With friends like these, who needs enemies?

59a428e7-4ca9-4d6c-a14e-79964bedde8c-1020x612Back in January, I wrote a blog post headlined A modest proposal for big green NGOs that suggested, in what was intended to be a helpful way, that the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy urge their corporate allies to speak up in support of the EPA’s proposed rules to regulate coal plants, a cornerstone of the Obama administration climate policy.

They all assured me that they are doing the very best they can to persuade big companies to do so.

Well, it turns out they’re not having much success.

Today, The Guardian published my story about those corporate allies, headlined Why Corporate America is Reluctant to Take a Stand on Climate Action. I surveyed 50 companies that have worked with EDF, WWF or The Nature Conservancy asking them for their position on the EPA Clean Power Plan.

Guess how many of the 50 told me that they are working alongside their environmental partners to support the plan? Three–Google, Mars and Starbucks.

Most are staying out of the fight but as Anne Kelly of Ceres, which is lobbying for the plan, told me, their “silence isn’t neutrality.” Instead, their silence allows the US Chamber of Commerce and other conservative trade associations to speak for the business community on climate and energy issues. And, as you probably know, the chamber is no fan of climate regulation.

Here’s how my story begins:

Many environmental groups consider the Obama administration’s plan to regulate carbon-spewing coal plants, which aims to cut carbon pollution by 30%, as one of our last chances to win the fight against climate change.

But the vast majority of their top corporate partners – companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, FedEx, UPS, Target and Walmart, which have worked with environmental NGOs for years – aren’t backing them up, according to a Guardian survey.

The survey consisted of calls and emails to nearly 50 corporations that work with three environmental groups – Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund US – that have identified the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan as a top priority. These are Fortune 500 global companies that tout their sustainability efforts and celebrate their environmental partnerships.

Just three of them – Starbucks, Mars and Google – support the Clean Power Plan, which is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change efforts. Caterpillar and CSX Corp, a coal-carrying railroad, oppose the EPA plan. The vast majority take no position.

The reluctance of companies to take a stand raises questions about the depth of partnerships between companies and NGOs. By remaining quiet, these companies make it harder for the EPA to roll out the plan in the face of vehement opposition from fossil fuel companies and Republicans. “Silence isn’t neutral,” says Anne Kelly of Ceres, who is organizing companies to support the EPA.

The lack of public support could jeopardize the clean power plan, and – if the US isn’t able to make a strong climate commitment as a result – could ultimately undermine the success of the global climate talks in Paris this year.

The companies that won’t get involved say it’s because the regulation of power plant emissions is not core to their business. Environmentalists maintain that climate change is everybody’s business.

I hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of the story, and share it. I also put together a sidebar compiling the corporate responses that I collected to my survey.

I’m sorry to say that all of this points to the shallowness of much  corporate rhetoric about “sustainability.” It also tells me that, more than ever, we need a political movement to demand government action to stop climate pollution. Companies need to know that if they don’t take a stand on behalf of the climate, they’re going to hear about it from activist groups (where are you, Greenpeace, now that we need you?) and they’re going to risk losing the support of their employees and customers.

Put simply, without a whole lot more people pushing them in the right direction, GE, Goldman Sachs, IBM and Walmart aren’t going to get us where we need to go. Not even close.

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’m feeling that way. I must add that none of this is personal. I like and respect the people I know at EDF, WWF and The Nature Conservancy. They’re smart, dedicated and hard-working. But they’re mostly playing the same insiders game that failed to get climate legislation through Congress back in 2009.

I also admire the sustainability executives at many of the companies that are sitting on the sidelines of the climate fight. They’re great internal advocates for the cause, and they’re not to blame for this widespread corporate indifference. It’s their CEOs who need a wake-up call.

In the end, the issue of global warming is really not all that complicated: It’s time to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for carbon pollution. That’s just wrong, and that’s why the EPA rules should be everybody’s business.

Seafood is having its Portlandia moment

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Cooking for Solutions is a delightful annual conference, fund-raiser and celebration of seafood sustainability produced every spring by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m just back from the 2013 event, and there is reason to feel good about the progress the seafood industry is making.

