberta, the western province that is home to the oil sands and is Canada’s closest thing to Texas, enacted a $15-per-ton carbon tax in 2007. Next door, British Columbia charges a $30-per-ton carbon tax.

The story goes on to talk about plans for a global prize competition around recycling CO2, backed by Prize Capital, a small California company that provides early-stage capital to startups and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based coal-burning power generator that has financed research into carbon recycling.

I’ve since heard about a couple more companies that are working on CO2 recycling, which I’ll report on in the coming weeks.

What’s more, if scientists can figure out to economically capture CO2 from power plants, the next step could be capturing CO2 directly out of the air. That, as regular readers of this blog know, was the subject of my 2012 Kindle Single e-book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, available from Amazon at $1.99, and a bargain at the price, if I do say so myself.

 

Yet another reason to eat less meat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the story here.

Natural capital: Breakthrough or buzzword?

forests-why-matter_63516847We depend on nature. Forests, fisheries, water, soil, clean air, the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb CO2, minerals, biodiversity, pollination, the serenity of the wilderness: They make life possible. Not to mention more pleasant. Fine. That’s not news.

Lately, though, environmentalists and a handful of companies and consultants have tried to assign a dollar value to the products and services provided by nature. This idea is what’s called “natural capital,” at least as I understand it. I took a look at the idea in a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business.

The story has already generated reaction, positive and negative. (Sometimes from people in the same organization.) Before you read it, I want to clarify what I meant to say–something a reporter shouldn’t have to do, but it may be helpful in this case. I didn’t mean to diss the entire notion of natural capital. It strikes me as potentially a useful idea, particularly when applied at a modest scale, and with some humility. Specifically, some companies and government agencies have found that by “investing in nature,” they can generate favorable returns when compared to other more conventional investments. For example, Coca Cola bottling companies have paid upstream farmers to take better care of their land, as a way of protecting water that the company needs to make beverages. A small nonprofit in Oregon called The Freshwater Trust has found that working with landowners to plant trees along riverbanks can improve water quality more effectively and at a lower cost than installing conventional pollution controls. (Here’s an example, a project the group administered for the City of Medford.) Most famously, Dow Chemical has worked with the Nature Conservancy to develop “green infrastructure” instead of “gray infrastructure” at a big facility in Texas. Maybe because I can get my head around them, these projects make sense to me.

What’s harder for me to understand are the more ambitious and complicated efforts to account for natural capital on a corporate or even a global scale. The calculations get complicated, in a hurry. (PUMA and its parent company, Kering, have spent years trying to measure their impact.) The numbers become less reliable when we start talking about billions or even trillions of dollars. Most important, the object of the exercise is…..what, exactly? Some people argue that valuing natural capital helps company identify risks or opportunities in its supply chain, but does an apparel company really need to hire accountants and consultants to understand that growing cotton will be harder in a water-constrained world than it is today? What’s more, as I explain in the story, the idea of “finite” natural resources, on which much of the analysis depends, is itself flawed. Yes, we may run out of this or that, but over time, inventive people are about to devise substitutes for scarce resource as the prices of those resources. This is how markets and innovation work. After,  the  stock of natural capital in the 19th century would have included whale oil for lighting and horses for transportation; they were, perhaps, finite, but they became irrelevant.

In any event, here’s how my story begins:

The corporate sustainability movement needs many things – scale, acceleration, a sense of urgency, science-based targets and goals – but one thing it surely does not need is another buzzword. Yet that is what “natural capital” is at risk of becoming.

At the GreenBiz Forum last month in Arizona, which attracted nearly 600 sustainability professionals, talk of natural capital was everywhere. The Nature Conservancy and the Corporate Eco Forum unveiled the Natural Capital Business Hub, which aims to “help companies uncover opportunities to enhance their bottom lines by integrating the value of natural capital into their strategy, operations, accounting and reporting.” Companies identified as Natural Capital Leaders – including Kimberly Clark, Freeport McMoran and Adobe – were praised.

So what, exactly, is natural capital? And why should companies care? Will accounting for natural capital drive meaningful change – or will it merely consume time and energy, occupy panelists at sustainability conferences and generate consulting fees?

Defining natural capital is relatively easy. “It’s the products and services that nature provides to business,” explains Libby Bernick, a senior vice president at Trucost, a consultancy that has popularized the idea. Forests, fisheries, water, soil, clean air, the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb CO2, minerals, biodiversity, pollination, even scenic landscapes upon which tourism may depend: all these are forms of natural capital.

