Edelman’s climate problem

magnifying-glass-valuesLast summer, the big PR company Edelman faced a problem that no amount of spin could resolve. Kert Davies, the former head of research for Greenpeace who now leads the Climate Investigations Center, had surveyed big public relations companies to see where they stood on the issue of climate change.

Edelman waffled. The company published a position on climate change that raised as many questions as it answered. Last August, I wrote a story about the issue for the Guardian that began like this:

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

Since then, an insider told me, “a struggle for the soul” of Edelman as been unfolding inside the firm,which has more than 5,500 employees and reported worldwide revenues of $768m in FY2014. Some of those employees work for fossil-fuel clients who oppose efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and want to extract as much oil and gas from the ground as they can. Others work for companies like Unilever, Starbucks and The North Face that have lobbied for meaningful climate regulation.

Yesterday, I revisited the story and reported in the Guardian that Edelman has lost four valued staff members, all of them leaders of Edelman’s “Business and Social Purpose Practice,” and two influential clients, the We Mean Business coalition and Nike, at least in part because of its refusal to take a stand on climate change.

Does this mean that the fossil-fuel crowd inside Edelman has won? It sure looks that way, but it’s hard to know. Edelman executives declined to be interviewed for my story. No one was willing to explain what the climate position means if, indeed, it means anything at all. 

Richard Edelman, in Davos

Richard Edelman, in Davos

This surprised me, not because Edelman execs are obligated to talk to reporters (they’re not), but because I took at face value the company’s platitudes about trust, values, corporate responsibility and openness. Company president Richard Edelman: “Transparency is not optional.” And: “We strongly urge business to take the chance to redefine value as being also about values.”

As a reporter, I’ve dealt with the Edelman firm for more than a decade; my relationships with people there have been excellent, until this climate issue came along. Shortly after I was laid off by FORTUNE in 2008, I did some writing and consulting for Edelman. I soon learned I wasn’t cut out for PR, but again, my experience with the firm was good. Call me naive, but I thought Edelman was a different kind of PR firm.

Now I can’t help but conclude that they are no different from their peers, as yesterday’s story indicates:

Some clues about where Edelman is headed can be gleaned from a new set of values and a statement of purpose published last month. The statement makes explicit the company’s willingness to work on both sides of controversial issues, including climate change:

We believe that independently held, opposing views deserve to be heard in the court of public opinion and we assert our role as a firm to being advocates for our clients.

Doing so doesn’t condone every action every client takes or imply implicit support for every position a client may adopt, but does reflect our absolute commitment and support of their right to exercise their freedom of expression.

It also grants each employee the “right to elect not to work on a piece of business that does not align with his or her personal beliefs.”

In a recent video to employees about the new statement of purpose, Matt Harrington, Edelman’s global chief operating officer, said simply: “We exist to be advocates for our clients.”

Which is OK, I guess, and wouldn’t even be a story if Edelman hadn’t tried to have it both ways on climate.

The upshot is that Edelman has lost some talented people and a couple of clients.

We’ll never know what would have happened had the company taken a different path. Instead of mumbo-jumbo about how “marketing communications” has to become “communications marketing,” Edelman could have adopted a bold, values-based position on climate change. It could have worked with its more forward-thinking fossil-fuel clients, like Shell, to bring them along on the issue. It could have positioned itself as the go-to PR shop for companies and NGOs that take sustainability seriously.

It could have walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

That’s a story I would have liked to write.

Catching up, “creating” jobs and coffee pods

b3fe755a-d70b-48c4-a0a6-efece9924a03-620x372I’m just back from a wonderful vacation in Italy, and spending this week at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. To my surprise, I see that I haven’t posted here in more than a month. Lately, I’ve been writing more for my Nonprofit Chronicles blog, about how nonprofits and  foundations can become more effective. If you’re interested, please subscribe to the blog or “like” my Facebook page, which is devoted to the world of NGOs. I’m hoping to play a small role in the growing Effective Altruism movement, which aims to “do good better.”

