I thought about this quote while reading a new report, “How Taxpayers Subsidize America’s Biggest Employer and Richest Family,” published on April 15 (aka Tax Day) by Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of progressive organizations. The report estimates that Walmart workers relying on public assistance programs due to low wages cost American taxpayers $6.2 billion a year.
Another interesting figure presented in the report was that Walmart has captured 18 percent of the SNAP (food stamps program) market. Using that figure, the authors estimate that “the company accounted for $13.5 billion out of $76 billion in food stamp sales in 2013.”
It got me thinking that if a substantial number of Walmart’s employees in the U.S. (1.3 million in total) receive food stamps, then the company actually profits twice from paying low-wages – not only does it reduce its costs, but it also increases its income by receiving food stamps from its employees shopping at Walmart.
But is this really the case? Is Walmart that far away from the vision Nick Hanauer offers in quote? And if so, what does it say about its commitment to corporate responsibility or its “responsibility to lead”?
“We can’t do without government, but we do need it to be more effective,” Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America (CfA), told the audience in her 2012 TED talk. I guess some people would disagree with the first part of her statement, but probably 99.9 percent would agree with her about the second part.
But how do you do it? Well, for some it might look like an impossible mission, but to Palhka and her small army of talented developers, designers and researchers, who serve as CfA fellows working with local governments, this is a difficult yet doable challenge. “You just have to architect the systems the right way,” explains Pahlka.
Technology is definitely key in CfA’s work helping government become more engaging, user-friendly and effective, but I believe that there’s also a secret sauce that makes it work – empathy.
A great example of how Code for America successfully converges technology and empathy is the story of Promptly, a text messaging notification system that was developed by four CfA fellows working with San Francisco’s Human Services Agency in a project funded by the Vodafone Americas Foundation.
Summer seems so far away, especially if you live in freezing New York like I do, but we’ll get there eventually, and when we do it’s always better be prepared with an air conditioner on your side.
The good news is that, as of this summer, you can have not just a regular AC, but one that “gets smarter over time, learning from users’ schedules, habits, location, weather information and past usage.” Welcome to the age of Aros!
Presented earlier this month, Aros, which is described as a “truly brilliant air conditioner” (I guess “smart” didn’t feel right in this case), is the result of an ongoing collaboration between General Electric and Quirky. What makes Aros interesting is not just the fact that it is the first “brilliant” AC and how it advances the vision of Internet of Things, but also what it means in terms of the relationships between the new collaborative, open economy and the more traditional one.
Here’s a quick question: What’s your smartphone upgrade cycle? Or in other words, what’s the frequency with which you replace your older smartphone in a newer one?
If you’re like the average American, it’s a little less than two years (22 months in 2012, according to Recon Analytics).
This aggressive upgrade cycle is no secret, and it helps the mobile industry grow and generate impressive profits. At the same time, we all know this trend is not sustainable and hurts our wallets. In addition, writes Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times: “Smartphones have crossed the threshold from amazing to boring. High-end phones seem to have hit an innovation plateau, with each new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy just incrementally better than the last.”
Given these circumstances Manjoo suggests it might not be so wild to imagine a world in which we “buy smartphones with an eye to longevity.” In this world, he writes, consumers use their smartphones for more than two years (ideally three); try to repair them instead of replacing them when possible; consider buying used phones instead of new ones; and trade their smartphones in where they’re done with them.
I like Manjoo’s vision. It’s practical and at the same time offers a real change. The only thing I would change about it is aiming somewhat higher with the upgrade cycle to at least twice what we have now – let’s say four to five years. But even without this revision, is it really possible for the mobile industry to become a (more) sustainable closed-loop system, or is it just another green fantasy?
Earlier this month, the news was filled with stories about recent studies that showed the growing, and often devastating, impacts of climate change – from an increase in malaria cases in Africa and South America to heavier losses in global crop yields to spikes in crime.
Yet, Americans don’t seem to be overly concerned. A new Gallup survey looking at the degree Americans worry about different issues found that only 24 percent of Americans worry a great deal about climate change. Fifty-one percent of them worry about it very little or not at all.
So what do you think when you read that?
I know it’s very easy to get upset about these results or wonder if this is that surprising given the American record so far on climate change, but if you leave these emotions aside for a minute you can actually find some interesting lessons in this survey that might even give us a clue about the way to change these results.
