Do a search for “Black Friday 2014” in your favorite search engine, and chances are you will come up with similar results to what I found. First, of course, a site called TheBlackFriday.com, which serves as a clearing house on advertisements and hours. Not surprisingly, WalMart and Amazon, the largest brick-and-mortar and online retailers in the U.S., rank highly in the search results. Depending on your stance on Black Friday, the thought of this day either brings angst over massive conspicuous consumption or excitement over cheap laptops, toys and clothing.
Not surprisingly, Black Friday is starting earlier every year. WalMart has already announced that it has started to spread Black Friday cheer with discounts on thousands of items as of Nov. 1. Perhaps the Black Friday label is already outdated. Kmart, for example, has announced it will open its stores on Thanksgiving morning at 6:00 a.m., which I suppose makes sense if you want to shop and then cook and nosh on your turkey dinner afterwards.
With seven of the world’s fastest growing economies located in Africa, it should not be a surprise that the continent’s energy demands will only surge in the coming decade. Hence plenty of opportunities exist for clean energy companies as investors worldwide realize Africa, with all of its risks, is a booming market. To that end, California-based Solar Reserve, together with numerous partners, has completed and launched the Jasper PV Project in South Africa.
Built in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, the Jasper solar power plant is now the largest of its kind on the African continent. The consortium that led the development of the Jasper facility included the Kensani Group, Intikon Energy, Rand Merchant Bank and Google. Incidentally, the Jasper plant is Google’s first clean energy investment within Africa.
Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard has always had, in his words, a “skeptical view” of the business world. For over 40 years, the outdoor apparel company has marched to the beat of its own drum, from donating one percent of its sales to environmental organizations to helping found the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to supply chain transparency. The company has also urged its consumers to hold onto their Patagonia garments and reduce consumption. Now Patagonia is taking its message a step further with the recent announcement the company will boost investment in Yerdle, a startup where users can use a smartphone app to give and receive things for free and score credits to get even more free items in the meantime.
According to Fast Company, which hosted the Innovation Uncensored Conference where the new investment was disclosed, Patagonia will manage this investment through its $20 Million and Change internal venture fund. Yerdle is the perfect partner for Patagonia as both have a role of keeping products moving between users, therefore keeping them out of landfills. As noted by Yerdle on its Facebook page, “either love what you own, or pass it along to someone who will.”
In November 2012, California launched its cap-and-trade program, the second largest in the world after the European Union’s. The state’s largest carbon producers — businesses that emit over 25,000 metric tons of emissions annually — buy carbon allowances from the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) quarterly auctions. Depending on who you ask, California’s carbon market is either a success or a drag on the state’s economy. The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, has touted California’s cap-and-trade as a global model for reducing emissions while creating new business opportunities. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), on the other hand, regularly criticizes the program for what it says drives up the costs of business and could wreak havoc within the fuel markets.
The way California’s cap-and-trade program works is relatively simple. Large polluters, such as utilities, buy certificates for each ton of carbon they produce. Polluters who are successful in reducing their emissions can sell their allowances to other companies who are unable to do so, in sum creating a market-based price for carbon. The allowances will slowly decline in numbers over the years, so think of cap-and-trade as a form of musical chairs, with companies bidding on fewer certificates over time — motivating them to find ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the first successful cap-and-trade programs was launched during the George H.W. Bush administration in 1990. Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, major polluters who were responsible for “acid rain” traded certificates in a move to reduce the emissions of such pollutants as sulphur dioxide. A generation later, California’s cap-and-trade program continues to grow: For example, the state has linked with Quebec’s cap-and-trade program, allowing the two to trade each other’s carbon allowances. And as of January 2015, petroleum refineries will also be required to participate within California’s cap-and-trade system. The energy companies are clearly unhappy about it, sharing scenarios of the state’s economy headed for a “fuels cliff.” But will California, the economy of which has been oft-described as careening over a cliff, really experience a disruption to its slowly recovering economy?
If we are to believe much of what we see in the press, millennials will have to make a more sustainable world to get us out of the mess that the baby boomers are leaving behind. But such generalities may not be necessarily true. Even AARP, which has paid plenty of attention to the baby boomer vs. millennials conflict, has made the case that its membership is concerned about the same issues with which the younger generation is often preoccupied. For example, one may not intuitively think of AARP as a locus of information on smart cities and better urban planning. This powerful lobbying group, however, has an impressive archive that inspires its members to advocate for more “liveable communities.”
