Old clothes

045be76d-5287-489c-ac5f-0b33a13e6fe4-620x372Last month was one of the busiest I’ve had in a long while, with trips to Boston, Singapore, New York and Berlin over a four-week span. All for the good, but I’ve fallen behind on this blog, so I’m looking back today at a story that I wrote and posted last month on Guardian Sustainable Business.

As regular readers know, I’ve been paying attention to the circular economy, a term that describes an economy where nothing goes to waste, everything is made into something else at the end of its life, and the whole shebang is powered by clean, renewable energy. We’re a long way from there, obviously, but I see bits of the circular economy arriving in unexpected places.

One  is the textile industry, which even as it has become dominated by cheap, throwaway “fast fashion” is  simultaneously embracing recycling. That has created some unexpected tensions between old-fashioned charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, and newer, for-profit companies that see a business opportunity in collecting, reusing and recyling textiles.

Thus, the”clothing bin wars,” as I explained in this story in the Guardian:

Welcome to the clothing bin wars, a battle that comes complete with lawsuits alleging dirty dealing, lobbying of local and state politicians, rogue operators who put bins on other people’s property and even bizarre allegations that some big players in the clothing recycling industry are front groups for a mysterious Danish cult.

Who knew that recycling T-shirts and towels could get so complex?

This is basically a good-news story: Lots of people want your old clothes, sheets and towels because they have value. What you do with them is up to you–there is no perfect solution. (As a commenter in the story pointed out, even charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army face questions about their conduct.) There are bins everywhere (but read the fine print before you dump your clothes in one) and, as I’ve written before, retailers including H&M take back clothes in their stores. You can even mail them at no cost to a company called Community Recycling that I wrote about in the story. So there’s no excuse for dumping textiles in a landfill.

One more thing struck me when reporting the story: People seem to want something in return when they giveaway their old clothes–a tax deduction from a charity,  a discount on future purchases (which H&M offers), the feeling that they are doing the right thing. Even though we no longer want them, giving away clothes is an emotional decision in a way that recycling plastic bottles or newspapers is not.

Game changer: Walmart’s focus on food and ag

28e0e549-367c-467e-9f67-41c34a470b91-620x372Lately, I’ve come to believe that the food industry is moving to become more sustainable with a seriousness that few other industries, particularly energy, can match.

Since Labor Day, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to top execs from Cargill (Greg Page), DuPont (Ellen Kullman), Monsanto (Hugh Grant and Robb Fraley) and Walmart (Doug McMillon) talk about a variety of initiatives to increase crop yields, better manage nitrogen pollution, reduce food waste, improve living standards for small farmers in emerging markets and confront the obesity crisis. These are real, and they are aimed at producing more affordable, nutritious food, without destroying the planet in the process. All these companies could be moving faster and doing more–in particularly, I’d like to see them become more active in the climate-policy arena–but there’s no doubt in my mind that they recognize that climate change is a growing threat to their businesses, and they want to do what they can to respond.

On Monday, Walmart held one of its quarterly sustainability milestone meetings, this one focused on food and ag. I wrote about it in a story that was posted this morning at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Nearly a decade after setting a series of bold sustainability goals, Walmart has struggled to curb its climate pollution and buy more renewable energy. But the company has already changed the way food is grown around the world – curbing agricultural pollution, pushing healthier choices, supporting local growers and promoting transparency. And the world’s largest retailer (fiscal year 2014 revenues: $473bn) is just getting started.

This week, Walmart showcased food and agriculture during its latest sustainability summit, while saying little about energy and emissions. It’s easy to see why. The company remains a long way from being powered by 100% renewable energy, one of its aspirational goals.

Currently, it gets about 24% of its electricity from clean energy, and its fleet mostly runs on fossil fuels. That’s because wind, solar power and alternative fuels generally cost more than coal, oil and natural gas, and Walmart is all about delivering low prices to customers.

