General Motors has been having a fairly tough time of it lately, with a record-setting number of recalls this year, due, in part, to the increased scrutiny the industry has been facing, as well as the increased complexity of today’s cars. Fortunately, the company has some good news in its 2013 sustainability report, which is called, “Connecting You to What is Important.” As the name suggests, the report previews some of advantages of new, highly connected vehicles in terms of convenience, time and energy saved through optimal routing, and safety achieved by interactivity between vehicles.
I spoke with David Tulauskas, GM’s director of sustainability, about the report.
Triple Pundit: When we last spoke, you mentioned a goal of retiring 8 million metric tons of carbon emissions. How are you doing with respect to that goal?
Dave Tulauskas: We are now at 7.7 million metric tons committed, with 3.6 metric tons already retired. About six weeks ago, we announced another really exciting project within that initiative, a new VCS- approved methodology, dealing with university carbon reductions, either campus-wide, or on a LEED building basis.
In one corner, weighing in at just over $100 billion, we have the heavy-weight Koch Brothers, with roots in the John Birch Society and untold billions vigorously applied in a continuing effort to try and shift the American political landscape strongly to the right. Reflecting their roots in their chemical and petroleum empire, to them environmental considerations are at best a back seat concern.
In the other corner, weighing in at $1.6 billion, is the welterweight Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and crusader for liberal causes and the environment.
Steyer came out Thursday to announce the 2014 Strategic Plan for his superPAC, NextGen Climate. Specifically, Steyer wants to put climate change at the heart of the political conversation. In a press conference, Steyer said, “Our mission is to act politically to prevent climate disaster and to preserve American prosperity.”
He was clear that his team is playing to #winonclimate. “We will inevitably win on this because of the facts,” he said, “but we are trying to win faster because time is of the essence.”
The campaign will use climate as a wedge issue, to motivate voter turnout and show that being anti-science will hurt the candidates NextGen opposes, especially in cases (like the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race) where “the connection between a candidate’s fossil fuel donors demonstrably conflict with the best interests” of his or her constituents.
When it comes to fracking, I am a NIMBY. I would prefer that it not be done anywhere near where I live, due to a number of concerns, primarily involving threats to the water supply, as well as concerns about methane leakage and even earthquakes. Yet, I knowingly consume natural gas to keep me warm and keep my lights on. As I do, I am grateful that most power no longer comes from coal, due to the enormous threat to climate stability posed by the large-scale coal burning that has taken place throughout my lifetime.
Of course I am a big fan of clean energy and efficiency, but I also recognize the fact that our society has come to its present state on a very rich energy diet, one that renewables alone cannot provide. Someday, perhaps they will, but that is likely decades away. In the meantime, how do we proceed? Even as we transition to cleaner and more efficient technology, the world’s population continues to grow, as do a number of very dynamic emerging economies.
Natural gas produces roughly half the amount of CO2 as coal. Because of this, unless the carbon can be safely and effectively captured, we will want to eventually move away from gas as well. But since it is both cleaner and readily available (via fracking), it is widely considered the logical choice as a bridge fuel. Let the buyer beware however. I have previously cautioned that shale wells tend to give out quickly and will prove far more costly in the long run than what we are looking at now.
However, reluctant to fully embrace “new nuclear” without a sizeable list of legitimate post-Fukushima concerns, that leaves me close to an indefensible position. John Miller wrote a very informative piece last fall, published on the Energy Collective, that examines the impact of unilaterally ceasing all fracking operations in this country.
As our society goes through numerous transitions, many companies find themselves challenged to re-examine their core values and their core business. It takes a certain amount of imagination for a corporation to recognize what it is really all about, some more so than others. Oil companies, for example, don’t have to stretch too far, to re-imagine themselves as energy companies, or carmakers fancying themselves as purveyors of mobility.
Airlines, are about mobility too, of course, but one airline that has always distinguished itself by its imaginative approach to its work, Southwest, saw something else when it looked in the tea leaves. It recognized that it was very much in the business of places. After all, airlines make far-away places accessible that would not otherwise be.
In recognition of this aspect of their mission, Southwest has undertaken to partner with Project for Public Spaces in a new ”placemaking” program called Heart of the Community. The program works with city planners and community members to create places that are special in a way that will invite people to linger and commune, which will, in turn, raise the value of the community and the quality of life for those who live in it. It could also make that location more attractive to visitors.
Linda Rutherford, Southwest’s VP of communication and outreach, wrote in a recent blog post: “While planners can give a place structure and access, it is the community that gives it heart and vibrancy. Ultimately, Placemaking creates public places for the community with the community.”
I spoke with Rutherford about the launch of this new program.
Chances are you have never heard of brominated vegetable oil (BVO), or at least not until recently.
I know I hadn’t, but then I tend to avoid foods with ingredient lists that read like Russian novels. It turns out to be the same chemical used in flame retardants. Studies have shown that BVO can build up in human tissue and lead to lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders. It can also compete with iodine in the body. So, unless you are concerned about spontaneous human combustion, there is really no good reason to be ingesting this stuff.
Brominated vegetable oils were approved for use in soft drinks by the FDA in 1977 at a level of 15 parts per-million (PPM) for the purpose of stabilizing artificial flavorings. They have been found in roughly 10 percent of all soft drinks. That was until recently when Coca-Cola, following the lead of its rival Pepsi-Cola, removed the ingredient from its Powerade sports drink after Pepsi removed it from Gatorade.
The moves came after a petition on Change.org questioned why this ingredient was contained in a drink that was being marketed to health-conscious consumers. The petition was started by 15-year-old Sarah Kavanaugh and received more than 200,000 signatures.
According to Kavanugh, “A couple months ago, I found out that one of my favorite drinks, Gatorade’s Orange, contained brominated vegetable oil (BVO). According to Scientific American and other news reports, BVO is patented as a flame retardant and has been banned in Europe and Japan. So I started a Change.org petition asking Gatorade to stop using it. More than 200,000 people signed my petition on Change.org and we won! But I learned that BVO is also in other drinks, like Powerade’s red fruit punch that is actually sold in my school!”
So, she went back and started another petition, this one asking Coke to remove the ingredient from Powerade. By the time the second petition had reached 50,000 signatures, Coca-Cola had already responded.
As part of our series on sustainable seafood, we’re doing profiles on a couple of startups in the community supported fisheries (CSF) business. Last week I spoke with Sean Barrett, founder of Dock to Dish, a CSF serving the New York metropolitan area from Montauk, Long Island. This week I spoke with Sean Dixon of Village Fishmonger, another CSF in the New York area.
Unlike, Dock to Dish, which was founded by and overseen by fishermen, Village Fishmonger is coming at this from another angle. Among its three founders, Sean Dixon, Samantha Lee and Dennis O’Connor, two have their roots in the restaurant business. Sean, who I spoke with, is a marine biologist and environmental advocate. Sean has an almost evangelical drive to teach people about the ocean and the many creatures living in it. And while the CSF — which currently has between 500 and 600 members — constitutes the core of their business, they all spend a great deal of time reaching out to the public, telling them the story of seafood, educating them about the great potential to improve our food system by, among other things, taking advantage of the enormous resources just to the east of them.
They see it as their mission to reconnect the city with its long heritage as a seafood producing and consuming town. “Most people don’t realize,” said Dixon, “that NYC was once the oyster capital of the world.” The last of the New York City oyster beds were closed in 1927, primarily due to toxicity, but there is hope for recovery. In fact, that is the mission of NY/NJ Baykeeper. Founded with the help of the Hudson Riverkeeper and the American Littoral Society in 1989, their mission is to preserve, protect and restore the most urban estuary on the planet.
Support for these kinds of activities is what has led them to collaborate with Future of Fish, Riverpark restaurant and others to produce the second annual Sustainable Seafood Week NYC, which is going on now. The event is a “culinary-fueled celebration … showcasing the efforts of local fishermen, chefs, organizations and communities to promote responsible sourcing of seafood.” In addition to ticketed fundraising events, there will be “programming geared towards anyone that’s a stakeholder in the sustainable seafood discussion, including restaurant professionals, seafood purveyors, and scientists.”
