Tax avoidance, and corporate responsibility

uncle-sam-pay-your-taxes1Would you consider Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo good corporate citizens? Certainly they position themselves that way, and they deserve credit for their leadership around human rights (Apple, Nike), climate change (GE), water (Coca-Cola), renewable energy (Google, Microsoft) and sustainable agriculture (PepsiCo).

But when it comes to paying corporate income taxes, they have some explaining to do.

That, at least, is the conclusion that I came to after reading an excellent report on tax avoidance titled Offshore Shell Games, and published last month by Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG.

Corporate taxation is all over the news these days as US firms move their headquarters overseas for tax reasons, in a process known as inversion. But aggressive maneuvering to avoid taxes is nothing new, as I wrote today in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

America’s a great country. That’s why people from all over the world — including, lately and tragically, thousands of poor children from Central America — clamor to get in. So why are some of America’s wealthiest companies trying to get out?

It’s simple, really — they don’t want to pay US taxes.

You’ve probably heard about Walgreen’s, your neighborhood pharmacy that is contemplating moving its headquarters to Switzerland to reduce its tax bill. Medtronic, the big medical device company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has plans to move to Ireland, for tax-avoidance purposes. Then there’s Mylan, a maker of generic drugs based near Pittsburgh, Pennsylavia, which intends to incorporate in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is lower. Mylan’s CEO, as it happens, is Heather Bresch — the daughter of US Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat — and she says she has no choice but to go.

Other companies aren’t going so far as to relocate their headquarters, a process known as inversion that often requires them to acquire a company based elsewhere. Instead, to avoid US taxes, they are parking their earnings offshore, often in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that levy no corporate income taxes. That tactic, which like the inversions is legal, is being employed by companies that position themselves as good corporate citizens — among them Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo.

Exploiting loopholes in the tax laws may or may not be legal–the IRS is hopelessly outgunned by big corporate tax departments–but it’s unethical.

The report from Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG, which makes for surprisingly compelling reading, details a number of questionable tax avoidance strategies that allow companies to shift earnings, purely for tax purposes, from high-tax jurisdictions like the US to tax havens. Here are my favorite fun facts from the report:

The report found that subsidiaries of US companies reported earning $94bn in Bermuda, which has a gross domestic product of just $6bn. That doesn’t compute. US firms reported earning another $51bn in the Cayman Islands, where GDP is about $3bn.

This is outrageous, and please don’t tell me that the way to fix the problem is to reduce the admittedly high US corporate income tax rate. The US cannot compete with places where the tax rate is zero.

All of these companies, of course, benefit enormously from government services–public education, police, the rule of law, highways, etc. Those companies that don’t pay their fair share shift the burden to others–small businesses that can’t afford high-priced accountants, companies that don’t have overseas operations and therefore can’t take advantage of the opportunity engage in tax-avoiding shenanigans and, of course, the rest of us.

You can read the rest of my story here.

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.

Will better disclosure help transform business?

accountingWhose sustainability performance is better, PepsiCo or Coca-Cola? Dell or HP? Microsoft or Google? Tracking sustainability metrics isn’t easy, but that hasn’t stopped numerous organizations from trying.

One of the newest and most ambitious efforts comes from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), a non-profit group based in San Francisco,which is trying to set standards for sustainability reporting, much in the way that the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), has done for financial reporting.

I took a look at SASB (it’s pronounced sazz-bee) in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

In the annual report known as a Form 10-K that is filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Coca-Cola outlines a variety of risks to its business, as public companies are required to do.

The global beverage giant, which booked $48bn in revenues in 2012, talks about how water is “a limited resource in many parts of the world, facing unprecedented challenges from over exploitation, increasing pollution, poor management and climate change.” Coca-Cola says that its plastic bottles could be subject to “deposits or certain eco taxes or fees.” And the company worries that growing concern about “the potential health problems associated with obesity and inactive lifestyles represents a significant challenge to our industry.”

PepsiCo also acknowledges the problem of water scarcity in its Form 10-K. But the company doesn’t cite the potential regulation of plastic bottles as a concern. And the word “obesity”does not appear anywhere in its annual filing.

What’s going on here? It’s possible that Coca-Cola is more aware of social and environmental risks than is its arch rival. More likely, the Coke and Pepsi lawyers don’t agree on what constitutes a “material” risk to their business, and thus has to be reported.

