Easy targets

UnknownHow do companies set their climate reduction targets?

I wondered about that after reading an analysis of 100 global companies that was published last year by Climate Counts and the Center for Sustainable Organizations. The companies had all been measuring and reporting on their global greenhouse gas emissions at least since 2005. In that regard, they are climate leaders, at least in terms of their transparency. Yet the study found that only 49 of the 100 companies are on track to reduce carbon emissions “in line with scientific targets to avert dangerous climate change.”

Companies, it would seem, are setting climate targets, meeting them and yet not doing enough. Could there be  something wrong with their targets?

That’s the topic of my story that was posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Every company that aspires to be responsible sets targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. General Motors says its manufacturing plants will reduce their carbon intensity by 20%. Wells Fargo says it will achieve a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings. UPS aims to reduce airline emissions by 20%.

These global corporations recognize the reality of climate change and they are striving to become more efficient. While governments, including the US and China, the world’s two leading emitters, can’t agree on binding climate targets, it would seem as if companies are doing their part.

Unhappily, most are not.

The trouble is, corporate climate targets are almost never based on climate science. That is, they are not designed to do the job that needs to be done–bringing global carbon emissions down to levels that will avert dangerous climate change. Instead, the corporate targets appear to be driven by internal considerations–what companies can achieve and afford, what their peers are doing, even what round numbers will fit into a headline or press release. No one promises to cut emissions by 23 percent by 2021.

The story goes on to chronicle my efforts to get companies to explain how and why they set their targets–a question that led mostly to answers like “sorry, we’d rather not discuss that,” even from companies that are ordinarily more than ready to promote their green good works.

What this points to is the need for what some advocates are calling “context-based sustainability,” that is, setting targets that are shaped by science-based thresholds. Want to know more? Read the story, here.

Amazon’s a great company. But good? Nope.

amazon-logoLike millions of people, I like to shop at Amazon. But the more I learn about the company, the less I like it.

Amazon’s  performance on environmental and social issues has been truly dismal, as a I wrote in a story posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric and one of American’s most influential business leaders, likes to say that “if you want to be a great company today, you also have to be a good company.”

Another celebrated chief executive named Jeff — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO– is putting that proposition to the test.

Amazon is, in many ways, a great company. But good? Nope.

Amazon doesn’t publish a sustainability report, probably because it would have little to say. It doesn’t respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project. (More than 80% of big companies do.) It’s ranked very low by Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to mitigate climate change. Amazon’s  data centers get low marks from Greenpeace.

Nor does Amazon do well on social and political issues. Until Bezos agreed to install electricity last year, warehouse workers literally toiled in sweatshops where the temperatures could top 90 degrees. The company has fiercely fought efforts by states to collect sales taxes, using bullying tactics at times. If you believe the Seattle Times, and I do, the company gives less to charities than other Seattle companies and “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.” For more, read the rest of the Guardian story. [click to continue…]

Can consumers help save the planet?

I don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of American consumers to drive environmental progress.

Having said that, I hope I’m wrong.

Dara O'Rourke

I looked at efforts to mobilize consumers to drive environmental change in this story at the excellent YaleEnvironment360 website, which is edited by my Yale college classmate Roger Cohn. The story is mostly about GoodGuide, a company formed by Dara O’Rourke in 2007 with the best of intentions: Good Guide rates many thousands of products and seeks to steer consumer dollars to those products and companies that are better for society, health and the environment. Dara is smart, thoughtful and admirable guy who, as it happens, was once a student of my college roommate Josh Cohen, who’s now a professor of political science, philosophy and law at Stanford, on leave this year at Apple.  Small world. But I digress.

The challenge for Dara and other companies and nonprofits is to get consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the planet whenever they go to the store. If only. People are busy. They’re not well-informed. They don’t believe that anthropogenic climate change is real. They are stretched for cash. They like big cars. They prefer meat to vegetables. And so forth. For these and many more reasons, if we want to curb global warming or protect biodiversity, I don’t think we’re going to make a lot of progress at the supermarket or drugstore checkout lines. [For more, see my blogpost, The Elusive Green Consumer]

But–and this occurred to me only while reporting the story–we may not actually need consumers to change their buying habits to drive environmental change. Maybe the mere threat that they will act will do the job.  I say this because the ratings that companies like GoodGuide provides can by themselves get companies to think about what ingredients to put into their products. Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to curb climate change, has seen the ratings rise in recent years despite the absence of legislative pressure. I doubt that Climate Counts drives many purchasing decisions, but no company wants to be at the bottom of a ranking. If nothing else, their employees may be paying attention, and no one wants to work for a corporate environmental laggard.

GoodGuide, by the way, is developing a version of its ratings for institutional buyers as well as retailers–who may prove to be a better and more powerful market lever.

Here’s how my story begins. The headline is Betting on Technology to Help Turn Consumers Green:

The way Dara O’Rourke tells the story, the idea for GoodGuide came to him when he was slathering some suntan lotion onto his three-year-old daughter’s face. O’Rourke, an associate professor of environmental and labor policy at University of California, Berkeley, wondered about the ingredients in Coppertone Water Babies; he did some research and learned it contained oxybenzone, a potential skin irritant. Later, O’Rourke found out that Johnson’s Baby Shampoo contained trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen. “It shocked me,” he says, “that I basically knew nothing about the products I was bringing into my own house.”