It’s often been said that actions speak louder than words. But perhaps words and actions can be combined in a way that makes both more powerful.
That must have been what the folks at Peru’s Universidad de Ingeniería & Technología (UTEC ) were thinking when they decided to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the air pollution that is overtaking Lima with the help of a major construction boom. Working in collaboration with the Mayo ad agency, they designed and constructed a billboard that was equipped with special air filtration technology capable of removing dangerous particulates from the air. The billboard can effectively process 100,000 cubic meters of air each day, protecting both the construction workers and the local residents. This is roughly equivalent to the filtration capacity of 1,200 trees (although trees also remove carbon dioxide from the air).
This filter removes tiny particles of dust, stone and metal as well as bacteria, all of which can enter the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory illnesses. The innovation is totally on target considering the fact that the World Meteorological Association has rated Lima, which situated between the mountains and the ocean, as the most polluted city in South America. It works using water, which is combined with incoming air, and conveyed through several stages of pressurization and vacuum, effectively eliminates 99 percent of all airborne bacteria. The billboard filters all the air in a five block radius, using a modest 2,500 watts of electricity.
I recently spoke with Sean Barrett, founder of Long Island, N.Y.-based Dock to Dish, about how the fledgling community supported fisheries movement got started. Modeled after a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, Dock to Dish provides members — such as restaurants and grocery stores — with access to premium, locally caught and sustainable seafood. Launched last year, the program serves the communities of Montauk, Amagansett, Sag Harbor and the Hamptons.
We started out talking about the weather. He pointed out how the cold winter delayed the arrival of various fish to the Mid-Atlantic region. He could tell this by the absence of cormorants, who were “usually here in force by now.” Despite the cool weather, the season will open as scheduled, and Barrett isn’t worried about meeting demand. Many of the local fishermen who supply Dock to Dish’s sustainable catch are part of families that have been fishing the Montauk waters for generations, Barrett said, adding that they “know where the fish are and when they will arrive.”
Barrett himself is a life-long fisherman, who “learned to fish around the time he learned to walk.” When he was a kid, his parents sent him off to basketball camp and he came back with a trophy for best fisherman. Much of our conversation was anchored by the ecosystem-based approach that has permeated this movement and the work that has brought it forth.
TriplePundit: So tell me how you got into this?
Sean Barrett: I always loved nature and fishing. My parents had a restaurant. I always brought fresh fish to the table. At some point I realized that what most people were getting was something altogether different. I watched the chain of seafood custody as it got longer and darker and more opaque. Suddenly all the seafood was being imported from overseas.
The epiphany occurred about three years ago, when I came across Scott Chaskey, a local farmer, poet and founder of the oldest CSA [community supported agriculture program] in the area. When I saw what they were doing, I asked myself, why can’t we do the same thing with seafood? It’s as simple as saying the catch of the day was caught that day. Scott looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t see why not,” and I knew that I had to do it.
As I stood on the lawn outside of the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, I knew I was about to see something special. I was listening to Houston Mayor Annise Parker talk about her city’s track record when it comes to sustainability. Houston, the town through which one-third of all fossil fuel energy in the world passes, also gets more energy from renewable sources than any other city. Houston has hosted Shell’s Eco-Marathon for the past five years. Next year it will be held in Detroit — moving, in the words of Niel Golightly, Shell’s VP of External Affairs, “from the capital of energy to the capital of mobility.”
In front of me was a crowd of roughly 1,000 young people between the ages of 16-24, gathered in small clusters surrounding more than 120 futuristic-looking, very small cars, in various sizes, colors and shapes. Most of the cars were streamlined to one degree or another, many of them with a somewhat rough, homemade look that belied the fact that they were built entirely by the groups gathered so lovingly around them.
This was the official kickoff of the Eco-Marathon, an event with roots going back to 1939, when two Shell engineers made a bet over who could build a car with the best gas mileage. The winner that year achieved 49 mpg. The marathon became an annual event in 1985, first in Europe then, in 2007, moving to the Americas, then finally, in 2010, being replicated in Asia. Over time, the event migrated from a racetrack format to ordinary city streets, to more closely approximate real world driving conditions.
