When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.

My Greenpeace conundrum

climate-change-pol_1203588cGreenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.

A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:

We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.

This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years. [click to continue…]

Seafood is having its Portlandia moment


Cooking for Solutions is a delightful annual conference, fund-raiser and celebration of seafood sustainability produced every spring by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m just back from the 2013 event, and there is reason to feel good about the progress the seafood industry is making.

Consumers, chefs and, most importantly, major retailers in the US and Europe are more aware than ever that the choices we make about what kinds of fish to eat–and not to eat–have an impact on the health and sustainability of global fisheries.

The result is that, in the last decade or so, virtually every major retailer and food service company in the US and EU has adopted a seafood sustainability policy. Some are stronger than others, but the issue is on the agenda and not going away.

“Large corporations may very well turn out to be our angels of salvation,” said Matt Elliott, an oceans expert at California Environmental Associates, which last year published a landmark report on global fishing practices.

You could say that seafood is having its Portlandia moment. I’m referring, of course, to the hilarious scene on the cable TV show in which a couple interrogate a waitress about the chicken on the menu. (“How much room did the chicken have to roam?”) Chefs who gathered last week in Monterey told me that they are asked by diners if their salmon is wild or farm-raised, and whether their shrimp is local or imported from Asia.

By themselves, consumers can’t drive changes in fishing practices. But when consumers make themselves heard, and emerge as part of a larger ecosystem that includes activist NGOs such as Greenpeace, business-friendly environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, certifying bodies like the flawed but important Marine Stewardship Council and brands like Whole Foods Market and Darden, change happens. Regulation of the oceans–a public commons if ever there was one–is important, but markets, too, can drive sustainability. [click to continue…]

Do the math: Bill McKibben takes on Big Oil

Most Americans own cars. Most cars run on gasoline.

Can we be persuaded to think of the oil industry as the enemy? What about the coal industry, which supplies more than a third of the electricity we use?

“Movements need enemies,” declares Bill McKibben, the author, activist and leader of grassroots group 350.org. So last week, with allies including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, McKibben and 350.org began a 20-city, month-long coast-to-coast tour called Do the Math that targets the fossil fuel industry. It’s designed to invigorate the climate movement by calling upon colleges, foundations and governments to sell their stock in coal, oil and natural gas companies.

The campaign is modeled after the 1980s South Africa divestment campaign, which helped pressure the government to enter negotiations that eventually led to the end of apartheid. To underscore that point, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu will make appearances, on video, during the tour.

It’s time to focus on the polluters, McKibben said last week by phone from Seattle, where the tour kicked off. “We’ve spent so much time focusing on our elected officials, and so little time focusing on the players behind them,” he said.

“The fossil fuel industry is now the tobacco industry,” he told me. “They are now a rogue force in our society.”

Not surprisingly, the oil companies aren’t happy about any of this. Rayola Dougher, a senior economic advisor at the American Petroleum Institute, told me that McKibben’s attacks on U.S. oil companies, if they lead to higher carbon taxes or caps, would raise energy prices and risk American jobs, while doing little or nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. “Demonizing an industry is not a good starting point for dealing with a big and complex issue like this one,” she said. [click to continue…]

Corporate sustainability, by the numbers: Who’s up, who’s down, who cares?

This has been a big week for corporate sustainability rankings, with the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project releasing new reports. Vote Solar and the Solar Power Electric Industries Association showcased the  top 20 corporate users of solar power in the US. A book called Good Company just landed on my desk, along with its own 2012 Good Company Index. And October will bring the World Series, Halloween and, of course, the annual Newsweek “green” rankings of big public companies.

All of which raises a couple of questions.

Do these ratings and rankings matter?

More important: Should they?

Undeniably, they do matter, mostly but not entirely because of the prestige they confer upon companies that do well. Press releases are flying! “Carbon Disclosure Project Salutes Con Edison” (Really?) “PepsiCo Earns Sustainability Accolades.” “GM Named Top Solar User in the U.S. Auto Sector.” This is all well and good. Some middle-management executive had to fill out those CDP forms or buy those solar panels, and why not recognize their efforts with a salute or an accolade? [click to continue…]

Facebook’s coal problem

You’ve heard about the cloud, right? This blog comes to you from the cloud. The cloud is where the bank keeps your money. YouTube, Gmail, Twitter and iTunes live in the cloud. So does a record of all my runs in 2011. The cloud, in essence, is the millions of data centers where information and software are stored and can be accessed by gazillions of computers.

Unfortunately, the cloud is creating problems for the planet.

Which bring us to Facebook and its coal problem. By some accounts, Facebook is the world’s most visited website. Greenpeace, as a result, has made Facebook the target of a campaign called Unfriend Coal, which has its own Facebook pages (of course!) with more than 700,000 fans. (Another 500,000 orFacebook recently opened a big new data center in Prineville, Oregon, where electricity is generated mostly from burning coal.   Greenpeace is asking the social media giant to power its services with renewable energy instead of coal and nuclear power.

In response, Facebook–like the rest of the IT industry–mostly talks about efficiency. The Prineville data center is super efficient, by all accounts. What’s more, to its credit, Facebook is sharing much of what it has learned about making data centers more efficient in its Open Compute project.