Consumers, chefs and, most importantly, major retailers in the US and Europe are more aware than ever that the choices we make about what kinds of fish to eat–and not to eat–have an impact on the health and sustainability of global fisheries.

The result is that, in the last decade or so, virtually every major retailer and food service company in the US and EU has adopted a seafood sustainability policy. Some are stronger than others, but the issue is on the agenda and not going away.

“Large corporations may very well turn out to be our angels of salvation,” said Matt Elliott, an oceans expert at California Environmental Associates, which last year published a landmark report on global fishing practices.

You could say that seafood is having its Portlandia moment. I’m referring, of course, to the hilarious scene on the cable TV show in which a couple interrogate a waitress about the chicken on the menu. (“How much room did the chicken have to roam?”) Chefs who gathered last week in Monterey told me that they are asked by diners if their salmon is wild or farm-raised, and whether their shrimp is local or imported from Asia.

By themselves, consumers can’t drive changes in fishing practices. But when consumers make themselves heard, and emerge as part of a larger ecosystem that includes activist NGOs such as Greenpeace, business-friendly environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, certifying bodies like the flawed but important Marine Stewardship Council and brands like Whole Foods Market and Darden, change happens. Regulation of the oceans–a public commons if ever there was one–is important, but markets, too, can drive sustainability. [click to continue…]

Deep sea farming

You’ve heard of the trade deficit. You know about the federal budget deficit. Now comes a California businessman with bold plans to tackle what he calls “the nation’s $10.4 billion seafood deficit” — meaning that we import much of the fish we eat, mostly from Asia.

Phil Cruver, who is president of a company called KZO Sea Farms, last month won permission from US Corps of Army Engineers to build what would be a pioneering shellfish farm about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, CA. The farm, where his company plans to grow mussels and oysters, would be the first commercial shellfish farm in federal waters.

Cruver, who is 67 and a lifelong entrepreneur, has to raise about $3 million to build and equip the farm. (The mussels would grow on long lines of rope, the oysters in pens.) He also needs permission to operate from California’s state coastal commission, which isn’t known to be industry-friendly. If he succeeds, Cruver says he’ll help jump-start an industry that will be good for the economy, good for the oceans and good for the health of shellfish eaters, while easing the US’s dependence on imported seafood.

“The potential here is just incredible,” Cruver told me, when we chatted recently via Skype.

He’s right about that, although I don’t think the “seafood deficit” — that fact that we import, rather than catch or grow our own fish — is cause for worry. (What’s next, the “coffee deficit” or the “chocolate deficit”? Trade is a good thing, folks.) More important is what we might think of as a potential protein deficit: the challenge of feeding a growing population that craves meat and seafood. Producing beef, chicken and pigs taxes the planet’s resources, and the supply of wild fish is limited. [click to continue…]

McDonald’s: Mainstreaming sustainability?

About 64 million people visit McDonald’s every day. That’s a stunning number. They’ll see changes in the year ahead, some driven by a renewed sustainability push at the $24-billion fast-food giant.

LED lights in new and renovated stores. “Greener” packaging. Eco-labels on fish sold in Europe.

None of this is earth-shattering or, more importantly, earth-saving, but it’s the start of something big, says Bob Langert, McDonald’s v.p. for sustainability.

“We’re on a path to mainstream sustainability,” Bob told me by phone the other day. “This is transformational for us. We want to be bolder, and we want to make a bigger impact.” Most important, he said, the company wants to embed sustainability into its operations and, eventually, into its brand.

Business-friendly environmentalists who work with McDonald’s–groups like the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and Environmental Defense Fund–will applaud any sign that the company is ready to integrate sustainability into its core business and dig deeper into its supply chain to find ways to raise beef and chicken that are better for the planet. Skeptics, and there are many, will call this greenwashing, or perhaps “farmwashing,” a term I hadn’t heard until yesterday when I saw this anti-McDonald’s posting in Grist.

In a way, McDonald’s is like Walmart–it’s never going to be beloved in the Whole Foods-shopping, arugula-eating, tony precincts of Berkeley, Brooklyn or Bethesda. But the company is much too big to ignore or wish away.