Meantime, Guardian Sustainable Business published two of my business stories in May. The first story profiles an impressive investment firm called Huntington Capital which aims to invest in companies that create good jobs in places that need them. Here’s how it begins:

At the heart of the American Dream – the idea that anyone in the US, by dint of hard work and determination, can climb the economic ladder – is the American dream job. This is, the kind of job that can become a career, the sort of work that provides employees with decent wages, benefits, training and opportunities to better themselves. It’s the type of job that underlays a thriving economy.

It’s the type of job that San Diego-based investment firm Huntington Capital is trying to encourage companies to create.

On the surface, Huntington looks like a fairly standard fund company. It manages three funds that have a total combined investment of about $210m, most of which comes from pension funds, banks, insurance companies, foundations and wealthy families. Huntington, in turn, has invested this money in about 50 companies since its launch in 2001.

…What sets Huntington apart is its commitment to have – in its words – “a positive impact on underserved businesses and their communities”. The company calls itself an impact investor, meaning that it aims to generate returns that are social or environmental, as well as financial. Rather than focusing on Silicon Valley startups, a fairly well-worn investment landscape, it helps finance established, small and medium-sized companies in California and the southwestern US. Most of its target companies sell goods and services to other businesses, like air filtration products, janitorial work and enterprise software.

I learned about Huntington after reading “Managing vs. Measuring Impact Investment,” an excellent story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Morgan Simon, who co-leads Pi Investments, which invests in Huntington. She makes an important point–that creating jobs is not nearly as important as what kinds of jobs are created. Indeed, she goes so far as to argue that companies that create low-wage, no-benefit jobs actually make poverty worse because

“job creation” is a slippery concept: Outside of true innovation and demand generation, we can’t do much more than move jobs from one zip code to another. And even when jobs are created in a low-income community, if they are low paying, then by definition they are precisely what keep those communities locked into cycles of poverty.

How does that work? In general, we don’t just have a national unemployment problem; we have an employment problem, where more than two-thirds of children in poverty live in households where one or both parents work. The vast majority of these households are led by people of color, notably African Americans and Latinos who are twice as likely to be working poor.

…Rather than counting jobs, we were interested in the migration of low-quality jobs to high-quality jobs.

Last week, the Guardian published my story headlined The good, the bad and the ugly: sustainability at Nespresso. Here’s how it begins:

The sustainability story at Nespresso, a company that sells coffee machines and single-serve capsules, is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

On coffee sourcing, the company – part of Swiss multinational Nestle – is an industry leader, training coffee farmers and paying premium prices. In the last few years, it has invested in reviving coffee production in war-weary South Sudan. That’s good.

But the company’s single-serve aluminum pods create unnecessary waste. A valuable, energy-intensive resource winds up in landfills. That’s bad.

Nespresso won’t say how how many of its pods get recycled. Transparency is an essential ingredient of sustainability. So that’s ugly.

Like most companies, Nespresso is complicated. You can read the rest of the story here.

Gap’s Kindley Walsh Lawlor has a daunting job

f8cb190b-8aa5-4771-80f8-10a1ee04a3fa-400x600Nearly 20 years after retailers like Gap, Nike and Levi Strauss agreed to take a modicum of responsibility for the health and well-being of the workers who make their apparel and shoes around the world, progress has been made. How much? That’s what I wanted to talk to Kindley Walsh Lawlor, vice president of global sustainability at Gap, about when I went to see here some time ago.

Those companies have made a serious and persistent effort to eliminate child labor and abusive practices in the factories where their clothes are made, most agree. And the young women who work in garment factories are thought to be better off than those who work in agriculture or the informal company; otherwise, they might well have stayed in their villages. But garment workers remain low paid–just a few dollars a day, depending om which poor country we are talking about. A 2013 study found that wages for workers in most garment-exporting countries actually declined between 2001 and 2011. Competitive pressures to keep costs low are intense.

