Upon learning today that China has a plan in place for a carbon emissions “cap and trade” market by 2016, my joy was mixed with frustration at U.S. foot-dragging. The D.C. gridlock and politicizing of energy sources like wind and solar — the politicizing of energy sources — has consistently ceded manufacturing and renewable energy technological ground to China and Europe for decades. Are we going to let that happen again with carbon markets?
China aims to finalize its plans for the largest “cap and trade” program in the world by 2016 — a program that will eclipse the scope of European emissions trading. China’s market will be the main trading hub for Asia and the Pacific. It’ll place a cap on CO2 emissions from power plants and the nation’s many manufacturers. Basically, if an entity wants to emit carbon dioxide above the cap, it needs to buy permits from the market.
China has made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product to about 45 percent of its 2005 emissions — and by 2020. Mind you, that’s no small feat.
A thoughtful article in the Economist suggests we should be more rigorous with the meaning of ‘sustainability’ in the corporate world, granting it to the broad efforts undertaken by companies like SABmiller and Unilever.
What many companies call ‘sustainable’ measures should be more succinctly termed ‘efficiency’ measures … which, if we really think about it, is what corporations should be doing anyway in the name of just straight-up economic principles. If producing less waste, using less packaging, putting up solar panels and reducing energy use with LED lights is ‘sustainable,’ then of course companies that do this will see a return. Of course they will!
However, the jury arguably is still out on broader, more aggressive moves toward social and environmental responsibility. But companies like SABmiller are undertaking the Big Experiment.
SABmiller is the second largest brewer in the world. Here in North America we’re familiar with the company through products such as Leinenkugel, Molsen, Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite. And of course the next time you poo-poo that 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800, just know that the company producing it is personally bringing experts and facilities to wheat farmers in Rajasthan in northern India to help them reduce water draw from the strained aquifer by 23 percent and water runoff by 40 percent. The company is also increasing its focus on its own customers with road-safety and anti-drunkenness campaigns.
The difference between SABmiller’s approach and other company-centered ‘efficiency’ efforts is the depth of focus outside the company’s own walls. A business can say “we reduced our water use” or “we have reduced our carbon footprint” or even say “we don’t use child labor” but refer only to what is directly from their own operations, which tends to be comparatively small.
The larger environmental and social impacts are often found in the sprawling supply chain and in consumer use.
According to Jane Nelson, director of the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, the broader view of social and environmental responsibility is part of a growing trend among businesses.
On Tuesday the U.S. National Labor Relations Board found that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees and can be held accountable for the franchisee’s poor labor practices. The NLRB sided with workers who filed cases against McDonald’s claiming that the corporation is the one really calling the shots because it exerts tight controls on nearly every aspect of a given store’s operation, including employment practices.
This has broad implications for many other companies with closely-controlled franchise requirements, and may even pave a trail for the fast food unionization movement.
In April I wrote about a Hart Research Poll which showed a shocking 89 percent of fast food employees faced some form of wage theft. Such wage theft comes in many forms from requiring work before clocking in and after clocking out, to making all sorts of unjustified automatic deductions from employee paychecks, including meals that were never eaten or items that went missing from the restaurant. For one of the most egregious forms of wage theft, employers exploit the corporation’s own time management software to doctor employee paychecks, shortening time or making it seem like employees had gotten a break when they hadn’t.
And yet, when these rampant problems come to the fore, major fast food corporations have traditionally been able to say, “It wasn’t us, it was the franchisee.” While the corporate entity may hold tight control over business practices all the way down to the color of the drapes, they have classically held that they aren’t accountable for poor labor practices because they don’t control that part. This week’s decision will make it a lot more difficult for McDonald’s to make that claim and distance itself from the bad labor practices of its franchisees.
I type here today to testify about the avalanche of diapers going into our landfills and the bizarre or ingenious solution to that plague. Based on research from Tel Aviv University on the super-absorbancy of jellyfish flesh, the Israeli nanotechnology company Cine’al Ltd. is developing a diaper that’s more absorbent and decomposes in just 30 days. And by the way, this new green product is made of jellyfish.
Back in my college days I worked my way through school as a janitor at a large child care center, scrubbing tiny toilets, sanitizing doorknobs several times a day, sweeping wet rice off the lunchroom floor, and yes, I was that guy who brought in the sawdust when some poor kid got sick after eating rainbow-colored cereal. But most of all, I remember the diapers. Mounds of them. Thousands. Every three hours I’d sweep through the baby and toddler rooms, play peek-a-boo for a couple of minutes, then take out the diaper-stuffed bags and replace them with new bags: Four 55-gallon Hefties every three hours, each filled with scores of compact little white plastic-lined balls of … you know … let’s just say diapers.
As a parent, I saw the same thing. Garbage overflowing with diapers.
Disposable diapers, as it turns out, are the third-largest category of landfill trash by volume accounting for 4 percent of the solid waste in U.S. landfills. And in households with a baby or toddler, disposable diapers make up about 50 percent of the family’s trash. At the child care center, I’d wager about 75 percent of our trash was Huggies/Luvs/generic Target brand based — all of which take hundreds of years to decompose.
We are overrun with diapers.
Enter the jellyfish.
Following massive Friday protests that led to nine arrests, the city of Detroit announced on Monday it is suspending its sweeping water shut-offs for 15 days to launch a massive campaign to inform city residents of water assistance.
It’s difficult to get a full picture of the water crisis going on in Detroit. To date, the city has cut off water service to about 16,000 households, with another 324,000 overdue water and sewage accounts facing potential shut-off. That’s over 40 percent of the city. In response, the United Nations Human Rights Council recently condemned the city’s water shut-off campaign as a human rights violation and public health concern, as thousands of low income Detroit households and families are facing the absence of a basic necessity for every living creature on planet Earth.
The U.N. special reporter on extreme poverty and human rights, Leilana Farha, added that if it turned out the water shut-offs targeted African Americans it could be in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified. It’s important to note that Detroit’s population is 83 percent African American.
It’s also worth pointing out that Michigan is the only state entirely within the Great Lakes water basin and surrounded by some of the largest fresh water lakes in the world. It’s not like water is scarce here.
But what the heck? The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is shutting off water for non-payment in a city that’s billions of dollars in debt. What do people expect, right? Once you reach the $150 delinquency amount, your water goes off.
Unfortunately, Detroit — long at the epicenter of industrial decline, offshoring and a crumbling auto industry — has experienced massive poverty, with more than 40 percent of the population at or below the poverty line. The people are broke. The city is broke. And while the city claims there are plenty of resources for people facing water shut-offs, they admit that they’re kind of short-staffed in the Notifying People of a Shut-Off department.
Go small or go home. That’s my motto. Or it would be if I had a motto. And it seems that’s something Walmart is embracing — to the benefit of walkable communities and of those in food deserts where lower-income people suffer limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Walmart has announced it will nearly double its number of “small format” stores in unconventional locations, adding up to 300 more units around the U.S. focused on “perishables” such as fresh fruits and vegetables and meats. One of the major factors in the format’s success is how it uses pharmacies — another benefit to communities with walkability issues — as traffic builders.
This is not to say that the stores are specifically intended to address food desert issues. Back in 2011, Walmart committed to building stores in rural and urban food deserts, but that didn’t include the smaller format stores. However, the company did say stores like Walmart Express “will likely” serve food deserts. Ultimately, though, the intent of the smaller stores is to get a foothold in dense urban centers that aren’t cut out for the huge, sprawling format. Heck, some cities like Chicago have been downright politically hostile to Walmarts within the city limits.
The new format seems to be a huge hit, already. Walmart expects to see up to $20 billion in growth each year from these wee little outlets by 2018.
As if it’s not enough that so many minimum wage workers can’t make ends meet on an honest day’s work, many also find themselves performing work for free or less than they’re due. A new poll conducted by Hart Research Associates shows an overwhelming majority of fast food workers, 89 percent, have experienced wage theft.