Today, McDonald’s released its 2011 Sustainability Scorecard. Under the umbrella of sustainability, the company includes environmental responsibility, its supply chain, nutrition and well-being, employees and community grants and programs, albeit in a way that highlights accomplishments and isn’t easily transparent. (Please let me know if you can find an accounting of the company’s carbon footprint or a greenhouse gas reduction goal, because I couldn’t.)  But McDonald’s can feel good about a couple of big initiatives in the year just past. [click to continue…]

How to “green” a hamburger

Plastic bags, SUVs and hamburgers: No right-thinking tree-hugger would endorse them, at least not in public. But here’s the thing: While we can replace plastic bags with reusable ones, and we can electrify our SUVs, the world’s consumers will almost surely demand more, not less, beef in the years ahead.

Which is why the World Wildlife Fund has begun a conversation about, of all things, sustainable beef.

The WWF, led by Jason Clay, its iconoclastic senior vice president for “market transformation,” last fall convened a Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, bringing together environmentalists, academics and industry giants including Walmart, McDonald’s, Cargill and JBS, a Brazilian company that calls itself “the largest animal protein processing company in the world” and owns U.S. brands Swift and Pilgrim’s Pride.

The goal? To improve sustainability within the beef industry. [click to continue…]

The strange power of prizes

Prizes are powerful incentives.

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In 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic to win the $25,00 Orteig prize.

The DARPA Challenge

Tartan Racing, a collaboration between students at Carnegie Mellon and General Motors, won a $2 million prize in the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition to develop an  autonomous ground vehicle for the military.

Cracker_Jack_Box

And, of course,  kids since 1912 have been tearing open Cracker Jack boxes to get at the prize inside.

Prizes are fun. The difference between a spelling test and a spelling bee is a prize.

These days, as never before, private companies, foundations and government are turning to prizes as a way to spur technological and environmental innovation. This proliferation of prizes tells us some interesting things about ourselves and about the limits markets, as I’ll argue in a moment.

Best known of the prize-givers is the X Prize Foundation, whose slogan is “revolution through competition.” It’s offering prizes of at least $10 million each for safely landing a robot on the moon (sponsored by Google),  for building a super-efficient car (sponsored by Progressive Automotive) and for breakthroughs in genomics. [click to continue…]

Does the WWF exploit kids?

wwf_logoRidiculous as it sounds, that’s the charge from Rush Limbaugh, who watched a video produced by the World Wildlife Fund in D.C. about the Copenhagen climate talks, featuring the children of WWF staffers. Says Limbaugh:

These people are using their own kids, brainwashing their own kids for the advancement of a hoax! Using and brainwashing their own kids about a lie, all for the purpose of advancing a policy that’s going to result in restricted freedom for these kids. They’ll have no chance at prosperity because of high energy taxes.

What’s the hoax? What’s the lie?

That polar bears are dying? That the earth is getting warmer?

Or that kids will have no chance–no chance!–at prosperity because of high energy taxes.

Funny, I watched the video and thought it was cute. Decide for yourself.

Who’s watching the watchdogs?

Public interest groups need more scrutiny. So a forthcoming book called Green Inc: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad (Lyons Press) by a journalist and activist named Christine MacDonald piqued my interest. MacDonald argues that big green environmental groups – specifically Conservation International (where she worked briefly), The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund — have become too cozy with corporate America.

The big conservation groups are “deforming themselves,” engaging in “questionable practices” and cultivating “unsavory corporate ties,” she writes. They are conflicted because they take corporate money. They are too quick to provide cover for bad actors:

Groups that once dedicated themselves solely to saving pandas and parklands today compete for the favors of mining operations that remove entire mountaintops, logging and paper companies that clear-cut old growth forests, and homebuilders who contribute to urban sprawl. They rely on funds from cruise ship companies, despite the industry’s record for polluting the oceans. Among the most generous donors are the biggest environmental scofflaws of all: energy companies.

It’s an explosive charge—but MacDonald fails to prove it. The book is spotty, uneven and ultimately disappointing, for the most part lacking the specifics that would show how conservation groups either enabled or covered up bad corporate behavior. But Green Inc. does raise provocative questions about the business models of some of America’s most important green groups.