You love your cell phone and can’t spend a minute without it, right? If the answer is yes, here are three facts you should be aware of.
First, in 2012 1.6 million Americans were the victims of smartphone-related crimes. Second, one in three robberies in the U.S. include the theft of a mobile device. Third, cell phone thefts are now the single biggest source of property crime in many American cities.
Is this inevitable? Not necessarily, according to a growing number of policymakers and law enforcements officers. They believe consumers deserve better and that a “kill switch” that would make smartphones useless when stolen is the best solution to the “epidemic of violent smartphone thefts,” as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman calls it.
But not everyone is convinced a kill switch this is such a great idea.
Are you into food porn? Well, you don’t have to admit right here right now, but given that there are more than 175 million food hashtags ond Twitter and Instagram, there’s a good chance you’re also part of this phenomenon.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry–we’re not talking about porn that mixes sex with food, but about people sharing online photos of meals they’re about to eat at a restaurant or homemade food, from Krispy Kreme glazed donuts to peanut butter brownie pizza.
If you want to get a better idea about this phenomenon just go to Tumblr, Instagram or Twitter and search for #foodporn. What you’ll quickly notice is that most of the #foodporn photos on the various social media channels are of food that is not exactly the healthy type and include mostly fast food and fatty, sugary food.
Now, a new website wants to change that, one photo of kale at a time.
While the eyes of most of the world are on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, some places are actually more focused on their own local events.
Take for example Tallinn, Estonia, where “February and spring is the perfect time for outdoor activities…and for attending musical events and festivals all the month long at the local concert halls and venues,” as the Tallinn.ee reports.
Now, it’s true that the Olympic Games might be a little more interesting than Tallinn’s upcoming BMX contest (Feb. 22-23), but the residents of Tallinn can be proud of having at least one thing the residents of Sochi don’t have: free public transit.
On Jan. 1, 2013, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, became the first European capital to extend free public transport to all of its 430,000 residents. One of the main drivers was mobility for all, explained Allan Alaküla, head of the Tallinn EU Office. While pensioners and youths already benefited from free public transport in Tallinn, the city wanted to make it easier for people to travel in search of work, and for low-paid workers, who might choose not to take a job that they have to travel to if the cost of transport means it is financially not worthwhile.
So, does it really work? Is making public transportation free actually increasing mobility (i.e. getting people to use it more)? While it might take some time to evaluate the economic impact of this change, a new study of three researchers from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology provides an initial outlook into the changes in ridership following the introduction of free-fare public transport.
Last week one of the largest fast food companies decided to remove a chemical from its food after a public outcry on social media led by an influential blogger. Now, you might have heard similar stories before, but what makes this one even more interesting is the identity of the company.
This time it is none other than Subway, the restaurant chain that prides itself on providing a healthier and better alternative fast food.
Azodicarbonamide, Hari explained, is used in yoga mats, shoe rubber and synthetic leather, the World Health Organization has linked it to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma, and it is banned as a food additive in Europe and Australia. However Subway, she added, uses it in the U.S. as a bleaching agent and dough conditioner in order to produce bread faster and cheaper.
If you’re a fan, just like me, of Natural Quaker Granola you might be surprised to find that your beloved granola brand has changed its name. It is no longer “Natural Quaker Granola” but “Simply Quaker Granola.”
Don’t worry, though. Other than the name, nothing has really changed in the granola. This is just part of a step PepsiCo, the company that produces the granola, has taken to replace the word “natural” with the word “simply” in all of its products. Its “Simply Natural” line of Frito-Lay chips for example will be called now just “Simply,” and so on.
Why has PepsiCo gone through the trouble of changing the names of so many of its products, omitting what seems to be a key part in the marketing strategy of these products?
According to Candace Mueller-Medina, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo’s Quaker brand, this is quite simple. “We constantly update our marketing and packaging,” she said. Apparently though, the answer is a bit more complicated.
Sometimes all you need is just the right framework to keep moving forward and reach your goals. This might also be the case in the fight to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold experts agree will avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The framework, which was presented last week at the Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the U.N. was quite simple: All we need to do is to add $1 trillion in clean energy investment per year through 2050. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) such an increase in clean energy investment will significantly increase the chances of maintaining the 2 °C limit.