AARP’s Walkable and Liveable Cities Institute should not be much of a surprise. As one approaches retirement age, the idea of living in an isolated exurb, where walking, cycling and public transports are the exception and not the rule, is less appealing. And with kids out of the house, denser communities and compact homes close to shops and services are becoming more desirable. Pedestrian-friendly streets and bicycle lanes are not only safer, but also allow citizens of all ages to save money and, of course, live sustainably.
Shrimp is one of the more popular proteins in the U.S., eaten by plenty of folk who otherwise would never get close to a fish or mollusk. But the shrimp industry has been dogged by a bevy of problems, from reports of rampant slave labor to the pollution generated by shrimp farms across the world. Now the ocean conservation advocacy group Oceana alleges that the industry is duping consumers on the type of shrimp, along with the sourcing, of the products they are buying.
The report focused on shrimp purchased in a few areas within the United States. Oceana claims the misrepresentation of labels is an ongoing problem within the shrimp industry, and insists companies must do more to disclose what kind of shrimp is within a package or on a restaurant plate, and state where it is from. By testing dozens of products in New York City, Portland, Washington D.C., and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Oceana has arrived to several conclusions, none of which will thrill consumers, even if buying sustainably is not a priority for them.
Merino wool has been prized for centuries because of its soft texture and ease of delivering warmth for high performance clothing. But its production has sparked its share of problems, from outrage over animal cruelty to the industry’s environmental impact. The wool industry in Australia, where about half of all the globe’s merino wool originates, has been called out for its cruel practices by PETA and the singer Pink. In recent years, more companies large and small, from Patagonia to PACT, are reacting by insisting that they now invest in more sustainable wool. Another company, Boerum Apparel, is taking ethics within its entire wool supply chain seriously, from farm to mill to factory.
So how does Brooklyn-based Boerum Apparel deliver impeccably-designed sweaters that boast fibers only 17.5 microns thick, yet are manufactured in a socially responsible way?
The Nature Conservancy and Harley-Davidson are now partnering with a commitment to plant 50 million trees worldwide by 2025. Yes, I gave this one a double-take, too. The pairing sounds about as natural as Rand Paul writing for Scientific American, so I dug in to find a little more information on this one. Yesterday I had an interview with Geof Rochester, Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy, to learn more about this unusual team.
It turns out the partnership is not as odd as one may have thought. Harley-Davidson has embraced sustainability in recent years, risked committing heresy by launching an electric motorcycle this summer and has indicated it takes climate change seriously. Tree planting is just another cog in the company’s plan to engage its loyal fans and raise awareness about environmental issues many consumers care about—but just do not know how to go about confronting them.
What do Dollar General and the U.K.’s Pets at Home have in common? They are among the 27 companies that have been through the KKR Green Portfolio Program. Launched back in 2008 in a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, KKR designed the program to optimize financial and environmental performance within its portfolio. With revenues close to $3.4 billion, the 38 year old private equity firm has been not only a pioneer in the leveraged buyout industry, but in transforming companies into leaner and more sustainable operations to make them attractive to future buyers. KKR recently announced the program’s most recent results for 2013.
Considering the gut reaction many of us have to the words “private equity,” one big question comes up: why would a firm such as KKR take on such a task in the first place? Most of us do not plunk CSR or ESG (environmental, social and governance, the term our friends across the Atlantic prefer), in the same thought or sentence when describing these types of companies. So to find out, I had an interview with KKR’s Vice President for ESG Strategy & Communications Ali Hartman.
The discussion over whether we should eat meat foments all kinds of passion. Obviously the moral arguments have long been there, whether the focus is on what happens on factory farms or the outrage over Whole Foods going retro and selling rabbit meat. Ethics aside, the environmental facts are hard to ignore. More land is devoted to growing feed for livestock than food for humans. The global meat industry overall is a bigger polluter than the transportation sector.
Then you have the health arguments: meat consumption in the U.S. has almost doubled during the 20th century, hence the public health concerns over obesity and heart disease. Most medical professionals would advise small portions of meat occasionally has minimal, or even a positive effect, on one’s health, provided you limit those portions to four ounces (113 grams). But in an era where fast food restaurants are ubiquitous and steakhouses pitch the 16 ounce manly-man steak, it is not always easy to avoid meat.
