How “green” are those hiking boots?

In a world where it’s so hot or dry that no one wants to hike, bike, run or climb, outdoorsy companies like Nike, Patagonia, REI and Timberland will be in deep trouble.

So it makes sense—and it’s certainly about time—for the companies that sell outdoor apparel and equipment to come up with common standards to measure the environmental impact of their products.

This week, an industry group called the Outdoor Industry Alliance announced that its members have spent several years doing just that. The companies unveiled “a ground breaking environmental assessment tool” that they call an Eco Index, saying:

It provides companies throughout the supply chain a way to benchmark and measure their environmental footprint, allowing them to identify areas for improvement and make informed sourcing and product life cycle decisions.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? The trouble is, the group says it will take a long time for the industry to develop and agree on standards that are simple, reliable and meaningful enough to present them to consumers. In fact, there’s no commitment to turn the index into a shopper-friendly tool, the industry says:

The current focus of the index is to be an internal/supply chain facing tool and not a consumer-facing label. This focus could be revisited in future years.

That’s disappointing. It’s particularly disappointing because one company—Timberland—has demonstrated that it’s possible to measure and report on the impact of its products. As it happens, Timberland today (Aug. 3) convened a conference call to talk about its own Green Index and how it fits into the new industry-wide initiative.

Jeffrey SwartzJeff Swartz, the CEO of Timberland and a leader of the corporate-responsibility movement, said he wants to play nicely with competitors and other retailers, as the industry tries to settle on common metrics. “We can’t afford a Betamax-VHS debate,” he said. “Harmonization is an imperative.”

At the same time, Swartz made clear that he’s frustrated by the slow pace of the industry initiative.

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Climate: where are we headed?

Here’s an interesting use of social media by a group called Climate Interactive. It’s an attempt to track progress being made at the Copenhagen climate negotiations. Climate Interactive (“vigorous sharing of user-friendly simulations”) grew out of modeling done at MIT, and has support from universities, nonprofits and business (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Nike, Schlumberger). Given the unavoidable uncertainties of climate science, these projections should be understood as best estimates. But the organization is admirably transparent about its methods and assumptions, as best as this non-scientist can tell.

Here’s a short video explaining the scorecard.

The question is, can organizing tools like this one motivate people to care about the impact of our actions today on generations to come?

The green race to the top

If climate regulation will burden businesses or increase costs,  then why are so many companies strengthening their voluntary response to the climate crisis in the midst of an economic downturn?

The reason is, there’s a race to the top when it comes to sustainability, particularly among consumer companies. No one wants to be seen as a laggard by  customers, workers, NGOs, government or the press.

Reputation matters. Ignoring the climate emergency is no longer an option for a big consumer brand.

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That, as far as I can tell, is why so many companies are surging ahead in the third annual corporate climate scorecard put together by the nonprofit group Climate Counts. Gary Hirshberg, the CE-yo and “main moover” behind of Stonyfield Farms (yum) put up the money to start Climate Counts, and Wood Turner is its able executive director.

“We see a real competition ensuing, as companies race to the top,” Turner told me the other day, as the new ratings came out. “Companies are preparing their businesses and their brands for the future.” [click to continue...]

Greening skiing

This may come under the category of Too Much Information, but I relieved myself the other day into a waterless urinal near the summit of the Park City Mountain Resort. A plaque informed me that each environmentally-friendly urinal at the ski resort saves about 40,000 gallons of fresh water a year.

This is part of what the Park City calls its “Environmental Commitment.” Right on every trail map, the resort says it “recognizes that the environment is one of our most valuable assets.” Now there’s a bold statement. It might be more attention-grabbing to say that  if we don’t do something about global warming soon, Park City will have the climate of, say, Phoenix, before too many decades go by.

But what does it mean for the ski industry to make an environmental commitment? Skiing requires chopping down big trees on beautiful mountains to make way for ski runs and slope-side second homes. It’s an utterly unnecessary pursuit that usually takes place far from population centers, requiring air travel or long car trips. It’s energy-intensive, too. Think of artificial snow-making, and all those steaming hot tubs.