The problem, as some see it, is that businesses and individuals use natural capital without paying for it. As Pavan Sukdev, a former banker who helped spread the idea, likes to say: “We use nature because it’s valuable, but we lose it because it’s free.” It’s a profound statement. Catchy, too.

But putting a price on nature’s products and services and then using those valuations to actually do something useful – well, that’s when things get fuzzy.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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.

Mike Biddle, libertarian environmentalist

biddle-6307Can a libertarian be an environmentalist?

Mike Biddle would say yes. Like many corporate executives, Biddle is politically conservative. He believes in small government, personal freedom and the power of markets to solve problems. “My Bible is Ayn Rand,” he once said.

But Biddle, who is the founder and longtime CEO of a pioneering plastics reprocessing company called MBA Polymers, would like the US government to regulate his industry—plastic waste. He also accepted government grants to finance the basic research that led to the company’s cutting-edge technology.

Does this make him a hypocrite? Not in my view, and here’s why.

MBA Polymers has built three factories to recycle mixed plastics—one in the UK, one in Austria and one in China. It got started with a pilot plant in Richmond, CA, but shut that down because the company could not get access to a steady supply of plastic waste in the US. Yes, that’s right: Americans generate more waste per capita (“We’re No 1!) than other nations, but most of it winds up either in landfills or shipped to poor countries where it is disassembled under unsafe conditions. Biddle’s company, meanwhile, can  turn mixed plastic waste streams, from discarded electronics and junked automobile, into plastic pellets that are as good a new materials extracted from oil.

When Mike and I met last week, he told me that he’d  like the US government to require companies that manufacture electronics to take responsibility for them at the end of their lives. He’d also like the government to regulate exports of waste. Governments in the EU and Japan have done that, and as a result they have created robust systems for collecting and reprocessing waste that save energy, reduce carbon emissions, reduce the demand for oil and help keep plastics out of the oceans. Not incidentally, these laws also protect the health of poor people in Asia and Africa who sort through electronic waste under hazardous conditions.

Mike argues that this kind of government regulation promotes fair competition and a market solution to the plastic-waste problem. Recycling generates positive externalities—that is, it does good even for those who aren’t involved—while trashing valuable plastics harms workers and the environment. To be sure, the government is favoring one industry (recycling) over another (waste dumping, here or abroad). But you also could argue that all it is doing is requiring companies (electronics manufacturers) and consumers to be responsible for properly disposing of the products that they make and we use.

As Mike told me when we talked: “”We need care about how we unmake our stuff as much as we do about it’s made.”

It’s a close call, but it strikes me as a proper role for government.

I wrote about Mike Biddle the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

This month, Mike Biddle, the founder and longtime CEO of a pioneering plastics-recycling company called MBA Polymers, stepped down as an executive at the firm, ending more than two decades of unrelenting effort to reduce plastic waste.

Biddle’s story is one of great success, as well as ongoing frustration. He sat down with me last week at the 2014 GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix to talk about MBA Polymers, the potential of the so-called circular economy, and why, despite all we know, the vast majority of plastics discarded in the US still wind up in incinerators, landfills or, worse, the ocean.

Plastics, he says, remains “the last frontier of recycling.”

Biddle, who is 58 and has a PhD in chemical engineering from Case Western and an MBA from Stanford, left a good job at Dow Chemical in 1992 in the hope of solving the difficult puzzle of plastics recycling. During the next seven years, he attracted about $7m in grants and loans from the state of California, the Environmental Protection Agency and a plastics industry trade group.

You can read the rest here. I should add that Mike’s enviromental cred is solid. He went hiking in Nepal for his honeymoon, spents lots of time outdoors with his kids and is devoting some of his time now to a nonprofit to protect oceans. Mike will also be speaking at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference (which I co-chair) in May.

A modest defense of the hamburger

imgresIf you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a hybrid car like a Prius?

The easiest way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve argued, is to eat less meat. Because the emissions generated by the production of  beef, pork and chicken (in that order) exceeds those of plant-based protein, going meatless for a day or two each week makes a difference.

But curbing meat consumption won’t make nearly as much of a difference as driving a more efficient cars, some experts says–although comparing the climate impacts of Big Mac, a lentil stew, a Ford 150 truck and a Prius  is a devilishly complicated business.