If nothing else, the different Form 10-Ks are evidence that the quality of sustainability disclosure varies widely – even though public companies are legally obligated to tell the SEC and investors about the social, political and environmental risks they face. [click to continue...]

Fortune Brainstorm Green, and the limits of corporate sustainability

Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green

Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green

The 2013 edition of Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference was, by most accounts, a hit. We had a record number of attendees, including more than 50 CEOs of companies and nonprofits, big and small; plenty of entertaining and informative conversation; and a healthy dose of fun, with celebs like Harrison Ford, will.i.am and (my favorite) ultra marathon runner Scott Jurek. As co-chair of the event since the first Brainstorm Green in 2008, I love to reconnect with colleagues and sources, meet new folks and learn from and, occasionally, by inspired by our top-notch speakers. The theme of the conference has been a constant: How can business profitably help solve the world’s most important environmental problems?

Unavoidably, the challenge of an event like Brainstorm Green (as well as a conundrum for anyone who writes about corporate sustainability) turns on the question of how much to cheer or jeer the efforts of companies that are trying to “go green.” My job, as I see it, is to do both–to applaud the leaders, to prod the laggards, and to do my best to tell one from the other. That’s difficult balance to do in a conference setting where the mood is one of bonhomie, where the speakers are our “guests,” and where the presumption is that everyone is doing the best they can. The trouble is, that’s usually not good enough.

Mark Tercek at Brainstorm Green

Mark Tercek at Brainstorm Green

As Mark Tercek, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy, who I interviewed at Brainstorm Green, put it in his excellent new book, Nature’s Fortune:

Nearly every precious bit of nature–teeming coral reefs, sweeping grasslands, lush forests, the rich diversity of life istelf–is in decline. Everything humanity should reduce–suburban sprawl, deforestation, overfishing, carbon emissions–has increased.

Sad but true.

So if corporate America is changing for the better when it comes to the environment–and no doubt, many companies are–the pace of change is too slow and the ambitions of business leaders are too modest. Incremental change is not getting us where we need to go. [click to continue...]

Oxfam America: Big Food is failing the poor

fig-2-brands-72dpi-1280px-nologosNew research by Oxfam America into the social and environmental policies of the world’s 10 biggest food and beverage companies puts Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola at the top of the list and Associated British Foods, Kellogg’s and General Mills at the bottom. In the middle of the pack are Pepsico, Mars, Danone and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft).

Oxfam American said in a presss release that the Big 10 food and beverage companies, which together make $1 billion a day, are “failing millions of people in developing countries who supply land, labor, water and commodities needed to make their products.”

That stark accusation was tempered more than a little during a telephone news conference where Oxfam America launched a new global consumer-focused campaign called Behind the Brands.

Ray Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, described the big food companies as “recognized industry leaders.” Jane Nelson, a senior fellow at Harvard who specializes in corporate responsibility, went further, saying these are among the “most responsible, best managed, well governed companies” in the food sector.

So which is it, really? Are these companies industry leaders or are they failing the poor?

Maybe a little of both. [click to continue...]

A question about GMOs for Naked Juice, Silk, Cascadian Farm, Kashi and Honest Tea: Which side are you on, boys?

Naked Juice says it doesn’t use ingredients produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.

Silk, the company that put soymilk on supermarket shelves, says:

We’re proud to participate in the Non-GMO Project, a no a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.

Cascadian Farm (“We were organic before organic was a trend”) assures consumers that “you can know when you see the “certified organic” USDA seal on the front of our package that GMO crops have not been used.”

You’ll hear much the same from Kashi (“seven of our foods are now officially Non-GMO Project Verified“) and Honest Tea, which says:

Honest Tea doesn’t use any Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) and supports the idea that more transparent labeling will help consumers make clear choices.

The thing is, each of these upstart brands, which tout their commitment to natural or organic product, and to transparency, is owned by a big food conglomerate that opposes GMO labeling.

Think of it this way: Naked Juice (PepsiCo.), Silk (Dean Foods), Cascadian Farm (General Mills) Kashi (Kellogg) and Honest Tea (Coca-Cola) are like kids who don’t agree with their parents.

