Intel: Taking a stand on “conflict minerals”

International-CES-Sets-Trends-for-Future-2Last week, I attended my first International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It’s a big  deal: 1.8 million square feet of noisy exhibition space inside a gigantic convention center, 3,200 exhibitors, all of them clamoring for attention, and 152,000 attendees, which explains, among other things, why there were about 1,000 people, no exaggeration, on the line waiting for taxis at the airport. All against the backdrop of Vegas.

I was there to moderate a panel about conflict minerals for Intel, about which, more below, but I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the rest of the show. Most of the gadgetry on display at the show struck me as expensive or useless, or both. No, I don’t want or need an 85-inch bendable TV. No, I don’t want or need wearable computers. (Nor does my dog need an integrated health and wellness platform.) The BMW i3 is a very cool new electric car but I am perfectlyu capable of making my own restaurant reservations, thanks, and I have Pandora on my phone, so I don’t need it built into the vehicle.

In fact, I have just about everything electronic or digital that I need on my phone, my iPad and laptop. As an industry expert named Brian Lam told Nick Bilton of The Times in this excellent summary of CES:

“You only need a phone and a tablet and a laptop, and maybe you need a TV and some headphones, but that covers 90 percent of the needs for 90 percent of the population,” said Mr. Lam, the editor of The Wirecuttera gadget website. “But this industry that employs all of these engineers, and has all of these factories and sales people, needs you to throw out your old stuff and buy new stuff — even if that new stuff” is only slightly upgraded.

That said, I enjoyed learning about the issue of conflict minerals, and meeting Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, who has led the company (and the electronics industry) effort to do something about the fact that the sales of tantulum, tungsten, tin and gold are helping to finance a two-decade old war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I wrote about conflict minerals today for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcased 110-inch curved TV sets, watches that monitor your vital signs, self-driving cars … and the technology industry’s efforts to curb violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those efforts are being led by Intel, the giant (annual revenues of $52bn) maker of microprocessors for computer, tablets and mobile phones, among other things, and its new CEO, Brian Krzanich.

Near the end of a high-profile keynote address in which he demonstrated “smart earbuds”, 3D printing, advances in video gaming and an embedded processor designed to enable “wearable computing“, Krzanich paused and said:

“Okay. I’m going to switch gears for a minute now. … This is not an issue we would normally talk about at CES, but it is an issue that is very important and personal to me. That issue is conflict minerals.”

After he showed a somber video about the devastation in the Congo, where more than 5 million people have died since 1994 – many killed by armed groups using profits from the mining of four minerals, tantulum, tungsten, tin and gold – Krzanich promised that every Intel microprocessor will henceforth be conflict-free. The world’s first conflict-free processors will be validated as not containing minerals sourced from mines that finance fighting in the Congo, he said.

The story goes on to say that not all companies are on board with the effort to curb conflict minerals. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have filed a lawsuit challenging a provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that requires companies to report on their use of conflict minerals.

So this unorthodox, corporate-backed antiwar effort has sparked its own backlash–from business groups. It’s remarkable how the chamber winds up on the wrong side of so many issues.

You can read the rest of my story here. If you are really interested in the topic, here’s the video of my panel with Krzanich, Sasha Lehznev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright, who, I was pleased to read, won a Golden Globe last night for her performance on House of Cards.

[Disclosure: Intel paid me to moderate the panel at CES.]

My sustainability mood swings

800px-Solar_panels_on_house_roofTwo steps forward, one step back.

The other day, Guardian Sustainable Business published my story about SolarCity, a remarkable success story in the world of sustainable business. Solar City, which provides rooftop solar power systems to homes and business, is growing fast, and its stock is on a tear. The company says it will deliver solar energy to 1 million homes by 2018, and last month it started its own foundation to deliver solar to schools in the poorest parts of the world.

Here’s how my story begins:

For US rooftop solar company SolarCity, rapid growth is bringing new opportunities – as well as a backlash.

The San Mateo, California-based firm has installed rooftop solar systems on more than 100,000 homes (by my estimate), and signs up a new customer every five minutes. It employs more than 4,200 people, and hires 15 more workers each day. Shares of the company, which sold for $8 at its initial public offering a little more than a year ago, now trade for $59, as of Friday.

And, in a sign of its maturity, SolarCity has just launched the Give Power Foundation, a non-profit that will donate solar power systems to schools in poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

It’s unusual for a young company that isn’t yet making profits to start a foundation, but Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s founder and CEO, told me by phone: “We’re now at a scale that it’s something that we really want to do, and we’re just going to bear the costs.”

You can read the rest here. And, of course, SolarCity isn’t the only fast-growing solar firm. Sungevity, SunRun, Sun Edison and others are all growing, too, although all are depending on government subsidies, at least for now. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about where the solar industry is going.

Vegas-style innovation

Vegas-style innovation

Now I’m in Las Vegas, a city built on hopes and dreams (“C’mon, baby, just one more spin of the roulette wheel…”) and I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about the future. To be sure, the city’s big hotel and casino operators — MGM Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Caesar’s and others – are investing many millions of dollars to save energy and water, and reduce their carbon emissions and waste. But the Strip is awash in neon every night, the slot machines blare sound and music 24-7, the traffic is horrible (yes, it’s the week of the city’s biggest event, the International Consumer Electronics Show) and the feel of the place is either tacky/ugly/excessive (the $24.99 two-pound hamburger sold in the restaurant in my hotel) or or over-the-top luxurious/excessive. To the right is a banner for a combination strip club and shooting range, enabling patrons to celebrate sexism and violence, under one roof.