Bob Langert, vice president of corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s, recently pointed me to an interesting new publication that explores this issue, and others. Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (available as a PDF here) report on a series of workshops held last year by the well-respected Institute of  Medicine that brought together environmental scientists, nutrition experts, government officials and business people to look at the effects of diet on the planet and on human health.

One of the experts, Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at   the University of California at Davis, who is chair of an FAO group studying the environmental impact of livestock, offered a defense of beef. He tried to  put in perspective the claims of activists who urge consumers to eat less meat for environmental reasons.

The report says:

In Mitloehner’s opinion, although scientists would agree that food choices are an important environmental emission source, they would also agree that food choices pale in comparison to transportation choices or energy production and use choices.

To illustrate his point, Mitloehner cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 33 percent of all GHG emissions are associated with production and use of energy and 27 percent are associated with use of transportation (EPA, 2013). Compare those figures to GHG emissions in the United States from the entire livestock sector, all species, based on life-cycle assessment9 at 3.4 percent (EPA, 2012). According to Mitloehner’s calculations, of that 3.4 percent, approximately 1.8 percent comes from the beef sector. Thus, GHG emissions from livestock in developed countries are dwarfed by carbon footprint contributions from other, larger sectors (e.g., transportation, energy, industry). The same is true of other developed countries.

Mitloehner questioned the impact of “Meatless Mondays” or “Beefless Mondays.” If 300-plus million people were to go beefless on Mondays, that would cut the 1.4 percent figure by a factor of 7 (number of days in the week), which would amount to a 0.2 percent reduction in the total greenhouse gas footprint. Mitloehner said, “While this is not nothing … it will not even compare to what we see from the transportation sector.”

Mitloehner may be right. He is especially critical of a 2006 FAO report that estimated that livestock contributes 18 percent of all GHG emissions, and those emissions were greater than those from the transportation sector. This number has been quoted widely but, he said, the comparison was inappropriate because livestock emissions were analyzed using a full lifecycle assessment, and then compared to transportation emissions that included only tailpipe emissions.

A very different view was put forth by Emily Cassidy of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, who with colleagues including Jon Foley has worked to quantify the environmental impacts of diet. The report says:

Americans consume a lot of meat, more than 110 kilograms per person per year, even though the nutritionally recommended amount is only about 23 kilograms per person per year (FAO, 2013). If meat consumption were to be reduced by 75 percent, to 30 kilograms per person per year, with the lost weight being compensated by fruits and vegetables, cereals, and other foods, what would happen to the environmental footprint of the U.S. diet?

Cassidy’s calculations suggest that such a reduction would significantlychange the environmental impacts associated with the U.S. food system. Specifically, a 75 percent reduction in meat consumption would result in a 27 percent reduction in land use, a 31 percent reduction in water use, and a 46 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

It’s complicated, no? One problem is that using global or even national averages when talking about the carbon impacts runs roughshod over important differences in farming and ranching practices, the electricity mix, shipping and a gazillion other variations. Did the corn that was grown and fed to the cow that was turned into a Big Mac require irrigation? Was the electricity fed to the Prius generated by a coal-fired power plant or by hydropower? Which has a greater carbon impact, salmon from Alaska or chicken from the Delaware shore? Climate change is a global problem, but all emissions are local, as Ory Zik has noted in developing his startup company Energy Points, which uses Big Data to analyze environmental tradeoffs.

So…if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, should you eat less beef or buy a the Prius? The answer is, it depends. It sure looks as if switching to a Prius will have a bigger impact, but of course it’s easier to skip a few meals with meat than to buy a new car. What’s more, the health and environmental impacts of meat production in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) go well beyond climate, including the need to dispose of animal waste, potential water pollution, pesticide and fertilizer overuse to produce feed, antibiotic use and resistance, air quality and animal welfare issues.

Happily, it’s not an either or. You can cut meat consumption and drive a more efficient car.

Meantime, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and Cargill are working together to limit the environmental impact of beef production through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is all to the good.

That said, it would be so much simpler and more sensible to put a tax on carbon emissions and use price signals to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy. Pricing carbon emissions into the costs of goods and services–electricity, gasoline, food and everything else–would unleash the power of markets and drive producers and consumers to smarter and greener choices.