These, though, are family arguments with big consequences for food shoppers. Big food and agriculture companies funding a campaign which has raised more than $23 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would mandate clear labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients on food packages. PepsiCo, for example, has donated $1.7 million to defeat Prop. 37, while Coca-Cola has spent more than $1.1 million. Kellogg ($612,000), General Mills ($520,000) and Dean Foods ($253,000) are big donors, too. Biotech companies Monsanto and DuPont have given even more — $4 million apiece — according to data compiled by public TV station KCET. [click to continue...]

Anti-hunger, pro-soda: Are you kidding me?

About one in seven Americans — 46 million of us — get help from SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. The government spent about $78 billion on SNAP last year. Participants collect about $133 per person per month. SNAP is a valuable safety net that deserves support, for many reasons, outlined here.

But, by  some unverified estimates, about $4 billion of SNAP money [distributed via electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards] is spent on soda; the government won’t say how much is spent on soda, or anything else. Reasonable people can disagree about whether soda should be taxes. But it’s hard to see why we should be subsidizing it.

It’s no surprise that Coke, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association oppose efforts to stop SNAP money from being used to buy sweetened, carbonated drinks. But they are joined in their opposition by anti-hunger groups like Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center, as writer-consultant Michele Simon noted in her recent report,  Food Stamps: Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans? [PDF, download]

Do these advocacy groups really believe that poor people in America will be better off if they can use SNAP benefits to buy soda?

Or are they being swayed by the money they get from the food industry? [click to continue...]

We need to fix the food system. But how?

“Today’s food system is unfair, ineffective and operates beyond ecological limits,” Mark Lee says, via email.

“Unfair in that some 925 million are malnourished…

“Ineffective in that there are enough calories out there to feed everyone, but we fail to do so (and if we fail to do so for 7 billion, how will we cope with 9-10 by mid-century?)…

“Beyond ecological limits in too many ways too count – freshwater use, soil degradation, climate impacts, you name it.”

Mark is not an environmental activist. He’s the executive director of SustainAbility, a think tank and strategy consultancy that has worked with such food industry clients as Chiquita, Coca-Cola Kellogg’s, Mars and McDonald’s, Nestle, Starbucks and Unilever. He approached me because Sustainability recently released a report called Appetite for Change, about the food industry and how to fix it.

I’ve been writing a lot about food lately because it interests me, because food and agriculture matter a great deal if you care about climate or global poverty or health, and because there’s so much debate about what the path forward should be. Organics? Farmers markets? Genetically engineered crops? Vegetarianism? Local? [click to continue...]

Justin’s Nut Butter: a squeeze play!

Little things matter.

Like squeeze packs.

I’ve surely tossed away hundreds, maybe thousands, of the little silvery plastic packs of ketchup, Gu and Power Bar gels, but I’d never thought much about the environmental impact of squeeze packs.

Then I was introduced to Justin Gold, the founder and CEO of Justin’s Nut Butter, a small but fast-growing company that sells gourmet, organic peanut, almond and hazelnut butters in 1.15 ounce on-the-go squeeze packs that retail for $0.69 to $0.99. These packs were great for business at the Boulder, Colorado-based company, which now gets about 80% of its revenues from single servings. But squeeze packs are a blight, albeit a small one, on the environment because they are made out of several layers of different materials that are welded together and can’t be recycled or composted.

Most small-company CEOs  would have shrugged their shoulders at this problem and moved on. Not Justin. [click to continue...]

Honest Tea CEO: Small isn’t beautiful

Seth Goldman, the president and Tea-e-0 of Honest Tea, made it official today:. The Coca-Cola Co. will exercise its option to buy all of Honest Tea, the Bethesda, Md., maker of organic, healthy beverages.

Coke bought 40% of the firm for a reported $43 million in 2008, a controversial move at the time for the upstart company that positioned itself as a challenger to the conventional way of doing business in the beverage industry.

Seth broke the news in a letter to his shareholders last night, in a blog post this morning and in an interview today with me at the State of Green Business Forum 2011 in Washington, arguing that his mission to “democratize organics” will be supported by Coke..

In an unusual twist to the deal–one that amounts to a vote of confidence in Seth’s leadership–Coca-Cola will allow him to repurchase most of his own equity stake in the company. His name will remain on the bottle, along with that of his co-founder, Yale prof Barry Nalebuff, and the company will continue to operate out of its offices in downtown Bethesda, a short bike ride away from Seth’s home. [Disclosure: I've known Seth for years and we attend synagogue together.]

“This is absolutely still my baby,” he said. [click to continue...]