BrightFarms: Scaling salad, locally

image_11Paul Lightfoot, the CEO of BrightFarms, pitched his company during an American Idol-like panel called Great Green Ideas at Fortune Brainstorm Green. He didn’t win the audience vote, but I think BrightFarms is a great idea, so I decided to write about the company for Guardian Sustainable Business.

BrightFarms builds hydroponic greenhouses in cities to grow lettuces, tomatoes and herbs for supermarkets. Retail chains are intrigued: They can satisfy their consumer’ appetite for local food, and be assured of a predictable supply of healthy, fresh vegetables. While hydroponic farming isn’t new, BrightFarms has developed an innovative business model that should enable the company to finance its expansion.

The result is that BrightFarms is growing (pun intended) at a nice clip. This month, it announced plans to build a greenhouse in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Here’s how my story  begins:

Most of the organic baby greens sold in Washington DC supermarkets are not “green” at all. They’re grown in the Salinas Valley in California, which has been called the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet. Then they are shipped in refrigerated trucks roughly 2,800 miles across America.

Paul Lightfoot thinks there’s a better way to get fresh lettuce, tomatoes and herbs into the hands of supermarket shoppers. Lightfoot is chief executive of a startup called BrightFarms, which builds and operates urban, hydroponic greenhouse farms. The company operates a greenhouse farm in Philadelphia, it’s building another on a massive rooftop in Brooklyn, and it is developing farms in St Louis, Kansas City, St Paul and Oklahoma City.

You can read the rest here.

Paul Lightfoot

Paul Lightfoot

The aptly-named Paul Lightfoot, by the way, is a marathon runner, which naturally predisposed me to like him and BrightFarms. He joins a distinguished group of “green” marathon runners including Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, Paul Polman of Unilever, “Speedy” Seth Goldman of Honest Tea, Tony Hansen of Fortune Brainstorm Green, Jason Graham-Nye of gDiapers, DOE solar guru Christina Nichols, ethical sourcing expert Melissa Schweisguth, Natalie Bailey of the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group and Sheryl O’Loughlin of the Nest Collective. If I’ve forgotten anyone, by all means let me know by email or in the comments.

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...]

In defense of environmental extremism

David Brower and friends

David Brower and friends

The other night, I saw A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary history of the environmental movement, as part of the excellent DC Environmental Film Festival. The movie was OK, worth seeing, but not great, a bit PBS-like in its sweep.  By trying to cover a  lot, the filmmakers mostly skim the surface: Here’s Sierra Club  founder John Muir, there’s Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, remember when Jimmy Carter put a solar heater on the White House roof, say hello to Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben, meet Wangari Maathai, and let’s not overlook environmental justice and the Copenhagen climate talks, and wasn’t that Buckminster Fuller? Nor does the film look critically at environmentalism; it’s narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.

FierceGreenFire_posterHaving said that, the film, sometimes by design and sometimes inadvertently, manages to deliver a useful reminder about radicals and rabble-rousers: They are often the ones who drive change. Had Barry Goldwater been an environmentalist, he might have said that extremism in defense of the earth is no vice and that moderation, when it comes to climate change, is no virtue. The environmental movement’s heroes, at least in this telling, are David Brower and Lois Gibbs and Chico Mendes and Greenpeace, and not those who work inside the Beltway or travel to UN conferences. At the very least, grass-roots, bottom-up activism created the conditions that drove change in Washington.

Consider, for example, these stirring words from a presidential State of the Union address, which is (too) briefly excerpted in the movie: [click to continue...]

Investing in nature

This is a good time to consider “impact investing,” and if you don’t know why, check the latest statement from your savings account or money market fund. My Vanguard money market fund is paying 0.04 percent interest; a Bank of America savings account pays 0.01 percent.

You don’t need an MBA to understand that the financial return on those investments is close to zero. The social or psychic returns? No better.

Mark Tercek, the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, happens to have an MBA (from Harvard), and he spent more than 20 years at Goldman Sachs before leaving in July 2008 (good timing!) to lead TNC. So it’s no surprise that he has introduced impact investing, in the form of interest-bearing Conservation Notes, to the conservancy.