The trouble is, efficiency is a necessary, but insufficient response to the threat of climate change. [click to continue…]

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 Power of One: Coca-Cola

“The Power of One” is a series of stories about people who have helped their companies become more sustainable. (See earlier stories on UL Environment, eBay, and Union Pacific.) They can’t do it alone, of course. But by coming up with a good idea, enlisting the help of others and making persuasive arguments, one person can change a company and, sometimes, more. Today’s story — the last in the series, at least for now — is about a manager at Coca-Cola who knows what it feels  like to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Meet Bryan Jacob. Back in 1990, when he made the cover of Weightlifting USA, he was a 21-year-old  student at Georgia Tech, hoping to represent the United States in Olympic Games. He did so, twice–in Barcelona in 1992, when he finished 18th in the Featherweight division and in Atlanta in 1996, when he finished 8th in the  Bantamweight  competition. He was the top U.S. performer in his weight class both times. He’s still fit–with a firm handshake.

It’s a good thing that Bryan is accustomed to heavy lifting  because his current job, as energy and climate protection manager for Coca-Cola, is a big one: He leads Coke’s global effort to reduce the greenhouse gases that are emitted from the 10 million–yes, 10 million!–vending machines and coolers that are part of Coke’s global bottling system. The company and its bottling partners have begun to replace coolers that use the  most common refrigerants, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are also called   fluorinated gases (F-gases), with so-called natural refrigerants such as CO2, propane or isobutane.

Last year, the company and its bottling partners said they expected

that 100 percent of their new vending machines and coolers will be HFC-free by 2015. We’re hopeful our aggregate demand will encourage supply as a means of accelerating the transition to HFC-free refrigeration equipment. This announcement is a direct result of work with Greenpeace that began in 2000.

Yes, that’s right–Coke’s key partner on its journey to natural refrigeration is Greenpeace, which is better known for civil disobedience than corporate partnerships. “The Greenpeace relationship went from very confrontational to one of the most collaborative we have,” Bryan says.

Bryan, in fact, says he’s learned that NGO partners can deliver a lot of value when you are trying to ,spark change in a sprawling company like Coca-Cola. He’s worked with Greenpeace, WWF, the World Resources Institute and even Dr. Rajendra K. Pauchari, the sometimes-controversial chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bryan once brought “Pachy,” as he’s called, to speak with a convention of Coke bottlers in Boca Raton.

Like politics, the environmental movement can create strange bedfellows.

I emailed Amy Larkin, who leads business partnerships for Greenpeace, to ask about her work with Bryan and Coca-Cola. She replied:

Bryan Jacob is the kind of colleague everyone wishes they had.  He is determined, indefatigable and inventive.  Bryan is also open to new ideas — even big crazy ideas that will require a huge amount of work to make real.  Maybe those are his favorite ideas…….not sure.

Greenpeace has worked with Bryan for many years on HFC-free refrigeration and some of our meetings were rather difficult.  Bryan’s entire demeanor and way of working always encourage constructive engagement and he is a central ingredient in our successful outcome with Coca-Cola.

As it happens, Bryan is not one of those environmentalists who grew up green. He figured that he’d one day build dams, bridges, highways and airports, as he worked towards a degree in civil engineering. (“Most of the time, I’m civil,” he jokes, “but when I get agitated I can get hostile.”) Instead, he took a job during college with an environmental consulting firm, got excited about the field and then found his way to Coca-Cola. [click to continue…]

Greenpeace, Kimberly-Clark: the deal

Here’s a press release from Kimberly-Clark, the forest products giant announcing new fiber sourcing standards.  Greenpeace has ended its hard-hitting “Kleercut” campaign. No time right now for analysis, but I want to update yesterday’s post with details of the agreement. (The bold highlights are my own.)

Here, too, is a link to a Greenpeace video celebrating the end of the campaign.

And a link to Greenpeace campaigner Scott Paul’s blog where he asks: “Hey Proctor & Gamble (maker of Charmin and Bounty) and Georgia Pacific (maker of Angel Soft and Brawny), you reading this?”

Scott also writes: “Buy me a beer and I’ll bend your ear with some of the most inspirational, innovative, dedicated and downright hysterical things that happened during this campaign… and all staying within our core values of peaceful protest. Marshall McLuhan and the Quakers would be proud.”


Washington, D.C.– Aug. 5, 2009 — Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the maker of Kleenex, Scott and Cottonelle brands, today announced stronger fiber sourcing standards that will increase conservation of forests globally and will make the company a leader for sustainably produced tissue products. Greenpeace, which worked with Kimberly-Clark on its revised standards, announced that it will end its “Kleercut” campaign, which focused on the company and its brands. [click to continue…]

Shocker! Greenpeace, Kimberly-Clark get huggy

Greenpeace targets Kimberly-Clark
Greenpeace targets Kimberly-Clark

For the last few years, Greenpeace has waged a relentless campaign against Kimberly-Clark, a $19-billion a year forest-products giant whose brands include Kleenex, Huggies, Scott, Pull-Ups and Cottonelle. Greenpeace accused K-C, among other things, of destroying ancient forests in Canada so we can all wipe our noses with Kleenex.

Kimberly-Clark also misled the public about its practices, as I reported back in 2006, citing Greenpeace’s research. (See Are Kleenex Tissues Wiping Out Forests? on Fortune.com.)

Now, it looks as if the antagonists have made peace. Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace invited reporters to a Washington news conference tomorrow (8-5) and while neither side will talk yet, you can bet that they’ve made a deal.

Knowing Greenpeace as I do (my wife worked there for a couple of years), you can also be confident that K-C has agreed to make significant changes in its practices. Maybe the company will use more recycled stock in tissues? Maybe the company will use more wood that’s certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council? For sure, K-C will agree to take better care of Canada’s Boreal Forest, a focal point of the campaign, which began in 2004. We’ll know soon. [UPDATE: Here’s the announcement.]

We already know that this has been a very tough campaign, waged on the Internet, with street protests and at shareholder meetings. [click to continue…]