Lawlor’s one of the most respected corporate-responsibility executives in the industry. My story about her ran today in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Gap Inc, the parent company of Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy, sells about $16bn worth of clothing a year. Most of it is made by in Asia, by roughly 1 million workers in approximately 900 factories in China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

The daunting job of protecting their human rights belongs to Kindley Walsh Lawlor, the company’s vice president of global sustainability. Lawlor is the point person when a crisis hits factories where Gap clothes are made.

In 2010, 29 people died and more than 100 were injured when fire swept through a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that supplied Gap, among others. In 2013, a labor rights group charged that a Gap supplier, also in Bangladesh, forced workers to toil for more than 100 hours a week, kept two sets of books to cheat them of their pay and fired women who became pregnant. And two years ago, when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed, the spotlight again trained on global retailers – including those, like Gap, that didn’t have any contracts with factories there – and their supply chains.

What keeps Lawlor going? Her belief that progress is being made.

You can read the rest here.

The upside of outsourcing

To match Insight INDIA-OUTSOURCING/I heard an excellent, in-depth interview this week with William Easterly, the development economist and author of a new book called The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Easterly, a controversial figure, is critical of top-down development experts — he names Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, among others — who push technocratic, centralized approaches to alleviating poverty. Instead, he argues that the best way to promote economic development is for westerners to push for democracy, human rights and free markets in the world’s poorest countries.

Easterly cites, among others, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Others disagree, noting that parts of India came perilously close to famine just a decade ago. What’s more, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while suppressing human rights, but allowing economic freedom.

I’m in no position to try to adjudicate the debate about how poor countries become rich, but I was thinking about Easterly’s faith in markets and global trade as I wrote my story this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The story looks at an idea called “socially-responsible outsourcing” or simple “impact sourcing,” and a nonprofit called DDD that tries to put that idea into practice. (DDD stands for Digital Divide Data.) DDD operates businesses in Cambodia, Kenya and Laos that employ young people, typically high school age, to provide information technology and web research, mostly to clients in the US. The goal of the enterprise is to provide economic opportunity to the poor, DDD’s founders told me.

Here’s how my story begins:

So much attention is paid to deplorable factory conditions in poor countries that it’s easy to forget that global supply chains for electronics, apparel and toys have helped lift masses of people out of poverty. Since 1980, 680 million people have risen out of poverty in China which has seen its extreme-poverty rate fall from 84% to about 10%, largely because of trade, reports The Economist.

Now, a small number of companies, nonprofits and foundations want to see if the rapidly growing global supply chains that process data and operate call centers — an industry usually described as business processing outsourcing, or BPO — can be deployed to help alleviate poverty in Africa and South Asia. Can outsourcing, a business driven by the search for cheap labor, reconfigure itself to do good?

“By responsibly and ethically employing hundreds of thousands of people, BPOs have a role to play in shifting the social landscape in emerging economies around the world,” says a report called Outsourcing for Social Good from Telus International, a Canadian outsourcing firm, and Impakt, a social responsibility consultancy.

Others agree. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $100m to a project called Digital Jobs Africa that aims to improve one million lives in six African nations. A nonprofit called Samasource organizes poor women and youth in Africa and Asia to deliver data services to such businesses as Microsoft and Google. And a company called Cloud Factory that operates in Kenya and Nepal says digital outsourcing can “flatten the world, connect people into the global economy and raise up leaders to fight poverty and change their communities.”

The pioneer of what is called socially-responsible outsourcing or simply impact sourcing is DDD (Digital Divide Data), a New York-based nonprofit that operates for-profit data centers in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya. DDD and its impact-oriented peers set themselves apart from outsourcing giants such as Tata, Accenture and Infosys because, they says, they deliberately seeks out workers in the some of the world’s poorest places and provides them not just with jobs, but with the education, training and career counseling they need to rise into the middle class.

“Our ultimate mission is to alleviate poverty,” says Jeremy Hockenstein, 42, the founder and CEO of DDD. “We focus on students who are finishing high school, who are very motivated and very smart and who come from low-income homes.”

Having met Jeremy Hockenstein (via Skype) and his co-founder Michael Chertok (face to face), I have no doubt of their good intentions. Both gave up more lucrative careers to start the nonprofit. DDD is about helping its global employees, not exploiting them.