Nor has Walmart been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. While the company has become more efficient, its absolute emissions are rising as Walmart grows its market share to satisfy Wall Street. This year, Walmart plans to open about 115 super centers (surrounded by vast parking lots, in most cases) along with 270 to 300 smaller stores. Tensions between its business model – which depends on selling more stuff to more people everywhere – and its environmental aspirations remain unresolved.

But when it comes to food and agriculture, Walmart has found a sweet spot, a place where its low-cost mantra is nicely aligned with the social and environmental need to deliver safe and affordable food to the world, using less land, less water and fewer chemical inputs to do it.

The story goes on to quote Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s senior vp of sustainability, as saying: “We have very bold aspirations for systemic change. We’re not playing small here. This is a whole company, a whole industry, a whole system effort.” I don’t doubt it.

I met Kathleen last month during Climate Week in New York, and she’s impressive. A former McKinsey consultant, she uprooted her husband and kids from Toronto, where they had lived, to move to Bentonville, Arkansas, mostly because she wants her work to make a difference. She oversees the Walmart Foundation, as well as sustainability programming, so she’s in position to make sure they are supporting one another.

Walmart is in a perfect position to drive change. It has influence over big food brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, MillerCoors and many more–and, as Doug McMillon noted the other day, they are all ready to act. Environmental Defense Fund, with its Bentonville staffers led by Michelle Harvey, is bringing its scientists and activists to the task, particularly around the important (but not very sexy) issue of nitrogen pollution. Other NGOs are stepping up, too.

What’s more, as I wrote, new farming technologies will help drive efficiency efforts, so the timing is good:

There was talk at the sustainability summit about AdaptN, a web-based tool to manage fertilizer in the corn industry, and Harvest Mark, which traces food from farm to fork. Monsanto, a key partner, last year acquired The Climate Corp, which uses big data to help farmers increase crop yields, manage chemical inputs and increase crop yields.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Was Climate Week a good week?

climate_summit_2014A reporter’s job is sometimes fun and glamorous, often not. My trip to New York for “Climate Week” was not. It was, in fact, a bit of a fiasco. I had hoped to cover a Climate Group event on Monday but was told that I had to be there by 10 a.m., without luggage, for security reasons. This was all but impossible since I was coming up from DC that morning. So I watched a live stream of the event, which froze and skipped during an interview with Apple CEO Time Cook.

Meanwhile, I twice tried to pick up my UN credentials and both times found lines winding up 45th Street, with estimated wait times of about two hours. Crazy, no? The UN knows how many credentials, roughly, it will have to give out because they all required advance approval, and still it can’t staff its desks properly. These are the people want to oversee a global regulatory scheme to manage greenhouse gas emissions. Good luck with that.

I say this not to complain–I have a great job, mostly–but to explain that my less-than-sunny mood during the week might have affected my coverage. (I hope not but we’re all human.) I wrote two stories for Guardian Sustainable Business, one pegged to Tim Cook’s interview, which eventually found its way online, and another looking at the yawning gap between the rhetoric at Climate Week events and the reality that the world is losing the battle, such as it is, to curb climate change.

Needless to say, I don’t think it’s time to give up. I’d like to do some more reporting before coming to any conclusions but it seems increasingly possible that the US and China can lead the way to global GHG reductions, outside of the UN process, with support from the EU and Japan. Getting a dozen so-called major emitters to work on the problem might prove more fruitful hat another confab of 190 countries at COP-20-something-but-who’s-counting.

Later, I was heartened to read about an agreement announced this week called the New York declaration on forests under which governments and global companies agreed to bring a halt to deforestation by 2030. Again, I need to do some more reporting on this. but the commitments from such big firms as Cargill and Asia Pulp and Paper are signs that we may actually be winning the battle to slow or stop deforestation. A big deal, if true.

In any event, here’s how my story on Tim Cook and the Climate Group event begins:

Tim Cook is the CEO of Apple, possibly the world’s most innovative company and inarguably its most valuable – just ahead of fossil-fuel giant ExxonMobil. So his appearance at the opening of Climate Week 2014 on Monday lent a little celebrity buzz to a day which otherwise had a been-there-done-that feeling about it.

