What a long, strange trip it’s been for McDonald’s Bob Langert

Bob Langert worked in logistics for McDonald’s in the late 1980s when he was asked to take on a “temporary” six-month assignment to get chlorofluorocarbons out of the company’s clamshell packages.

Twenty years later, Bob has worked with WWF and Conservation International on marine stewardship and sustainable beef, spent a decade with Temple Grandin dealing with animal welfare issues, visited chicken farms and slaughterhouses, picked tomatoes with migrant workers in Florida, lectured on sustainability in China and taken a nine-day raft trip down the Amazon River with his pals at Greenpeace.

“I never, ever imagined this,” Bob said. “To have the good fortune to do this work, and make a difference in the world is beyond my expectations.”

I interviewed Bob, who is vice president for corporate social responsibility, at McDonald’s, today at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago. We talked about what he’d learned about working with NGOs, his accomplishments, frustrations and whether selling hamburgers can be “green.”

Here are a few highlights:

A pioneering partnership: Langert’s work with packaging led to a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, which ruffled feathers in the corporate world and the environmental community.

“Fred Krupp [EDF’s chief] was a visionary back then,” Bob said. “It was not politically correct to work with big companies.”

EDF’s crew did a shift working in a McDonald’s, and proceeded to help with dozens of initiatives—from trimming the size of straws to using recycled paper in napkins.

Recalled Bob: “We didn’t spend one penny more. We saved millions and millions of pounds of packaging and costs.”

The future of fish: McDonald’s joined with the WWF to develop guidelines for the companies that supply its fish. What’s the business case, I asked, for investing corporate time and money in sustainable fisheries?

“Assured supply,” Langert replied. “The guy in charge of buying fish for McDonald’s, he was really concerned with being able to buy fish 10 or 20 years from now….The No. 1 job of everyone in supply chain at McDonald’s is to make sure we have stuff on the menu tomorrow.”

This kind of long-term thinking—so rare in big public companies—is a key to sustainability.

Picking tomatoes: When McDonald’s was urged to support efforts by migrant workers in Florida to win better wages, Langert worked side by side with the pickers. “ I couldn’t keep up with people half my size,” he remembered. “Females doing the work all day long in the sun and you see the living conditions which are not good at all.” Just last month,  the workers hashed out an agreement that should bring them higher pay.

Bears and the Amazon: When Greenpeace protesters dressed as chickens picketed a McDonald’s in London, accusing the company of destroying the Amazon, Langert’s first job was to calm down his colleagues.

He recalled saying: “Let’s not get all in a tizzy about their tactics. Greenpeace doesn’t have an advertising budget, so they had to use McDonald’s to get the word out. Let’s look at the issue.” The allegation was that tropical forest was being cut down to grow soy to feed chickens in Europe that became McNuggets.

When he asked trusted partners at Conservation International and WWF about the charge, he decided Greenpeace had a point. He approached the group and, before long, McDonald’s, Greenpeace and big suppliers like Cargill had agreed to stop buying soy from deforested land.

The raft trip came later. “We spent nine days—four of us from McDonald’s, four of us from Greenpeace, to get the lay of the land. I gave up a Chicago Bears Superbowl game to go so that tells you where my passion is. Anyone who knows me knows that besides my family and my faith, it’s the Chicago Bears.”

Langert’s to-do list: He’d like to find new ways to engage consumers in McDonald’s sustainability work. The company serves about 64 million people a day.

He also wants to do more to reduce the environmental impact of the company’s 33,000 stores, most of which are  owned and operated by others. “Energy’s a big issue for us,” he said. New initiatives are on the way, he hinted.

The problem with burgers: Because beef has such a big environmental footprint, I asked Bob how he could reconcile the company’s desire to grow—and sell more beef—with its environmental ethic. I told him that my rabbi, Fred Dobb, has said that one of the easiest things people can do to help the planet is to eat less beef, and asked if McDonald’s would try to wean its customers away from Big Macs.

“I’d like to talk with your rabbi,” Bob replied. He acknowledged the beef production has a big footprint, but said that “at the end of the day, we’re going to give people what they want. We’re going to do it in a good, responsible, clean, safe way. We’ve tried veggie burgers. They hardly sell at all. The day we can sell 500 a week in a restaurant, they’ll be on our menu forever and ever. I don’t have angst. You’ve got to face the realities of the world. And the reality of the world is that people eat protein from livestock and meat. Nothing wrong with that from my moral compass. I respect others that have a different moral compass. It’s our job as a company to make things better, though. We’re starting on that path–working with WWF on sustainable beef. That’s the  next step.”