Investors can lend money–minimum $25,000–to The Nature Conservancy to help the organization protect natural resources.They get a modest payback, along with the knowledge that their money is doing good. “It’s an investment-grade opportunity to achieve environmental impact on the ground,” Mark told me, when we spoke by phone the other day. [click to continue...]

Scott Jurek (and other vegans I like)

Scott Jurek at Pacers in Clarendon

“Believe it or not, there were two things I used to hate–vegetables and running,” Scott Jurek says. ”

Which only goes to show you how much people can change.

Jurek is a vegan and one of the world’s all-time greatest ultra-runners — “ultras” are races longer than marathons, often much longer. Scott has won the world’s most prestigious ultras many times, including seven consecutive victories in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. In 2010, he set the U.S. record for most miles run in a 24-hour period by covering 165.7 miles, which is more than six marathons. Think about that for a moment.

The other night, Scott led a group of several dozen runners (including me) on a 3-mile jog from The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Va., to Pacers running store in Clarendon, to celebrate the publication of his new book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ve just finished the book–it’s an autobiography, a guide to running, a recipe book and, more broadly, a story about the importance of pursuing your goals, whether or not you achieve them.

Eating and running, he writes, are “simple activities, common as grass. And they’re sacred.”

Pilgrims seeking bliss carry water and chop wood, and they’re simple things, too, but if they’re approached with mindfulness and care, with attention to the present and humility, they can provide a portal to transcendence. They can illuminate the path leading to something larger than ourselves.

This isn’t to say that running will solve the world’s problems, or yours. But, as Scott writes

Move your body and fill it with healthy food and you will be transformed.

I’ve met Scott a couple of times now, and I have to say that I am impressed, not so much with his extraordinary accomplishments as a runner (which strike me as near-superhuman, and therefore not relevant to the rest of us)  but with his thoughtfulness (he’s smart, inquisitive and well-read) and  his purposeful approach to life, notably his plant-based diet. The fact that he’s a world-class runner and a vegan may well be coincidental–though I don’t think that’s so–but at the very least he is proof that a plant-based diet is no obstacle to good health and athletic stardom. [click to continue...]

On the run with Team Nature

It’s no surprise that many runners care about the environment. We depend on the outdoors to enjoy our sport, and most of us love to run in beautiful places.

But, unlike so many other cause-oriented nonprofits or charities–think of the Race for the Cure or Run MS–environmental groups have been slow to take advantage of the opportunity to connect the work they do to the running world.

The Nature Conservancy is trying to change that, which is how I found myself at the start of the GW Parkway Classic 10-mile race, which goes from Mount Vernon to downtown Alexandria, on Earth Day, a drizzly Sunday morning. Here in the capital region, and elsewhere around the world, Nature Conservancy chapters have organized Team Nature (“Healthy You, Healthy Planet’) to encourage people to get outside and run, and to raise money for the conservancy’s work.

When I had the opportunity to join Team Nature for today’s race–thanks to Mark Tercek, the Nature Conservancy’s CEO, and Kate Hougan, the regional marketing director–I was delighted to do so. TNC does important work, including efforts to protect and restore Chesapeake Bay, which I heard about today from Mark Bryer, who also ran the race. Plus I knew Scott Jurek would be there.

I’m too old for heroes, especially sports heroes, but I am a huge admirer of Scott, who I met recently for the first time. In a terrific book about running called Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (which set off the minimalist running craze, a topic for another day), author Christopher  McDougall writes:

Scott was the top ultrarunner in the country, maybe in the world, arguably of all time.

Scott, who is 38, is a seven-time winner of the  Western States 100-mile endurance run, a trek through the remote and rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, and he set a course record the first time he ran the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile run through Death Valley where temperatures routinely top 120 degrees. [click to continue...]

Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue...]

Brainstorm Green’s all-star team

William Clay Ford Jr.

William Clay Ford Jr.

