The other day, Guardian Sustainable Business published my story about SolarCity, a remarkable success story in the world of sustainable business. Solar City, which provides rooftop solar power systems to homes and business, is growing fast, and its stock is on a tear. The company says it will deliver solar energy to 1 million homes by 2018, and last month it started its own foundation to deliver solar to schools in the poorest parts of the world.
Here’s how my story begins:
For US rooftop solar company SolarCity, rapid growth is bringing new opportunities – as well as a backlash.
The San Mateo, California-based firm has installed rooftop solar systems on more than 100,000 homes (by my estimate), and signs up a new customer every five minutes. It employs more than 4,200 people, and hires 15 more workers each day. Shares of the company, which sold for $8 at its initial public offering a little more than a year ago, now trade for $59, as of Friday.
And, in a sign of its maturity, SolarCity has just launched the Give Power Foundation, a non-profit that will donate solar power systems to schools in poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
It’s unusual for a young company that isn’t yet making profits to start a foundation, but Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s founder and CEO, told me by phone: “We’re now at a scale that it’s something that we really want to do, and we’re just going to bear the costs.”
You can read the rest here. And, of course, SolarCity isn’t the only fast-growing solar firm. Sungevity, SunRun, Sun Edison and others are all growing, too, although all are depending on government subsidies, at least for now. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about where the solar industry is going.
Now I’m in Las Vegas, a city built on hopes and dreams (“C’mon, baby, just one more spin of the roulette wheel…”) and I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about the future. To be sure, the city’s big hotel and casino operators — MGM Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Caesar’s and others — are investing many millions of dollars to save energy and water, and reduce their carbon emissions and waste. But the Strip is awash in neon every night, the slot machines blare sound and music 24-7, the traffic is horrible (yes, it’s the week of the city’s biggest event, the International Consumer Electronics Show) and the feel of the place is either tacky/ugly/excessive (the $24.99 two-pound hamburger sold in the restaurant in my hotel) or or over-the-top luxurious/excessive. To the right is a banner for a combination strip club and shooting range, enabling patrons to celebrate sexism and violence, under one roof.
I’m guessing my mood to change again in a few hours. I’m going to moderate a panel with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Sasha Lezhnev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.In a keynote speech at CES on Monday evening, Krzanich announced that all of Intel’s microprocessors are now validated as conflict-free for gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. The company has led the electronics industry’s efforts to cut off the lucrative trade in minerals that supported armed groups in the eastern Congo and its neighbors.
The result? As Krzanich and John Prendergast of the Enough Project wrote in a USA Today op-ed:
Rebel groups now generate an estimated 55 to 75% less funding from three of the four conflict minerals, according to Enough Project field research, because it is much more difficult to sell untraceable minerals on the global marketplace.
This is an important story about an industry trying to do the right thing. More to come…
[Disclosure: Intel is paying me to moderate the discussion on conflict minerals at CES.]
Hungry? Does this photo make you eager for dinner? Not me. I almost never cook red meat at home anymore, and I don’t miss it. I feel mildly unAmerican, having given up red meat and the NFL, but so it goes.
Turns out I’m not alone. Al Gore has gone further–he’s now a vegan. The evangelical pastor Rick Warren (who I profiled in Fortune in 2005) is advising his flock to eat less meat in a new faith-based diet book called The Daniel Plan. Jay Z and Beyonce have sworn off all animal products for three weeks.
The decline of meat is the topic of my column this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:
What will be hot on restaurant menus in 2014? The National Restaurant Association, which surveyed more than 1,400 chefs, says the top three trends for next year will be locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce and environmental sustainability. That’s welcome news for people who care about the health of the planet, but the chefs may have missed an even bigger change coming to the US diet – the decline of meat.
Today, Americans consume more meat – approximately 270lbs per capita – than carnivores elsewhere (except Luxembourg). But meat consumption in the US has been declining for nearly a decade, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. About 12% of US adults strongly agree and 19% somewhat agree that “they are eating many meatless/vegetarian meals,” says David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts. Beyond the data, there are signs all around us that meat is falling out of favor, for health, environmental, ethical and economic reasons.
The decline of meat creates opportunities for an array of competitors in the protein business. They include the developers of sustainable aquaculture, producers of vegetarian analogs like Beyond Meat andBeyond Eggs, and consumer products firms whose vegetarian products like Boca and Gardein have moved from natural foods channels to mainstream retailers like Target, Safeway and Kroger. Fast-casual chain Chipotle recently launched Sofritas, a tofu sandwich, under the headline,Vegans and Carnivores Unite, while Subway is rolling out a vegetarian falafel sandwich. On its website, Starbucks says: “If you’ve ever heard someone dismiss vegetables as “rabbit food,” you should introduce them to our Hearty Veggie & Brown Rice Salad Bowl.”