The climate change issue, Cook told a gathering of business and political leaders in New York, resonates with Apple’s workers and with its customers, which is why the company has moved from environmental laggard to green leader in recent years, winning plaudits even from Greenpeace.

“The long-term consequences of not addressing climate are huge,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can overstate that.”

You can read the rest here.

My broader look at Climate Week begins this way, and later references a new study on how the world is building coal plants faster than it is dismantling them:

Covering UN meetings is not a job for the faint of heart, and this week’s climate summit in New York has been no exception. Two-hour waits for credentials are common. Staffers are plentiful, polite and ineffectual. Barricades, private security forces and squadrons of New York’s finest protect the UN compound on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from unwanted incursions from the world beyond.

The summit itself consists of a series of carefully-scripted speeches from business and political leaders. They mix dire warnings with calls to action. Invariably, we are told, no country, company or NGO can solve the problem on its own; we must all work together. Partnerships are key. Climate is the defining issue of our time. The problem is urgent. The time to act is now. The future depends on us.

It is all depressingly familiar to anyone who has been to Durban, Cancun or Copenhagen for summits past.

“You can make history or be vilified by it,” says the newly appointed UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, as the official proceedings began on Tuesday. Why, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio of Titanic fame, who knows a disaster in the making when he sees one.

You can read the rest here.

Patagonia’s CEO, marching for climate action

6a00d8341d07fd53ef01b7c6e24a7d970b-500wiRecently, I had lunch with Mary Wenzel, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo who directs the bank’s environmental projects. The bank’s efforts are laudable–it intends to provide $30 billion of financing by 2020 to business opportunities that protect the environment, it’s making its offices more efficient, it’s a big-time supporter of a nonprofit called Grid Alternatives that delivers solar power to low-income people, etc. But when I asked Mary whether Wells Fargo has declared itself to be in favor of  a carbon tax or a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, she told me that, no, that’s a step the bank has not yet been willing to take.

In that regard, Wells Fargo is typical of most big companies in the US. None of the big Wall Street banks–Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase or Citi–has taken a strong political position on the climate issue, as best as I can tell. And although a dozen or so big companies, including an oil company (Shell), utilities (NRG Energy, Duke Energy) and GE joined together back in 2008 to form the U.S. Climate Action Partnership to call for regulation of greenhouse gases, their efforts are now dormant.

With the exception of the work being done by the BICEP group around its Climate Declaration (weakly-worded as it is), America’s corporate leaders have largely been missing in action when it comes to the climate issue.

I thought about all that when I heard today that Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, is closing its New York stores this Sunday until 3 p.m. so that its employees can join the People’s Climate March. Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s CEO, will join the march. Patagonia has also taken out a full-page ad in today’s New York Times about the march.

In a blog post, Marcario writes about her great-grandfather, an immigrant laborer who with others worked to build on the city’s streets because “they wanted to create a better future for their children and grandchildren.” That’s what this march is about, she writes:

It is the work of this generation to make clear we reject the status quo—a race toward the destruction of our planet and the wild places we play in and love. We cannot sit idly by while large special interests destroy the planet for profit without regard for our children and grandchildren.

We have to keep the pressure on. That means being loud and visible in the streets, in town halls and our capitals, and most important, in our elections—voting for candidates who understand we are facing a climate crisis.

Meantime, Patagonia has launched a crowd-sourced art campaign called Vote the Environment that is designed to inspire voters – especially young people – to support candidates who will act on behalf of the future and the climate in the upcoming midterm election.

Now–I understand that Patagonia is a private company, and a relatively small one, that markets itself to consumers who love the outdoors. It’s a low-risk proposition for Patagonia and Marcario to join a climate march. Cynics will suspect that Patagonia is inviting marchers to gather in its Central Park West store for coffee and bagels on Sunday morning in the hope that they will come back later to buy its pricey gear.

But, even acknowledging that Patagonia is sui generis, I’m struck by the fact that the distance between Patagonia (and a handful of other forward-thinking companies) and mainstream corporate America is so vast. Imagine the CEOs of the big banks or GE or Walmart marching for climate action. It’s inconceivable.