I’m guessing my mood to change again in a few hours. I’m going to moderate a panel with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Sasha  Lezhnev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.In a keynote speech at CES on Monday evening, Krzanich announced that all of Intel’s microprocessors are now validated as conflict-free for gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. The company has led the electronics industry’s efforts to cut off the lucrative trade in minerals that supported armed groups in the eastern Congo and its neighbors.

The result? As Krzanich and John Prendergast of the Enough Project wrote in a USA Today op-ed:

Rebel groups now generate an estimated 55 to 75% less funding from three of the four conflict minerals, according to Enough Project field research, because it is much more difficult to sell untraceable minerals on the global marketplace.

This is an important story about an industry trying to do the right thing. More to come…

[Disclosure: Intel is paying me to moderate the discussion on conflict minerals at CES.]

Tim Mohin: Changing business from the inside out

When I went to college, people with a strong social conscience went into politics or government, joined the Peace Corps, taught school, or became public-interest lawyers or doctors– in other words, they did just about anything but go into the business world. That’s no longer true, thank goodness. Today’s students understand that business can be a force for good and my  friend Tim Mohin — we serve together on the board of Net Impact — has written a new book called Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations that helps business people, as well as students, understand how they can have a positive impact inside corporate America. Tim, who is currently direct of corporate responsibility at chip-maker AMD, previously worked on social-responsibility issues at Apple and Intel. His book has been heralded as “essential reading for anyone who wants to build a meaningful career”  by Aron Cramer, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility. Here is a guest post from Tim about that offers a sneak peek at the book.

Like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence, “corporate responsibility” is considered an oxymoron by  many. People are skeptical of corporations and with good reason. Massive corporate scandals ranging from the 2008 mortgage meltdown, to the BP oil spill, to the recent headlines about Wells Fargo and Barclay’s have left a trail of destruction. The cost to repair the damage has been borne by society in the form of taxpayer-funded bailouts and environmental cleanup. Growing distrust in corporations boiled over last fall, sending young people into the streets in the Occupy Wall Street movement. So, at a time when trust in corporations has reached an all-time low, why is interest in corporate responsibility at an all-time high?

Even before the Occupy protesters set up their camps, corporate behavior was under intense scrutiny.  Regulations like “Sarbanes Oxley” and “Dodd-Frank,” required greater levels of transparency, a trend that has been fueled by social media and the Internet.  For more than a decade, companies in all industries have voluntarily published corporate responsibility or sustainability reports. CorporateRegister.com allows you to search 41,238 corporate responsibility reports across 9,153 companies, a number that has been steadily increasing.

Maybe there is a cause and effect here. The corporate scandals of the past have shown by painful example, just how quickly a company’s reputation, and brand value, can be damaged. Company employees, customers and shareholders know more, and increasingly care more, about corporate behavior.   So in today’s world, smart business leaders know that investing in ethical behavior is money well spent.

More important, I believe, is the need of every company to attract and engage talent.  A new younger generation of leaders is rising in corporate America,  and many of them bring social and environmental values to the job and will only work for responsible companies.

My new book, Changing Business from the Inside Out, delivers practical advice to this new group of committed business people. They recognize the power of business to drive positive change in the world. Changing Business From the Inside Out is “field guide” of practical tips, hard-won wisdom and leading edge concepts for people interested in a career in corporate responsibility. Here are the top five tips from the book: [click to continue...]

Ratings, rankings and the world’s most sustainable company

I’m skeptical about efforts to rank and rate green or sustainable companies, and I have been for a time. [See 100 Best Corporate Citizens? What a CROck!] It’s terribly difficult to compare big and small companies, retailers with manufacturers, software firms with oil companies, etc. We once tried at FORTUNE, and gave up because we decided it couldn’t be done right.

Having said that, I’m impressed with the rigor and methodology used by a Canadian magazine called Corporate Knights to produce its 8th annual list of Global 100 Most Sustainable Companies, which it calls “the most extensive data-driven corporate sustainability assessment in existence.” The ratings are transparent and they encompass social as well as environmental metrics, among them energy, carbon, waste and water productivity, diversity and employee turnover, safety and, interestingly, the ratio between CEO and average worker pay–a revealing metric that most such rankings do not include. Disclousre: While I played no part in putting the list together, I did write a profile of Novo Nordisk, the top-ranked company, for Corporate Knights.

A couple of things to note about the list. First, US companies perform poorly. There’s not one US-based company in the top 10. Intel (No. 18) Life Technologies (No. 15) is the highest ranked US-based firm, followed by Intel (18), Agilent (59), Johnson Controls (64), Procter & Gamble (66) and IBM (69). Lest you suspect a Canadian bias, our neighbors to the north did no better. The top-ranked Canadian firm was Suncor (48), which calls itself an “oil sands pioneer. Go figure.

Of the 22 countries with companies that made the list,  the UK led the way with 16 Global 100 companies, followed by Japan with 11 and France and the US with eight. Northern European countries (Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden) punched above their weight, which isn’t surprising.

Int [click to continue...]

Who’s buying renewable energy?

Here are 10 companies that are putting real dollars behind their sustainability rhetoric:

Kohl’s, Whole Foods Market, TD Bank, Swiss Re, Nordea Bank, Adobe Systems, Vestas Wind, News Corp., CLP Holdings and Deutsche Bank.

They’re leaders in buying renewable energy, according to a new report from Vestas and Bloomberg New Energy Finance called the Corporate Renewable Energy Index (CREX) 2011. It’s available for download here.

Those companies are in the top 10, the study says, when ranked by the percentage of the electricity they use that comes from renewable energy. Kohl’s and Whole Foods, for example, buy 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources. Most companies do this by buying renewable energy certificates (RECs). Here’s a table from the report; it’s much easier to read if you click on it to enlarge it: [click to continue...]