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.

MillerCoors: A trickle-down theory of corporate sustainability

Beer-on-Bar-007Every big company understands that saving energy, water and raw materials in its own operations is good for business. You don’t need an MBA to grasp that efficiency reduces costs, which can lead to lower prices, gains in market share and higher profits.

Not as well understood are the opportunities that await companies that dig into their supply chains to drive efficiencies. If big companies can work with their suppliers to save energy, water and materials, everyone should gain, and we’ll waste fewer resources.

That’s the theme of my story today for Guardian Sustainable Business, about MillerCoors, water and barley farmers. It’s an example of what I’m calling the “trickle-down down theory of corporate sustainability.” By that I mean that  sustainability initiatives taken by the biggest companies trickle their way down into remote corners of the global economy.

Here’s how the story begins:

So you think you have a cool app on your smart phone? Meet Gary Beck, an Idaho barley farmer who, from the comfort of his living room couch, can control giant irrigation systems miles away, turning sprinklers on and off or adjusting their spray.

Every drop counts. “Right now, we’re in a huge drought,” Beck says. “Some of the old timers have never seen it this dry before.”

Beck manages a farm that grows about 2,500 acres of barley for MillerCoors, the US’s second-largest beer company (behind Anheuser-Busch InBev), with revenues of nearly $9bn last year. His thorough water-conservation efforts – including redesigning equipment, abandoning some fields and using more compost – have paid off big time, saving water, energy and money.

Even more notable, they have been guided – and partly financed – by his biggest customer, MillerCoors, with a nudge from its biggest customer, Walmart; by local utility Idaho Power, which wants to help its customers save energy; and by The Nature Conservancy, which owns the Silver Creek Preserve, a nearby high-desert fly-fishing destination that attracts an abundance of wildlife, including eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions – all of which, of course, need water.

It’s an example of how companies such as MillerCoors are reaching beyond their own boundaries to help solve environmental problems.

Note a few things about this story. First, although my focus is MillerCoors, you could easily argue that Walmart, with its supplier sustainability index, is equally responsible for the water-saving projects on barley farms. By asking aits suppliers–about 60,000, at last count–to track the lifecycle impacts of their products, Walmart forces them to think about where their environmental impacts are greatest, and urges them (to put it kindly) to make improvements.

Second, unlike Walmart, MillerCoors is getting its hands dirty and spending its own money as it works with suppliers. It’s investing in best practices on one barley farm, and helping to spread them. It’s the kind of thing Starbucks has done for years with its coffee farmers.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that the first (and, as of now, only) reader comment on this story says: “Adfomercial. Naughty Guardian.” This may be because SABMiller is a sponsor of the Guardian’s water coverage–a fact that I only learned when, to my dismay, the story was accompanied by a banner ad for SABMiller. All water-related stories on Guardian Sustainable Business, it turns out, run with a banner from SABMiller. You’ll have to trust me when I say I didn’t know that when I began to report this story.

But there’s a bigger issue here. My role, as I see it, isn’t to be a full-time corporate critic. Instead, I try to jeer companies when they screw up and cheer those that try to do the right thing. If I’m wrong about MillerCoors, by all means let me know. But I’d find it too depressing to spend all my time looking for bad news.

Peak suburbs

The End of the Suburbs Book Cover(2)I grew up in the suburbs (Croton-on-Hudson, NY), and raised my children in suburbs (Grosse Pointe Park, MI, and Bethesda, MD) and so, obviously, I’m among those who believe that there’s lots to like about suburbs: spacious homes, good schools, safe neighborhoods, lawns, at least when you don’t have to mow them.

But as I read Leigh Gallagher’s terrific new book, The End of the Suburbs, which argues that suburbs, and particularly newer suburbs, are in decline, I felt like cheering.

In the book, Leigh, who is a colleague of mine at Fortune, argues persuasively that social, economic and demographic forces are converging to end a half-century of suburban growth in the US. Young people seem to prefer cities. Energy prices are rising. People have come to hate long commutes. Some like to walk or bike. Hurray!

