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.

An odd couple? HR and sustainability

savitz(5)Today’s guest post comes from Andrew Savitz, the author of a new book called  Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line: How Companies Can Leverage Human Resources to Achieve Sustainable Growth (Wiley 2013). As you can guess from the title, Andy argues that employees are the key to creating sustainable companies, but that they–and their colleagues  in human resources–are often overlooked when companies embark on environmental programs. I think he’s onto something. I’ve long thought that the single biggest business driver of corporate sustainability initiatives is the way they help better companies attract better people and motivate the ones they have.

Andy has been his career working with companies on social and environmental issues. A lawyer by training (and before that a Rhodes scholar at Oxford), Andy has been a congressional staffer, the general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs and head of the environmental advisory practice at PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Since 2005, he has led a consultancy called Sustainable Business Strategies.

Here’s our online conversation:

Marc: You say that you’ve written the book “in large measure to bridge the gap between sustainability and HR.” HR? Really? Why do we need human resource people to get involved with sustainability? They don’t know anything about carbon emissions, say, or LED lighting, do they? [click to continue...]

Is CoolPlanet Biofuels too good to be true?

Imagine a company that says it can produce virtually limitless amounts of cheap gasoline, create arable land for food production and solve the climate crisis–all at once.

That’s the promise of CoolPlanet BioFuels.

Mike Cheiky

Mike Cheiky, the company’s founder and CEO, spoke about CoolPlanet’s “negative emissions technology” at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. Yes, negative emissions.

Does that mean, I asked him, that the more you drive a car powered by CoolPlanet’s biofuels, the more CO2 will be pulled out of the air? Yes, he replied.

“The world doesn’t have too much carbon,” Cheiky explained. The problem’s is that the carbon’s in the wrong place. There’s too much in the atmosphere, causing global warming,  and not enough in the soil. Essentially, Cool Planet has a plan to use plants to remove it from the air and then restore it to the land.

Before you decide that this is too good to be true, you should know that Cheiky, a veteran entrepreneur, has persuaded Google, General Electric, BP, ConocoPhillips, NRG Energy, Exelon and venture capital firms Shea Ventures and North Bridge Venture Partners to invest millions of dollars–he won’t say how many millions–in CoolPlanet Biofuels.

“We have been poked and prodded so many ways by so many people,” Cheiky told me. “GE sent 17 people to do their due diligence at a time when we had only 15 employees.”

These investors wrote him checks, he added, because of his track record. “I’ve done six start-ups in my career,” he went on, “and I’ve never had a down round. They’ve all been very successful.” [click to continue...]

Why Google invests in clean energy

Last year, Google invested more than $915 million in clean energy projects–solar, wind and transmission.

That’s a lot of money, even for Google, which had $38 billion in revenues in 2011. The investments don’t appear to be core to the company’s mission of organizing information, and they have attracted criticism, as well as some careless reporting, implying that the Internet giant is exiting the alternative energy business.

Does Google have an energy policy? Does it need one?

To find out,  I recently went to see Rick Needham, Google’s director of green business operations, at the company’s fabled headquarters (well, fabled for a 13-year-old company, anyway) in Mountain View, CA.

I came away not merely persuaded that Google’s energy investments make sense, but thinking that other companies that consume lots of electricity and have a pile of cash on their balance sheets  — Apple, Microsoft and GE come to mind — should consider deploying some of their cash in the clean energy sector.

Clean-energy investing isn’t philanthropy for Google. It’s business. In fact, it’s a classic double-bottom line investment, one that is intended to deliver environmental as well as financial benefits.

[click to continue...]

Why I’m (still) an optimist

Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2011, a year during which we made little or no progress on some of the issues that I care most about: climate change, the long-term federal debt, social mobility (aka the American dream), and our dysfunctional Congress. Yet I remain an optimist.

Texas drought 2011

I could write many words about our woes. Instead, I’ll try to be succinct. On the climate issue, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, we learned recently, and 2011 surely brought further increases.  Concentrations of CO2 are 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming, the Guardian reports. Neither the US nor the UN moved closer to regulating CO2. In a discouraging development, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich backed away from their once-sensible support of greenhouse gas regulation, in what can only be seen as shameless pandering to the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party. Discouraging, too, was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which will slow down the growth of carbon-free nuclear power. So will the failure of Solyndra. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered massive flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a terrible drought in Texas, record wildfires and at least 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken by extreme events, according to the NRDC.. Coincidence? Uh, no.

Like the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the federal budget deficit has been growing.That’s no coincidence either. We’re living beyond our means, whether by burning fossil fuels or taxpayer dollars, and sticking future generations with the cleanup bill. Just last week, the White House asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, raising it to about $16.4 trillion. According to Marketplace Radio, that amounts to about $52,000 for every American. For a typical  family of four, that’s bigger than the mortgage. [click to continue...]

GreenBiz: Innovation is alive and well

Despite policy gridlock (or worse) in Washington, despite cheap abundant natural gas (which threatens the development of renewable energy), despite Solyndra (which highlights the risks of crony capitalism), there is good news in the world of business and sustainability.

Innovation is alive and well in companies big and small.

That’s my takeaway after spending the last 36 hours at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in San Francisco. I’m a senior writer at GreenBiz and let me tell you, it’s been great to get outside the Beltway bubble this week (and not merely because the weather here in SF is spectacular). Here’s are four reasons why:

Nike goes for gold: While she was tantalizingly skimpy on details, the always dynamic Hannah Jones of Nike made clear that the company’s drive to become more sustainable is causing people inside the company to ask ever bolder questions–including how to generate sales without necessarily making and selling more shoes and apparel.

“How do you think about the world of sport and the athlete and human potential in terms of services?” Jones asked. “Could one create revenue streams that are decoupled from any material?”

“Our mission statement isn’t ‘make lots of stuff,” she said. “It’s ‘inspire and innovate on behalf of the athlete.” [click to continue...]

GE’s Mark Vachon: “Gas is massive”

Mark Vachon

How’s GE’s ecomagination  going?

I put that question today to Mark Vachon, who is vice president for ecomagination at GE. He replied by talking about natural gas.

“The large macro trend of gas is massive,” he said. “Our oil and gas business will be a huge beneficiary.”

An abundance of shale gas in the U.S., and methane gas reserves in Australia present a wealth of opportunities for GE, which plays all along the supply chain for natural gas.

“We’re a massive player in gas exploration,” Mark said. “We have a water business that can deal with issues in the fracking process.” And, of course, GE sells lots of gas-burning turbines, including a new combined cycle power plant, currently available in Europe, that enables gas to be burned more efficiently and in concert with renewable energy. (See my June blogpost, GE’s big bet on natural gas)

But can you put “ecomagination and shale gas in the same sentence? Yes,” Mark said. GE will focus on making shale gas cleaner, “with technologies like zero-leak valves” and water filtration products like a mobile evaporator that is basically a truck (see below) “designed to enable on-site frac water recycling, reducing the volume of wastewater and fresh water that needs to be hauled to and from the project site.” [click to continue...]

Biochar: Too good to be true?

Agricultural residents and converted biochar

Would you like to curb or even reverse global warming? Help feed the world? Generate renewable energy?

Biochar is the answer, say its most fervent advocates.

If only life were so simple.

Biochar, alas, isn’t ready yet to be a meaningful solution to the climate crisis, or a way to enhance agricultural productivity at scale. But it’s an intriguing substance that has been around for thousands of years, and the production of biochar may prove to be one of the  technologies that governments and business deploy to deal with the threat of climate change. As, potentially, a carbon negative technology, it’s worth a look.

Biochar, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a charcoal-like substance that is created today by pyrolysis of biomass. In layman’s terms, biochar is made by taking organic material, like agricultural waste, heating it to very high temperatures, and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen.

Jonah Levine

To learn about biochar, I met recently in Boulder, Colorado, with Jonah Levine, who is a co-owner of his own small biochar business and, until recently, was an executive with a startup called Biochar Engineering.   Jonah, who is 30 and lives near Boulder, got involved with biochar when a friend asked him to organize a conference on the technology in 2009 at the University of Colorado. A passionate environmentalist, he had previously worked as a wildlife biologist and as an engineer advising utilities on how to incorporate renewable energy into the grid.

Now he’s bullish on biochar.

“I feel like like I’m watching the beginning of an industry,” Jonah says. “Within a  decade, I feel this will be a functional business space.” [click to continue...]

GE’s big bet on natural gas

General Electric Co. (GE) is betting big on natural gas.

The $150-billion a year company, whose power plants generate about one-fourth of the world’s electricity, today announced a new natural-gas power plant that it says is more efficient and flexible than any other in the market.

By phone from Paris, where the announcement was made, Steve Bolze, president of GE Power & Water, told me:  “This is about transforming the industry over the next five or 10 years.”

GE says it invested more than $500 million in the new plant development. It will be manufactured in France and sold first in Europe and Asia, and then later in the U.S.

One key selling point of the new plant is its unprecedented flexibility: It can ramp up and down rapidly, and thus be easily combined with wind and solar power plants that generate electricity intermittently.

It’s also efficient enough to work as a generator of baseload power, Bolze said. Here’s a GE webpage describing the plant and its operation. [click to continue...]

How GE learned to think small (and serve the poor)

GE is good at big: It makes big wind turbines, big jet engines, big locomotives. These businesses require lots of technology, they have high barriers to entry, and they are capital intensive.

But to generate growth in emerging economies, which have fewer resources, GE is learning to think small.

Recently, the global manufacturing giant (2010 revenues: $149 billion) gave its imprimatur to the Sunspring, a small, solar-powered, water purification machine that serves the global poor, costs just $25,000 and was invented by a self-taught engineer who owns a small business in small-town Colorado.

Interestingly, it was not just the business of GE that made the connection to Jack Barker, the 48-year-0ld inventor of the Sunspring, but the GE Foundation, which last year asked him to help with disaster relief in Haiti. It’s an example of how the company’s charitable endeavors can have an unexpected payback.

Bob Corcoran, who runs GE Foundation, told me the other day that its work has exposed GE to “different thinking about how we can adapt our technology and our products for an increasingly important market,” namely places in the global south that lack clean water and reliable electric power. [click to continue...]