A lot has happened in the world of sustainability since I wrote my first article here almost five years ago about a bicycle courier service in Paris (which no longer exists). It is hard to believe this is my 1000th article on TriplePundit, which says a lot about my own OCD, loyalty to this fine group who have built one of the best sustainable business news sites on the planet — or a little bit of both. I have to say the best perk from being a writer is what I’ve learned from all the business leaders, activists and government officials I have met in person and spoken with over the phone since I started here in early 2010.
I have written a lot about corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, clean energy, and architecture and design here — so while I would like to think I have gained a vast body of knowledge miles long, it’s really only a half an inch or so thick. A lot has changed in this space in five years — much of it encouraging, some of it exasperating. So, what has stuck in my brain 1,000 posts later? Here is a sampling:
JetBlue has been in the news a lot lately for its announcement that generous leg room and free checked bags will be a thing of the past, but at least this popular airline could make progress on another front. Last week the company, partnering with the Ocean Foundation, released a report that links ecosystem sustainability and revenue.
Much of JetBlue’s business relies on vacation travelers who venture to the Caribbean. Arguably, locals benefit from the influx of tourists as well, though whether local economies can really stay resilient is open to debate. What is not open to debate is that along with American and Canadian dollars, euros and pounds comes heaps of trash. According to The Ocean Foundation, that is 100 million pounds of garbage annually, which often ends up in local water streams, dumps and of course, the sea. With tourism only increasing—especially with the lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba—there is a risk that increased environmental degradation could cause an economic drag on the region as well.
Insurance companies for years have done a nice job penalizing customers who make bad health choices, as in excessive eating, drinking and especially smoking. That has changed slightly under the new insurance plans sold here in the U.S. due to the new health care laws, but for years the penalty was higher premiums if a customer had pre-existing conditions tied to bad health habits.
From a business perspective, this made perfect sense. Fundamentally, insurers are really not that different from other businesses—it is always easier, and maybe the logical financial choice in the short term, to penalize rather than reward. But for those of us who eat right, avoid tobacco, spend some of our free time exercising, and make other positive health choices, it often does feel as if we are subsidizing others for their poorly thought out life choices. Oscar Insurance, a New York-based start-up, is trying to change to transform the health insurance industry by encouraging healthy decisions. And if their business model pans out, they could become quite profitable.
Two NGOs that have been at the forefront of combating climate change through promoting innovation and market-based solutions have now joined forces. Yesterday Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and Carbon War Room (CWR) announced they will merge, allowing them to leverage each other’s strengths and find solutions to expand their vision of a low-carbon economy.
This new organization could benefit from what had been two very approaches. RMI, which was founded over 30 years ago, focuses on research and analysis. CWR, one of Richard Branson’s many ventures, takes a more brash approach toward promoting a global low-carbon economy—and has also been fixated on how capital solutions can help renewables and clean technologies scale. The trick, of course, is whether two different organizations with different work cultures and survive as one entity: a frequent challenge within the private sector when two companies merge.
It has been ages since you could light up on a flight, but there is a chance tobacco could become an aviation fuel of the future. Boeing and South African Airways (SAA) have announced that they are close to processing the first crop of tobacco plants for biofuel production. This pilot project, which both companies have publicly acknowledged for over a year, promises so much it almost sounds too good to be true.
This time the feedstock is Solaris, a nicotine-free tobacco plant developed and patented by the Italian biotech firm Sunchem. Instead of providing leaves for cigarette production, the Solaris plant offers flowers and seeds from which oil can be extracted for fuel production. Solaris is not genetically modified, it can grow on lands inhospitable to food crops, and its by-products are high in protein and can be used for animal protein. Its promoters say it will allow tobacco farmers to continue their lives’ work while supporting the national campaign to reduce smoking in South Africa.
In many ways, this is a great time for Uber. The carsharing service keeps expanding (210 cities worldwide) and has recently been valued at over $40 billion. But it also has taken a PR beating in past months, from reasons including thin-skinned executives threatening journalists to thuggish tactics in undermining its competitor, Lyft. Nevertheless, in many cities Uber has become the transport of choice. And it has tried to show a softer side, as in its current campaign to take action against childhood hunger. Fine, Uber is not donating the money, but the company is lending its technology to allow riders to kick in another $5 to their ride fares and help fund No Kid Hungry. Unfortunately for Uber, no one is talking about the rides-for-hunger campaign: the buzz is on the company’s surge pricing, or as some say, price gouging, during the tragic hostage crisis earlier this week in Sydney.