Since finishing the book a couple of weeks ago, I’ve come across more evidence here and there that Leigh is onto something. Take, for example, this New York Times story about how water scarcity in southwest cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles have prompted local governments to pay people to get rid of their lawns. Lawns–like so much else in the suburbs–are incredibly wasteful.

I interviewed Leigh by email for a story about “peak suburbs” and what they mean for sustainability in Guardian Sustainable Business.  Here’s how it begins:

Have we reached “peak suburbs”? In her new book, The End of the Suburbs, Fortune magazine editor Leigh Gallagher argues that powerful social, economic, environmental and demographic forces are converging to end a half-century of suburban growth in the US.

This is good news for those who believe that the US economy must become more sustainable, and that big houses, big cars and big commutes are wasteful. “No other country has such an enormous percentage of its middle class living at such low densities across such massive amounts of land,” Leigh writes. Acerbic critic and author James Howard Kunstler, who’s interviewed in the book, more bluntly calls suburbia “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”

leigh_gallagher

Leigh Gallagher

But if cul-de-sac living is approaching a dead end, what’s next? And what opportunities for more sustainable businesses will arise as the suburbs decline? Those are among the questions I put to Leigh in this Q&A.

Let’s start with the basics. Why are suburbs in decline? Are rising energy prices – or, dare we say it, concern about the environment – playing a role?

You can read Leigh’s answers here. Better yet, read the book.

Cows save the planet

Cows Save the Planet coverCows Save the Planet. How can you resist a book with a title like that? I couldn’t. The subtitle is Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change, Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients to Our Food, and the author is Judith D. Schwartz, a freelance writer who lives in Bennington, Vermont, and a colleague of mine through the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). The book looks at our many environmental challenges from the perspective of soil–an under-appreciated resource, and one that could be a key to addressing the climate crisis. Surprisingly, one way to improve soil on a large scale is through cattle ranching.

I’ve written just a bit about this myself. (See my March post, Meat lovers, rejoice! Cattle could be a climate-change solution). Jim Howell, a rancher and entrepreneur who appears in Judith’s book, spoke in May at Fortune Brainstorm Green. While the science of what is known, awkwardly, as Holistic Planned Grazing, remains controversial, I’m convinced that the idea deserves more attention. So Judith kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about her book.

Marc: Judith, in your introduction, you write about the issue of carbon emissions:

The trouble isn’t the carbon itself; it’s that there’s too much of it in the air rather than in the ground, where it lends fertility to the soil. Soil, it turns out, is the natural and most cost-effective carbon sink.

Can soil store enough carbon to matter? [click to continue...]

EFW Partners: Investing in scarcity

Mangrove in parched land. French GuianaFor a century or two, people have argued about whether the world is running out of the things we need. So far, we’re not. (Well, unless you are a farmer in Kansas in need of water.)

Human ingenuity, new technology and market signals have increased supplies and helped us become more efficient. When the price of petroleum rises, for example, companies redouble their efforts to discover and recover oil from out-of-the-way places, like deep under the ocean or in the Arctic, for better or worse. When demand for food rises, so do commodity prices–and yields. When water is scarce, we use it more carefully.

But the fact that Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich of Population Bomb fame have been wrong — so far — does not mean that the world has an endless supply of energy, food and water.

Scott Jacobs

Scott Jacobs

Scott Jacobs and his colleagues at EFW Partners, who manage investments for wealthy individuals and institutions, believe those resources are already becoming scarce–as evidenced by rising commodity prices. EFW Partners (the initials stand for energy, food and water) seeks to invest in a variety of companies that help the world use resources more efficiently and discover new ones, while respecting planetary limits. My latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business looks at EFW Partners.

Here’s how it begins:

Is the world running out of energy, food and water? Or not? The debate has raged since Thomas Malthus wrote “An essay on the principle of population” in 1798.

