Monday, July 30, 2007

The Most Guilty?

In a recent report by the folks at Environmental Finance (pdf), the US was found to be the largest market for voluntary carbon emissions offset trading. This can be interpreted in a few ways, and given the hour of the evening I'll beg you to forgive my simplistic comments.

1) It's a good thing: People are becoming more aware of the impacts their activities have on the planet. Whether they are looking for environmental "indulgences" or have some deeper commitment to their environment, they're taking action. Money is flowing to a new market, and in some cases spurring carbon reducing project development.

2) It's a bad thing: People are merely investing in charities, some of which have dubious ways to manage and "prove" the value of their offsets. There is no real connection between a person's actions and the amount of carbon their purchase prevents from being emitted, therefore, real reductions are not made.

On an energy note; here's a shocker: Draft NPC Report Warns of Looming Energy Crunch. Some highlights on how to reduce energy use and foreign dependence on it:
  • Moderating demand growth by "increasing efficiency in transportation, residential, commercial and industrial uses"
  • Expand and diversify energy production by tapping into ''all available economic energy sources, including coal, nuclear, renewables, and unconventional oil and natural gas" such as extra-heavy oil and bitumen
  • Integrating energy in all other related policy areas including trade, economic, environmental, security and foreign policy
  • Boosting R&D efforts to create long-term opportunities
  • Reducing emissions of global warming gases "including the establishment of a transparent, predictable, economy-wide cost for CO2" and a regulatory framework for carbon sequestration and storage.
This really does not seem to be beyond the realm of common sense to me, which may be why I occasionally become internally enraged when I witness the massive amounts of waste inherent in our economy and the cavalier attitude we have toward energy. Integrate the true costs (Adbusters is cool), and behavior will change.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


I received word from BGI that I have been accepted into their Sustainable MBA program. This is both exciting and a bit frightening. Over the past six years, I have been reading and learning about sustainable business and CSR, focusing mostly on the energy and technical aspects of these issues as opposed to the social justice elements (though they are inseparable in many instances). I've often longed for the opportunity to share my thoughts and suppressed passions about creating businesses that engage people, are profitable, and help restore the environment with like-minded individuals. I have pondered and written about sustainable business topics in this blog for the past two years as a place to put all these thoughts since there was no where else for them to go. I've explored various career options, from bicycle retailing and activism to a start-up renewable energy company. There's been (and still is) something missing, something I did not understand about businesses' operations and technicalities and the message about sustainability that I wanted to send. Will BGI provide what's missing?

At the heart of it, I would like to help create a sustainable future. The way to do that is different for everyone. As I shared with a friend and mentor in a conversation a few weeks ago, there are times that I feel like pulling up stakes and living off the grid, simply and with a shunning of what the modern world has become (Thoreau?). The problem with that (besides the fact that my wife would probably not go for it) is that I would be shirking my feeling of responsibility to the greater society for helping fix our broken economic system. Just because I go live in the woods and forage for mushrooms doesn't mean climate change will "go away". I want to be part of the conversation; the effort to engage the business world in the solutions to climate change.

The reality of committing to this program is that I'll have to reconnect with my scholarly self, a persona that left me and stayed at WPI in May of 1994. Managing my current work-load with the addition of a monthly trip to Seattle from the Boston area along with the regular school work will not be very pleasant, (one could argue that this whole thing is foolish due to the fact that I am flying across the country once a month to learn about sustainable business). I am fortunate that financially this is possible without much strain (right now). I'm nervous about my ability to handle all this in a way that makes my life livable for me and my wife. I suppose it's a pretty big unknown and something that I will manage as I go along.

If someone commits to something that they want to do, it's amazing what can be done to make it happen.

Friday, July 27, 2007

How Much Does It Cost?

