I’m sorry to inform you that your pet is bad for the planet

PetProtectionAside from, perhaps, GMOs, few topics in the sustainable business arena are as emotional as pets. When my friend Erik Assadourian wrote a well-researched story for the Guardian last year asking whether pets are bad for the environment, he was assailed in the comments as a a “dumbass,” an “animal hater” and “an overpaid media commentator.” (The last allegation, I can assure you, is false.) It goes without saying that people love their pets. “My dogs are my family,” one commenter said. And we certainly can’t blame pets for the world’s pollution problems. As Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a pet owner and a defender of all four-legged creatures, once said, dogs and cats “aren’t driving to work.”

True enough. But dogs and cats have environmental impacts. They make waste. They’re eat, and many are overfed. They consume resources, including plastic toys and costly health care. And while, yes, they provide companionship, improve health and get us to spend more time outdoors meeting people, as Erik noted, couldn’t all those things be provided just as well by, er, people? Do we really need dogs to get us to talk a walk around the neighborhood.

When I recently revisited the topic for the Guardian, focusing this time on the impact of pet food, an editor told me that my story wasn’t good enough to run. I learned long ago not to argue with editors–they’re powerful and, occasionally, right–so I took the story to the Worldwatch Institute, where Erik works, and it then made its way to GreenBiz.

The story is anything but an assault on pets. Instead, it’s an effort to show how the giant food company Mars, which makes more pet food than candy bars, is trying to reduce its environmental impact, focusing on cat food, seafood and the oceans. Here’s how the story begins:

The United States is home to 85.8 million cats and 77.8 million dogs. They all have to eat. And that’s a problem — particularly when owners decide to feed their pets as if they were people.

The environmental impact of pet food is big, although no one knows just how big. Like the rest of us, dogs and cats consume meat, fish, corn and wheat, thus creating pressures on the global food system, along with carbon emissions as the food is manufactured and transported.

What we do know is that pet food is big business, generating about $22 billion in sales a year, industry groups estimate.

Much could be done to “green” pet foods — dogs and cats are getting more meat and fish than they need, for starters — but the industry is just starting to grapple with its sustainability issues.

Privately held Mars is leading the way, at least when compared to its big rivals. Better known for chocolate bars and M&Ms, Mars is the world’s biggest pet food company: Mars Pet Care has revenues estimated at $17 billion, employs 39,000 people, operates about 70 factories and owns the Pedigree, Whiskas, Nutro, Sheba, Cesar, Royal Canin and Iams brands.

The story goes on to say that Mars has

promised to buy fish only from fisheries or fish farms that are certified as sustainable by third parties. Importantly, Mars also said it would replace all wild catch whole fish and fish fillet with either by-products or farmed fish — so that demand for pet food does not compete directly with food that could be served to people.

That’s a step in the right direction. Other pet food companies, including Nestle and J.M. Smucker, have yet to follow. You can read the rest of my story here.

There was more bad news this week for pet owners. Did you happen to see the massive New York Times series about slavery at sea? The headline reads Sea Slaves: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock. In four long stories, The Times reports on harsh, inhumane, just plain awful way that people are treated in the Thai fishing industry, which is being driven by “an insatiable global demand for seafood even as fishing stocks are depleted.”

Here’s where pets come in:

The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.

Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.

“How fast do their pets eat what’s put in front of them, and are there whole meat chunks in that meal?” asked Giovanni M. Turchini, an environmental professor at Deakin University in Australia who studies the global fish markets. “These are the factors that pet owners most focus on.”

So should you give up your cats and dogs? Not necessarily. But small pets are better than big ones. And if you feed them fish and meat, you might want to go vegetarian more often, to offset their impact.

Hershey’s, and the limits of certified chocolate

ft-hersheySilly me. I thought the world’s cocoa farmers, most of whom are poor, would surely benefit when global chocolate companies, including Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle, made major commitments to buy certified cocoa. Hershey’s and Mars pledged to certify 100 percent of their cocoa as sustainably produced by 2020, while Nestle has made a variety of commitments to certification.

It’s more complicated than that, as I should have known. It always is, isn’t it? I learned a little more about cocoa farmers and certification while reporting a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about Hershey’s.