What is conceivable — and what’s fair — is to ask those CEOs to follow the lead of Rose Marcario and a handful of other business leaders (like the Risky Business trio of Hank Paulsen, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer)  by engaging, in a serious way, in the climate debate. That means putting climate regulation at the top of their companies’ Washington agendas, and refusing to support political candidates who don’t have a plan to deal with the climate crisis. If not now, when?

Should bike sharing be subsidized? Or privatized?

Capital_Bikeshare_station_outside_Eastern_Market_MetroI’m a fan of bike sharing, as regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), and a satisfied, albeit irregular, customer of Capital Bikeshare, the convenient and well-managed public bike-sharing system in Washington, D.C., which now extends into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.

There’s a potential cloud over bike sharing, though, and it is this: So far, at least, no big-city bike sharing system of which I am aware is financially self-supporting.

This doesn’t trouble me. Bike sharing is form of mass transit. If you believe, as I do, that subways and buses deserve taxpayer support, bike sharing does, too. It creates a slew of positive externalities, including reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, reduced traffic congestion, a healthier populace and the mobility that city dwellers without cars need to get to work or school. (You may be wondering, are cars subsidized, too? Perhaps, but not by as much as you would think, some say. But it’s complicated. A few years back in Slate, Dan Gross argued just the opposite, that governments provide massive subsidies to private car owners.)

In any event, we’ve learning from the bike sharing boom that bike sharing is very popular, but that at the current pricing levels — $75 for an annual membership, $15 for a three-day membership in Washington — it can’t pay for itself. New York’s Citibike was touted as a bike sharing system that would pay for itself with user fees and Citi’s marketing dollars, but it is millions of dollars in the red. Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog wrote a good analysis of the economics of the two systems.

A startup bike-sharing company called Zagster offers an alternative: private bike sharing. It provides bike sharing systems to companies, universities (including Yale and Duke), apartment buildings and hotels for their employees, students and guests. Lately, it’s been making headway in Detroit.

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

Of all the big cities in America, Detroit is among the least hospitable to bike sharing. The city is bankrupt. Its residents are poor. And it sprawls over 142 sq miles (367.8 sq km), nearly enough area to fit San Francisco, Boston and New York within its borders. Winters can be harsh, public transit is dismal and it is, after all, the Motor City.

But a nimble little bike-sharing startup called Zagster is making inroads in Motown. Last year, Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans who has invested more than $1.3bn in Detroit, turned to Zagster to start a private bike-sharing network for his employees. The local utility company DTE Energy, as well as the United Way of Southern Michigan and several small companies, followed. This week, General Motors announced that Zagster will make its bikes available to 19,000 employees at the 330-acre GM Tech Center in Warren.

What’s more, Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co, has invested in Zagster through Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in “next-generation mobility”.

Tim Ericson, the 28-year-old co-founder and CEO of Zagster, told me: “We’re creating what is almost becoming a citywide bike sharing program, with no public funds and no use of public space.”

As you might imagine, I have some reservations about Zagster’s model. The more we privatize goods and services — private schools, private parks in the form of country clubs, Google’s private bus from SF to its campus, and the like — the less political support there will be for public schools, parks and transport.

Then again, I can’t envision bike sharing come to Detroit in any other way.

You can read the rest of my story here.

PR firm Edelman has more than a PR problem

640px-Edelman_Logo_ColorI’m an admirer of Edelman, one of the world’s biggest and most respected PR firms, and I’m friendly with a number of people who work there. The firm has been ahead of the curve on corporate-responsibility issues, managing effective campaigns for the likes of GE and Walmart. Richard Edelman, who runs the place,  approached me about coming to work for Edelman after I was laid off from Fortune at the end of 2008 and, while I had some great conversations with their senior execs in New York, I ultimately decided to stick with journalism.  (Disclosure: I did a very limited amount of consulting work with Edelman in 2009. It didn’t suit me well.)