Beef "costs" more than driving. I included an excerpt from an article in a recent Telegraph UK news item from Japan's National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science.
Eat a steak, warm the planet
A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef causes more greenhouse-gas and other pollution than driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home, according to a Japanese study.
A team led by Akifumi Ogino of the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, calculated the environmental cost of raising cattle through conventional farming, slaughtering the animal and distributing the meat, New Scientist reports in next Saturday's issue.
Producing a kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef causes the equivalent of 36.4 kilos (80.08 pounds) in carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas, Ogino found.
Most of these greenhouse-gas emissions take the form of methane, released from the cow's digestive system.
That one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef also requires energy equivalent to lighting a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. The energy is needed to produce and transport the animals' feed.
A Swedish study in 2003 suggested that organic beef emits 40 percent less greenhouse gases and consumes 85 percent less energy because the animal is raised on grass rather than concentrated feed. (PDF of report)
The only way consumers will "get" this is of we assign dollar values to the embodied energy in the products. Carbon tax, carbon content labeling, whatever. My friend Alison Sander brought energy or carbon labeling up as part of AltWheels back in 2004 when I was part of the planning team. We did not have the resources to pull it off.

TESCO (in the UK) is attempting to do this. In articles dating back a few months, TESCO has revealed that they are attempting to influence consumer behavior by included data on their products indicating the product's carbon content. The Wal-Mart of the UK's supermarket industry "doing good" for the sake of "doing good"? Not exactly, since the threat of carbon emissions regulation is looming much more closely than here in the US, but so what? We've discussed before that business related sustainable activities have to be in the best interest of the business or they will go nowhere.

The real test will be how they determine the carbon content of the items (how far up in the supply chain will they go and out into their suppliers supply chain?) and make it meaningful for their customers. If the data is there without an associated change in price influenced by the carbon content, what will motivate the consumer to make the low carbon purchase? There may be more consumers interested in buying green for the sake of green, but to make it more broadly appealing, the price must be right.

Many thanks to my friend Joni Taylor for the photograph of some of the fires in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area. I can't imagine seeing scenes like that here on the east coast.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Recycling on The Today Show and...Ethanol

Steven Dubner, author of Freakonomics was the Today Show's guest "expert" on the topic of recycling last week. Is he the correct authority to be informing people about what they should or should not be recycling? The snippets I remember included; Don't bother with newspaper, cans are easiest to recycle, plastic is not so good (depending on the type). Scrap metal...YES! Metal is "easier" to recycle.

He did mention the "three Rs", Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In my humble opinion, this is good advice. He also mentioned the mayor's of NY and San Francisco recent decrees that the city workers can survive without bottled water. We somehow survived on tap water for a few decades, we can do it again. There is a bottled water backlash coming and you can be certain that the big water firms are already on top of PR campaigns and green-washing to keep us buying. In fact, perhaps there are opportunities for progressive programs to keep selling bottled while encouraging reuse & recycling of the bottles? Partnerships with companies like Recycline? True cost pricing for the bottles as a percentage of the selling price so people are aware of it?

I enjoyed Freakonomics. It's a good read.

Meanwhile, a conversation at a late afternoon business meeting last week turned to the topic of the BTU content of ethanol. The point was made that ethanol contains less energy per gallon than gasoline. With increases in the percentage of ethanol in our gasoline, the per gallon energy is going down while the prices continue to go up. With less energy available, you'll travel less distance on the same volume, or, use more to go the same distance. Check out page 18 of this Fuel Economy Guide from the EPA, DOE, & EERE. Interesting. We are starting to pay more for less energy. I suppose that's part of the point; getting people to think about where they are spending their energy dollars.

The debate about ethanol's place as a solution for our energy "problem" is ongoing. Converting corn to ethanol is driven more by the desire for corn belt politicians to bring money to their states than by good energy policy. Unfortunately, this kind of policy is not new to us. Governments are poor choosers of technology, and should not be placed in those positions.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Keep the Gears Turning

The VISA check card commercials, portraying the continuous purchasing of goods like coffee and donuts with barely a pause to select them is an interesting homage to the constant movement in our culture.

The well-heeled and good-looking consumers, clearly representing the upper middle-class daily commuters entering the city in their thousands, quickly pass their credit card over the scanning machines at the newspaper kiosk and coffee shop, happily gathering their daily news and breakfast. Unfortunately, there is a somewhat pudgy and balding man in the long line that decides to use CASH! The line screeches to a halt with exasperated customers behind the gent carefully hiding their disapproval as the man interrupts the headlong rush into the day.

What I find somewhat irritating is that this ad feeds into the perception that we must be going all the time. This is something I know I struggle with occasionally; feeling like just sitting still is somehow wrong. The daily grind of the commuters is made into a speedway of commerce, zipping a charge here, zapping a charge there, go ahead and buy all your stuff this way and keep reducing commerce from relationships to transactions. Before you know it, we’ll never have to speak with anyone other than our family, close friends, and co-workers…the professional world will be strictly functional. Perhaps that is where we want to go?

