We spend so much time here at Triple Pundit talking about how companies and universities are becoming more sustainable, it is easy to forget the sustainability agenda is going on everywhere, and yes, that includes government. To that end, more prisons are making moves to become more environmentally responsible. The latest is the Northwest State Corrections Facility in Swanton, Vermont. Recently the women’s prison, which incarcerates over 200 prisoners, announced it had become compliant with the state’s 2012 solid waste and recycling law.
Considering the depressing statistic that almost one in 100 American adults is behind bars, there is plenty of work to do on this front. From deliveries to food to water consumption, these facilities, operating 24/7 just as a small town does, provide plenty of opportunities to reduce waste and save money. Washington State, for example, partners with one of its state universities to implement recycling and sustainability programs within its correctional facilities. So what exactly is going on in this corner of New England?
It was not long ago that the chief sustainability officer—or whatever title that person or committee tucked into their email signature—was often someone on the outside looking in. For many companies, appointing a CSO was done to assuage some stakeholders with corporate social responsibility projects. That officer was also charged with giving a public face to the company’s efforts related to their sustainability agenda. But recent trends show that oft-heard complaint is less and less true. We see more companies, from the logistics sector to snack manufacturers, appointing a CSO, and one who has a role with teeth to get things done. They are increasing involved in day-to-day decision making within the C-suite, and their numbers are increasing annually. Now a report from the Weinreb Group shows the role of the CSO has matured even more the past few years.
And what is the biggest shift underway? These CSOs are no longer simply internal program managers—they, in the report’s words, are “strategic lynchpins” who are integral to a company’s overall strategy, often identify new opportunities for innovation and lead impactful strategic initiatives from within and outside the company.
General Motors (GM) continues to expand its global zero-waste program, inching closer to its goal of having 125 total facilities landfill-free by 2020. Eleven new facilities are now officially zero waste, and they range from assembly plants to regional headquarters. Following its own mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle and compost,” GM has expanded this program to 122 facilities — over half of them outside of North America.
According to GM, the conversion of these factories and offices to landfill-free status helps the automaker prevent more than 600,000 tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere annually. At last count, the company estimates that 97 percent of all waste at its landfill-free plants is recycled or reused; the remainder is converted into energy within the plants.
The amount of waste GM recycles hardly is small change: The company in the past has estimated that it generates about US$1 billion in revenues from raw materials that do not end up going into cars. Three years running, GM’s zero-waste plan is a solid example of a company rolling out sustainability goals — and actually meeting them.
Last week the American Petroleum Institute (API) was sued for trademark infringement by Choose Energy, Inc. For 10 years, San Francisco-based Choose Energy has been operating an online marketplace that allows consumers to compare home and business power options from natural gas to solar. In a lawsuit filed last week in a California federal court, Choose Energy, which operates the website ChooseEnergy.com, accuses the API’s launch of ChooseEnergy.org of confusing consumers and harming the company’s goodwill, or in layman’s terms, the company’s reputation and therefore its customers’ confidence.
The suit claims API’s site has confused Choose Energy’s potential customers, especially those who contact the firm through its chat interface, call center and via social media interaction on the Choose Energy’s Twitter account. The bulk of Choose Energy’s business is from working as a broker offering various energy options in the 10 states and the District of Columbia that have deregulated energy markets. So, API’s launch, the company insists, is having an adverse impact on its business. Considering API’s past use of fake Twitter accounts and litigation over renewable energy regulations in the past, this may not be too big a surprise to observers.
Kansas is a political mess right now, and its leaders have hardly been hospitable to sustainable development, but a new biofuels project underway, close to the border with the Oklahoma panhandle, shows that new clean energy technologies do have a future. This morning the Department of Energy and the Spanish multinational Abengoa are officially kicking off the company’s first commercial-scale biorefinery in Hugoton. Once known as Kansas’s natural gas capital, this town of 4,000 may very well become known as the catalyst for next-gen biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, finally scaling and becoming cost-competitive with other fuels.
So why would a €7.8 billion (US$10 billion) company be bothered with this corner of the prairies? A conversation I had with Chris Standlee, Abengoa’s executive vice president of global affairs, shed some light on the future of cellulosic alcohol—which could finally play a role in diversifying our country’s energy portfolio, reduce carbon emissions and generate revenue for farmers. According to Standlee, Albengoa’s investment in the Hugoton plant reflects the company’s confidence that cellulosic alcohol is finally becoming a more cost effective option.
India’s fifth largest city, Bangalore, deserves much of the credit and attention for India’s economic transformation the past 20 years. Home to massive information technology companies including Wipro and Infosys, the Bangalore metropolitan area contributes as much as one-third of India’s IT exports. Many global companies, including SAP, have long set up shop in Bangalore. Many of the technologies that are part of the foundation of the “smart cities” movement underway worldwide have a base in Bangalore.