Part of the problem with big PR firms — the same goes for big law firms and accounting firms — is that, for the most part, they need to take whatever work comes in the door if they want to keep their door open and keep their people employed. (Edelman, which is privately held, has more than 5,000 employees in 65 offices around the world. This need to grow is even more intense at the publicly-owned PR shops.) Some of the work that comes in will be unseemly. Lately, this has become a problem for Edelman, and for its reputation–as I wrote today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

A 1930s union song, popularized by the late great Pete Seeger, asks pointedly: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

On the issue of climate change, that question now confronts Edelman, one of the world’s largest and most admired public relations companies.

In the wake of a survey of the top 25 global PR firms by the Guardian and the Climate Investigations Center, released 4 August, [Edelman said:]

Edelman fully recognizes the reality of, and science behind, climate change, and believes it represents one of the most important global challenges facing society, business and government today. To be clear, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.

Beyond that, for nearly a decade, Edelman has built a reputation as the go-to PR firm for corporate sustainability by managing campaigns for the likes of GE (“Ecomagination”), Walmart and Unilever. Richard Edelman, the firm’s high-profile president and CEO, blogs about having dinner at the home of Jeffrey Sachs, his Harvard classmate and a noted climate hawk, and quotes Sachs as saying that “the world is on a very dangerous path.”

And yet.

The Edelman firm works for the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based trade association for the oil and gas industry, which opposed the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate change bill favored by some energy companies and utilities, supports the Keystone XL pipeline and exploration of the Canadian tar sands and says, in limp language on its website, that burning fossil fuels “may be helping to warm our planet.”

Until recently, Edelman worked for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a coalition of coal, mining and railroad interests that promotes coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that are strongly opposed by environmental groups. Another Edelman client is said to be ALEC, a conservative lobbying group that opposes regulations on carbon pollution. GE, Walmart and Unilever are among about 70 companies that have reportedly cut their ties with ALEC, although not over the climate issue.

So … which side are you on, boys?

Elsewhere in the press, including in The Times the other day, this has been covered as a PR “faux pas” for the big PR firm. That’s accurate: Edelman bungled its initial reply to the Guardian survey, after which Richard Edelman made matters worse by calling a reporter and saying that a senior exec at the company had been fired as a result. Embarrassing? Sure, but we all make mistakes.

The harder and more important challenge for Edelman and others will be to navigate the climate controversy going forward. The firm cannot be seen as a “thought leader” (ugh, hate that phrase) on corporate sustainability and work on behalf of coal exports or the American Petroleum Institute, which has opposed regulation of greenhouse gases.

Will Edelman have to give up its fossil fuel clients, in a Bill McKibben-style divestment? I think not. Just about all of us depend on fossil fuels to get us around and heat our homes, so we’re not about to give up fossil fuels. But I do think that Edelman (and others) may  have to make distinctions between those fossil-fuel companies that are willing to be part of a constructive solution to the climate crisis–Shell, say, or BP in its better days–and those companies or trade associations that want only to obstruct. That’s not an easy distinction to make, but so it goes.

I had a couple of interesting reactions today to my Guardian story, both on background. This came in via email from a former Edelman employee:

I’ve personally struggled with this a lot….I worked really hard on sustainability for Walmart, GE and others while at Edelman and truly believed in our work. At the time the support was top-down from people like Richard Edelman and Leslie Dach, but once Leslie left, the DC office took on API and dove into the “energy” space. I’ve been very uncomfortable with the DC office’s transformation and am personally glad to see their hypocrisy being exposed. You can’t work both sides of the issue.

Actually, many PR firms, law firms and accountants do work both sides of the issue, on the grounds that everyone is entitled to a flack/lawyer/accountant. The trouble with that is their companies then don’t stand for anything beyond providing service to whoever pays the bills.

I asked an Edelman friend/colleague for a reaction, and got this reply:

 I am glad to work at one of a very few large PR companies who have exclusions that include climate change denial in addition to the “usual” easy targets of tobacco and guns. But the tough part comes in when it deals with how we implement that exclusion. And that is the positive from all of this – we are now having a really robust and tough internal discussion on this.

 I actually do think that Edelman is one of the few large agencies or service companies where we can develop a true leadership position on this. It is very much a values driven company and if we can’t get it right here then I don’t have much hope for public companies.

What an interesting test of a company’s values.

The end of garbage

p12608In nature, nothing goes to waste. The excrement of one species (forgive me if you are reading over breakfast) becomes food for another.

Why can’t we design the industrial economy to be like nature?

This isn’t a new idea. During the American Revolution, iron pots were melted down to make armaments. I take notes with a pen made out of recycled bottles. The gospel of “natural capitalism” or “cradle to cradle” has been spread by  such pioneering environmental thinkers as Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough.

Lately, though, I’m pleased to report, the idea of eliminating waste is gaining traction among big global companies, which increasingly are talking about — and acting to bring about — what is called the circular economy.

As regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), I’ve long been excited by the idea of a zero-waste world. I wrote a story for FORTUNE called The End of Garbage in 2007. Recently, I revisited the topic for Ensia, a magazine and website about environmental solutions.

Here’s how my story begins:

Don’t let fashion go to waste,” says H&M, the global clothing retailer that booked $20 billion in revenues last year. So I brought a bag of old T-shirts, sweaters and khaki pants to an H&M store in Washington, D.C., where it took them, no questions asked, and gave me a coupon for 15 percent off my next purchase. H&M takes back clothes in all of its 3,100 stores in 53 countries.

Next, I pulled an ancient iPod and an iPhone 4S with a cracked screen from a desk drawer. On the website of a company called Gazelle, I answered a few questions and learned that the company would pay me $37 for the pair. (Without the cracked screen, the iPhone would have been valued at $135.) I printed out a free shipping label, and they were on their way. Not to landfills, but to a new life.

Meanwhile, not far from my home, a garage owned by the Washington Metrorail system is about to undergo a makeover. Existing lighting fixtures will be replaced by LEDs that are expected to reduce energy usage by 68 percent. The LEDs will be manufactured, owned and monitored by Philips, which will take them back when they need to be repaired or replaced.

Welcome to the emerging world of the circular economy.

I go on to write about McKinsey & Co., Philips, Sprint, Best Buy, all of whom are getting serious about circular business models. This is getting real, folks. You can read the rest here.

A smarter approach to biofuels

A field of sorghum–it grows tall and fast!

The US biofuels industry has not covered itself in glory. It has consumed billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars, as much if not more from investors and in return delivered economic and environmental benefits that are murky at best, at least according to its critics.

You’ll hear a different story from the industry, which is desperately trying to retain its support in Congress and the White House. The  importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses virtually assure that no candidate for president can oppose support for corn ethanol, the dominant US biofuel. It was the Bush administration, you may recall, that launched the current push into biofuels, with the enthusiastic support of a corn state US Senator Barack Obama.

The thing is, biofuels need to be part of a low-carbon US economy. About 40 percent of emissions come from transportation–cars, trucks, trains, planes, buses, farm and construction equipment, etc.  These existing fleetss can’t be electrified en masse, anytime soon, if ever. So for decades ahead it’s fossil fuels or biofuels–an easy choice.

That said, it has become increasingly clear that corn ethanol “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today,” according to this excellent analysis from Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

In their 2013 investigation, they write:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies..

And as for the climate benefits of corn ethanol, the AP reporters say:

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. 

Great.

The trouble is that corn needs fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), requires irrigation (at least in some parts of the country) and, in an ideal world, would be used to feed people (or animals, if you insist), but not cars and trucks.

About the best thing you can say about corn ethanol is that it will pave the way (oops, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) for advanced biofuels that are cleaner and greener. Some of these are on the way–a bunch of cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to begin commercial operations this year, including the Project Liberty plant from Poet and DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a DuPont facility in Nevada, Iowa. Both will use corn waste.

Why, though, can’t we make biofuels from crops that are designed and bred for energy? That’s the question that led a young entrepreneur named Anna Rath to start a company called NexSteppe, whose current focus is sorghum. I invited Anna to Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, where she won the “Great Green Ideas” competition, and wrote about NexSteppe the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

As scientists around the world research biomass feedstocks — trees, shrubs and grasses that are designed to produce energy — a California startup called NexSteppe is betting that fast-growing, drought-resistant sorghum will emerge as a crop to sustainably fuel cars, trucks and power plants.

Sorghum, a millenia-old cereal grain, today feeds animals and people. It is turned into flour, syrups and beer, and used in gluten-free products. In Asia, sorghum is made into couscous, and across Africa, it’s consumed as a porridge.

Last year, though, NexSteppe introduced two new brands of sorghum seeds, dubbed Palo Alto and Malibu, that were bred expressly to be energy crops. They grow on marginal land and in a variety of climates, and they climb to a height of 20 feet after only four months of growth.

“Sorghum is naturally very heat and drought tolerant,” says Anna Rath, NexSteppe’s founder, president and CEO. “It originated in Africa. It’s a camel of a crop, if you will.”

Although NexSteppe has done almost no marketing outside of Brazil, its biggest market, the company’s sorghum is now being grown by farmers in 15 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the US.

Sorghum may not be the ideal feedstock for biofuels. It’s used for food, after all. But it appears to offer major advantages over corn.

More important is the idea behind NexSteppe–that we should breed crops for energy, just as we have very successfully bred crops for food since the invention of agriculture. Government and university scientists are trying to do just that, as the story goes on to say. You can read the rest here.

Is the sharing economy really green?

sharing1So many assumptions underly conventional wisdom about all things green. That biofuels are better for the planet than burning fossil fuels. That bans on plastic bags help the environment. That electric cars reduce CO2 emissions. That eating meat is bad for the climate.

All these things are true, I believe. But what I believe doesn’t matter. The question is, where’s the evidence? On biofuels, plastic bags and electric cars, the environmental impacts depend on where the crops to make biofuels are grown, what replaces plastic bags, the electricity mix that powers the electric car and how the cows that went into your burger were raised.

The point is, the “environment” is an extraordinarily complex system, as is the economy. That’s the underlying message of a story that I wrote last week for the environmental website Ensia headlined Is Sharing Really Green?

Here’s how it begins:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed in a house I found onAirbnb and made my way around the city using uberX. I’ve written favorably about house sharingcar sharingbike sharingand getting rid of stuff you no longer want via yerdle. At environmental conferences, I’ve listened to evangelists for the sharing economy such as Lisa GanskyRobin Chase and Andy Ruben. Participating in the sharing economy can save money, open people up to new experiences and build a sense of community among strangers.

But I’m not convinced the sharing economy delivers the environmental benefits its proponents claim.

Because the sharing economy enables more efficient use of underutilized assets — a car that might otherwise sit in a driveway, an extra room in a home, an electric drill or even a wedding dress — conventional wisdom holds that the sharing economy is “green.” With a little help from Google, it’s easy to find headlines like “How Web Sharing Sites Can Save the Planet” and “The Sharing Economy for a Sustainable Future.” Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger and LifeEdited, has said the sharing economy “makes a lot of sense financially and environmentally as well.” In her book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, entrepreneur and investor Lisa Gansky writes: “Using sophisticated information systems, the Mesh [her term for the sharing economy] also deploys physical assets more efficiently. That boosts the bottom line, with the added advantage of lowering pressure on natural resources.” In an interview with Treehugger, Roo Rogers, co-author with Rachel Botsman of a book called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, declared: “In my opinion — having been an environmentalist all my life — collaborative consumption has the potential to have the biggest environmental impact that we could ever have hoped for.”

But where’s the evidence? It’s hard to find.

I probably could have written that the evidence is non-existent, but the sharing economy is so new and so hard to measure that it’s no surprise that the case for its “green” benefits remains unproven.

I hasten to add that there are still good reasons to patronize Airbnb or Zipcar or Rent the Runway or the many other sharing sites that seem to be proliferating. There’s little harm done when we make personal choices based on our assumptions about what’s good for the planet.

But when big companies or, worse, governments set policy without questioning their assumptions, the consequences can be negative on a much broader scale. I’m afraid that happens a lot more often than it should.