But how do we do it exactly? This was one of the main issues on the agenda of 550 leading investors from all over the world who came to the U.N. to this biannual summit co-hosted by Ceres and the U.N. Foundation.
The acquisition itself as well as the hefty price Google will pay for Nest generated a very interesting conversation online that was focused around the reasons that motivated Google to close this deal and pay so much money for a 3-year old start-up selling thermostats and smoke detectors.
The guesses went all the way from Google’s aspirations to deepen its involvement in the Internet of Things, “a world in which everything from household gadgets to cars, clothes and pets are connected wirelessly to the web” to adding to its ranks Nest’s co-founder and CEO Tony Fadell, an Apple veteran who helped design the iPod and the iPhone and might become Google’s equivalent of Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief designer.
While it’s interesting to understand the reasons behind this deal and what it says about Google’s plans for the future, I find one part that seemed to be missing in all of this even more interesting. Yes, I’m talking about the S word.
It’s not that sustainability was totally absent – the energy savings capabilities of Nest thermostat (14-26 percent savings according to Nest) were mentioned by Larry Page, CEO of Google in the press release, as well as by Tony Fadell in a blog post he wrote, in which he looked back to the beginning of Nest:
“Starting a business focused on the lowly thermostat seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but it made all the sense in the world to us. That little device that went unnoticed and unchanged year after year on the walls of our homes was a lost opportunity to save energy and money. We knew we could do better.”
Yet, when it comes to sustainability, the story of Nest is more than just the creation of a smart tool helping families to save energy. It is first and foremost a story about the company’s ability to succeed where so many other companies have failed – making simple, beautiful, thoughtful and desirable products that among other things help people make their lifestyles more sustainable.
Today’s story is about Nike’s latest innovation – ColorDry technology which eliminating the use of water and process chemicals from fabric dyeing. The new technology, which Nike’s CEO Mark Parker described as a “manufacturing revolution” was introduced earlier this month at the opening of a water-free dyeing facility at FENC, the company’s Taiwanese contract manufacturer.
This is a great story to close 2013 with as this isn’t just another story about an innovative technology introduced by an innovative company – this story exemplifies the current path of sustainable business, including its opportunities, difficulties and challenges.
What does it mean exactly? Let me explain through four lessons we can learn from this story:
1. Making the status quo obsolete – we live in this weird reality where externalities manage to shield manufacturing processes from real world problems like increasing water scarcity. The result is inefficient and wasteful systems that somehow still dominate and shape the status quo.
This is the time of the year when you see endless summaries of 2013. The ones about sustainability can usually be characterized as a bag of mixed news, filled with both good and bad news from the past year.
And it can be quite depressing, right? After all, mixed news means that at best we move forward in tiny steps when it comes to sustainability, while we need to be running as fast as we can.
Nevertheless, I think there’s no room for depression. First, it doesn’t really help get you anywhere. Second, looking carefully at the trends that shaped 2013 you see that there are also some good reasons to be optimistic, even if you’re into systematic changes, not just incremental ones. And no, this is not about choice editing and ignoring the bad news, but about identifying which sustainability trends become dominant and which ones are about to vanish.
So looking back at 2013 here are five trends that should keep you optimistic about sustainability in 2014:
A couple of weeks ago two major companies presented us with their vision for the future. Unilever launched Project Sunlight, “a new initiative to motivate millions of people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles,” while Jeff Bezos revealed that Amazon is experimenting with drones that will deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes.
The visions are very similar and very different at the same time. They aim to disrupt ‘business as usual,’ are customer-focused and innovative, yet while one’s desired future is a world “where everyone lives well and within the natural limits of the planet,” the other’s desired world is one utilizing advanced technology to provide customers with lower prices and faster delivery.
In a way, Unilever’s new campaign and Amazon’s plans are clear reflections of the choices we have ahead of us: a more sustainable path that is about making better choices or a less sustainable path where innovation is limited to the context of the consumption culture. The first can lead to systematic changes while the second can generate incremental improvements at best.
So which of these paths will we take – the one with skies filled with drones getting packages in no time to your doorstep or the one filled with people adopting more sustainable behaviors for the sake of their children?
I definitely hope it will be the latter, but I’m worried it might be the former. Here’s why: