Is Microfinance Really Effective in Alleviating Poverty?

| Friday June 22nd, 2007 | 4 Comments

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A provocative article from the summer issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled “Microfinance Misses Its Mark,” is available for free on the SSRI website. The author, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, states that, “…my analysis of the macroeconomic data suggests that although microcredit yields some noneconomic benefits, it does not significantly alleviate poverty.” The article’s subheading summarizes his conclusion:

Despite the hoopla over microfinance, it doesn’t cure poverty. But stable jobs do. If societies are serious about helping the poorest of the poor, they should stop investing in microfinance and start supporting large, labor-intensive industries. At the same time, governments must hold up their end of the deal, for market-based solutions will never be enough…

Comments have been posted there by readers raising some good questions and objections to the viewpoint expressed in the article. Worth checking out for those interested in microfinance and global development. And while you’re there, consider subscribing! The Stanford Social Innovation Review “is a quarterly journal that brings the best in research and practice-based knowledge to individuals and organizations working for social change around the world.” You may also be interested in their Social Innovations podcasts offered for free online at http://www.siconversations.org/.

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Hotel Room Eco Audit (One Shade Greener)

Sheila Samuelson | Friday June 22nd, 2007 | 1 Comment

hotel-room.jpg(by Sheila Samuelson – originally on One Shade Greener)
As soon as I stepped in, I smelled the “new building” scent. That’s the smell of VOCs (indoor air pollution) from the vinyl plastic shower curtain, paint and carpeting. The fan was running on “auto cool mode” and the mini-fridge was quietly humming away, cooling – on the “coldest” setting – nothing but the 2 cubic feet of air inside.
We’ve all been here, in the generic, timeless, placeless, kind of hotel room you can wake up in and not know where in the country, or the world, you might be – and you might as well be anywhere, really. I happen to be in Wichita, and I can’t help but wonder how a budget priced hotel can afford such wastefulness as an empty mini-fridge that runs 24/7, three lamps with incandescent 60 Watt light bulbs, a shower that uses probably 6 gallons per minute or more – half of that going straight from the tub faucet into the drain, not out the shower nozzle, and a room fan that was cooling the room with no one in it from the time it was cleaned, until I arrived to open the window at 7pm.
Each of these things represents waste. Changing the light bulbs to CFLs, fixing the shower and installing a low-flow shower head, unplugging the mini-fridge until it’s needed (there’s always free ice if something needs immediate chilling) and leaving the fan off would all save money and increase the bottom line of this, and all hotels.

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The New “Brand” for Socially Responsible Business?

| Wednesday June 20th, 2007 | 6 Comments

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As more businesses claim to be “green,” “sustainable,” and “socially responsible,” will true social entrepreneurs find it difficult to stand out in the marketplace? An organization called B Lab has recently launched a new ratings system to help skeptical consumers and investors to distinguish between truly responsible companies and those who simply run good PR campaigns. Companies who are certified as “B Corporations” must meet comprehensive social and environmental standards as well as agree to build stakeholder interests into their corporate governing documents. Companies must supply documentation to support their applications and are subject to random third-party audits. The organization plans to spend millions of dollars each year to promote the B Corporation brand as a trustworthy “seal of approval” for responsible businesses.
In recent years, a number of certifications and ratings systems have been developed by associations, independent consumer groups, and socially responsible investing firms. Could B Corporation be the one that breaks through to wide acceptance and recognition? A few things seem to make it uniquely positioned for success…

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Book Review: Cities in the Wilderness by Bruce Babbit

| Wednesday June 20th, 2007 | 1 Comment

city-wild.jpg(Review by George Wuerthner) I just read an excellent book–Cities in the Wilderness by former Sec. of Interior Bruce Babbitt. It’s an insider’s view of some of the issues and politics that took place while he was govenror of Arizona as well as Sec. of Interior. Babbitt is surprisingly well versed in a lot of conservation history, conservation biology principles, basic ecology, and of course politics. I was impressed with his breath of knowledge. He discussed in his book everything from protection of the Everglades to restoration of tall grass prairie in Iowa to water development in Arizona, wolf restoration in Yellowstone, and dam removal across the country. I was surprised to see he had read the Monkey Wrench Gang and seemed to agree with the general premise that some dams should come down.
He minces no words about livestock grazing and says it’s one of the biggest impacts on the environment in the West. He correctly asserts that it has minimal economic importance to the nation and argues that it should be ended–at a minimum on all public lands where there is less than 10 inches of precipitation and he also endorsed the idea of permit buy out from willing sellers as a creative solution.