You can read the rest of my story here.

General Mills, Walmart, Target and compassion

compassion-wordThe other day, I went to a daylong meditation retreat about lovingkindness. One of the themes: how to find ways to bring an attitude of loving kindness not just to friends, but to strangers and even to the most difficult people in our lives. My rabbi, Fred Dobb, with whom I ordinarily spend my Saturdays, touches on a similar theme when he talks about widening our circles of compassion, to go beyond family and friends; the edict to  love thy neighbor extends not just to the folks next door but to the needy around the world. I don’t mean to go all Biblical on you here but it is written in Exodus 23:9: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What does this have to do with corporate responsibility, and sustainability, the topics of this blog? A lot, actually, as I realized when a pair of stories that I wrote for Guardian Sustainable Business were published in quick succession this week. Both stories are about big, publicly-traded companies that seek to enhance shareholder value with considerable vigor. But both, at heart, are also about the idea that good companies increasingly take an expansive, as opposed to a constricted view, of their place in the world, and their obligations to the world.

Yesterday, I wrote a story about General Mills’ new climate policy. Here’s how it begins:

Two months after Oxfam launched a campaign urging food and beverage companies to take stronger action to curb climate change, General Mills has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its agricultural supply chain and to advocate for government climate policy.

General Mills on Monday detailed its new policy on its website, saying: “The imperative is clear: Business, together with governments, NGOs and individuals, needs to act to reduce the human impact on climate change.”

In a news release, Oxfam praised General Mills as “the first major food and beverage company to promise to implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions from across all of its operations and supply chains that are responsive to the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2C.

“It’s a major leap,” said Heather Coleman, climate change manager for Oxfam America.

What’s noteworthy about the General Mills’ policy is that it dig deep into the company’s agriculture supply chain, where its environmental impact is greatest, and that it commits the company to be more politically active on climate issues. Put another way, this big food company is taking responsibility for trying to reduce the environmental impact of oats that go into Cheerios. You can read more here.

Today, the Guardian published my story about an unusual collaboration between Walmart and Target that aims to insure that beauty and personal care products are produced more sustainably. Here’s how that story begins:

In an unlikely partnership, rivals Walmart and Target have joined together, working with suppliers “to improve sustainability performance in the personal care and beauty industry”.

Their first event, the day-long Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, will be held on 4 September in Chicago. It’s being organized by Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO with an outpost in New York.

Up until now, Walmart, the largest US retailer, and Target, the fourth-ranked retailer (according to the National Retail Federation), have taken divergent paths on sustainability. Why are the two companies now joining forces around the sustainability of soap, toothpaste, hair care products, shaving cream and cosmetics?

The story goes on to say:

It may be – and this definitely falls in the category of informed speculation – that Walmart and Target have come to realize that they are not as powerful as they want to be when dealing with big consumer brands and their suppliers in the chemical and fragrance industries.

The secrecy around ingredients in beauty and personal care products, along with the complexity of chemical formulations, creates information asymmetries. The brands and their suppliers know a lot more about product formulations than the buyers at Walmart and Target. They often tell critics that there’s no readily available substitute for a “chemical of concern.” And they are unwilling to share information about whether they are researching or developing safer chemicals.

An industry insider told me: “There’s so much that’s hidden in these supply chains that even Target and Walmart don’t know what goes into everything on their shelves.”

The point is, Walmart and Target are digging deeper than ever before into their supply chains, seeking to understand the chemicals that go into cosmetics or hair care products, or the impact of packaging.

You can see these shifts across the field of corporate responsibility. Look at the apparel and electronics industries which, over time, have agreed, at least in theory,accept responsibility for the working conditions and environmental practices deep in their supply chains, in places like China and Bangladesh.

Are companies becoming more compassionate? I don’t think so, at least not in the since that people can seek to become more caring. But are they recognizing that the long-term health of their business depends upon their reputations as corporate citizens, not to mention the health of the planet or the safety of the products they sell? Yes, they are. It’s a very slow and imperfect process, but it’s real.