Still, I love to ski. Just being in the mountains makes me happy. And skiing has been a great way for me to spend time over the years with my brothers and my daughters (that’s my older daughter, Sarah, who came with me this time.)

As a tree-hugging (not literally) skier hoping for insight into this conundrum, I have been reading an advance copy of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, by Auden Schendler. Schendler is executive director of community and environmental responsibility at Aspen Skiing Company, a business known for its sustainability efforts.

I’m halfway through the book, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. Right up front, Schendler takes on those who tell him that the best thing that the Aspen ski resort and, for the matter, the entire town of Aspen could do for sustainability would be to shut down:

Certainly Aspen’s lifestyle is lavish. But then, so is the entire U.S. lifestyle. You’ve heard the stations before: we’re 5 percent of the world’s population, and we use 25 percent of the planet’s resources. Americans burn more fossil fuel per capita than any nation on earth…

So what do we do? Close down Aspen, then close down the United States? The U.S. is hugely wasteful compared to Europe…and actually, Europe is pretty bad compared to India…Do we shut down Paris?

In short there’s no way to draw the moral energy line in the sand showing which activities are OK and which are not.

Fair enough. So the more reasonable question for Aspen, Park City and every other business is: Are you doing as much as you can to be environmentally responsible?

Park City’s record is mixed in that regard. The resort says that it offsets 100% of its power consumption from renewable energy sources—a claim that is hard to verify, without knowing more detail, but let’s assume that it’s true. The resort’s fleet of snowcats is “powered entirely by biodiesel fuel.” One of the best things about staying in Park City area is the free, well-run public bus system which shuttles people around resorts, lodging and restaurants. Then there are those waterless urinals. You can read more at www.saveoursnow.net.

But much of this appears to be for show. On the mountain, you can eat chili in a paper bowl that is 100% compostable, but the bowls get thrown in with other trash, making the claim worthless. There’s lots of self-congratulation on the website, but no mention (that I could find) of the resort’s overall carbon footprint, or its goals.

And, as Schendler argues in his book, the most important measures of a company’s environmental commitment may be well its actions in the policy arena, because that’s where the climate change problem will be solved, or not. He writes:

Before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites. This may be the single most important reason businesses and individuals should implement policy reductions: so that their political case-making has more power and credibility.

This is a great point. Aspen measures up well in this regard—it filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit requiring EPA to regulate GHG emissions. It also joined a Greenpeace campaign against Kimberly Clark, the forest products firm. I’ve never heard of Park City doing anything like that.

More to the point, why don’t we hear more from the entire ski industry on the climate-change issue? They have databases of skiers—why not enlist their customers to support federal action? The same could be said for the travel industry. It’s not just ski areas, but beaches that are threatened by climate disruptions. Where are Marriott, Hilton, Starwood and the airlines when it comes to global warming policy? Actually, I know where the airlines are—they don’t want their emissions to be regulated. Marriott, by contrast, is taking steps to help preserve rainforests.

Unfortunately, only a handful of progressive companies, including Nike and Starbucks, have taken bold positions on the climate change issue. They’re part of a coalition called Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP.) Only when a lot more companies join them will the odds get better than we can truly save our snow.

Helping companies fight sweatshops

On a 15-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong (in coach), it helps to have some distractions. The movie Get Smart? Nah. Instead, I spent time talking with Dan Viederman, the leader of an NGO called Verite, who I’ve gotten to know in recent years because he works with U.S. companies that want to improve conditions in factories in poor countries where their products are made.

Dan, who is 45, happens to be an old China hand. He first traveled to China in 1985, after college, to spend a couple of years teaching English. “I was one of 50 foreigners in a city of 9 million people and 30 of them were Korean,” he tells me. He also lived in China during the 1990s, first as a development worker with Catholic Relief Services and then as the director of World Wildlife Fund’s offices in Beijing. He’s been back many times since.