From a sustainability perspective, clearly zipping and zapping one’s way through the day as a consumer helps to maintain the status quo; keep on spending, keep on consuming, keep on doing it without any regard to the larger effects of the transactions. When do we pause to think about the effects of the zipping and zapping and what it really means, or has that been taken care of by self-regulating industrial trade groups and government regulations? Should there be some sort of collective awakening about the far-reaching effects of the everyday products we purchase?

When I think about it like this, I become enormously discouraged, knowing that my current job situation makes it all too easy to become one of the zippers and zappers. Driving here for a meeting, flying there for another, popping into the local D&D for an iced coffee or grabbing a bite at the airport. I don't travel all that much, and to be completely honest, some of my own "acts of commerce" are more ones of habit than necessity, but the system we inhabit as consumers is certainly designed to make it easy to buy things that may or may not be necessary.

Last night, I read an interesting passage in Dancing with the Tiger quoted from Stephen Haines regarding unconscious incompetence, the state we operate in relative to sustainability and consumerism,

...a very dangerous place to be. You are not conscious of the things
you cannot do and you are probably not even concerned about this lack of

When we begin to recognize this incompetence, it is a very uncomfortable feeling, as the authors write, "we feel inept and unskilled..." This sums up quite well what I feel when I attempt to get my head around what we need to accomplish in terms of sustainable business. It's a challenge that is enormously complex and seemingly impossible to solve, yet we have to figure out how to do it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Insanity of Traffic Congestion

I spent an extra hour on 84 east in Connecticut between exit 2 in Ridgebury and exit 13 near Berkshire, CT - covering about 18 miles. It was bumper-to-bumper, stop and go, crawling along for a good hour and 15 minutes. I could feel the impatience and awe simmering just under my skin as I contemplated the wasted energy, both intellectual and physical. Granted, this Friday afternoon traffic, people fleeing the metropolitan New York area, was heavier than normal, but it still exists. There are people that do this every day, over and over again from Monday through Friday. They are made of stronger stuff than I, as I would not be able to take it.

With the extra time (and no phone), there was plenty of gears turning in my head. I looked around at the cars and trucks around me and noted a few things,

  • encasement in a four wheeled room destroys our manners
  • we have allowed irrational development patterns to eat into our lives
  • we're just starting to experience the true price.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Ask Questions Carefully but Purposefully

I received an interesting phone call last week while conveniently stuck (quite literally; I was not moving. The car was turned off) on 287 north of New York City. There was an absolute downpour that tracked along the highway conveniently overwhelming the drainage system in a somewhat oddly laid out series of corners. The construction zone could only have made the situation worse, which it did. The photo at right is NOT of what I experienced.

The purpose of the call was to inquire about the questions I had been asking about environmental issues and sustainable business of members of our company's central management team. The division I am part of is a small piece of a much larger multi-national organization, and my assumption, which, as most assumptions are, was incorrect, that there are centralized functions addressing EH&S and environmental issues. In fact, many of these issues are managed individually in the business units. The other reason for the call was to remind me about the chain of command and that I should be following it. Despite the fact that the organization is quite flat, I still need to go up through my immediate manager. That makes sense. If I have any hope of raising sustainable business practices to the global implementation stage, I suppose I should start there.

It's funny how I immediately became a bit defensive about why I was asking these questions. It's as though, despite all my reading and my personal conviction (though it wavers occasionally) about the probnlems associated with business-as-usual, the fact that I am talking about "green" issues is somehow idealistic and outside the realm of business. Also, the distinct impression I received when discussing environmental stuff was that when these issues are raised, their must be something wrong. It's the compliance mentality, which through no fault of management that has survived in this world, is par for the course. In other words, we are doing great things for the environment, we meet all the regulatory standards, we even investigated alternative forms of energy for the facility. That's great, but what about the life cycle of the products we sell?

In all that I have read about the adoption of corporate sustainability initiatives, success depends heavily upon the engagement and cheerleading of the executive suite. I wonder, does the CEO and/or other members of the executive leadership team think about product stewardship, life cycle analysis, CSR, ESG, etc.?

