A business-friendly, SUV-driving Lorax

Forty years after Dr. Seuss wrote the classic children’s book The Lorax, about a creature who “speaks for the trees” and the greedy industrialist who ignores his warnings, things sure have changed.

Some change has been for the better: Many, if not most, corporations are no longer the evil despoilers of the planet. To the contrary, these days they are often “greener” than consumers, and allied with environmental groups.

Some is for the worse: While Dr. Seuss, to the best of my recollection, resisted commercialization of his characters , now even the anti-industrial Lorax is for sale.

I’ve got The Lorax on my mind because, as you’ve probably heard, Universal Studios this week will release a 3-D animated movie based on the book, with the voice of Danny DeVito as The Lorax. (I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it looks great.) I moderated a panel last week in Washington for HP, one of about 70 companies, nonprofits and government agencies selected as sponsors for the movie, and I’ll moderate another on Tuesday afternoon in  San Francisco (more below, if you’d like to join us). That got me thinking about how dramatically business has evolved in the last four decades–although obviously there’s much more to be done. [click to continue…]

What a long, strange trip it’s been for McDonald’s Bob Langert

Bob Langert worked in logistics for McDonald’s in the late 1980s when he was asked to take on a “temporary” six-month assignment to get chlorofluorocarbons out of the company’s clamshell packages.

Twenty years later, Bob has worked with WWF and Conservation International on marine stewardship and sustainable beef, spent a decade with Temple Grandin dealing with animal welfare issues, visited chicken farms and slaughterhouses, picked tomatoes with migrant workers in Florida, lectured on sustainability in China and taken a nine-day raft trip down the Amazon River with his pals at Greenpeace.

“I never, ever imagined this,” Bob said. “To have the good fortune to do this work, and make a difference in the world is beyond my expectations.”

I interviewed Bob, who is vice president for corporate social responsibility, at McDonald’s, today at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago. We talked about what he’d learned about working with NGOs, his accomplishments, frustrations and whether selling hamburgers can be “green.”

Here are a few highlights:

A pioneering partnership: Langert’s work with packaging led to a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, which ruffled feathers in the corporate world and the environmental community.

“Fred Krupp [EDF’s chief] was a visionary back then,” Bob said. “It was not politically correct to work with big companies.”

EDF’s crew did a shift working in a McDonald’s, and proceeded to help with dozens of initiatives—from trimming the size of straws to using recycled paper in napkins.

Recalled Bob: “We didn’t spend one penny more. We saved millions and millions of pounds of packaging and costs.”

The future of fish: McDonald’s joined with the WWF to develop guidelines for the companies that supply its fish. What’s the business case, I asked, for investing corporate time and money in sustainable fisheries?

“Assured supply,” Langert replied. “The guy in charge of buying fish for McDonald’s, he was really concerned with being able to buy fish 10 or 20 years from now….The No. 1 job of everyone in supply chain at McDonald’s is to make sure we have stuff on the menu tomorrow.”

This kind of long-term thinking—so rare in big public companies—is a key to sustainability.

Picking tomatoes: When McDonald’s was urged to support efforts by migrant workers in Florida to win better wages, Langert worked side by side with the pickers. “ I couldn’t keep up with people half my size,” he remembered. “Females doing the work all day long in the sun and you see the living conditions which are not good at all.” Just last month,  the workers hashed out an agreement that should bring them higher pay.

Bears and the Amazon: When Greenpeace protesters dressed as chickens picketed a McDonald’s in London, accusing the company of destroying the Amazon, Langert’s first job was to calm down his colleagues.

He recalled saying: “Let’s not get all in a tizzy about their tactics. Greenpeace doesn’t have an advertising budget, so they had to use McDonald’s to get the word out. Let’s look at the issue.” The allegation was that tropical forest was being cut down to grow soy to feed chickens in Europe that became McNuggets.

When he asked trusted partners at Conservation International and WWF about the charge, he decided Greenpeace had a point. He approached the group and, before long, McDonald’s, Greenpeace and big suppliers like Cargill had agreed to stop buying soy from deforested land.

The raft trip came later. “We spent nine days—four of us from McDonald’s, four of us from Greenpeace, to get the lay of the land. I gave up a Chicago Bears Superbowl game to go so that tells you where my passion is. Anyone who knows me knows that besides my family and my faith, it’s the Chicago Bears.”

Langert’s to-do list: He’d like to find new ways to engage consumers in McDonald’s sustainability work. The company serves about 64 million people a day.