In 2011, McKinsey & Co, the esteemed consulting group, provided a modicum of support to modern-day Malthusians. It published Resource Revolution: meeting the world’s energy, materials, food and water needs, a voluminous and influential report. It acknowledged that, until recently, new technology had overcome any so-called limits to growth, but warned of big challenges ahead.

“During most of the 20th century, the prices of natural resources such as energy, food, water and materials such as steel all fell, supporting economic growth in the process,” the consultants wrote. “But that benign era appears to have come to an end.” If current trends continue, governments and companies will face high and volatile commodity prices, unpredictable climate impacts and the threat of political instability if the needs of the world’s poor are not met. “Nothing less than a resource revolution is needed,” said McKinsey, and it will not be cheap: “Meeting future demand for steel, water agricultural products and energy would require roughly $3tn (about £2tn) average capital investment per year [which is] $1tn more than spent in recent history.”

Scott Jacobs, a leader of McKinsey’s global cleantech practice, sensed an opportunity. He decided to help raise some of that capital and to help save the planet in the process. Last year, Jacobs, who is 35, left McKinsey, and joined veteran investors Tom Cain, 58, and Charlie Finnie, 54, to form EFW Partners, an investment fund that focuses on environmentally-friendly ways to produce energy, food and water, as well as opportunities to use resources more efficiently.

You can read the rest here.

Mark Tercek: The business case for nature

Tercek-Adams-Natures-FortuneThe value of nature is astonishing, when you stop and think about it. Marshes protect coastlands. Urban trees clean the air. Forests provide timber. Oceans give us seafood.  Snow-capped mountains store drinking water. Some might say nature is priceless.

Not Mark Tercek, the former investment banker at Goldman Sachs who became CEO of The Nature Conservancy in 2008. His new book, Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature (Basic Books, 2013), argues that nature provides enormous economic benefits to society, business and consumers, and that, if we can figure out how to value and pay for those benefits, we can slow down and even reverse the degradation of nature that threatens our well-being.

It’s an important and potentially controversial argument, as Tercek acknowledges. While the 20th century conservation was all about protecting nature from people, Tercek and some of his allies in the environmental movement would like the future to be about protecting nature for people. If nothing else, he argues, recognizing the economic value of nature will expand the base of the environmentalist beyond the white, college-educated and relatively affluent folk, the backpackers and hikers and birdwatchers at its core. [click to continue...]

Why sustainability has to be a team sport

imagesOne of the great virtues of market capitalism is that power is widely dispersed–among consumers, corporate executives, investors and regulators. Lots of people get lots of votes that collectively shape business, and that’s good. But decentralization creates a daunting problem for anyone who cares about corporate sustainability: It’s hard to get things done.

In conversations today at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, people who could be described as powerful—executives with big titles (vice chairman, vice president, CEO) at big institutions (NASDAQ, McDonald’s and Ingram Barge, America’s biggest barge company)–all lamented the limits on their influence over what their companies do, let along how industries can change.

This is why sustainability has to be a team sport. Very few people–or companies–can do much on their own.

Take Bob Langert, vice president for corporate responsibility at McDonald’s, who is one of the most respected sustainability executives in the US. He’s got credibility inside the company and with NGO partners. But to get anything done, he’s got to win over thousands of owner-operators of McDonald’s stores, as well as a a diverse set of suppliers and, in some instances, the tens of millions of people who eat at Mickey D’s every day.

“We are the world’s largest small business,” Langert said. The overwhelming majority of McDonald’s outlets are “owned and operated by independent business people. They have a lot of power in our system. That means we can’t dictate from on high. I challenge people to show me a company that’s more democratic than McDonald’s.” [click to continue...]