The top of the story, unfortunately, was inadvertently mangled a bit in the editing process (it happens, but rarely) and so while you are free to read it as published in the Guardian, I’m going to post an earlier version here, and I’ll add a comment at the end. Here’s the story:

*     *     *

Three years ago, following a campaign by activist groups, the Hershey Company announced that it would use 100% certified cocoa in its chocolate products by 2020. The activists, including the International Labor Rights Forum, Green America and Global Exchange, declared victory, albeit with reservations.

Since then, things have grown complicated. Hershey’s is making progress in its sustainable sourcing: the company says that, in 2014, 30% of its cocoa came from certified, sustainable sources. It expects to hit 50% in 2016, a full year ahead of schedule. “This has become a way of doing business in the future,” J.P. Bilbrey, Hershey’s chief executive, told Guardian Sustainable Business.

When Hershey’s made its commitment, some in the industry feared that there would not be enough certified cocoa to satisfy Hershey’s, Mars, Ferrero and other sustainability-minded companies. But, as Bilbrey says, “Capitalism is a wonderful thing. If you demand something, those that supply it to you will provide that particular product.”

What’s less clear is how much of a difference this sustainable sourcing is making in the lives of cocoa farmers. Hershey’s, which had revenues of $7.4bn last year, won’t say how much of its profits have trickled down to suppliers, nor will it say how much business it does with each of its three nonprofit certifiers – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. However, the chocolate maker – as well as its certifiers and the activists who pushed it to source certified cocoa – all agree that certification alone isn’t enough to lift the incomes of cocoa farmers.

And that hits at the heart of long-term sustainability. If those incomes don’t rise, there’s a very real risk that the next generation of farmers will give up on the business. “Even with the highest premium paid (for certified cocoa), farmers are way deep in poverty,” says Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

Han De Groot, executivee director of UTZ Certified, a nonprofit based in Amsterdam, agrees. After visiting certified cocoa farmers in Cote D’Ivoire, he wrote: “There is still too much poverty to have a decent and sustainable life.”

Hershey’s efforts go beyond certification  [click to continue…]

Sustainability by anecdote

imgresI write stories. I read stories. I love a good story.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world,” says the British novelist Philip Pullman.

The corporate sustainability movement needs stories to inspire people, to win over customers, to change the world, as we heard last month at the GreenBiz Forum in New York.

But we need the right kinds of stories. Stories about people and companies that are having a meaningful impact. Stories that, ideally, drive broad and systemic change.

We’ve got big problems. We need big solutions.

Instead, my inbox overflows with stories that by themselves don’t get us where we need to go. Or stories that lack context.

Sustainability by anecdote, I call it.

Here’s one example that came in last month:

General Mills and Häagen-Dazs today announced an initiative designed to foster greater economic vitality for smallholder vanilla farmers in Madagascar and ensure the availability of high quality vanilla for future generations. [click to continue…]

Oxfam America: Big Food is failing the poor

fig-2-brands-72dpi-1280px-nologosNew research by Oxfam America into the social and environmental policies of the world’s 10 biggest food and beverage companies puts Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola at the top of the list and Associated British Foods, Kellogg’s and General Mills at the bottom. In the middle of the pack are Pepsico, Mars, Danone and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft).

Oxfam American said in a presss release that the Big 10 food and beverage companies, which together make $1 billion a day, are “failing millions of people in developing countries who supply land, labor, water and commodities needed to make their products.”

That stark accusation was tempered more than a little during a telephone news conference where Oxfam America launched a new global consumer-focused campaign called Behind the Brands.

Ray Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, described the big food companies as “recognized industry leaders.” Jane Nelson, a senior fellow at Harvard who specializes in corporate responsibility, went further, saying these are among the “most responsible, best managed, well governed companies” in the food sector.

So which is it, really? Are these companies industry leaders or are they failing the poor?

Maybe a little of both. [click to continue…]

Shared value: Is there a there there?

If you pay attention to business, strategy and global issues, you’ve surely heard about “shared value.” The idea has been put forth by business guru Michael Porter and consultant Mark Kramer, both Harvard faculty members, most prominently in a January 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review.

They write:

The principle of shared value…involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.

The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se.

Yes, shared value is being promoted as a big idea, as a way to augment outmoded thinking about corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability, corporate citizenship, the triple bottom line, and EHS, even as a way to “reinvent capitalism.” Yikes.

