Walmart’s food czar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of my store here.

The art and science of systems change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

A lean startup seeks to “green” travel

United_Airlines_Boeing_767-322ERI’m writing this blogpost in London’s Heathrow Airport, on my way home after a brief visit to the UK.  I had a great trip, visiting colleagues at The Guardian and relatives in Manchester, today is not a good day for my personal carbon footprint. According to this carbon footprint calculator, my share of the emissions on the flight back to Washington, D.C., will be about 0.52 metric tons. That’s roughly the equivalent of driving 2,100 miles (four months of driving, for me) in my 2008 Honda Civic hybrid. So my efforts to occasionally ride my bike or take Metro instead of driving are trivial, to say the least, when compared to my air travel. I shudder to think of the carbon impact of a family vacation to Europe.

The point is, air travel is a carbon-intensive activity and there’s not much any of us can do about,  other than to travel less. (Taking a ship to London wasn’t an option. And none of the airlines use low-carbon fuels at scale because they’re too expensive.) That’s one reason why I was intrigued to hear about TripZero, a startup that aims to offset the carbon footprint of travel, at no cost to the traveler.

I met TripZero’s founder, Eric Zimmerman, early last year, and we reconnected when he launched the website recently. Here’s my story about TripZero, which ran the other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, begins:

About seven years ago, a publishing executive named Eric Zimmerman heard a speech by Eric Corry Freed, the author of a book called Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies. Freed talked about the responsibility that business has to protect the environment, and the stories we will tell our children about what we did. “Have you ever sat in the audience and felt someone was talking just to you?” Zimmerman asks. “That was one of those moments.”

Zimmerman was moved. He did a deep energy retrofit on his home in Carlisle, Massachusetts. He put solar panels on his roof. He stopped outsourcing his company’s printing to China, and he helped to create an industry brand called Green Edition that sets standards for sustainability in book publishing.

It wasn’t enough. About a year ago, Zimmerman, 48, left his job to start a company called TripZero that offsets the carbon emissions generated when people travel by plane, train, car or bus – at no cost to the traveler.

A lean startup – “The company is me,” Zimmerman says – TripZero is tackling one of the most intractable problems in corporate sustainability: the carbon footprint of travel and tourism.

For now, TripZero is a modest enterprise. Essentially, it functions as a travel agency. If you book hotels on its website, it collects a commission from the hotel owner and uses a portion of the commission to buy verified carbon offsets. It’s a clever idea, and it should appeal not only to eco-minded travelers but to NGOs and small businesses when they book travel. You can read the rest of my story here.

2-TripZero Homepage Boat

A murmur, not a message

800px-US_Capitol_SouthOne reason why it has been so hard for President Obama and environmentalists to persuade Congress to enact climate-change legislation is strong opposition from much of corporate America. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which is seen as the voice of business, all, when it comes down to it,  oppose a carbon tax or an economy-wide scheme to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

They’ve got some sound reasons for doing so: Climate regulation by the US, if it is not followed by regulation in China and India and the rest of the world, will do little to curb global warming, but it will disadvantage the US economy and cost consumers money by raising energy prices. The thing is, China and India and the rest of the world are unlikely to price carbon unless the US leads the way. And right now it’s “free” for fossil fuel companies and utilities and the rest of us to pollute the air with CO2, and so we do so with impunity.

Thankfully, the chamber, NAM and the Journal don’t speak for all of business. That’s why a business coalition known as BICEP (it stands for Business for Climate and Energy Policy) needs to grow in numbers and in political clout. BICEP favors climate regulation, and its members include such well-known companies as eBay, Gap, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nike and Starbucks. But BICEP, pardon the bad pun, doesn’t carry much weight in your nation’s capital, and it’s fairly easy to understand why.

For the US fossil fuel industry, most of which opposes carbon regulation, the climate issue is a matter of the utmost importance. Environmentalists  who worry about the climate crisis increasingly argue that much of the world’s reserves of coal and oil must be left in the ground, unless and until  engineers come up with practical and cost-effective way to capture CO2 from power plants or from the air.  If that argument that we need to burn dramatically less coal and oil prevails, the stock-market value of the fossil fuel industry would collapse. This is the so-called carbon bubble, and it is an existential threat to the fossil fuel companies.

