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...]