Before I head to Copenhagen this week for the global climate extravaganza, I want to bring you the latest news about Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. I’m delighted by the caliber of leaders and thinkers who have agreed to speak at the event, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, who was a huge hit last year, will be back in 2010. Ford (the company) is one of the few bright spots in the U.S. auto industry, as you know, and while it took a long while coming, the firm seems committed to hybrids, electric cars and other environmentally-friendly technologies, including wheat-straw reinforced plastic and other bio-based materials. Hybrid sales are taking off, as the company recently reported:

  • Ford Motor Company’s year-to-date hybrid sales are 73 percent higher than the same period in 2008, fueled by the introduction of hybrid versions of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan
  • More than 60 percent of the sales of Fusion Hybrid are by non-Ford owners – with more than 52 percent of those customers coming from import brands.
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Stewart Brand

One of the best books that I’ve read in a long time is Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand, so I’m thrilled to announce that Stewart will be featured at Brainstorm Green. In the book, he brings a fresh perspective to nuclear power (he’s for it), geo-engineering (he’s intrigued) and megacities (they are both green and engines of economic growth). You can be sure he will challenge conventional wisdom at the conference.

Three powerhouse leaders of the enviromental movement–Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense and Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy–are also planning to attend. Fred and Frances have ben at the event before, and they both plugged into the Washington scene, which will surely be a topic this spring, while Mark, formerly of Goldman Sachs, will be able [click to continue...]

The Nature Conservancy’s Mark Tercek sees REDD

Mark Tercek left Goldman Sachs after a long and successful career midway through 2008, just before the global financial meltdown. Good timing, except that Tercek moved on to become the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest environmental organization, as  the global climate crisis is intensifying.

He feels the pressure. There’s more work than ever to do, and money is tight at the conservancy. “This is really hard,” Tercek told me recently. “What a responsibility we have to get this right.”

Mark Tercek

Mark Tercek

By “this,” Tercek means climate change policy in general and REDD in particular. REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation, and it’s an absolutely crucial strategy for dealing with climate change that requires slowing the growth of agriculture, forestry and cattle ranching to protect forests in places like Indonesia and Brazil. Because tropical forests are being degraded or cut down at an alarming rate, Indonesia and Brazil are ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, by some studies when it comes to carbon emissions, behind the U.S. and China  but ahead of Japan or Germany. Deforestation could account for as much as 25 percent of emissions, these studies show.

The fundamental idea behind REDD is to get businesses and governments in richer countries to help finance sustainable livelihoods for people in poor countries so they don’t have to cut down trees to earn a living. [click to continue...]

The Bills are coming to Brainstorm

No, not the Buffalo Bills. The exciting news is that Bill Clinton and Bill Ford have agreed to speak at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, about business and the environment, next month.

Former President Clinton will speak on Wednesday, April 22–Earth Day, Wednesday. Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, will be with us on the opening afternoon of the conference, Monday, April 20. We’ll be at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Beach, CA. Here’s the current agenda—always subject to change.

I’m feeling good about this year’s programs after months of planning. We’ve got some smart CEOs who are in the thick of the upcoming debate in Washington about climate change, people like Mike Morris of American Electric Power, David Crane of NRG Energy (who was terrific last year), Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Peter Darbee of PG&E (another returnee, and a very forward-thinking exec). We’ll also welcome Fisk Johnson, the CEO of SCJ Johnson, one of the most progressive CEOs in America when it comes to environmental issues, and the pioneering Jeffrey Hollender, founder and CEO of Seventh Generation (and a board member of Greenpeace). Michael Kowalski, the CEO of Tiffany & C0., will describe the company’s pathbreaking effort to try to make the mining industry more responsible—no easy task. CEOs John Brock of Coca Cola Enterprises and Carl Bass of Autodesk will also speak, along with senior execs from GE, IBM, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, P&G, and Coca-Cola. We’ll have CEOs oif solar, wind and biofuels companies, too.

On our opening night, I’ll lead a conversation with Paul Hawken, one of my favorite writers on business and the environment. He’s always provocative, and his talk is being called, “Green is the New Business as Usual—and that’s a problem.” From the NGO world, we’ll have Fred Krupp and Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Hawkins of NRDC, Van Jones of Green for All and many more.

If past Brainstorm events are any indication, though, Clinton will steal the show. He came to a couple of the original Brainstorm events in Aspen after leaving the White House, and he was mesmerizing. Should be fun.