Michael Porter

I wish Michael Porter and Mark Kramer much success. Really. They have access to the most powerful CEOs in the world, and the fact that Porter, an enormously influential business thinker, wants to focus on business’s social and environmental impact has to be good.  Why not try to re-frame social and environmental problems as business opportunities?

But I don’t see much, if anything, that’s new here. And I see some danger in substituting the language of  “shared value” for the goal of “sustainability” – a corporate pursuit that is more powerful, more radical and easier to define. [click to continue…]

We need to fix the food system. But how?

“Today’s food system is unfair, ineffective and operates beyond ecological limits,” Mark Lee says, via email.

“Unfair in that some 925 million are malnourished…

“Ineffective in that there are enough calories out there to feed everyone, but we fail to do so (and if we fail to do so for 7 billion, how will we cope with 9-10 by mid-century?)…

“Beyond ecological limits in too many ways too count – freshwater use, soil degradation, climate impacts, you name it.”

Mark is not an environmental activist. He’s the executive director of SustainAbility, a think tank and strategy consultancy that has worked with such food industry clients as Chiquita, Coca-Cola Kellogg’s, Mars and McDonald’s, Nestle, Starbucks and Unilever. He approached me because Sustainability recently released a report called Appetite for Change, about the food industry and how to fix it.

I’ve been writing a lot about food lately because it interests me, because food and agriculture matter a great deal if you care about climate or global poverty or health, and because there’s so much debate about what the path forward should be. Organics? Farmers markets? Genetically engineered crops? Vegetarianism? Local? [click to continue…]

The candy bar at the bottom of the pyramid

Last week, Nestle, the world’s largest food company, launched a barge called Nestlé Até Você a Bordo – or Nestlé Takes You Onboard – on an 18-day voyage up the Amazon River in Brazil. This so-called floating supermarket will bring more than 300 well-known Nestlé brands, including  Ninho (packaged milk), Maggi (soups and seasonings) and Nescafé (instant coffee) to 800,000 potential customers  in 18 cities who, who, until now, managed to get by without those products, or such treats as Nestle’s Crunch, Push-Up or my childhood favorite, Baby Ruth.

Nestlé Barco

In a press release, Ivan Zurita, the chief executive of Nestlé Brazil, is quoted as saying:

It will be a service to the population of the Amazon, who has streets and avenues in the form of rivers.  It is a project aligned with our concept of Regionalisation, based on the different profiles of consumers, where we deal with each region as a different area.

SnoCaps_ImageNot everyone is cheering. Under the headline, All Aboard for Ice Cream: Nestle Peddling Junk Food on Amazon River to Reach Brazil’s Slums, Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of a book called Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, calls this “especially disgusting news” and says of the Amazon dwellers:

I don’t think these people are lost or have been camping out too long, they’re just living their lives. They probably don’t even realize they are missing out on Toll House, Raisinets, and Sno-Caps. But no matter, if there are people out there so backwards to still be subsisting on food found in nature, Big Food will find them, by land or by sea, and set them straight.

Hmm. Simon’s outrage seems a little over the top, as libertarian blogger Katherine Mangu-Ward argues at The Atlantic website. Her first reaction to the Nestle story was a little different: [click to continue…]

The looming “water gap”

There’s good and bad news from a sweeping new report on the world’s water scarcity out today from McKinsey & Co., commissioned by such water-dependent companies as Coca-Cola, Nestle, SAB Miller and Syngenta, along with the World Bank/International Finance Corp.

1798824344_d4951982bbThe bad: Global demand for water already exceeds supply—about 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water—and the so-called water gap is increasing at an accelerating rate.

The good: Cost-effective, sustainable solutions are available to close the gap, particularly if governments and business focus on reducing demand rather than trying to generate additional supply.

The challenge: Getting beyond the nostrum that water is a “human right” so that water, which is obviously a scarce resource, can be priced in a way that drives conservation.

One more thing to know: Water issues are at least as complex as energy, and all water problems are local, so generalizing about water, while inevitable, is invariably misleading.

As Martin Stuchtey of McKinsey put it: “We are not saying there is one way to close the water gap, and we fully acknowledge the complexity of the water arena.”

The 185-page report, published by the 2030 Water Resources Group, was released this morning at a [click to continue…]