But as in the case of other cities throughout India, being stuck in traffic gives the feeling one is anywhere but a “smart city.” The frustration in Bangalore is nothing new. An annual report by IBM ranked Bangalore highly in its 2011 “Commuter Pain Survey.” This city of eight million was lodged between Johannesburg and New Delhi, and faring worse than other cities notorious for snarled traffic, including Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. The impacts on local quality of life are all over the map, such as when ambulances take hours to move patients only a few kilometers across town to emergency rooms. But the toll Bangalore’s traffic has on workers gives cities a lesson on why cities have got develop more robust transportation plans in a crowded world: Quartz estimates the annual cost to local IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) companies to reach as much as US$6.5 billion annually. Considering the average salary of an IT or BPO employee in India, that sum is staggering.
Enterprise risk management (ERM) has long been a growing priority of corporate executives and boards — not a surprise since political, economic and social change can occur quickly. But a study issued by the business reporting firm Workiva suggests sustainability-related risks should be part of a company’s core ERM analysis. Climate is an obvious reason, as many businesses learned after Hurricane Sandy two years ago. But other factors, from supply chain management to confronting water scarcity, are behind why the study’s authors insist businesses need to take sustainability seriously if they are to remain viable for the long term.
Sustainability is more than highlighting environmental and social risks, however. The Workiva report insists that in order for sustainability to be part and parcel of a company’s risk management plan, buy-in has got to start at the top, board- and executive-level, with a solid corporate governance structure. And before those groans start coming out of the boardroom, it’s important to remember that many reports already out there prove that a company focused on being sustainable and socially responsible is one that also enjoys an improved financial performance.
But how should sustainability-related challenges be implemented and monitored?
I only got 10 likes in the last five minutes
Do you think I should take it down?
Let me take another selfie. . .
–“#Selfie,” by the Chainsmokers
Most of us who live on social media know that companies such as Instagram allow you to use their services on the condition that they can use your services, royalty-free, without any notification.
That was one reason why I avoided using Instagram at first, although almost 6,500 photos later, I got over those privacy concerns pretty quickly. Not that anyone would want to use photos of my dog, my dome smooshed into a bike helmet, or me doing a yoga backbend in front of the Taj Mahal. Maybe. But I also do not pose for selfies brandishing my middle finger, with my tongue wagging out, or passed out buried in a pile of empty Corona bottles (I only drink local or organic brews). Triple Pundit doesn’t need the embarrassment, nor do any of my business clients. But for those of you that love to post pics of your shopping expeditions or favorite junk foods, be aware: Your selfie could very well be dissected and analyzed by the digital marketing startup Ditto.
One of the more welcome trends in recent years is the increase in partnerships between NGOs and businesses to work on sustainability challenges. The nonprofit has the expertise and capacity to work on issues from water to land rights; companies in turn have the funds, technology or brand recognition that can help raise awareness and scale these programs. One of the latest high-profile partnerships is between Unilever and the World Resources Institute (WRI), which have worked together to further a much needed agenda: increase transparency in agricultural supply chains to stall the pace of deforestation.
WRI has long included deforestation within its body of work, which makes it a natural fit to partner with a company such as Unilever, which uses palm oil in many of its products. And the growing demand for palm oil over the past decade is one of the major factors behind global deforestation. Despite growing awareness about deforestation’s catastrophic effects, the felling of trees, mostly to create farms and pastureland, continues. In fact, University of Maryland study suggests the rate of forests lost between 2010 and 2012 was the equivalent about 50 soccer fields every minute of every day — over a span of 12 years. Last month’s Climate Summit in New York resulted in a pledge to restore 350 million hectares of forest worldwide by 2030, a massive undertaking considering that landmass is about the size of India. So, can the Unilever-WRI alliance help?
If plant-based protein becomes the norm — and meat production becomes only a minor, not major, contributor to the world’s problems coming from carbon emissions and pollution — then much of the credit should go to Stanford University researcher Patrick Brown. The professor of biochemistry, who has spent much of his career on genetic research, has taken on a new quest: finding alternatives to animal farming. And one of his ideas is a plant-based hamburger that oozes out blood like the real thing.
His brainchild is Impossible Foods, a Redwood City, California startup that has scored $75 million in venture capital funding, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company is developing fake cheeses and meats, including his beef substitute that uses plant-based molecules to recreate a more environmentally friendly, and humane, alternative to steak and hamburger. In his quest to change how we eat, and put a dent in the global meat industry, he is focusing on the environmental argument while trying to develop a product that has the taste and texture of the real thing — eschewing the emotional and ethical arguments typical of the anti-meat crowd.
Buying cleaning products has long been a murky process. Few laws requiring companies to disclose the chemicals are on the books — so of course, most companies do not list what they put into those bottles. But for some public health advocates, required ingredients disclosure has been their rallying cry. Now more companies are responding in kind. For example, Clorox recently announced an expansion of its “Ingredients Inside” program and an updated release of its smartphone app that aims to educate customers about the company’s portfolio of cleaning products, from bleach to room fresheners. Fragrances, those pesky additives where it is almost impossible to sort out how they are formulated, are the latest addition.