The outrage stems from Uber’s use of algorithms to set “surge pricing” into effect during rush hours, holidays, hectic Friday nights and bad weather. Uber users have long railed against this business practice, and in fairness much of that noise is an insufferable stream of whining—after all, some public transport systems like the Washington, DC Metro increase fares during peak commuting times while municipal taxi services boost fares late at night. Uber is a business, not an entitlement program for those who do not have a car.
What caused the outrage, however, was when Uber rides out of Sydney during that awful day increased as much as four-fold as the chaos in that downtown café unfolded.
In recent years, the double-whammy of plastic trash and overfishing has drawn more attention to the plight of the world’s oceans. I was made aware of this mounting problem several years ago when I stayed at a remote beach town in northeastern Brazil. Plastic bottles, furniture and sheaths of fishnets had washed up in an area where the nearest town or city was scores of miles away. The image of those fishnets reminds me that the dangers to marine life continue even if a global moratorium on fishing kept every single boat in port.
These threats are ongoing because of fishing equipment, mostly nets, that are dumped into the oceans daily. This “ghost gear” will remain in the waters for centuries, continuing to kill marine life.
To that end, last month over 40 delegates from various organizations convened in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, to lay the groundwork for the new Global Ghost Gear Initiative, or GGGI. This multi-stakeholder effort, which is bringing together NGOs, industry leaders and intergovernmental organizations, is focused on finding innovative solutions to the growing problem of plastic debris the fishing industry loses, abandons and discards daily. The cost in money and resources is too large to ignore: United Kingdom-based World Animal Protection estimates that over 640,000 tons of fishing gear, mostly nylon or plastic, ends up dumped in the world’s oceans and seas each year.
Supporters of the Keystone Pipeline and Canada’s tar sands development like to call their product “ethical oil,” but plenty of their opponents question whether digging up massive amounts of the earth’s surface is really “ethical.” Those who question whether churning tar sands into fuel, the most energy-intensive fossil fuel to refine, is a wise long-term policy will have more ammunition due to a report Fossil Free Indexes recently released. It could give potential investors in tar sands companies second thoughts about buying their equities.
According to this New York-based research group, which provides data to support ethical investing, the top 20 companies that have invested in the Canadian tar sands have increased their potential carbon dioxide emissions by more than five times the past 10 years. The FFI came up with this list based on its most recent Carbon Underground Tar Sands 20, which is comprised of the largest of the 200 public coal, oil and gas companies based on their reported reserves.
Latin America is relatively water rich compared to other regions in the world. But there are still plenty of areas in Central and South America feeling the effects of climate change, generally because the precipitation is occurring where there is low population density. For example, Lima, the host of this week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference and home to 8.5 million people, only receives about 6.4 millimeters (0.30 inches) of rain annually.
Ironically for beverage companies, they are often expanding their businesses into areas that are already struggling with water scarcity. To that end, one large global brewer, SABMiller, says businesses need to make the business case for addressing water stress and climate change throughout Latin America.
As with the case of many beverage companies and brewers, Latin America is a growth market as more citizens enter the middle class and can now easily afford a beer or two. The problem, however, is that new breweries are often opening in municipalities that are already coping with water stress. To address the issue, SABMiller, which has concentrated its business in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Peru, has partnered with other organizations on water conservation and treatment programs for several years. One of them, the Water Futures Partnership, works with the World Wildlife Fund and the German development organization GIZ on recharging aquifers while reducing dependence on groundwater. According to SABMiller, such programs not only address water stress, but can also benefit businesses that invest in water security within Latin America in the long run.
Amazon has certainly taken plenty of heat over the past several years. The giant online mall has long been criticized for dragging its feet on disclosing its carbon footprint (but never mind, you can of course buy a book about how to reduce your own CO2 impact). Its treatment of workers has also come under scrutiny. Nevertheless the company has tried to tout its “green” credentials, though most observers would only agree its greatest progress has been on frustration-free packaging.