Friday, July 06, 2007

More Business Focused Babble about "Sustainability"

The articles I receive as part of the WBCSD newsletters really are great, and renew my hope that businesses are continuing to take action on climate change and embracing the triple bottom line of CSR/ESG.

From The Financial Times, There's Money to be Made in Them There Green Ideas
While the focus on carbon brings its own problems, Mr Beloe sees it as the precursor to the mainstreaming of sustainability, a process he believes resembles the way that IT moved from its silo in the 1990s to the centre of business models.

"The same will happen with climate change and, ultimately, with environmental issues more broadly," he says. "Climate change is a precursor of a bigger agenda, which is about the environment as a whole."
I added the emphasis.

Is this a good thing? Doesn't "mainstream" mean sell-out, mass production, economies of scale? Well, sometimes. Even if it does, mainstreaming something that in many ways flies in the face of what the mainstream is all about can only be a good thing. Would it somehow make mass consumerism gain a social conscience? Perhaps.

One could argue that sustainability will be the next great consumer product and/or business management trend that is taken up, beaten to death, and discarded into the dust bin of used-to-be-cutting-edge business books. It could also be the evolution of what have been called environmental management systems and quality control systems; a fusion, if you will, of Six Sigma with ISO 14000 or Lean Manufacturing with the EH&S office. Isn't that what it is? It's more than that, but I like the idea of thinking of sustainable business as the fusion of what have been separate systems. It's systems thinking.

We can save ourselves, the planet, and business.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

June's Business Travel

I fell out of the reporting habit and had to look back over a month to figure out where I traveled in June (I dated the post as well). It's interesting that my personal motivation for tracking business travel with the intent of understanding its contribution to overall CO2 emissions and the "cost" associated with offsetting it is hard to maintain. I can see why economists are often skeptical of voluntary programs for changing personal or corporate behavior. If there is no direct connection to a financial penalty or benefit, what's the point? I think about this stuff. many people don't. We'll have to use the rules of microeconomics to help fight the climate change battle.

Business Auto mileage:
~ 940788 driving alone + 152 miles as a passenger (from 304 "actual passenger miles"; I use my scientific "fudge factor", dividing passenger miles by 2, to obtain my personal mileage contribution).

Air Travel:
~ 800 miles
~ 800 miles round trip from Boston to Baltimore, MD

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Eco Business Pioneer Update

In a task somewhat unrelated to sustainability, updating members of our sales force on transportation options for a meeting coming up later this month, I found myself reading an article that provided an update on Planettran. The article appeared in the Wall Street Journal site a few weeks ago.

I met Seth Riney, the founder of Planettran, at a Responsible Business Association of Greater Boston meeting back in 2003. He had just founded Planettran and I loved the idea. Seth's commitment to the ideal that environmentally friendly business solutions had to be just that, profitable business solutions, was music to my ears. At the time, I was less concerned with how successful a business was, only that it take responsibility for its actions. I sold my car and was working at one of the local bike shops, focusing on transportation and land use issues, something that has a strong influence on our propensity for emitting CO2. In any case, Seth's hard-nosed capitalistic attitude; reflecting his belief in the marketplace's ability to help move us in a sustainable direction was refreshing and energizing.

In the early stages of Planettran, I spoke with Seth about working with him. I have to admit, I was a bit scared about the uncertainty associated with working with a small start-up. While Seth and I did not talk about it in great detail, I know I was thinking about what it would be like to invest some of my own capital in the company and work to help it grow from almost the ground up. If I am honest with myself, I was not willing to make the leap and accept what sacrifices may have been necessary to make it happen.

I admire people like Seth; people that recognize an opportunity, believe in the potential, and go for it. I remember the battle he started waging with the City of Cambridge over taxi medallions. I do not remember all of the details, but what I believe it came down to was that the market for cabs in Cambridge was regulated in such a way as to keep out new entrants and competitors, therefore stifling innovation. Seth adamantly wanted them to issue new medallions such that hybrid cabs could be introduced as a new company. I am not sure if he won that battle or at least influenced the city or the companies, but one thing is for certain, in 2007 I see hybrid Toyota Camry taxis on the streets of Cambridge. If it has any connection to Mayor Bloomberg's plan to encourage the updating of NY's cabs with hybrids by 2012, I have no idea. The good news is the hybrid update will be just in time for the intergalactic alignment and Mayan Apocalypse.