But their work raises an intriguing question about how much intentions matter when it comes to infotech outsourcing, or all of global trade, for that matter. Despite all the the abuses in the global manufacturing supply chain, it seems inarguable that the factory jobs created in China, Mexico, India and Bangladesh have benefited the poor in those countries. Is it possible the Walmart and Apple have done more to alleviate poverty than Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs?

You can read the rest of my story here.

Big business loves marriage equality

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

At Target’s annual shareholder meeting in 2011, Gregg Steinhafel, the company’s chief executive, was asked whether Target would take a stand on a constitutional amendment being proposed in Minnesota to ban gay marriage.

His reply:

“Our position at this particular time is that we are going to be neutral on that particular issue, as we would be on other social issues that have polarizing points of view.”

You can almost feel him squirming, can’t you?

Steinhafel ducked the issue of gay-marriage even thought Target has a reputation as a gay-friendly employer. The company gets a top score of 100 percent and the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. This was a time when most companies ran away from the gay-marriage debate, figuring that no matter what they said, they’d annoy someone.

That has changed, dramatically, in just a couple of years, as I wrote a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business:

Last year, when the supreme court pondered the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, a friend-of-the-court brief urging the repeal of Doma was signed by nearly 300 employers, including such big brands as Apple, CBS, Citigroup, eBay, Facebook, Google, Marriott, Mars, Nike, Starbucks and Walt Disney. Goldman Sachs flew an equality flag outside its downtown New York headquarters when the court overturned DOMA.

Now, as the battleground shifts backs to the states, businesses have allied themselves with supporters of gay marriage in Oregon and Indiana. In Oregon, a liberal-leaning state, you might expect a youth-oriented company like Nike to back marriage equality, and it has – with a $280,000 donation to the cause. The Portland Trail Blazers, meantime, became the first NBA team to back gay marriage.

More surprising is the role of two big companies in Indiana, a Republican stronghold. Cummins, the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engines, and Eli Lilly, the big US maker of insulin products, each gave $100,000 to Freedom Indiana, a coalition of businesses, community groups and faith leaders trying to keep a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage off the ballot this fall.

What’s more, as I go on to write, the executives at Cummins and Eli Lilly were very direct in their support of marriage equality. They said it was good for business and good for Indiana, and that the state does not need a divisive and emotional debate over gay marriage. You can read the rest of the story here.

I’ve followed the debate over LGBT equality in the corporate world since 2006 when I wrote a long story for Fortune headlined Queer Inc. In light of the fact that we are either stuck or moving backwards on some other important issues — climate change and economic mobility, to name just two — it’s heartening to see the progress being made by people who are working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* equal rights.

By the way, Minnesotans eventually enacted legislation supporting marriage equality. It was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, the great-grandson of George Dayton, the founder of Dayton’s – the department store that later became Target.

My radical plan for McDonald’s

1272056932627So I like McDonald’s. Really, I do. The fries. The coffee. Even the (850 calorie for a large!) strawberry McCafe Shake. The clean bathrooms, too. It’s my default place to stop when driving more than a few hours.

I also like the people I know who work at McDonald’s. Bob Langert, the company’s sustainability chief, is a great guy. Their PR folk are unfailingly gracious. And I’m told by a friend of the CEO, Don Thompson, that he’s a terrific person, too.

But–and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?–McDonald’s has a big problem. Actually, a couple.

The company wants to sell the world as many hamburgers as it possibly can. Beef, when produced at an industrial scale, is a terribly inefficient way to deliver protein to people. The production of beef requires more water and more land, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions, than the production of chicken or pork or, goodness knows, vegetable protein. Maybe the easiest way for any of us to do our part to deal with the climate crisis is to eat less beef. So long as McDonald’s is pushing burgers, it is, in effect, pushing climate change and deforestation, not to mention obesity and heart disease, at least for those consumers who do want the company wants them to do and eat more burgers. McDonald’s response to this is to join in the Global Coalition for Sustainable Beef–a laudable idea, and one that could reduce the environmental impacts of beef. But I’m skeptical about how far and how fast coalitions like this will take us. (See my 2012 story for YaleEnvironment360, Should Environmentalists Just Say No To Eating Beef?) The evidence, when you look at similar efforts to produce “sustainable” palm oil or fish, is decidedly mixed.