By contrast, climate change is an important issue Mars, Nike, Starbucks and the other companies in BICEP,  but it’s by no means their biggest issue. They are to be commended for stepping out, but so far they have not thrown the full weight of their Washington operations (or, for that matter, their marketing departments)  behind their position.

That was evident last week when BICEP organized a lobbying day on Capitol Hill. I covered the event for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here is how my story begins:

It is not often that big business comes to Washington to seek regulation. But a group of companies including IKEA, Jones Lang LaSalle, Mars, Sprint, and VF Corp did so this week, asking Congress to take steps to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Executives organized by the business coalition BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), testified before a Senate and House task force on climate change, telling lawmakers about their own corporate commitments to reduce carbon pollution. Then they fanned out across the Capitol to lobby on behalf of a clean-energy financing bill.

They did so on the first anniversary of the release of the Climate Declaration, a corporate call-to-action that has been signed by more than 750 companies. It was a reminder to legislators that the US Chamber of Commerce, the coal industry and the Wall Street Journal editorial page do not speak for all of corporate America when they oppose government action to regulate carbon pollution.

“Business is not a monolith,” said Anne Kelley, who coordinates BICEP’s lobbying efforts. “That’s been the message of BICEP since the beginning.”

But if BICEP has shown that hundreds of companies favor political action on climate, its efforts so far have been drowned out in Washington by those of the US Chamber and its allies, a US Senator told the group.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and a strong advocate of climate action who convened the hearing, said BICEP’s voice is “a murmur and not a message”, and he urged companies to spend more of their political and reputational capital on the climate issue.

Whitehouse, as the story goes on to explain, urges the BICEP companies to be more forceful. Until more companies understand that the threat of climate change, and the costs of adapting to extreme weather such as heat waves and drought, is a core issue for them, the debate in Washington will be dominated by the likes of the US chamber. And that’s a problem for all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycling CO2, and the oil sands

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

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

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

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

Here’s how my story begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Untangling the lexicon of sustainability

Douglas Gayeton

Douglas Gayeton

Words can illuminate. Words can mislead. Words matter.

That’s one reason why I’m intrigued by Douglas Gayeton’s videos, books and “information artworks,” all of which are part of a vast and sprawling series called The Lexicon of Sustainability. They’re designed to help people separate what’s b.s. from what’s real in the world of sustainability.

Gayeton’s focus, so far, has been on food, and that’s smart. Nowhere is there more confusion about what’s sustainable, and what’s not, than in the supermarket — where claims like “all natural” and “multigrain” and “no sugar added” hide as much as they reveal.

I wrote a story about Gayeton the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Art has long inspired environmental activism. The photographer Ansel Adams, whose iconic black-and-white images of the American west helped to build support for the US National Park Service, served on the board of the Sierra Club for 37 years, working closely with David Brower, the club’s first executive director.

So it’s fitting that The Lexicon of Sustainability, a collection of artworks and short films by Douglas Gayeton that are designed to educate and activate people, have come to the David Brower Center, the nerve center of green business and environmental activism in Brower’s hometown of Berkeley.

Gayeton’s Lexicon of Sustainability artworks and films are based on a simple premise, he said. He explained that people can’t be expected to live “greener” lives, or act on behalf of the planet, until they better understand the language of sustainability. “Remember,” the films say, “your words can change the world.” This first series of works exploresfood and farming; future series will explain water and climate.

“The term sustainability has been totally debased,” Gayeton told me. “You can find sustainable shoes. You can find sustainable soda. Anything can be sustainable. People have hijacked the term. My wife and I thought, ‘Why not take it back?

The best way to understand what Gayeton is up to is to check out his artworks or watch one of his films. here’s one about eggs that told me things I didn’t know. The film is courtesy of PBS.org and you can read the rest of my story here.

Watch The Story of an Egg on PBS. See more from The Lexicon of Sustainability.

Yet another reason to eat less meat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the story here.