We ran into each other by chance, but we were both headed for the Pearl River Delta area of southern China, the world’s biggest manufacturing hub, where many millions of mostly young workers make the clothes, shoes, furniture and electronics we use every day. (I’m typing this blogpost on a MacBook Air; odds are some or all of it was made here. Same with the Gap jeans and shirt I’m wearing.) These huge facilities—with dormitories for the production workers, apartments or homes for middle managers, cafeterias and restaurants, stores and athletic facilities—are more like company towns than mere workplaces.

Consider: Shenzhen, which is just north of Hong Kong, was a fishing town of about 30,000 people when “paramount leader Deng Xiao-ping” (as he’s called in this morning’s South China Morning Post) designated the area as a “Special Economic Zone” to promote foreign trade in 1980. Today, Shenzhen is bigger than New York or Paris, with about 14 million people, and it’s one of China’s wealthiest cities.

This has been a boon to U.S. companies and consumers. But it has also led to scandals around sweatshop labor that embarrassed Nike and Kathie Lee Gifford and Disney and Wal-Mart, most in the 1990s, some more recent. Since then, U.S. companies have been looking for ways to stay out of that particular spotlight. Many have written labor standards and codes of conduct that they impose on their suppliers, after which they hire inspectors to monitor factory conditions. These U.S. and European brands function, informally and imperfectly, as the Department of Labor in China, which has pretty good labor laws on the books but enforces them erratically at best.

As executive director of Verite since 2004, Dan has tried to improve that system. He has worked with a host of companies – Timberland, Disney, Gap, Apple, a coalition of firms called the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition and others—around labor practices in the developing world. Verite does auditing, training, worker empowerment programs, research and investigations. Verite also has contracts with the U.S. government (labor and state) to look at issues like migrant labor and slave labor, and it’s part of a chocolate industry effort to do something about child labor in the cocoa industry in West Africa. The NGO is headquartered in Amherst, MA, with offices in China and Manila.

No one who knows anything about this system of factory monitoring, inspection and compliance will tell you that it is ideal but in China, at least, it’s about all we’ve got. Dan’s job is to make it better, and he says the obstacles are many—suppliers keep two sets of books to fool auditors, they monkey around with workers’ pay stubs by deducting funds for housing or uniforms, they track hours poorly or don’t pay overtime, etc. “There’s built-in underpayment of wages,” Dan says. Besides that, some auditors who work for U.S. brands may not be fully committed to the task—they are paid, after all, by the companies, and they may not know or care how to do inspections right. Think of how Arthur Anderson “audited” Enron.

As a nonprofit, Verite’s loyalty is to the workers, and its credibility is key. That’s one reason why Dan is refreshingly honest about the flaws of the system. “We don’t really believe you can certify a factory as complaint,” he says, because conditions change all the time as new orders come in. A more sustainable approach would be to educate workers to look out for their own rights—Timberland hired Verite to try that at some factories a few years ago, and Reebok has taken similar steps. But the Chinese government permits only one trade union, and Dan tells me that the government-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions has never, as far as he can recall, organized a strike or fought hard for its members.

Despite all the problems, there’s little doubt that the massive industrialization of China has been good for its people. Hundreds of millions have lifted themselves out of poverty through factory work—more than in any other place at any other time. This is the upside of globalization.

“By almost any measure, except maybe environmental quality, China’s a better country for most people than it was in 1985,” Dan says. “I think that has a lot to do with its openness to the world and its role in the global economy.”

What’s more, before we smugly assume a position of moral superiority when it comes to cheap labor in China, we should remembering that it wasn’t all that long ago that rapid industrialization and unfettered capitalism created terrible factory conditions in American cities. (The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire caused the death of 146 garment workers in 1911.) It took a robust union movement, aided by progressive politicians, to protect American workers from exploitation.

Something similar will have to happen in China before we can feel entirely comfortable when we pay “bargain” prices for laptops or jeans. Interestingly, the Chinese government has been more willing to allow dissent and permit the growth of vibrant NGOs in the environmental arena—where the problems are dire—than it has been to promote independent labor unions.

“In the long run, things will change because the society demands change,” Dan says. “This can’t be the responsibility of business alone.”