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Biofuel Driving up the Price of Gas? So What?

| Monday June 18th, 2007 | 12 Comments

pricesgass.jpgThere’s been talk lately about the price of gas remaining high for the foreseeable future as oil companies choose not to expand refining operations in the face of a bio-fuels boom. It’s hard to appreciate the tone of articles like this one for example when they shout out headlines like “Going Green’s No Good for Gas Prices “.
So what? The current price of gasoline has finally started to change consumer awareness of vehicle choice and is driving a bonanza of greener alternatives (some better than others). The current price of gasoline has also not caused any noticeable economic hardship. If the boom in alternative fuels and better vehicles continues, then anyone with a brain knows we’ll all be better off. This is exactly the kind of price rises the country needs to stimulate progress – if prices were lower, then we’d be in for a much ruder awakening sometime down the line.
It’s downright lousy journalism to point fingers at bio-fuels and paint oil refiners as some kind of victims. I’m hoping though, that readers of these types of articles are smart enough to say, “well, it’s a good thing in the long run”

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AskPablo: Lighten the Load

| Monday June 18th, 2007 | 7 Comments

I recently listened to one of my favorite podcasts, On Point with Tom Ashbrook, and heard an interview with Bob Lutz, General Motors’ Vice Chairman. In this interview he expressed dismay that Toyota is thought to be the fuel efficiency leader in the industry. This week I will run some numbers to shed light on the subject.

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Is Duraflame a Green Product?

| Friday June 15th, 2007 | 22 Comments

duraflame.gifI don’t have fires very often, living in a warm climate, but I have to admit I’m a sucker for some burning logs on a camping trip or on a cold winter’s night – despite the obvious environmental externalities. For those aesthetic reasons, and for what I thought were environmental ones, I was always opposed to using gimmicky fire-starters and fake “logs” like the Duraflame – assuming that whatever those things were made of couldn’t be natural…
I still think the Duraflame is a bit tacky, but evidently they’re a lot greener than I thought and a lot greener than burning logs (although they used to contain petroleum products). Basically, they are made of discarded agricultural biomass and commercial wood waste (shavings and sawdust) mixed in with a wax that’s also derived from vegetable material. The result is about 50% less carbon monoxide and 40% less particulate matter than burning logs.
Curiously the company’s environmental page does not specifically mention the impact on CO2 emissions and I’m always a little skeptical of ingredients listed as “all natural” without much additional explanation. Nor does it say precisely what’s in that wax, but for the most part I think it’s a pretty innovative idea – one uses almost 100% waste material to do something useful. What do you think?

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Survey of Social Entrepreneurs Highlights Opportunity for Business Partnerships

| Thursday June 14th, 2007 | 0 Comments

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The consulting firm SustainAbility, in partnership with The Skoll Foundation, has produced a fascinating 52-page report called Growing Opportunity: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Insoluble Problems. It was released in late March, 2007. The PDF is available for download from both Greenbiz.com and the Sustainability website (registration required). Highly recommended summer reading!
The report springs from a quantitative survey of 100 social entrepreneurs around the world. It attempts to assess the current state of social entrepreneurship and the possibilities presented by new mindsets, the challenges entrepreneurs face in scaling their organizations and the opportunities for greater collaboration with corporations and others. In particular, the discussion of funding challenges and options could be of great value to anyone starting or growing a social enterprise. The report also offers “deep dives” in the areas of clean energy and healthcare.

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Peas Of Mind Founder Jill Litwin Interviewed Tonight

| Wednesday June 13th, 2007 | 0 Comments

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Eco-Entrepreneur and personal friend of mine, Jill Litwin will be interviewed tonight (Wednesday) on the NBC nightly news – check your local times. Peas of mind is an all-organic frozen meal for toddler-aged kids. You can read Jill’s TreeHugger interview here.
It’s always great to see a friend get recognition like this, but even if you don’t know her, consider her story a piece of inspiration toward your own entrepreneurial potential!

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Kite Power – Potential to Save 7% of WorldWide Energy Use?

| Tuesday June 12th, 2007 | 0 Comments

kite-power.jpgThat 7% is probably wishful thinking, but if this guy in Wisconsin is halfway right, then there’s certainly a future for this unusual technology originally designed to pull kiteboarders at high-speed across lakes and oceans. It’s very simple – if you can engineer a kite to pull on a cord with some degree of consistency, then you can use that energy to pump irrigation water – a task that currently accounts for about 7% of worldwide energy use (according to the article).

The aim is to market low-cost kits that charitable foundations would provide to poor farmers in India, China or other developing nations. Those foundations already are spending millions on systems to help farmers…

Interestingly, this inventor didn’t have “green” in mind when he originally started working on the project – he wanted to use it to pump oil. I wonder what sparked the change of thought.

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The PET Bottle Glut – Looking for Solutions

| Monday June 11th, 2007 | 6 Comments

petbottles.jpgNPR has a great little piece today about the destiny of the (cue Carl Sagan) billions and billions of plastic water bottles that we go though every year, the majority of which end up in a landfill.
About 23% however, do wind up being recycled into various uses, typically carpeting or other downcycled products. Interestingly the majority of this new-found raw material is shipped to China. Although it’s very interesting that China has found a way to purchase and profit from our waste, what peaks my interest most is wondering about the remaining 77% of PET bottles that are being tossed in landfills. Sound’s like a monumental business opportunity to me.