Then there’s the inequality problem, which is all over the news lately, and for good reason. CEO Thompson made $13 million or so in 2012. The front-line McDonald’s worker makes less than $20,000 a year. Many rely on government assistance to get by. I don’t begrudge Thompson his paycheck, but something’s amiss when the people who work for him need help from the government to feed their families.

What should McDonald’s do? I tried to address that question in a story today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Promoting its Dollar Menu and More, McDonald’s says: “An empty stomach shouldn’t mean emptying your wallet, too.” A Bacon McDouble – beef patties topped with bacon, American cheese, pickles and onions – costs just $2. A bargain, no?

Alas, the price of a burger does not reflect its full cost. The environmental impact of beef is staggering: on average, 6.5 kilograms of grain, 36 kilograms of roughage and 15,500 cubic meters of water are required to produce one kilogram of beef, according to the new Meat Atlas from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an environmental non-profit. What’s more, beef generates more greenhouse gas emissions than cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs or vegetable protein.

Then there are the costs of supporting those who cook and serve burgers: More than half (52%) of the families of front-line fast-foodworkers are enrolled in at least one government-funded safety net program, according to a 2013 UC Berkeley Labor Center study titled“Fast Food, Poverty Wages”. The research estimates the industry-wide cost to these programs, very roughly, at about $7bn. Median pay for front-line fast-food workers is about $8.69 per hour, which comes to a bit more than $18,000 per year. And we won’t even consider the costs of treating the health problems that are caused by consuming too much processed food.

All of which raises a question: how can a company that depends on cheap meat and cheap labor become sustainable, responsible and even admirable?

You’ll have to read the rest of the story to see the full answer, but, in essence, I argue that McDonald’s should do three things.

(1) Nudge its customers to eat less beef.

(2) Raise the wages of its workers, publicly and proudly.

(3) Become an advocate for a price on carbon.

Will this happen? Probably not. Could it happen? I’m curious to know what you think.

Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and the “good jobs strategy”

zton_book-257x300As the issue of income inequality takes center stage in Washington, creating risks to the reputations of some of America’s biggest employers, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, Zeynep Ton’s new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, could not be more timely.

Ton, who teaches at MIT’s business school, argues that smart companies invest in their employees, who provide superior service to customers, who become loyal, thus generating profits and shareholder returns. What’s more, she says, this strategy works in the brutally competitive, low margin retail industry, at such companies as Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and the big Spanish retailer Mercadona.

I met Zeynep Ton last week at the Hitachi Foundation in Washington, and wrote about her book, and her ideas, today in Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

About 46 million Americans, or 15% of the population, live below the poverty line, and about 10.4 million of them are the working poor. They bag groceries at Walmart or Target, take your order at McDonald’s or Burger King, care for the sick, the elderly or the young.

Conventional wisdom says that’s unavoidable: to stay competitive, keep prices low and maximize profits, companies, particularly in the retail and service industries, need to squeeze their workers. But in a provocative new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, author and teacher Zeynep Ton argues that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Instead, she says, smart companies invest in their employees, and they do so to lower costs and increase profits.

Of course, the idea that companies need to properly reward their key employees is hardly radical. That’s how business works on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, where the competition for talent is fierce. But Ton, who teaches at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that a good jobs strategy can also work in retail. In fact, she makes her case after a close study of four mass-market retailers who invest in their employees, keep costs low and deliver superior shareholder returns.

“It’s not the case that success comes from cutting labor costs,” Ton says. “Success can come from investing in people.” What’s more, she says, executives need to understand that that treating workers well “does not depend on charging customers more”.