The decline of meat is welcome news. Industrially-produced meat is bad for the environment. Eating too much red meat is bad for your heart. I’m personally troubled by the way chickens, pigs and cows are treated on factory farms. Of course, it is theoretically possible to raise and slaughter animals in ways that are good for the planet and your health, as I’ve written before. I’m not a vegetarian (yet) and I can’t imagine becoming a vegan because I’m fond of cheese, butter and eggs. But I’m thinking more and more about what to cook and eat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals: “One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates.”
Hat tip to Josh Balk of the Humane Society of America, who gave me the idea for my story.
Ah yes, ’tis the happiest time of year, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas when people buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to create impressions that won’t last, on people they don’t care about. So said Clive Hamilton, the Australian environmentalist and writer. Or Tim Jackson, a British ecological economist. Or personal finance guru Dave Ramsey. Or Will Smith.
And yet: people will mob Walmart and Best Buy and Kmart and Toys ‘R Us and Target and the malls this week — the Kmart sale starts at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day — and spend somewhere around $600 billion on holiday shopping by the end of the year. As I write this on Tuesday at midday, some shoppers are camping in the snow to be first in line when a Best Buy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
As an antidote to the holiday-shopping madness, I devoted this week’s column in the Guardian Sustainable Business to things that last. I was inspired by a lovely essay by environmentalist Bob Massie that I saw in the Patagonia holiday catalog, and decided to ask a group of people who are committed to the idea of sustainability to tell me about one of their long-lasting possessions. I heard back from Paul Hawken, Elizabeth Kolbert, Barton Seaver, Hunter Lovins, Erik Assadourian, Kellie McElhaney, Andy Ruben, Annie Longsworth and Carsten Henningsen.
Here’s how the column begins:
When I got the winter Patagonia catalog in the mail, I was delighted to read an essay by Bob Massie called The Parable of the Iron Pan. Massie, an ordained minister, longtime environmentalist and president of the New Economics Institute writes about a 12-inch cast iron frying pan that he bought for $2 years ago at an estate sale. He reckons that the pan was 90 years old then, and that he has cooked with it for another 35 years. Today, he writes, it is half as old as the United States.
Bob goes on to say: “We must reject the ugly image that we are primarily consumers, a kind of warm-blooded locust whose purpose is to chew through the planet. We must lighten the pressure on the world and on ourselves. We must conserve what we love and build what will last.”
What wise and timely advice, with the holiday shopping madness almost upon us. If we are going to give gifts (or ask for them), we would do well to think about gifts that last. With that in mind, I asked some people in the world of sustainability to tell me about a treasured long-lasting gift or possession.
A reader asked me about my own favorite long-lasting possession. I’d have to say that it is a Harris Tweed sport coat that I bought at a Lord and Taylor’s in Hartford, Connecticut, sometime in the early 1980s. More than three decades later, it as good as new. Here’s the jacket, and below it is the pullover of similar vintage that Paul Hawken wrote about.
Venture capitalists are investing in startups that are engineering new foods for a hungry planet–alternatives to chicken, beef, eggs and salt that deliver environmental or health benefits. The food industry, they say, desperately needs reinvention.
“The way we generate protein today is just not sustainable,” says Samir Kaul of Khosla Ventures, which has invested in a half-dozen food startups. “We’re running out of fertile land. There are water issues. Health issues.”
“Our population is growing, and agriculture just hasn’t kept pace,” says Amol Deshpande, a chemical engineer who worked in the seed business before joining Kleiner Perkins.
One company that’s getting lots of attention: Beyond Meat, a startup that has developed a vegan alternative to chicken. Kleiner invested. So has Bill Gates, and the founders of Twitter, Biz Stone and Evan Williams.