MacDonald’s basic point—that conservation groups work closely with polluters—is both true and unremarkable. No one would expect the pastor of a church to close its doors to sinners; why, then, should we ask environmental groups to refuse to work with oil companies, mining companies, home builders or giant retailers like Wal-Mart. (McDonald, as it happens, also uses religious language to make her case, writing at one point that CI and others are “guilty of making deals with the devils of deforestation, habitat destruction, and global warming.”) Hey, people rob banks because that’s where the money is. Environmentalists need to get their hands dirty and deal with polluters.

It’s important to understand the role that CI, TNC and WWF play in the NGO ecosystem. They are collaborators, not activist groups. Other green NGOs are activists, and many are both essential and effective—the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Forest Ethics and Earthworks, to name just a few. But after they raise a ruckus, big companies frequently turn to groups like CI, TNC and WWF for guidance and help in making those pesky activists go away. (You can almost think of the Rainforest Action Network as the business development arm of CI.) Other NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council juggle both roles—they are sometime allies, sometime critics of corporate behavior. They’ll sue a company one day, then make nice the next. Hey, the world’s a complicated place.

The key question is, what impact do the collaborative groups have after they engage? I’ve spent a lot of time looking at work done by Conservation International (with Wal-Mart, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Marriott), less with World Wildlife Fund (mostly with Coca-Cola) and none with The Nature Conservancy. My strong belief—informed by reporting—is that they do a lot more good than harm. CI helped guide Wal-Mart through its ambitious and impressive sustainability drive. (By coincidence, I was on a reporting trip today with people from both Wal-Mart and CI who are working together to clean up a big, polluting industry. More to come…) WWF is doing superb work around water and supply chain with Coke, and Jason Clay, who works there (and who I wrote a column about last month), is an important thinker around the question of how to make agriculture more sustainable

Having said that—MacDonald tells a couple of stories that I’d like to know more about. She writes about CI’s work with Bunge in Brazil, saying that CI has allied itself with the company and against local groups protesting deforestation for soy. She accuses an alliance of companies, NGOs and governments called the Business and Biodiversity Offset Program of helping a mining consortium develop valuable forests in Madagascar. LI’d like to know more—so anyone who has insight into these projects, please email me.

I’ve also come away from this book wondering whether CI, WWF and TNC pull their punches because they don’t want to offend corporate donors. I think these groups and others need to be more transparent about their funding sources, particularly since they ask the public for money. They say they don’t depend on corporate donations or fees. (CI’s Glenn Prickett tells me that less than 10% of their funds come from corporate contributions.) But that accounting does not include donations from corporate executives acting as individuals or family foundations. MacDonald writes that CI got $21 million from the Walton Family Foundation (founding family of Wal-Mart) in 2005, representing nearly a quarter of its revenues that year. I wonder about CI’s partnership with Fiji Water, especially since one of the company’s owner sits on the CI board. (Shouldn’t a conservation group discourage consumption of bottled water?) MacDonald also writes that TNC received “hundreds of thousands of dollars in Shell donations” before giving the company a leadership award. If true, that’s yucky.

Here’s a thought: Whenever an NGO produces a press release praising a company, or announcing a partnership, or giving an award, maybe it should disclose how much money it has been paid by the company for consulting and how much money executives, company founders and their foundations have donated.

You might argue that it would be simpler for these groups to refuse all corporate money. I disagree. They provide valuable advice and expertise to companies; there’s no reason that individual or foundation donors should foot the bill when CI helps Starbucks develop a program for rewarding coffee growers who embrace sustainable practices or WWF helps the sugar industry develop more sustainable growing practices.

But more transparency would help. To that end, I will ask CI how much money it has taken in from Fiji Water and WWF how much it has gotten from Coke. (In the interests of transparency, you should know that CI is a programming partner of Fortune’s Brainstorm: Green, a conference on business and the environment that I chair; my wife works for Greenpeace; occasionally I am paid for giving speeches and moderating panels but if the client is a public company, I give the money away; and my daughter’s a summer intern at Edelman, a PR firm with a big sustainability practice. I try to set all that aside when I write.)

Your thoughts?