You can read the rest here.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I’m inclined to agree with Ton. Ten years ago, in my own book, Faith and Fortune, I reported on companies like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and UPS that pursue their own version of a “good jobs strategy.” To her credit, Ton has shown that the strategy works in retail, and that it can actually help drive prices lower–a potentially valuable lesson for companies like Walmart and McDonald’s.

Zeynep Ton

Zeynep Ton

That said, her book raises a question that is hard, at least for me, to answer: If the good jobs strategy is so good, why don’t more companies embrace it? For that matter, why haven’t those companies that treat their employees well trounced their competitors? In theory, the companies that practice a “good jobs strategy” should be able to attract the best people, deliver the best customer service and force their rivals to copy them or suffer. That’s the way markets are supposed to work.

I put this question to Ton and she offered two answers. First, markets are imperfect. Second, the “good jobs strategy” is hard to execute because it requires redesigning workplaces, providing lots of training, finding the right balance between standardizing tasks and empowering employees, and so forth. Maybe. But I suspect there are other reasons why the “good jobs strategy” has not swept across America. Your thoughts are most welcome.

Investing in Bangladesh factories–for a profit

bangladesh-garment-workersOliver Niedermaier is selling a “capitalist solution to one of capitalism’s worst problems” — the unsafe, exploitative, polluting factories in the global south. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

After more than a decade of corporate investment in social responsibility programs, codes of conduct, teams of inspectors and public reporting – all of it intended to improve the working conditions of factories in poor countries – anyone paying attention knows the system isn’t working very well. The Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh were poignant symbols of its failure.

Maybe it has failed because Western clothing brands and retailers – Nike, Gap, Walmart and the rest – have been behaving like regulators by writing rules and meting out punishment. At least, so argues Oliver Niedermaier, the founder and CEO of Tau Invesment Management. He advocates that businesses should instead try acting like capitalists, using markets and the potential of investment gains to reform their global supply chains.

Tau plans to raise $1bn to turn around factories in poor countries, beginning with the garment industry. Tau promises to deliver “improved transparency, greater dignity for workers, cleaner environments for communities, and enhanced performance and value for stakeholders”.

As the story goes on to say, this is an intriguing–but very much untested–idea. Can Tau raise the money? Will brands partner with the company, a newcomer to supply-chain issues? Most important, can factories in places like Bangladesh that adhere to the highest standards compete effective with those who do not?

I don’t have answers. But I do know that a new approach to the problem is desperately needed.

The NFL and brain injury: That’s entertainment?

Are you ready for some brain injuries?

Are you ready for some brain damage?

Fifteen years ago, with my friend and co-author Bill Carter, I wrote a book about the TV show Monday Night Football, which helped build the phenomenal popularity of the NFL. I was a big football fan then. So much so that I didn’t notice until last week that the opening sequence of Monday Night Football — ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!!! — featured the helmets of the opposing teams crashing together.

A prescription, in other words, for brain injury.

The image flashed by briefly in the gripping and occasionally horrifying PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial, based on the book of the same name by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. Watch the program if it comes around again, or watch it on the web.

As regular readers of this blog know, I gave up watching the NFL about a year ago. But I decided to revisit the topic in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Garment workers in Bangladesh and coal miners in India risk injury or death on the job. Their plight evokes outrage from advocacy groups and corporate-responsibility gurus.

Players in the National Football League are at risk, too – at risk of losing their mind, quite literally. Yet professional football remains America’s favorite sport, generating close to $10bn a year, with not much more than an occasional murmur of concern.

Strange.

Of course, any football fan knows that the game is violent and dangerous, especially at the pro level. Powerful men collide at high speed, and a bone-jarring tackle can break a leg or, occasionally, a neck.

But football is dangerous in another, more insidious way, as we were reminded last week by the publication of League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, an examination of football’s concussion crisis by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. As the book and an accompanying PBS Frontline documentary vividly demonstrate, football also is inherently dangerous to the brain – an inconvenient truth that the NFL went to extraordinary lengths to hide, deny and muddle.

Of course, as I note in the story, NFL players are paid a lot better than garment workers or coal miners. And today’s players surely are aware of the risks they face.  But the price they pay – brain damage that robs them of their very sense of self – is terribly steep. And to what end? To make our Sunday afternoons and Monday nights a little more fun? So corporate sponsors can sell beer and cars?