I’ve written a long story about Beyond Meat that was posted today at fortune.com. It was originally destined for the print edition of the magazine, but Wired has just run an excellent story about Beyond Meat, so my editors chose to post my story on the web. Here’s how it begins:
FORTUNE — Most people consume protein in what vegetarians call “the secondhand form,” that is, after it has been digested and converted into meat by chickens, cows, and pigs. This is inefficient, as Winston Churchill noted In “Fifty Years Hence,” an essay published in 1931. Churchill wrote: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will … from the outset be practically indistinguishable from natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”
Then again, predictions are hard — especially about the future. Food scientists and entrepreneurs have tried to reinvent meat for decades, with little to show for it. Last summer, Dr. Mark Post, a Dutch scientist and medical doctor, unveiled a five-ounce hamburger that was grown in a laboratory from cow muscle, at a cost of $325,000. (Google (GOOG) founder Sergey Brin picked up the tab.) Closer to home, mock meats from companies like Kellogg (K) and Kraft (KRFT) can be found in supermarket freezers, branded as “Chik’n Nuggets,” an “All-American Flame Grilled Meatless Burger,” and “Classic Meatless Meatballs.” Soy-based, mushy, and more expensive than the real thing, they remain niche products.
And yet, the need for alternatives to meat has never been greater. Global demand for meat has tripled in the last 40 years, driven by population growth and a doubling of per-capita meat consumption, according to the Worldwatch Insitute. That has intensified pressures on land, water, feed, fertilizer, and fuel. Meat is a climate change problem, too: Animal agriculture is said to be responsible for about 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transportation sector.
This presents a big opportunity for someone who can devise a tasty and affordable plant-based substitute for meat. That is exactly what Ethan Brown, the founder and chief executive of a California-based startup called Beyond Meat, aims to do, and he has persuaded some smart people to put their money behind him. Beyond Meat makes vegan “chicken-free” strips that it says are better for people’s health (low-fat, no cholesterol), better for the environment (requiring less land and water), and better for animals (obviously) than real chicken; most important, if all goes according to plan, they will cost less to produce than chicken. Fortune has learned that Bill Gates is an investor; he sampled the product and said he couldn’t tell the difference between Beyond Meat and real chicken. “The meat market is ripe for invention,” Gates wrote in a blog post about the future of food. Kleiner Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, made Beyond Meat its first investment in a food startup. “KP is looking for big ideas, and this qualifies as a big idea,” says Amol Deshpande, a former Cargill executive and a partner at the venture firm. “The single biggest inefficiency in agriculture is how we get our protein.” Other investors include Evan Williams and Biz Stone, the founders of Twitter; Morgan Creek Capital Management; and the Humane Society of the United States, an animal-welfare group.
You can read the rest here. The story goes on to explain that one advantage that Beyond Meat should enjoy over “real” chicken is that its product will use less feed than chicken. As I write:
It takes four-tenths of a pound of feed, mostly soy and pea protein, to make a pound of Beyond Meat. (A chicken breast is more than 60% water.) By comparison, even after decades of selective breeding and production efficiencies, broilers require nearly three pounds of feed, mostly corn and soy, to yield a pound of ready-to-cook chicken. Feed accounts for about 35% of the costs of chicken, so when corn prices spiked last year, the prices for whole chickens rose by 21%. As the costs of feed increase over time — and they likely will, as the costs of energy and fertilizer rise — Beyond Meat’s competitive advantage should emerge. “A chicken is just a bioreactor raised for the purpose of delivering protein to humans,” says Kleiner’s Amol Deshpande. “If you can do that more efficiently another way, that’s good for everyone.”
I’ve tried Beyond Meat, and it’s good, especially when chopped into a “chicken” salad or used with a sauce. In his Wired story, Food Network celeb Alton Brown writes that Beyond Meat’s “Chicken-Free Strips could replace chicken in at least 30 percent of the existing chicken recipes floating around out there,” to no ill effect. Brown is also pursuing a b-to-b strategy for his product.
I don’t know if Beyond Meat will grow into a big company. But I’m pretty sure that the way we produce and consume meat today is unsustainable. One way or another, we need to figure how to produce meat more sustainably or, better, eat a lot less of it.
This is the first of three stories about Walmart’s supplier sustainability index.
Since launching its sustainability program in 2006, Walmart has reduced energy consumption in its stores, installed solar panels on its rooftops, curbed emissions from its trucks and recyled millions of tons of its trash. Now that the world’s biggest retailer has streamlined its own operations, it is turning its attention elsewhere–actually, almost everywhere.
Since last fall, Walmart has rolled out what it calls a supplier sustainability index to thousands of suppliers, asking them pointed questions about their operations and prodding them to better understand and manage their own supply chains.
It’s Walmart’s most ambitious environmental project ever, and if all goes according to plan, it will change the way all kinds of consumer products–clothes, toys, electronics, food and beverages–are made. The typical Walmart stocks 125,000 to 150,000 products (!), and the envirommental and social performance of most of the companies that make them them will soon be rated and ranked in Bentonville.