Who’s responsible for obesity?

photo (7)While I have long been inclined to think of American’s obesity epidemic as fundamentally a matter of individual responsibility — after all,  despite what has been called an obesogenic environment, many Americans manage to keep fit or at least avoid getting too fat through a combination of healthy eating and exercise — I’m gradually coming around to the belief that big food companies and the US government need to take some of the responsibility for obesity-related diseases, and for their costs.

The other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, I wrote a story about Lunchables, the fun-to-assemble packaged lunches aimed at kids that were invented in 1988 by Oscar Mayer, then and now a division of Kraft. I did the story after learning that a healthier and more “natural” packaged lunch had been introduced by Revolution Foods, a company I admire. (See my 2012 blog post, Healthy school lunches: You say you want a revolution.)

As part of my research, I read a chapter about Lunchables in a 2013 book by Michael Moss, a New York Times reporter, called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I’ve since read nearly all of the book, and it delivers on the promise of its title, by showing how big food companies, notably Kraft, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, formulated their products with unhealthy ingredients, employed the world’s best food scientists to figure out how to get people to consume more of them, and then marketed them in ways that were often calculated to deceive. For example, they used unrealistic portion sizes on nutrition labels, or added a very small amount of fruit juice to a product and then boasted that it contains “real fruit.”

The government hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, despite the well-publicized efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama. Farm bill subsidies flow to cheap corn and soy, used to feed chickens, fatten cows or sweeten soft drinks, and not to healthier fruits and vegetables. The USDA coordinates marketing checkoff programs to promote meat, milk and cheese. Dairy marketers “teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s to help foster concoctions like ‘The Wisconsin,’ a pie that has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust,” Moss writes. Americans now eat about 33 pounds per capita of cheese and cheese-like products per year, he reports, triple the amount we consumed in the 70s.

As it happens, Lunchables deserve a small portion of the “credit” for the growth in consumption of fat-laden cheese and pseudo-cheese. Interestingly, the product was created way back when to increase sales of bologna–which were falling as a result of health concerns about processed meat. It worked, as my story notes:

Back in the 1980s, health-conscious shoppers began to shy away from processed meat because of worries about fat and salt. Executives at Oscar Mayer, facing declining bologna sales, could have sought healthier alternatives. Instead, they invented Lunchables, the packaged, refrigerated, convenient meal in a box.

Kids loved them – they found it fun to assemble the crackers, bologna and cheese – and so did harried parents. But food critics were, and still are, appalled by the fat, sugar and salt packed into Lunchables’ familiar yellow packages.

Today, Lunchables is a $1bn brand with a persistent image problem – and it’s facing a new competitor aimed at health-conscious parents.

The new arrival is Revolution Foods, a small company based in Oakland, California, that has already enjoyed success delivering healthier meals for kids to schools. Last fall, Revolution Foods introduced packaged Meal Kits. They can now be found in more than 1,000 stores, including Safeway, Target, King Sooper’s (a unit of Krogers) and Whole Foods.

Will Kraft Foods, Oscar Mayer’s parent company, respond with better-for-you versions of Lunchables, or will the company stand pat and risk further damage to its reputation?

To be sure, Kraft has already improved the nutritional profile of Lunchables, reducing sodium, fat and calories. What’s more, the company is in a tough spot because people like foods with fat, salt and sugar. When companies like PepsiCo and Campbell’s Soup removed fat, salt or sugar from products, sales reportedly declined.

I’m not sure how to resolve what appears to be an unavoidable tension between what’s good for business and what’s good for the health of Americans. Despite the rhetoric about social responsibility that comes out of the food industry — this page about Kellogg’s “Passion for Nutrition” is a personal favorite — companies like Kraft and Kellogg’s and Pepsico pay people to go to work every day and sell as many boxes of Lunchables or Frosted Flakes, or bags of Fritos, or cans of Pepsi as they possibly can. Of course, as these companies are quick to remind us, they also offer plenty of healthier alternatives. Consumers do have choices.

So can we blame the food companies when some people make themselves sick by consuming too much of their products? Hard to say, but I’m less likely to brush away the question than I used to be.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Natural capital: Breakthrough or buzzword?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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