He also wants to do more to reduce the environmental impact of the company’s 33,000 stores, most of which are  owned and operated by others. “Energy’s a big issue for us,” he said. New initiatives are on the way, he hinted.

The problem with burgers: Because beef has such a big environmental footprint, I asked Bob how he could reconcile the company’s desire to grow—and sell more beef—with its environmental ethic. I told him that my rabbi, Fred Dobb, has said that one of the easiest things people can do to help the planet is to eat less beef, and asked if McDonald’s would try to wean its customers away from Big Macs.

“I’d like to talk with your rabbi,” Bob replied. He acknowledged the beef production has a big footprint, but said that “at the end of the day, we’re going to give people what they want. We’re going to do it in a good, responsible, clean, safe way. We’ve tried veggie burgers. They hardly sell at all. The day we can sell 500 a week in a restaurant, they’ll be on our menu forever and ever. I don’t have angst. You’ve got to face the realities of the world. And the reality of the world is that people eat protein from livestock and meat. Nothing wrong with that from my moral compass. I respect others that have a different moral compass. It’s our job as a company to make things better, though. We’re starting on that path–working with WWF on sustainable beef. That’s the  next step.”

Certainly McDonald’s offers choices to those who would prefer to avoid beef. Hey, the company even gave out pedometers and yoga CDs a few years ago to encourage people to be more active. But…given the climate crisis and the obesity crisis, maybe the next step ought to be to encourage those 64 million customers to make choices that are healthier for themselves and for the planet.

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…]

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.

The anatomy of a latte

Have you ever wondered how much water it takes to make a Starbucks grande latte? I hadn’t until I met Jason Clay.

Jason is a Missouri farm boy who earned a Phd in anthropology from Cornell, wrote a definitive book on agriculture and the environment and is now senior vice president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. (I wrote this column about him last year for fortune.com.) He’s one of those people who is always bursting with both facts and ideas, so I was pleased to run into him today in Atlanta, where we had both been invited to speak to senior executives of Coca Cola Enterprises, the big bottler of Coke products and a FORTUNE 500 company in its own right. CCE is doing great work on sustainability, but that’s another story.

Jason’s presentation was mind-expanding, as usual, but my favorite part came when he analyzed the “embedded water” in a Starbucks latte. There’s a terrific video about this at the WWF website; view it by clicking on the coffee cup.

Here’s the breakdown, by liters, of the water needed to make that latte:

0.1 for the water itself
2.5 to make the plastic lid
5.5 to make the paper cup and sleeve
7.5 to grow the sugar
49.5 to feed the cows that make the milk
143 to grow the coffee

That adds up to more than 200 liters of water to make a latte.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should stop drinking lattes. The water to grow coffee, after all, comes in the form of tropical rainstorms, which are abundant. And a bowl of Rice Krispies with milk has a much bigger water footprint: According to Jason, roughly 58% of all the water on the planet used by people for any purpose—farming, manufacturing, cooling nuclear power plants, swimming pools, showers—is used to grow rice. His point is that we, collectively, need to better understand the full environmental impacts of all that we consume. Then we need to make and grow things more efficiently, and consume less of them.

That not as simple as it may sound. One common mistake in the world of business and sustainability is to optimize for a single outcome—sell more organic cotton, say, or wild-caught fish, or fair trade tea—without understanding the overall impact of  products on water, energy, soil, land use, even poverty alleviation. Favoring organics might, for example, limit the development of genetically modified foods that require less water and fewer fertilizers. Clay’s open to the idea of GMOs as tools to grow more calories on less land. “Let’s be a little more neutral on the technology,” he says, “and a little more focused on the results.”

The need for clear thinking about such matters is urgent because population and, more important, consumption are growing fast.

“We’re beginning to wake up to the fact that we live in a finite world,” Clay says. “Business as usual is not going to set things right.”

“The average cat in Europe has a larger environmental footprint than the average African over a lifetime because of the fish it eats,” he says. [I’m going ask Jason for the data to back up that claim next time we meet.]

So what’s he doing to provoke change? He’s working with big companies like Coca-Cola, Mars, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart, urging them to take a thorough, science-driven approach to their supply chains, so they use less water, produce fewer greenhouse gases, make less waste and protecting forests. That’s because these companies have scale and clout.

“Working with 300 to 500 companies is easier than working with 6.7 billion consumers,” he says.

Of course, consumers should be urged to reduce, reuse and recycle, but Clay argues that it’s unrealistic to expect even committed and well-informed consumers to drink their coffee black or switch from Rice Krispies to oatmeal.