Patagonia helps to save….Patagonia

A merino sheep ranch under Ovis XXI management in the Patagonian Steppe ecoregion of Argentina’s Neuquén Province. The Conservancy is working with Ovis XXI to protect Argentina’s temperate grasslands by promoting best practices in sustainable grazingThe more I learn about Patagonia Inc., the more impressed I am with the way that Yvon Chouinard and his colleagues run their business. The outdoor gear and clothing company supports what it calls the “silent sports” of climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running–none of which require a crowd or a motor to be enjoyed. It’s an enterprise that lives up to its mission: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Until recently, though, Patagonia did no business in Patagonia–a remote region of South America that includes temperate grasslands of Argentina, about 400 million acres (nearly three times the size of California) that are said to be among the most threatened, most damaged and least protected habitats in the world.

Now the company has embarked on an unusual partnership with a network of Argentine ranchers and The Nature Conservancy that is intended to build a sheep-grazing business that will not only protect, but restore parts of the Patagonian grasslands.

It’s a test of an intriguing idea–that a company that sells stuff to people can not only do less harm to the earth, but use the power of business to do environmental good.

“Can a company ever be regenerative?” asks Jill Dumaine, Patagonia’s director of environmental strategy. “We aspired to it, but we couldn’t envision what that would look like.”

[click to continue...]

Clorox Green Works: What were they thinking?

Are corporations people? I’ll leave that for legal scholars to decide.

Are corporations funny? Uh, almost never.

Today’s evidence comes in a breathtakingly dumb digital ad campaign from Clorox Green Works. It runs the risk of  insulting the consumers of its environmentally-friendly cleaning products while managing to ridicule millions of people who are trying to be more conscious about the social and environmental impacts of the things they buy.

Worse, it’s not even funny.

See for yourself, if you can bear it.

Now, I’ll admit that deep green consumers can be extreme. I’m recalling, right about now, the menu of a 100% organic vegan restaurant called Cafe Gratitude in Santa Cruz where dishes had silly names like “I am Fulfilled” and “I am Open Hearted.” The food turned out to be fantastic.

But Clorox, instead of guiding people through a confusing landscape of sustainability claims, here chooses to caricatures conscious consumers as people who reuse dental floss, who say things like “I can’t believe you’re wearing leather,” who ask irritating questions about the provenance of their fish and who go ga-ga over “local, gluten-free, bio-dynamic, Fair Trade, dolphin-safe, edible” hair conditioner.

I honestly don’t understand what Green Works is trying to do, and reading the press release accompanying this marketing campaign only confused me further. [click to continue...]

Miya: Delivering clean drinking water, at scale

59610-tikun miya-bizua1-0708Over the years, I’ve heard and written about many efforts to provide clean drinking water to the world’s poor people–Procter & Gamble’s PUR, Unilever’s PureitLifestraw from Vestergaard Frandsen and PackH20 from Greif. (See, for example, my blogposts about Lifestraw and PackH20.) They’re worthwhile and innovative but, for various reasons, they have been slow to scale.

Last week in Israel, I learned about company that is only six years old but has already delivered safe drinking water to two million people in a single city–Manila. Called Miya, the company also has projects underway in Brazil, South Africa and the Bahamas. A wholly owned subsidiary of Arison Investments, Miya is one of the emerging stars of Israeli’s clean tech sector. [See my last blogpost, In Israel, clean tech is not the new new thing.]

Shari Arison, the owner of the Arison Group, launched Miya in 2006 with $100 million of her own money. [In a Jewish text known as the Kabbalah there are 72 names for God, one of which is Miya.] She did so, she told me, because it aligns with her desire to lead businesses that do good in the world. Miya isn’t a glamorous business–essentially, it deploys sophisticated technology to help water utilities close leaks from underground pipes–but it is growing  fast and already having an impact on a urgent problem.

Meir Weitchner, Miya’s chairman, told me: “The way the world today is dealing with water is leading to disaster. In our generation, we–if we don’t do something different–are going to suffer from serious water shortages.” That’s because people continue to move from rural areas to cities, and because the amount of water used by people is rising. [click to continue...]