Now the Seattle-based company is promoting Amazon Elements, a line of high-quality “everyday essentials” that supposedly are tested on Amazon employees’ families. Curiously, the launch of this Elements line is, for now, limited to disposable diapers and baby wipes. For now these products are only available to Prime customers, but anyone can subscribe to Amazon’s newsletters to see what future offerings are in store.
There’s no question that the global textile industry has a massive effect on the planet, much of it negative. From workers’ rights to factories to the pesticides used on cotton farms, the social and environmental impacts are evident across the entire supply chain. Efforts such as the Better Cotton Initiative have started to make a difference, but the industry still has a long ways to go. The Swiss company, Freitag, however, is on not only on a quest to transform how fabric is manufactured, but to change how it is disposed—as in composting.
Founded by two brothers, Freitag has been in business since 1993 and employs about 160 people. The company owns 10 stores in central Europe and Japan, and has over 50 products on the market. In addition to turning truck tarps into heavy-duty bags, the company produces what it says is 100 percent compostable fabric.
Marks and Spencer (M&S) has long been one of the world’s more sustainable and socially responsible retailers, dating back to its 2007 launch of its Plan A. The 100-point plan helped transform the company’s supply chain and operations. The plan was extended in 2010 with even more goals added with 2015 and then 2020 guidelines. Now six months after what the United Kingdom-based company launched what it calls Plan A 2020, the company has reported on its most recent progress.
Some of the updates are relatively ho-hum, not to be surprising as M&S has a habit of enumerating everything. LED lighting is being installed at the company’s epic food halls. The company trained 7,000 of what it describes as “emerging leaders.” More of the company’s clothing can be traced to the Better Cotton Initiative. What really attracts attention, however, is the fact 63 percent of the retailer’s products sold have had a “sustainable” attribute. The competition will be hard pressed to come close to that figure.
The United Nations climate negotiators are meeting once again, this time in Lima, Peru, where—as we have heard before—we will hear promises of making significant progress on climate change. All eyes are on India, which, like China, is often criticized for dragging its feet on developing a solid plan on climate change. Of course, those charges are often unfair, considering these two countries are the workshops for the world. If the U.S. had a real manufacturing sector, this country would be an even more massive polluter. With China taking bolder steps in addressing its carbon footprint, all eyes are now on India. The odds are that the world’s second most populous nation will make a big announcement this week at this week’s Lima climate change conference.
According to India’s daily Business Standard, the Indian government is keen on making “fresh and enhanced commitments to the international community.”
The B Corp movement has picked up steam the last few years: Etsy, Warby Parker, Patagonia and Method [Ed note: and TriplePundit!] are some examples of firms that are combining good business with doing good. Over 1,000 companies have become certified by keeping the highest standards of transparency, environmental performance and social responsibility. They range from building contractors to professional services such as legal and accounting. But until this week, there was not a single utility in this group until Green Mountain Power Corporation (GMP) announced this week it is now a B Corp—the first utility in the world to score this certification.
Based in Vermont, GMP provides power to over 260,000 homes and businesses. The company has recognized that the role and business model of utilities are changing. To that end, GMP has worked with stakeholders across Vermont to develop new forms of energy beyond conventional fossil fuels.
Are you concerned over the beef industry’s impact on the environment and animals? Never mind the fact that more land is used is used for animal pasture and to raise feed than to grow food for humans: A movement is underway to make beef more sustainable. Held in São Paulo, Brazil, last month, the major supporters of this conference included McDonald’s, Cargill and the animal pharmaceutical company Elanco. Over the course of four days, 300 attendees at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) issued what the organization described as the “release of the first global definition for ‘sustainable beef’.”
The summary of what occurred in São Paulo will hardly endear the GRSB to advocates of a more plant-based diet and for an improved management of resources. The GRSB is actually pushing for the production of more beef, citing issues including food security, links between the consumption of animal protein and test scores and the need to do “more with less.” So brace yourself: In order to meet the demand of income and population growth, the planet will need to product 43 percent more beef by 2050. So exactly how will this be done?