And indeed, that is quite a laundry list of fragrances Clorox uses in all of its products. But that list is it — no other additional information about these ingredients was released. Consumers who want more information are directed to a Wikipedia page, or the International Fragrance Association. One can also download a list in PDF format if they want to learn the industry names of the fragrances. So, are these updated apps and disclosures actually helpful to consumers, or is this just marketing in the guise of transparency?
This week, Collectively.org launched. Described in a press release as a “super brand coalition” platform to “raise awareness and inspire millennials to adopt a more sustainable way of living,” I first thought it was a joke. I rolled my eyes as the email also included a pallid quote from Barack Obama and forwarded it onto the editors here at Triple Pundit with a snicker (which is why, PR people, get to the point right away).
Yes, the “super brand coalition” threw me off, as I envisioned a posse of luxury brands going into the Middle Eastern desert to root out terrorism. But when I scrolled down that same email yesterday, it turns out this is partnership between Forum of the Future and some of the world’s biggest and iconic companies: Marks & Spencer, Unilever, Google, Nike, BT and others are sponsoring this new site while VIRTUE, a division of edgy VICE Media, is curating the site.
And according to sustainability writers out there, that background poses a huge problem for Collectively, and the knives are out. “A slew of major corporations,” and “backed by corporate sponsors,” are among the complaints being lobbed at this new site—as if somehow corporate involvement is a bad thing. The “feel good” stories on Collectively are mocked, and the site is even chided for not covering other stories such as the Aral Sea’s disappearance (shame on us at Triple Pundit, as admittedly we barely covered the disappearance of the world’s fourth largest freshwater lake).
But is the criticism fair, with Collectively not even up and running for a week?
While international marketing executives scratch their heads over how to expand business in a world saturated with products (are Africa, India and Latin America the last frontiers for global business?), more companies may want to focus on socioeconomic, not geographic, markets to find new opportunities. After all, the “bottom of the pyramid,” as in the world’s lower-income wage earners, are as much as 70 percent of the world’s population. Some businesses understand this and sell products accordingly—for example consumer packaged goods companies that sell cleaning products in sachets instead of massive boxes. Now SC Johnson, the Wisconsin-based cleaning products company, is joining this small but growing crowd in Ghana, and contributing to local efforts to reduce the risks of contracting malaria.
The program, nicknamed WOW, launched in 2012, though SC Johnson has researched and tested this business concept for almost a decade. A pilot program in Bobikuma, Ghana, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west of the capital of Accra, kicked off earlier this year. With support from Cornell University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this membership-based club allows families to pool their money together to buy cleaning and pest-control products and reduce the transmission of malaria. Besides allowing families to share resources, the communal nature of selling these products allows for sharing tips about keeping homes clean and safe from malaria-carrying mosquitos. Now the program has expanded.
The commercial aviation industry has long been unstable and struggled to make a profit, in part because of the volatility of fuel prices. Consolidation and cost-cutting have improved many airlines’ financial performance in recent years, but they are only one epidemic, fiscal crisis or political time bomb from reeling. That is one reason why for several years, many airlines have experimented with adding biofuels to conventional jet fuel in order to harness energy security—and try to reduce those pesky carbon emissions that are difficult for the airline industry to avoid. Now Gol, the second largest airline in Brazil, is testing farnesane, a clear fuel sourced from sugar cane.
The partnership between Gol, Amyris, a California-based biofuels company, and the French energy giant Total culminated in a flight earlier this summer between Orlando and São Paulo, which was powered by conventional jet fuel blended with 10 percent farnesane. For now Gol has commited to using the 10 percent blend on select international flights between the U.S. and Brazil. Then last month a Lufthansa flight between Frankfurt and Berlin was also powered in part by farnesane.
Whether you revile or revere Airbnb, you cannot dispute the role the company has had in expanding and legitimizing the sharing economy. Sure there have been a few trashed homes here and there and the company is in an ongoing tussle with stubborn New York City business interests—the latest salvo is a coalition of “concerned citizens” who launched a site allowing Airbnb users to locate sex offenders and building code violations. The fact that NYC’s hotel occupancy rate hovers around 88 percent shows that Airbnb is hardly a threat, but in fact is really a complement, to hotels. And that is why more business travelers are using Airbnb when attending those conferences or sales meetings.
And why wouldn’t they? Take New York, where average hotel rates are approaching $300. In San Francisco, they are over $200 a night. (In fact, the city of San Francisco has finally realized that Airbnb is here to stay and voted to legalize and regulate short-term rentals.) And those rates are before a major conference hits town, which sends hotel prices up even further—if you can score one during one of those massive tech conferences at Moscone Center. So if you don’t want to walk from the Tenderloin to the SOMA in San Francisco, or get stuck in L.A. traffic because those hotels in Santa Monica or downtown were beyond budget, Airbnb could offer a more comfortable stay, with more workspace and room to chill, than an overpriced hotel room.