In the wake of increasingly grim news on the climate front, and a deadlocked Congress unable to overcome resistance and take action, there is some good news coming out of Washington after all. Not from the federal government, but from Georgetown University,
This week the university announced the launch of the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a $5 million competition that challenges communities to come together, develop and implement a plan to dramatically reduce energy consumption. Fifty communities in 25 states, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Knoxville, Tenn., have already signed letters indicating that they intend to compete.
The formal opening ceremony took place on April 23, featuring Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy; John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University; and Ellen S. Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation.
Why Georgetown? Somebody had to do it.
I asked Dr. Francis Slakey, executive director of the Prize, how it came to be the university that took action on energy efficiency. He said, “In 2012, we held a brainstorming session at Georgetown University with mayors, city planners and environmental managers from around the country. Everyone had the same problem: They wanted to create a more energy efficient community, but they struggled to win the buy-in of their residents. Adoption rates of energy efficiency technologies were stuck at 5 percent or even 2 percent—and it had been that way for decades.
“We needed a catalyst that would inspire action and create breakthrough solutions. Historically, there’s been an effective model to solve stuck problems: Hold a competition and offer a prize. Thus, the Georgetown University Energy Prize was born.”
In today’s highly connected world, never has the value of a good reputation been higher. Indeed, many companies have cited concerns about “reputation risk management” as a key driver behind their moves to incorporate sustainability into their business practices.
Then, there are those companies for which the primary raison d’être is to help usher in a more sustainable economy. The reputation — and the implicit trust that the public has come to place in a such a company — could be a valuable asset that can help expand that company’s business.
Take Recyclebank, for example. As part of its mission to “realize a world where nothing is wasted,” and to “inspire people to live more sustainably,” it has partnered with numerous companies to recommend and reward environmentally responsible behavior by their members — with credits that can be used towards the purchase of carefully vetted products that enhance and encourage a sustainable lifestyle. As it approaches its 10-year anniversary, the program has grown to include more than 300 communities and 4.5 million members. Recyclebank members have taken more than 20 million actions, increased their recycling by an average of 157 pounds per household and received over $60 million in reward value.
This week, Recyclebank is taking another step towards the realization of its vision, with the launch of OneTwine, an online retail shop that allows customers to redeem their Recyclebank points, pay cash, or any combination of the two. OneTwine will feature products in the household, health and beauty, children, pets, gear and gadgets categories. The primary goal of OneTwine will be, in the words of Recyclebank CEO Javier Flaim, “taking the guesswork out of finding products that consider their total impact on our planet, and in the process giving people another way to incorporate sustainability into their lives.”
I spoke with Flaim by phone, a few days before the OneTwine launch announcement.
Norman Hajjar is a man with a penchant for travel, adventure and a strong sense of curiosity. Years ago, when he lived in Venice, Italy, he wondered what it would be like to get off the familiar canals and see some of the surrounding area by boat. He wanted to get a feel for what the place was really like. He took 10 days and an old boat to find out, even though he knew next to nothing about boating. What he found was that he spent a great deal of time worrying about when and where he could fill up his gas tank so he wouldn’t end up stranded in some dark lagoon.
Years later, he developed a keen interest in electric vehicles. Having worked on Madison Avenue, he left to start Plug Insights, a research division of electric vehicle software and analytics company Recargo, Inc. Now he spends his days collecting information about these cars and the people that drive them, providing reports to those who are interested.
So it makes sense that he would set out to set a new record with a 12,000+ mile road trip in a Tesla Model S, to get off the beaten track once again and see what it would be like to see America “through the windshield of an EV.” He was wondering what kind of reaction people in remote areas would have to a car like this. Perhaps you could say he has taken it upon himself to go out and survey the boundary between today and tomorrow, to get a feel for how far we’ve come in the transformation of transportation and how far we still have to go.