Oh, and it is good to see that the Planettran swarm has developed a hive in San Francisco. It's a perfect place for it.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Occupied and Oblivious?

As I continue reading texts on sustainability, specifically applying it to business operations, I am beginning to recognize common themes among the books. Besides the technical and design elements of sustainability; systems thinking, thermodynamics, operational excellence, lean manufacturing, ISO 14000, industrial ecology, closed loop manufacturing, accounting for externalities, etc., there is an element of social commentary involved. This commentary is sometimes overt, but more often than not, is subtle and hidden. Generally, the authors convey a sense of collective consumer activity that numbs us to the world that we inhabit. Combined with never-ending advertising and peer pressure, the daily exercise of "buying stuff" helps make the collective realization that the path we are treading through 4 billion years of natural capital is unsustainable never happen.

It is easy to see why we have become so disconnected from where "stuff" comes from and therefore our impact on our surroundings. It is "the way things are". As an example, we drove 5 hours from the Boston area to Mt. Desert Island in Maine for a vacation. We packed the bikes in the back of the car to take our recreation with us. We joined thousands of other seasonal tourists that descend upon the island in the summer months to bask in the glory and peace of nature and then head back to our "real" lives, wherever that may be. The act of vacationing is another consumer experience. We go somewhere, consume resources and experiences, perhaps bringing something of that place back with us in the form of a T-shirt or coffee mug that was no doubt manufactured along with thousands of others for Hilton Head, SC Hollywood, CA somewhere in China. The mug is used as a reminder of our time away, only to be replaced by another from our next adventure, and perhaps lost in the back of the cupboard, given to the Salvation Army, or simply thrown away. When we have no concept of what goes into that mug, our simple decision to buy it is simple and meaningless.

The purpose of my rambling here is not to cast us all into the fires as environmental destroyers, but to highlight all the little things that we do add up to a lot of externalities. As I sit here in an Internet cafe in Bar Harbor, listening to us all clack away on keyboards made of refined petroleum, I wonder about the "system" that is the economy of Mt. Desert Island. It is a simple mass flow calculation, a secondary measure of energy flow. Resources are brought in, used, and thrown out. How would we model the island as a system? Imagine coming up with a way to help the island a "close the loop", or at least reclaim as much as possible. Imagine if island visitors "got it", taking actions that help preserve the very nature they come to see and that supports the island economy. It's not that far-fetched, in 2005 civic leaders came together to discuss ecotourism for the region including Mt. Desert Island.

An article from Fast Company I recently heard about from Greenbiz, entitled Message in a Bottle, does a fabulous job of illustrating our collective ignorance of our acts of commerce. It's worth the read. Here's a brief excerpt:
Every bottle of Fiji Water goes on its own version of this trip, in reverse, although by truck and ship. In fact, since the plastic for the bottles is shipped to Fiji first, the bottles' journey is even longer. Half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water is transportation--which is to say, it costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it. That is not the only environmental cost embedded in each bottle of Fiji Water.

The Fiji Water plant is a state-of-the-art facility that runs 24 hours a day. That means it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity--something the local utility structure cannot support. So the factory supplies its own electricity, with three big generators running on diesel fuel. The water may come from "one of the last pristine ecosystems on earth," as some of the labels say, but out back of the bottling plant is a less pristine ecosystem veiled with a diesel haze. Each water bottler has its own version of this oxymoron: that something as pure and clean as water leaves a contrail.

San Pellegrino's 1-liter glass bottles--so much a part of the mystique of the water itself--weigh five times what plastic bottles weigh, dramatically adding to freight costs and energy consumption. The bottles are washed and rinsed, with mineral water, before being filled with sparkling Pellegrino--it uses up 2 liters of water to prepare the bottle for the liter we buy. The bubbles in San Pellegrino come naturally from the ground, as the label says, but not at the San Pellegrino source. Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino.
The author does a good job of investigating multiple sides of the story, and as with any item produced in an industrialized production method, gets at some of the issues surrounding embodied energy and local economic development.

When we start looking at things as a system, and the true costs of items are revealed, our decisions will be much different, since we will be acting in our own economic self interest.