So, should we start to view meat as a luxury?
Adobe recently released its most recent corporate responsibility report, which is chock full of data on where the $4.1 billion Silicon Valley software giant made headway on environmental, diversity and governance issues. The recent overall focus for Adobe, however, is on how the company believes it can make an impact on society, especially youth. Other companies in the information technology space, including SAP and Microsoft, have made massive commitments in money, resources and employees to youth employment and empowerment programs.
Adobe, however, takes a slightly different approach. To learn a more about how Adobe’s corporate responsibility stands out within an industry where a lot of progress has been made, I spoke with Michelle Crozier Yates, Adobe’s director of corporate responsibility.
More companies are changing their tone towards animal rights as organizations from the Humane Society to PETA are highlighting what is going in the products you eat and fashion you wear. The Responsible Down Standard (RDS), which has raised awareness about what is happening to geese as their down is harvested for winter apparel and bedding, is one of the more recent initiatives underway. Allied Feather & Down is currently the largest RDS-certified supplier on the market, and this year it has made several industry moves. The latest is its announcement that 10 brands are now sourcing the company’s down, including The North Face and Eddie Bauer.
Why is this important? Previous responsible sourcing efforts were opaque and did little to assuage animal rights activists who questioned the “responsible down” that companies were sourcing for everything from jackets to comforters. The new RDS guidelines, which The North Face was instrumental in drafting, are a more open process. The collection of down is not exactly the most humane process — abuses from force feeding to overcrowding were a constant complaint. With much of the world’s down supply coming from Eastern Asia and China, a global standard that could apply to factory audits anywhere and allow for seamless supply chain traceability were both needed.
For an industry that is built upon gauging and managing risks, one would think the insurance industry would be more prepared to deal with climate change’s potential effects. But the most recent annual report by Ceres shows an overall lack of preparedness in confronting climate-related risks and addressing potential opportunities. Similar to last year’s report, Ceres found some leadership amongst 300-plus U.S. insurance companies it surveyed, but still finds a lack of innovation and long term planning.
The survey found that nine insurers, or three percent of the companies that responded to the survey, earned what Ceres described as a “leading” rating. Property and casualty insurers tend to have a greater understanding about how climate change could potentially affect their business; life and health insurers lag behind. And only about 10 percent of the surveyed insurance companies have publicly disclosed risk management statements that include climate change as a significant long term risk to their businesses. The larger companies pay more attention to climate change than smaller insurers, though exceptions, such as the Catlin Group, exist.
So who are some of the leaders?
The clean energy sector has been on an economic roller coaster the past several years, but despite entrenched interests, questions about efficiency and costs, renewables are on the upswing in the U.S.
That includes solar power, which is experiencing a surge in installations large and small—witness SolarCity’s success in recent years. Of course, the regulatory environment has a lot to do with how solar is spread.
So to that end, the writers at Solar Power Rocks, a clearinghouse of solar information from rebates to technology, recently ranked the U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The top 10 solar states may just surprise you—unless you live there and you have seen what is going on in your local community.
In order to gauge the winners and laggers on the solar power front, Dan Hahn and Dave Llorens, the brains behind Solar Power Rocks (SPR), looked at a bevy of factors, including each states renewable portfolio standard (RPS), the cost of electricity, rebates and credits related to solar, tax exemptions and regulations related to grid connectivity.
SolarCity is hot on Wall Street these days, judging by the fact its stock is holding steady and the company has no problem issuing bonds for its various investments. In fact, not only was the company the first in the U.S. to sell bonds backed by rooftop solar panels, it raised over US$200 million during its third debt offering on the markets in three months. Now SolarCity is turning to crowdfunding, albeit a tightly managed program, in order to raise more funds.
The system is akin to Kickstarter or Indiegogo meeting Fidelity or Vanguard. According to SolarCity, the offer to invest in Solar Bonds is relatively simple. You open an account, deposit some money and those funds in turn offer a return from the payments from residential and commercial projects SolarCity has all over the country. Unlike the growing solar crowd-funding juggernaut Mosaic, these funds are not for specific projects; rather they are akin to a mutual fund for current and future SolarCity initiatives. So should investors jump in, or is this the Amanda Palmer crowdfunding campaign of the clean energy sector?