O’Rourke started GoodGuide to plug that information gap. A five-year-old company backed by $10 million in venture capital, GoodGuide employs about 20 people, including environmental scientists, chemists, toxicologists and nutritionists, who rate more than 165,000 products, including personal care items, household cleaners, food, toys, appliances and electronics. Each product gets a numerical rating from 1 to 10 in three categories — health, environment, and society; the ratings are then made available on GoodGuide’s website, on Facebook and on smartphones. [click to continue…]

21st century “green” stamps

When I interviewed Steve Case last month at GreenBiz’s VERGE conference in DC., he told me that we are entering a second Internet revolution. I’ve been thinking about that since then, and not only to do I think he is right–I think the rise of social networks and the mobile Internet may be the best things to happen to sustainable business in a long time.

They create enormous opportunities for companies, consumers and NGOs to connect people in new ways. The whole idea of the sharing economy, which I’ve written about lately (here and here and here), is built on social networking and the mobile web. So are Good Guide and Climate Counts. I’ve been impressed by the power of change.org to affect corporate practices.

Last week, I wrote a story for GE’s ecomagination website about three companies —  RecycleBank, Opower,and Practically Green — that are built on Internet platforms and using incentives in intriguing ways to change consumer behavior. For some reason they reminded me of the “green stamps” that my mom used to save when I was a kid. Here’s how the story begins:

If you remember S&H Green Stamps you’re probably over 50. If you don’t, ask your parents or grandparents. They’ll tell you about the little green stamps they collected when shopping at supermarkets or buying gas, then pasted into books and eventually redeemed for rewards like a clock radio or a set of kitchen knives. Green Stamps, which were popular from the 1930s through the 1980s, showed that even small incentives change the way people behave, showing the way for the airline frequent-flier miles, credit-card points and Starbucks Rewards that followed.

Today, RecycleBankPractically Green and Opower, among others, are offering a 21st century version of green stamps –but with a twist. They are providing financial or intangible rewards that are intended to promote environmentally-friendly behaviors, such as recycling, biking to work or washing clothes in cold water. No licking of stamps necessary. Instead, consumer track their results on websites, smart phones or Facebook, competing with friends or piling up points for their own use. Think of it as social networking for the save-the-world set. [In fact, you can register for each of these companies through Facebook.]

The companies are privately-held, so they don’t release financial results, but anecdotal evidence indicates that they are making a difference. RecycleBank, which began in 2004, rewards people for recycling household waste; it has driven up recycling rates among the 2 million or so people who participate in its curbside recycling program. Opower, which launched in 2007, has found that homeowners reduce their electricity usage by about 2% after they are shown how well (or poorly) they are doing compared to their neighbors, and given energy-saving tips. Practically Green is just over a year old, but it already has tens of thousands of people who report back on their green actions, competing with friends or against themselves.

All of these companies share a philosophy that runs counter to the doom and gloom of some environmentalists: to promote greener behavior, prizes and games are more effective than guilt trips.

You can read the rest here.


Big brands take climate action but…

Led by Unilever, Astra Zeneca and Nike, consumer brands are taking climate change more seriously than ever, says a new report from Climate Counts, a nonprofit that rates some of the world’s largest companies on their climate impact.

Big companies are reporting emissions, committing to targets and becoming more vocal in the policy arena, according to the report.

“There’s evidence to suggest we have reached a remarkable tipping point,” says Mike Bellamente, project director of Climate Counts. “Global corporations are increasingly acknowledging climate change as reality and are adopting measures to reduce their emissions and environmental impact.”

This is the fifth report from Climate Counts, which is the brainchild of Stonyfield Farms CE-Yo Gary Hirshberg. The ratings are intended to make consumers more aware of leaders and laggards on climate — the term of art for this is “rank ’em and spank ’em — as well as to spur companies to do better. or whatever reason, companies are improving: Bellamente told me over the phone the other day that the average score for the 136 companies rated this year is up by an impressive 54% from the initial set of ratings. [click to continue…]

The green race to the top

If climate regulation will burden businesses or increase costs,  then why are so many companies strengthening their voluntary response to the climate crisis in the midst of an economic downturn?

The reason is, there’s a race to the top when it comes to sustainability, particularly among consumer companies. No one wants to be seen as a laggard by  customers, workers, NGOs, government or the press.

Reputation matters. Ignoring the climate emergency is no longer an option for a big consumer brand.


That, as far as I can tell, is why so many companies are surging ahead in the third annual corporate climate scorecard put together by the nonprofit group Climate Counts. Gary Hirshberg, the CE-yo and “main moover” behind of Stonyfield Farms (yum) put up the money to start Climate Counts, and Wood Turner is its able executive director.

“We see a real competition ensuing, as companies race to the top,” Turner told me the other day, as the new ratings came out. “Companies are preparing their businesses and their brands for the future.” [click to continue…]

FedEx: Pushing the envelope on sustainability

When you need to ship a package, how do you choose between FedEx and UPS? Their services are similar, if not identical. While I’ve never compared prices, I assume they are roughly equivalent.

Could the company’s sustainability practices come into play? I’m told that they do, for select customers. Their employees care as well–people want to work for companies that are helping to solve the world’s big problems, like climate change. Regulators could also be paying attention. Whatever the explanation, FedEx and UPS are competing to become known as the most sustainable shipping company–which means we’re all winners.

FedEx's efficient Boeing 777 freighter
FedEx's efficient Boeing 777 freighter

Mitch Jackson, who is staff director of  environmental affairs and sustainability at FedEx, met with me recently to make the case on behalf of FedEx. He says the company has identified four “building blocks” of its approach to the environment. [click to continue…]