Frontline is produced by a PBS station in Boston, which sent a reporter out to get reaction from Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and star quarterback Tom Brady.

Belichick said:

First of all, I’m not really familiar with whatever it is you’re referring to, whatever this thing is. But it doesn’t make any difference whether there is or isn’t one going on. We have our protocol with all medical situations, including that one and that’s followed by our medical department, which I’m not a doctor and I don’t think we want me treating patients.

What we do in the medical department, that’s medical procedures that honestly I don’t know enough to talk about. But I can say this, there’s nothing more important to a coach than the health of his team. Without a healthy team, you don’t have a team. We try to do everything we can to have our players healthy, to prepare them, to prevent injuries and then to treat injuries and to have them play as close to 100 percent as we can because without them, you have no team.

Hmm. The Pats do “everything we can to have our players healthy…because without them, you have no team.” And if they lose their minds after they retire, well, you win some and you lose some.This guy has a heart of gold.

In fairness, the NFL is doing a better job these days of treating and preventing concussions. There have been rules changes, medical personnel on the sidelines, better understanding among all of the real risks of contact. Finally. But, remember, football is played in college and high schools, too, where kids model themselves on the hard-hitting pros. Frontline put a spotlight on a college and a high school player who, shockingly, suffered from brain injuries that appeared to be–no, we can’t be sure–related to football.

Do they understand the risks they are taking? Who’s looking out for them? Clearly not the NFL.

Sustainability at McDonald’s. Really.

coffee-cupHere’s a question. Which trio of companies has done more for the environment…

Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle?

Or Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?

I don’t have an answer. Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle have been path-breaking companies when it comes to sustainability, but Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are so much bigger that, despite their glaring flaws, and the fundamental problems with their business models, they will have a greater impact as they get serious about curbing their environmental footprint, and that of their suppliers.

Small and mid-sized companies create sustainability solutions, as a rule, but the impact comes when big global corporations embrace them. Size matters.

All that is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about McDonald’s coffee-buying practices and the role of the consumer in driving them to scale.

Here’s how it begins:

Across the US, McDonald’s last week introduced pumpkin spice lattes made with Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso. No such assurance comes with McDonald’s drip coffee. Why? Because consumers haven’t yet shown Mickey D’s that they care.

That’s gradually changing, says Bob Langert, the vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s, and not a moment too soon. As the world’s biggest fast-food chain, which has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, seeks to make its supply chain more environmentally friendly, McDonald’s is trying to enlist its customers as allies.

That’s why the pumpkin lattes marketing features the little green frog seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. That’s also why McDonald’s fish sandwiches, for the first time, feature a blue ecolabel from the Marine Stewardship Council certifying that the pollock inside comes from better-managed fisheries.

By talking to consumers about its sustainability efforts, McDonald’s hopes to build brand trust and loyalty. Until recently, people had to dig into the company’s website to learn about its environmental performance.

“We’ve had sustainable fish for many years, but we didn’t tell people about it,” Langert told me during lunch in Washington DC. (He ordered fish.) “We feel there’s a tipping point coming. We see the consumer starting to care. Consumer expectations are rising.”

What McDonald’s is doing with its coffee isn’t innovative. Starbucks paved the way. But if McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Costco, Target and others follow, the world’s coffee farmers will be a lot better off.

Meantime, McDonald’s is leading the way as it encourages potato farmers to use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer, as the story goes on to say. And it could potentially have a huge impact as it tackles its most important supply chain–beef.

Elitists will scoff at everything McDonald’s does, of course, and some of their criticisms have merit. A Big Mac, it’s safe to assume, has a big carbon footprint. Eating too much food from Mickey D’s (or anywhere else) makes people fat. I’d like to see fast-food chains pay their workers better, even if that means customers will have to pay more for breakfast or lunch. But on the environment, McDonald’s is moving in the right direction. Just as important, the company is trying to move its customers along, too.

You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.