Low-wage employers’ conniving ways to avoid fair pay for honest work is the general rule, not the exception. McDonald’s franchise employers, for example, are facing lawsuits for these types of practices, as they exploit corporate-provided computer systems to doctor their workers hours so they can avoid paying overtime, or to make it seem like employees took breaks they worked through instead. Time worked, but not compensated.
A new analysis from Charlotte, N.C. once again shows what we’ve learned from many other case studies: It costs taxpayers less money to house the homeless than it does to leave them to the elements.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina examined Moore Place, a housing complex with 85 units, constructed in 2012 specifically to meet the needs of homeless individuals in the Charlotte area. Moore Place requires residents to pay 30 percent of their income (which includes things like veterans and disability benefits) toward the cost of rent. The remaining housing cost per person, per year is about $14,000 — which Moore Place pays for through Federal and local grants.
If that $14,000 seems like somebody is soaking the system, keep in mind it costs about $30,000 per year or more to imprison somebody. Sometimes a lot more. Which is one important reason that giving the homeless a place to live can save taxpayers money. The population at Moore Place saw a 78 percent drop in arrests and 84 percent fewer days in jail compared to living on the streets. That’s fewer people in expensive prisons, less police work, a reduction of caseload for the courts, and the aversion of a whole range of taxpayer costs that occur when people run afoul of the law.
New fuel efficiency and emissions standards are creating stronger automotive jobs in the U.S., as research and development firms wind up to meet the challenges, refineries retool and American manufacturers build new components. That wasn’t one of the big headlines from the EPA’s announcement earlier this month that it finalized the Tier Three Motor Vehicle Fuel and Emissions Standards. But it’s definitely one of the real-world effects.
The new emissions standard takes effect by 2017 and “sets new vehicle emissions standards and lowers the sulfur content of gasoline.” The new standard is on top of the fuel efficiency standards set by the Obama administration in 2009, pushing for cleaner more fuel efficient automobiles.
A 2014 report commissioned by the Emissions Control Technology Association shows the Tier Three standard will create of thousands of new jobs operating new refinery equipment and about 24,000 new refinery jobs over three years as refineries retool to meet the new EPA standards for lower sulfur emissions. An earlier Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report from March 2010 showed higher fuel and emissions standards would create 150,000 jobs in the U.S. across a spectrum of job sectors.
Fish has been part of the human diet and culture since the beginning of time. It seems almost inconceivable that it could suddenly stop being available. But we’re headed for a cliff if we don’t improve sustainable fishing worldwide.
Last year I found myself sputtering in disbelief when the waitress told me lake perch sliders were no longer available at my favorite local bar and grill. That same week a local fast food place that had always offered a lake perch sandwich switched to a generic fried “fish” sandwich. Along the Michigan coast of Lake Michigan, yellow perch has long been traditional and ubiquitous fare. But numerous factors including severely limited commercial fishing and a precipitous drop in Lake Michigan perch populations has eroded availability of this cultural staple.
This is a microcosm of an even larger issue. The world’s oceans are in decline. Ocean catch reached its highest point, “peak fish,” back in the 1990s. It’s been declining fairly steadily since then. We’re taking more fish from the ocean in unsustainable ways than the ocean can provide. As of 2010 fishing operations harvested over 80 million metric tons of wild caught fish worldwide. That doesn’t even include the bycatch — the undesired marine life caught while harvesting a desired species. Bycatch, estimated to be between 7 million and 38 million metric tons globally, can sometimes dwarf the desired harvest for a given species. In one extreme example, wild shrimp can come at a cost of 62 pounds of bycatch per pound of shrimp. So when we talk about the depletion of ocean wildlife, it goes beyond what we see on our plates.
It seems to be just a matter of time. Marijuana legalization is moving across the country. Today, 20 states already allow medical cannabis. On Wednesday, the Washington, D.C. City Council voted almost unanimously to decriminalize marijuana in small amounts, while Colorado and Washington state have legalized the stuff. It’s flowing into daily lives, and now we’re seeing the first network television commercial for medical marijuana–just playing right there on the TV like they’re selling Tylenol or Hot Pockets.
Airing on national networks in the state of New Jersey–networks like A&E, Fox, CNN, Comedy Central, Food Network and the History Channel–a company called Marijuana Doctors is making the case for buying the product from trusted clinical sources.