General Mills just issued its 2014 Global Responsibility Report. I received an advanced review copy and spoke with Chief Sustainability Officer Jerry Lynch to get his perspective. The 121-page report is organized into five major sections: Health, Environment, Sourcing, Workplace and Community. These are consistent with the company’s mission of “Nourishing Lives- making lives healthier, easier and richer – for 147 years.”
Triple Pundit: One statement in the introduction really impressed me. “Our business depends on the availability of natural resources and the strength of the communities where we operate.” This neatly sums up the reason why companies should care about and invest in corporate social responsibility and sustainability. It’s the awareness that companies do not exist in a vacuum, and that in fact all of their inputs (raw materials) and outputs (sales) are in constant interaction with ecosystems that are subject to continuous change and are sensitive to factors that they themselves can have a significant impact upon.
Jerry Lynch: Thank you.We take the output of Mother Nature, then add value to it for our consumers. So if the front end of that business model breaks down, we’re in a world of hurt. The focus of our work is to conserve and protect our natural resources and the communities that our business depends on. So it’s really a hard-nose business imperative behind this.
3p: What do you see as your major challenges in achieving this?
JL: We’re looking at increasing demand for food as population grows and more people are moving into the middle class. This is happening at a time when Mother Nature is facing major challenges.
There was some strange news out of Indiana recently. A piece of legislation designed to dismantle the state’s energy efficiency law made its way to the desk of Gov. Mike Pence. The governor neither vetoed nor signed the bill, thus allowing it to become law by default.
The governor defended his action, or inaction, as follows:
“I could not sign this bill because it does away with a worthwhile energy efficiency program. I could not veto this bill because doing so would increase the cost of utilities for Hoosier ratepayers and make Indiana less competitive by denying relief to large electricity consumers, including our state’s manufacturing base.”
This seems a bit odd at a time when most states are taking action to reduce energy consumption, encourage the adoption of renewables, and enable technologies such as storage systems to facilitate the rapid integration of renewables into their utility grid.
In fact most of Indiana’s neighbors continue to move forward on efficiency.
- Illinois utilities are set to reduce annual electricity demand by 1.5 million MWh over the next three years. ComEd has saved its customers more than $700 million through energy efficiency.
- Michigan utilities are reducing their electricity usage by more than 1 percent per year through energy efficiency. These utilities saved a net of $800 million in the first three years of their programs.
- A group of manufacturers in Ohio including Honda, Honeywell and Whirlpool recently wrote a letter to the state legislature urging them to keep the energy efficiency standards in place.
- Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin are all using energy efficiency as a resource and capturing the benefits for their customers.
Why did Indiana let this happen? Was it simply a matter of politics?
This is a question many of us have wondered about. Seeing how the local movement is so closely associated with sustainability, at least when it comes to food, does that same closer-is-better reasoning hold when it comes to other products, such as clothing?
For starters, Steve Sexton challenged the local food argument in Freakonomics, in a post that has drawn a lot of criticism from locavores, including this smart piece by Tom Philpott. But still, he lands a number of valid points including the economies of scale argument and the fact that some places are better for growing potatoes than others. But probably the most important point he makes is that there are other considerations besides how far a product is shipped when determining how sustainable it is.
When it comes to clothing, there are other considerations to keep in mind. For example, how long an item of clothing will last determines how many times it will need to be replaced in a person’s lifetime.
This is the argument made by a companies like Appalatch and Osmium, which puts a high emphasis on the craftsmanship in their goods and their resulting durability. Companies like Darn Tough are now selling socks with a lifetime guarantee. The company even has a sign on its factory that says, “Nobody ever outsourced anything for quality.”
Pride aside, it’s certainly not out of the question that quality goods can come from many places. Even China. Thanks to the International Standards Organization, which provides operating practices and principles for manufacturing quality in the form of standards, quality is on the rise. Because a number of major multinational companies will not buy from suppliers unless they meet ISO standards, that puts pressure on companies to clean up their act. Fine, you say, if you’re selling nuts and bolts to Boeing, but we’re talking about clothing here. Yes, and some clothing makers have done just that.