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AskPablo: Napkins

| Monday June 11th, 2007 | 18 Comments

napkin.jpgThis weeks question is from Nick Gruber: “My question has to do with linen napkins vs. paper napkins. Is it more efficient to use linen napkins (factoring in the energy for picking them up and washing them) or paper napkins (recycled paper napkins)?”

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Promote Sustainability by Rethinking the Income Tax?

Steve Puma | Thursday June 7th, 2007 | 24 Comments

fairtax.jpgAs a first-semester student in Presidio School of Management’s MBA in Sustainable Management program, I’ve been learning quite a bit about what sustainability really means, and what it will take for business and our economy to become sustainable. One topic that gets discussed quite a bit is how to encourage people and business to use natural resources more efficiently, while encouraging them to use more of the one resource that isn’t in short supply: human labor. Inevitably, the discussion turns to tax policy, specifically, how the US income tax system makes labor more expensive while discouraging savings and encouraging consumption. One professor suggested that a possible solution is to stop taxing labor and begin to tax things that we want less of, like carbon emissions.
This really caught my attention, because I have been a long-time advocate of the FairTax legislation, which would replace the Federal income tax and payroll taxes, and many other federal taxes with a consumption tax. It occurred to me that enacting the FairTax would, in addition to a myriad of other benefits, solve one piece of the puzzle, namely untaxing labor and making labor more attractive in the marketplace. I also realized that there are a number of other benefits of the FairTax which apply to sustainability, such as encouraging savings and discouraging consumption, encouraging purchases of used items (re-use), encouraging investment in education, and creating a safety net for the poor. In the remainder of this article, I will explain how the FairTax can be a positive tool in the effort to make the U.S. more sustainable.

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A Disturbing Legacy

| Tuesday June 5th, 2007 | 1 Comment

By Michelle Miller

Kenneth Cook, President of EWG has a story to tell. One would never guess that the man responsible for coming up with the catchy moniker, Environmental Working Group would within minutes of beginning his story, have us on the edge of our seats, begging for more clues. His engaging story, which he’s been telling for a year or so, unfolded before a group at The Presidio’s Thoreau Center for Sustainability last Friday, as part of a larger effort to pass the Kid Safe Chemicals Act. KSCA, first introduced to Congress in 2005 would pick up on the 30+ years of environmental legislative slack by requiring chemical manufacturers to provide health and safety information on chemicals used in consumer products like baby bottles and food wrap instead of presuming a substance is safe until proven dangerous.

10 Americans is the story of environmental legacy and heritage, of evolution, revolution and degradation; specifically man’s unique ability to foul his own environment on the most fundamental of levels. We got to know the 10 Americans through the research project, BodyBurden. They were chosen at random by the American Red Cross, over a period of 4 weeks in later 2004. The subjects’ blood samples, identified only by birth date, were tested at the same time, at a testing cost of $10,000 per subject. The tests, looking for a possible 413 toxic chemicals found 287; 212 of those had been banned more than 30 years ago, and the average was 200 toxic chemicals per subject. The results indicated exposure to carcinogens, and risks associated with developmental progress and disease of neurological, pulmonary, endocrine, reproductive and cognitive systems. Considering the average woman uses 12 personal products per day, exposing herself to a mean of 168 chemicals, the test results were not so surprising; that is until one other fact is revealed. That is the blood samples were umbilical cord blood, taken at the birth of each of the full term, ‚Äòhealthy’ subjects. Industrial pollution begins in the womb.

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3 Steps Forward, 2 Steps Back

Steve Puma | Tuesday June 5th, 2007 | 0 Comments

While some of try to find ways to reduce our impact by changing lightbulbs, choosing better cars or using cloth bags, there are others of us on this planet who appear to be on a mission to single-handedly use up all the resources we’re trying to save via ridiculous consumption.
I had previously mused to some collegues about the potential impact of a single resident of my community, who owns this gigantic house, complete with Llamas and Emus. I had asked if it makes any sense for 100 people to conserve resources when one individual can so easily use up those resources himself. I certainly was not prepared for this news story, about the righest man in India, who is building himself a 60-story single-family house!
While the world has a long history of conspicuous consumption by the wealthy, the accumulation of massive amounts of wealth which is possible today gives a few individuals the ability to make impacts equals to thousands of private citizens, or even equal to one small corporation.
While the negative impacts of private jets, gigantic private yachts, massive houses and gated communities may be huge, are they offset by the equally huge impacts of wealthy citizens who are doing the right thing, and using their money to make a positive difference?
I wonder what, if anything, can de done about this. I do not personally believe that wealthy people are bad or evil. I would certainly like to be one myself. But I wonder if our instinct to accumulate and use resources as quickly as possible will win out over our intellectual battle to save our species for the long haul.
spuma@presidiomba.org
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Steve Puma is currently pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management while also working as an IT consultant in San Francisco. Steve’s interests include green building, New Urbanism, renewable energy and thinking about the big picture.
He is also a big supporter of the FairTax Act of 2007, which abolishes the IRS and replaces it with a national retail sales tax.

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