Certainly McDonald’s offers choices to those who would prefer to avoid beef. Hey, the company even gave out pedometers and yoga CDs a few years ago to encourage people to be more active. But…given the climate crisis and the obesity crisis, maybe the next step ought to be to encourage those 64 million customers to make choices that are healthier for themselves and for the planet.

The green jobs debate (cont’d)

Nat Keohane

In a blogpost the other day (Cancun can’t: Ten reasons why the climate talks will fail), I devoted a paragraph (see below) to what could have been a longer critique of the way environmental groups tried to sell legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions as a jobs program. I was reflecting my sense that green groups, in an effort to get cap-and-trade through the Senate during a recession, had latched onto a convenient but specious argument about “green jobs” that polled well, instead of trying to make what was a politically more-challenging argument: That we ought to adopt climate protection, despite its  modest short-term costs, because it’s important to protect the climate. Let me add that this question of political messaging isn’t an either-or; of course the green groups talked about climate along with jobs, and energy security, and any other semi-reasonable claim they could make on behalf of cap-and-trade.

But the debate, it seemed to me, was not as honest as it could or should have been. One word that rarely appears in any messaging from the green groups is “sacrifice”–even though doing the right thing about climate will require some short-term sacrifice. Another word you don’t hear much is “moral.”

In any event, I singled out Environmental Defense as a proponent of the green jobs argument. I did so because I remembered TV commercials like this one from EDF which says “Carbon Caps = Hard Hats,” and leaves viewers with the impression that cap-and-trade is a jobs creation program. I could have just as easily cited the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club or the Apollo Alliance (“working to catalyze a clean energy revolution that will put millions of Americans to work in a new generation of high-quality, green-collar jobs”).

Today, two economists who work at EDF — Nat Keohane and Gernot Wagner — posted a very useful response to my blog at EDF’s excellent Market Forces blog. I’ve posted it below–note in particular the Peterson Institute study which shows that carbon caps would create some (green) jobs and eliminate other (brown) jobs.  In a phone conversation, Nat told me that he was disappointed in my comment because EDF has been extremely careful not to oversell the green jobs argument–certainly more careful than opponents of climate regulation who made wildly  overstated claims that carbon caps would kill millions of  jobs. He’s got a point, although EDF’s political messaging around cap-and-trade was, inevitably, not as nuanced as the writings of its PhD. economists. I’m hoping to have a conversation with Nat and Gernot about “lessons learned” and  “where-do-we-go-from-here” before long.

Marc Gunther lists ten reasons why “Cancun can’t.” We won’t go into his other nine points here, but number three on the list hit home:

Environmentalists have been disingenuous about the climate issue. They’ve argued that regulation of carbon dioxide will create green jobs and grow the economy. Typical is this graphic from Environmental Defense. (“Get a step-by-step picture of how a carbon cap will spark new jobs, lift the economy and clean the air.”) Uh, no. Most economists agree that dealing with global warming will entail short term costs. (See Eric Pooley’s excellent analysis at Slate.)

Talking about jobs is one of the most difficult things to do well in the arena of climate policy. The jobs issue is highly politically charged—and for good reason, given the state of the economy. But it struck us as unfair for Marc to use EDF as his bête noire.

To begin with, the graphic that Marc links to doesn’t make the claim he ascribes to it. We weren’t saying that climate policy was a free lunch. What we were pointing out was that doing something about climate can also create good jobs in some unexpected places. More on that in a minute.

Gernot Wagner

We have bent over backwards to be as balanced and rigorous as possible in our assessment of the economics of climate change.

This turns out to be perfectly illustrated by Eric Pooley’s analysis—the same one Marc links to.

Eric’s indeed excellent analysis makes two points:

First, there is a broad consensus that the cost of climate inaction would greatly exceed the cost of climate action.

That’s the main, often-forgotten point because it seems so obvious: “it’s cheaper to act than not to act.”

We should really stop here and reflect on that for a second. Many—if not most—economists do, in fact, agree on that statement and have for a while.

But that’s not our point here, either.

Small but positive

Eric’s second point concerns the cost side of the ledger. The irony here is that Eric cites our analysis as highlighting that the costs of reducing emissions will be real, but small:

The second area of consensus concerns the short-term cost of climate action—the question of how expensive it will be to preserve a climate that is hospitable to humans. The Environmental Defense Fund pointed to this consensus last year when it published a study [PDF] of five nonpartisan academic and governmental economic forecasts and concluded that “the median projected impact of climate policy on U.S. GDP is less than one-half of one percent for the period 2010-2030, and under three-quarters of one percent through the middle of the century.”

That’s a mouthful.

In short, yes, the best economic studies show that there will be a cost to climate action. The costs are so small that they often fall within the general noise of model predictions, but they are there. There’s no denying that, and we never have. And yes, it was a much-cited EDF study [PDF] that makes this point, as well as a more recent update [PDF].

Just to be clear: Marc points to us as proponents of the “free lunch” theory, and then points to Eric as the best source on the costs—while Eric actually cites us as fairly and accurately surveying the available evidence on costs.

So did we contradict ourselves? Uh, no.

There is no contradiction between the following two assertions:

  1. There will be modest short-term economic costs associated with reducing emissions (although those will be much smaller than the economic costs of not reducing emissions!); and
  2. Policies to reduce emissions, like a cap-and-trade program, will lead to job creation. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering ready for prime time?

2010 has been a bad year for climate, and an even worse year for climate policy. But for that very reason, it’s been a good year for geoengineering—the notion that humans can deliberately manipulate the climate and cool the earth.

Official Washington is starting to take geoengineering seriously: The Government Accountability Office and a bipartisan task force of experts convened by the New America Foundation will soon report on geoengineering. Bill Gates has invested in geoengineering research. Environmental groups–notably Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist of Environmental Defense Fund–have engaged in the conversation. On a parochial note, at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference last spring, Stewart Brand talked about why geoengineering is important, to a rapt audience that included Bill Ford and Lee Scott.

David Keith

David Keith, a leading scholar of geoengineering who administers Gates’ $4.6 million grant with  with Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, also spoke at Brainstorm Green. So I was pleased to have a chance to reconnect with him at the excellent annual conference run by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the University of Montana in Missoula.  I expected him to be pleased by the momentum gathering behind  geoengineering lately, but I was wrong.

“I think things are moving too fast,” David told me. “Research programs can be killed by spending too much money too fast.” Besides, he said, people need time to wrap their head around geoenginnering. (Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post recently described it as playing God with the weather. ) “This is a topic—the first time people hear about it, they have wild ideas,” he said.

As I’ve written before – see this, this and this – geoengineering raises a host of thorny ethical, political and governance issues. Who gets to control the earth’s thermostat? Who decides if and when to deploy geoengineering techniques? Which should be used?

At SEJ, David was on a panel with Dane Scott, director of the center for ethics at the University of Montana, and journalist Eli Kintisch, author of a recent book about geoengineering called Hack the Planet. They all seemed to agree that the technology to cool the earth now exists—either by reflecting sunlight back into the sky, an approach known as solar radiation management, or by capturing carbon dioxide from the air. (Keith has a for-profit startup called Carbon Engineering designed to do just that.) They also agreed that the moral ethical issues surrounding geoengineering are daunting. [click to continue…]

Fred Krupp: Seemingly indestructible

Fred_TCErickson-RF_CC

Fred Krupp is like a Timex watch.

timex-ws4

He takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Those of you old enough to remember the commercials when Timex tortured its seemingly indestructible watches, using high divers, water skiers, dishwashers, jackhammers, and the propeller of an outboard motor, know what I mean.

Except that the instruments of torture that Fred has endured as he has labored, literally for decades, to get climate change legislation through Congress include coal-state Senators, Republican obstructionists, Washington trade associations, a largely indifferent press corps  and left-wing green groups that accuse the Environmental Defense Fund, which he leads, of selling out to big business.

If nothing else, you’ve got to admire his persistence.

It can’t be easy to calmly discuss the need for cap-and-trade legislation and the challenge of getting 60 votes in the Senate while oil is fouling the Gulf of Mexico, global temperatures are rising and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are reaching dangerous levels.

Yet that’s Fred–calm, rational, pragmatic and seemingly undeterred by the fact that there appears to be only an outside chance that climate-change legislation will be passed this year, that next year looks a whole lot worse and that the congressional clock is ticking down.

Today, EDF invited reporters to the Washington offices of the Glover Park Group to hear Fred and Steve Cochran, the group’s chief lobbyist, make a last-ditch plea for a scaled-back bill, one with an emissions cap that initially covers only the utility industry.

They conceded for the first time publicly that EDF won’t get the economy-wide cap that it really wants and also, for the first time, gently criticized  President Obama and urged him to back up his climate-change rhetoric with action. [click to continue…]

The Gulf disaster, and you can hum along

So much has been written about the disaster in the Gulf that I’ve felt no need until now to add my two cents. But I’ll ask you to check out this video from the Environmental Defense Fund which uses music and images to get to the heart of the issue. Better, I might add, than our president did last night.

Please, let’s not allow this crisis to pass without taking action to cap carbon emissions and promote clean energy. This is about our legacy.

Here are a few words about the video from David Yarnold, the executive director of Environmental Defense Fund:

From a comfortable distance the BP oil disaster is depressing and horrific. But up close, it’s worse.
Two days in the Gulf of Mexico left me enraged – and deeply resolved. Both the widespread damage and the inadequacy of the response effort exceeded my worst fears. I’d spent a full day on the Gulf and we ended up soaked in oily water and seared by the journey.
By Tuesday night, I was home. My throat burned and my head was foggy and dizzy as I showed my pictures and video to my wife, Fran, and my 13-year-old daughter, Nicole, on the TV in the family room.
Images of the gooey peanut-butter colored oil and the blackened wetlands flashed by. Pictures of dolphins diving into our oily wake and brown pelicans futilely trying to pick oil off their backs popped on the screen. And, out of nowhere, Nicole put on the music from the season finale of Glee.
With all these horrific images on the screen, she had turned on the show’s final song of the year, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” The song, a slow, sweet, ukulele and guitar-driven version, couldn’t have added a deeper sense of tragic irony.
I choked up. And then that resolve kicked in: I wanted anyone/everyone to see what our addiction to oil had done to the Gulf and to contrast that with the sense of hope and possibility that “Somewhere” exudes.
Long story short, last weekend, Peter Rice, Chairman of Fox Networks Entertainment, gave Environmental Defense Fund the green light to use the song. The pictures you’ll see were shot by two incredibly talented EDF staffers, Yuki Kokubo and Patrick Brown – and a few are mine.
The inspiration was Nicole’s. This is for her, and for all of our kids – and theirs to come.

Walmart: Still the green giant

051026_MB_GreenWalmart_exWalmart and GE are the superpowers of corporate sustainability. They have enormous impact (WMT) and influence (GE). Recently, I hosted a dinner about sustainability for Motorola where an executive named Bill Olson described how the company developed its Eco-Moto W233 Renew carbon neutral, energy efficient, environmentally friendly phone. To do so, Motorola needed a company that would sell it recycled plastic for the phone. That was GE. It also needed a retailer to enthusiastically sell the phones. That was Walmart. In fact, as Bill recalled, WMT exec told him that giant retailer would before long be selling nothing but “green” phones.

The point is, WMT and GE are changing business, often in unseen ways. So it’s worth keeping up with their efforts to meet their own ambitious sustainability goals. Where are they succeeding? Where are they falling short? How strong is their commitment?

WMT’s 2010 Global Sustainability Report, which was released recently, provides a snapshot of the retailer’s work. The 47-page report (available here) is, if nothing else, a reminder of the scope  and depth of WMT’s efforts—the company is buying renewable power, reducing packaging, reducing waste, making its fleet more efficient, and selling more sustainable products, and not just here in the U.S.

Here are some highlights:

Bentonville Buddies: Mike Duke and Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp
Bentonville Buddies: Mike Duke and Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp

When CEO Mike Duke took over last year from Lee Scott, there were questions about his commitment to the sustainability efforts. He now appears to be a believer. In the introduction to the report, he writes that  WMT has been able to “broaden and accelerate” its commitment to sustainability even during the recession. And he says:

Sustainability continues to make Walmart a better company by reducing waste, lowering costs, driving innovation, increasing productivity and helping us fulfill our mission of saving people money so they can live better.

That’s about as good a summary of the business case for sustainability as you’ll find. [click to continue…]

Two cheers for Wal-Mart’s CO2 pledge

WMT-EDFUntil now, Walmart’s bold sustainability efforts were marred by a glaring omission.

The $405-billion a year retailer has worked hard since 2005 to save energy, reduce waste and sell more sustainable products.

But it resisted pressures to reduce or hold steady its own greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, its carbon emissions have grown, as the middle graphic below shows. (There’s a cleaner version in WMT’s responsibility report, here.) When it comes to global warming, Walmart would appear to be doing more harm now than it was three or five years ago.

en_c_impact1

Today, Walmart made its first major commitment to reduce greenhouse gases–although, in typical WMT fashion, rather than set a tough goal that might affect its own growth curve, the company plans to turn up the pressure on its thousands of suppliers to reduce their emissions. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering inevitable?

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.”

But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering.

Some people believe that it is all but certain.

Geoengineering, as you probably know, is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planet to counter global warming. It can take a number of forms, as the graphic below shows, some perhaps still to be discovered. Long a taboo subject, geoengineering is being talked about openly these days by scientists, environmentalists and policy thinkers.

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The National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on geoengineering in June. Influential books including SuperFreakonomics and Whole Earth Discipline, by longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand, argue that it’s time to take geoengineering seriously. A congressional subcommittee held its second hearing on geoengineering just last week.

Among those testifying was Keith, who directs the energy and environmental systems group at the University of Calgary and, interestingly, also leads a team of engineers who are developing a technology to capture CO2 from ambient air. I heard him speak a week ago during a six-hour workshop on geoengineering organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit known for its pragmatism. EDF invited me to attend, on the condition that I seek permission from the scientists before quoting them. [click to continue…]

The power of small changes

When Chris McKenna, who manages a fleet of trucks for Poland Spring, learned that the company’s drivers were racking up as much as 1,400 hours a month of idle time, he saw an opportunity to make a difference. Running truck engines in winter kept the cabs warm — the company is based in Maine — but it cost Poland Spring money and polluted the air.

To see which of the company’s 65 drivers were racking up the most idle time, McKenna ranked them, based on data from onboard computers. “All we did was talk to them about it, and put a list up in the break room,” he told me. “Human nature, no one wants to be at the bottom of the list.” To sweeten the deal, the 10 drivers with the lowest idling time got a gift card for fuel they could use for their own cars.

The results were dramatic. Idle time dropped from 1,400 hours in February 2007 to 1000 hours in February 2008 to just 380 hours in February 2009. Depending on fuel costs, cutting idle time has saved the company thousands of dollars a year—roughly $20,000 during 2008, for example.

There are two lessons here. First, as I wrote recently about OPower, changing behavior is a powerful and low-cost way to curb climate change. Second, small changes can add up to big impacts, as the Environmental Defense Fund makes clear in this cool video from its Innovation Exchange website.

As EDF notes, fleet vehicles are driven hard, averaging nearly double the mileage, fuel consumption and emissions of personal vehicles. Currently, EDF says there are more 3 million corporate fleet vehicles in the United States emitting 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

I spoke with Chris McKenna last summer while helping EDF write a series of case studies on greening fleets. (The case studies [click to continue…]

The Great Wall embraces Wall Street

Here comes a new carbon finance market, this one with Chinese characteristics.

In the latest sign that China takes the threat of global warming seriously, Chinese business executives with close ties to the government have launched a voluntary market in Beijing to buy and sell carbon credits.

Just don’t call it cap-and-trade, which is the regulatory approach embodied in the climate legislation pending in the U.S. Congress. The “cap” part of cap-and-trade remains anathema in China. As a developing country where billions of people earn less than $3,000 a year, China simply won’t accept mandatory limits on its emissions of greenhouse gases.

David Yarnold, Environmental Defense Fund
David Yarnold, Environmental Defense Fund

But the Chinese have enlisted western partners to build a market that will, as they put it, “limit and incentivize.” The theory is that a voluntary market in carbon credits will limit emissions by providing financial incentives to Chinese companies to develop renewable energy, promote energy efficiency and, above all, find environmentally-friendly ways to burn coal. Some of that money would come from outside China and would would come from within.

This could lay the groundwork for a mandatory market in the not-too-distant future.

That, at least, was my takeaway from a Low Carbon Conference held today in New York that brought together leaders of the world’s big stock exchanges, energy industry executives, environmentalists and experts in carbon finance. [Disclosure: I hosted the event for BlueNext, a French company that recently announced a partnership with the China Beijing Environmental Exchange to develop carbon trading in China.] [click to continue…]