“Consumers shouldn’t be asked to make those choices,” Clay says. “We think they ought to have only good choices on the shelves.”

Coke’s dilemma

Can a company grow and shrink at the same time?

That’s what The Coca-Cola Co. is trying to do. Like every big company, Coca-Cola wants to grow its revenues and profits. It also wants to reduce its environmental footprint. Is this possible?

The answer is probably not, at least not right now.

That’s not because Coke isn’t trying. Indeed, few companies take environmental issues more seriously than Coca-Cola. I’m an admirer of the company’s chairman, Neville Isdell, and its sustainability guru, Jeff Seabright. (See Coke: The Green Thing at fortune.com and this blogpost.) The trouble is that, at least for the moment, the more stuff that Coke sells, the more it is likely to emit, pollute and consume natural resources.

That, in any event, is my takeaway from today’s announcement from Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund that they are extending a partnership announced last year and setting new targets aimed at reducing water usage and greenhouse gas emissions throughout Coke’s sprawling, global system. Coke beverages – its $1 billion brands include Coke, Diet Coke, Fanta, Sprite, Coca-Cola Zero, vitaminwater, Powerade, Minute Maid and Georgia Coffee (a coffee-flavored drink sold in in Asia) — are sold in more than 200 countries.

As you may know, Coke products are produced and distributed by dozens independent bottlers, so the seemingly simple task of tracking the system’s global environmental footprint isn’t simple at all. Getting all those bottlers to line up behind promises to use resources more efficiently can’t be easy, either.

Seen in that light, Coke’s progress to date and its new targets deserve praise. The company improved its water efficiency by 20% from 2002 to 2007, and it aims to use water even more efficiently by 2012. “Water is at the core of what we do,” Seabright says. Its energy use ratio, another efficiency measure, improved by 19% between 2002 and 2007. These efficiency measures, in essence, means that Coke is using a lot less water and a lot less energy and emitting significantly fewer greenhouse gases per unit of product sold. That’s no small accomplishment, but you need to understand that we are talking about eco-efficiency here.

In absolute terms, Coca-Cola cut its water usage by 2% between 2002 and 2007, but it expects to use more water in 2012 than it does now because its business is growing, particularly outside of the U.S. Similarly, Coca-Cola’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions actually grew between 2002 and 2007. Going forward, it aims to keep emissions from its manufacturing operations flat between its baseline year of 2004 and 2015. (That’s just manufacturing. The company is working separately on its refrigeration, packaging and transportation, which aren’t part of the targets announced today.)

You see the problem, right? Coke is conceding that it can’t grow (the business) and shrink (its footprint) at the same time. I say this not to point a finger at Coke, but to point to the limits of what any company going “green” can do.

If Coke manages to stabilize its water use and carbon emissions, that would be a major accomplishment. But when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say we need to first stabilize them and then reduce them dramatically over the next 30 to 40 years.

Put another way, the earth’s atmosphere is indifferent to eco-efficiency.

To its credit, Coca-Cola is working on a variety of other projects that could bring about absolute reductions in energy and water usage and emissions. With other NGO and corporate partners, it is trying to eliminate HFCs and HCFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases, from the refrigeration industry. It has a venture arm that is investing in small “green” companies like RecycleBank and WeatherTrak, which adjusts irrigation systems to changing weather conditions. It is working with WWF on its supply chain, starting with sugar cane, to encourage farmers to increase their output while using fewer inputs of water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. All important stuff. You can read a lot more about what Coca-Cola is doing in its new 2008 sustainability report.

I do wonder about WWF’s role in the partnership, though. Coca-Cola has agreed to pay nearly $24 million over five years to WWF, in part because WWF is helping the company to become more sustainable. But by taking the money, is WWF giving up an opportunity to push Coke harder?

Judge for yourself. Here’s what Suzanne Apple, Vice President & Managing Director, Business and Industry at WWF, said when I asked her whether Coke’s efficiency targets go far enough: “Targets like these are very much consistent with our mission and our conservation priorities…We are pragmatic in our approach. We are pushing companies to set ambitious targets. But they have to balance their economic interests and their environmental interests.”

Well, sure. But it sounds to me like WFF is also balancing its economic and environmental interests. While I’m all in favor of corporate-NGO partnerships, I’d feel better if big NGOs didn’t take big grants from big companies, even good ones like Coke. Then they would only have one client to worry about—the earth.