So Walmart is asking lots of questions of its suppliers. Among them:
How can wheat be grown with less water and fertilizer? How can chemicals of concern be removed from toys? What mining practices were used to extract copper, gold and silver for computers or jewelry? What percentage of your televisions sold last year were Energy Star certified? Do the grapes in a bottle of wine come from a farm with a biodiversity management plan? How much water was needed to produce those polyester pants?
If this sounds like a massive and fiendishly complicated undertaking, well, it is. It has been in the works since 2009, when Walmart unveiled The Sustainability Consortium, a nonprofit coalition led by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University that was set up to provide scientific research to undergird the effort. Since then, a few other retailers (Tesco, Kroger, Ahold, Best Buy) and dozens of consumer products brands (Coca-Cola, Disney, Kellogg’s, Mars) have signed on to the consortium. [click to continue…]
The top executives of big publicly-traded US companies, in my experience, tend to be rather drab fellows (nearly all are men) who choose their words carefully, hew carefully to the middle of the road in their thinking and rarely say (or do) anything outrageous.*
Not John Mackey, the founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. For better and occasionally for worse, Mackey is an original, who doesn’t run his company by any conventional management book.
Instead, he has written his own book, called Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, with co-author Raj Sisodia, an academic affiliated with Bentley University. It’s a good read, especially because of the insights it delivers into the unusual culture and practices of Whole Foods, as well as into Mackey’s own evolution.
Some examples from the book: [click to continue…]
By now, you’ve surely heard about the environmental impact of food waste. But the scale of the problem is not as well known. In a recent report, the Natural Resources Defense Council came up with these admittedly inexact but eye-popping numbers:
Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. Methane emissions. Nutrition is also lost in the mix—food saved by reducing losses9 by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.
The problem is getting worse, not better. Jonathan Bloom, a journalist who has become perhaps the world’s leading on food waste, notes in American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) that the typical American now throws away his or her body weight in food each year and says:
Ominously, Americans’ per capita food waste has increased by 50 percent since 1974.
I’m a hawk when it comes to food waste. I’ve never considered the appearance of mold on a hunk of cheese reason to throw it away. I make batches of turkey soup from Thanksgiving leftovers. My children used to call me “the human garbage pail” because I scarfed up uneaten food from their plates. I was unembarassed. I almost find it painful to throw food away.
But personal vigilance alone will not solve the food waste problem, so I’m pleased to report that a couple of California entrepreneurs have come up with plan to reduce waste at a key juncture on the road from farm to table. Stuart Rudick, an investor in health and wellness businesses, and Anthony Zolezzi, a consultant, entrepreneur and author, have started a company called Food Star Partners, which uses a mobile phone app to alert supermarket customers when perishable produce is going on sale.
Some say, and with reason, that 2012 was the best year ever. Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity. Of course there’s plenty to worry about–the fiscal cliff, gun violence, chaos in Syria and the Congo–as always there will be. But, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the long arc of history bends towards a more just and sustainable world.
In the little corner of the world that occupies much of my attention–the places where business and sustainability intersect–it has not been a good year. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. We’re burning more coal, oil and gas than ever. Policy is stuck, in the US and internationally. This will be the hottest year on record in the US, and still people don’t accept the science of climate change. Go figure.
That said, in this final blogpost of 2012, I’d like to salute some people (again, mostly from the world of business and sustainability) who fought the good fight during the year just past. Some are business people, others are politicians, activists and even journalists, but they are all doing what they can to bend the arc of history. They’re my green business heroes for 2012. [click to continue…]
I arranged to meet Riggs Kubiak, the founder and CEO of a startup company called Honest Buildings, at Le Pain Quotidien, at 800 17th Street N.W. He’d been there for a while so we walked around the corner and did an interview at Teaism at 800 Connecticut Ave. There, he told me about his plans for Honest Buildings, an online networking platform that is designed to connect the owners of buildings with architects, contractors, suppliers, tenants, just about anyone with an interest in commercial real estate.
Riggs, who is just 31, is smart and passionate guy who has been fascinated by real estate since his college days. He was formerly head of sustainability for Tishman Speyer, a big real estate firm. With Honest Buildings, he’d like to create a hybrid of Facebook-Linked In-Yelp-Trip Advisor for real estate, and help drive transparency, efficiency and sustainability in the building industry. Investors seem to like the idea: Honest Buildings has just completed a seed round of financing led by Rockport Capital Partners and Mohr Davidow Ventures, two leading venture capital firms.
“Our platform can be a way to catalyze demand for efficient, high-performance buildings,” Riggs told me. “Transparency can have a monumental, game-changing effect.” [click to continue…]