The television ad features a slick talking, back alley sushi-pusher selling tuna and sashimi from the inside of his leather jacket. The commercial ends saying, “You wouldn’t buy your sushi from this guy, so why would you buy your marijuana from him?” The message here, in form and choice of medium, seems to be right in line with MarijuanaDoctors.com’s mission of “legitimizing the process for the booking and selection of medical marijuana doctors.” Major network television is just about as normalizing and arguably legitimizing as it comes. And it’s telling that the networks agreed to air the ad. Sure, money talks. But so does viewer outrage. Apparently the networks didn’t think that would be an issue.
If your business is selling electricity, then a new analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy showing flatlining or even falling demand is not encouraging news.
In June 2013 Ron Binz spoke about disruptive forces facing the utility industry. He was Obama’s nominee for head of the Energy Regulatory Commission until Mr. Binz dropped out in the face of pretty intense industry pressure. One of the main disruptions leading to troubles for utilities is waning sales growth in the electricity sector. It’s a problem. Last year in Ann Arbor, Binz showed a chart depicting less than 2 percent growth in energy demand going forward. However, a new report shows an even worse picture for the traditional purveyors of electricity. Use has actually been falling since 2007 and continues to do so.
Ironically, the importance and tight demand for high-tech human resources may have lead Silicon Valley companies to engage in practices that actually reduced their wages.
A class action wage theft lawsuit is implicating numerous tech companies in Silicon Valley for taking organized actions to suppress wages. In one instance, legal documents reveal that Steve Jobs threatened the CEO of Palm Inc. with legal harassment in an attempt to make a potentially illegal wage suppression deal. At issue, Mr. Jobs was annoyed with Edward Collagan of Palm for poaching workers from Apple and attempted to strike a deal where the two companies would agree not to hire each others employees. It’s an agreement that amounts to wage suppression since employers can’t use higher wages to hire employees away from another company.
Here’s an interesting point about corporate social responsibility: Major companies can choose to lead the charge, or if they neglect to do so for too long, the democratic process may step in and do so for them on terms the companies may not particularly like. Right or wrong, this is the situation faced by many low-wage employers in the U.S. following President Barack Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage.
There are, however, examples of fast food and retail companies out there that strive to pay a fair wage. And they show that companies can indeed pay more and do well. In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain in California and the Southwest, starts its employees off at a wage of $10.50 an hour. Moo Cluck Moo, a small fast food chain based in Canton, Mich., starts employees out at $12 an hour and ratchets up the pay to $15 an hour after 60 days. So what about McDonald’s? Or Burger King? Or Long John Silver’s for that matter?
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez makes a good point. If In-N-Out Burger can do it–remain profitable and still provide what has arguably been deemed a superior product–why can’t McDonald’s? Say’s Perez, “I find it a remarkable notion that McDonald’s can’t afford to pay an increase in the minimum wage but In-N-Out Burger can.”
Thanks to a new Long John Silver’s ad campaign and its upcoming elimination of trans fats, one of my guilty pleasures could soon feel a bit less guilty.
A new set of ads raise the Jolly Roger in honor of sustainable food and more environmentally sound eating, citing the benefits of fish from fewer methane emissions when compared to livestock, and real free-range food from “the final frontier,” otherwise known as the North Pacific.
It’s no accident this brand change is coming at the breakwater of Lent, when millions of consumers switch their diets and many fast food restaurants start promoting their fish sandwiches. Judging from the networks on which the new campaign will premier–Discovery Channel, the Weather Channel, HGTV, ESPN2 and TNT–Long John Silver’s is arguably targeting an environmentally conscious and educated audience.
Of course there’s always the potential for greenwashing here. According to Long John Silver’s, the fish it uses for its “core” products is wild caught. Those delicious crunchy white meat fish fillets and the crunchy, yummy bits of batter around it. Environmental groups warn about the disatrous practice of overfishing. According to Overfishing.org, at least 25 percent of fish stocks around the world are over-exploited or depleted, while 52 percent are already fully exploited.