Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Incentives for Greenery

As I walked from my recently parked car at Logan Airport's central parking facility this afternoon to climb aboard my CO2 spewing plane, I noticed the special "Clean Vehicle" Parking Zone. Pretty cool. There were a few cars in it, and plenty of spaces left for others with clean vehicles (not me), but the very fact that it was there was encouraging.

It got me thinking about the choices we make, life decisions that seem so trivial but have a tremendous social cost in terms of environmental degradation and the potential long-term health of our culture. Simply taking a job that requires extensive travel (witness my current situation) is something that increases my impact on the climate. There is no real business sense of responsibility to reduce or minimize such travel needs. It's just part of "doing business". We need to change that. How, with the proper mix of individual action, corporate action, and government policies that are designed correctly. Oddly, my trip to Baltimore this time did not bring on a mental deluge of "what the heck am I doing?" questions. They'll come back soon enough.
On the return trip from Baltimore, I walked through the same parking lot and noticed quite a few more alternatively fueled (including hybrids) vehicles taking advantage of the preferred parking places. That was good to see.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Economics and Accounting

So I spent a good portion of another weekend studying the basics of accounting and economics. I am excited to be learning again, though there are still moments of complete panic when I feel that I don't "get" a topic and wonder if this going back to school thing is really a good idea. This thinking was drawn out Sunday morning. I decided to watch one of my favorite news programs, CBS News' Sunday Morning. It's interesting to me that a news program clearly aimed at people 15-40 years older than me (witness the numerous ads for ED), or at least that's my assumption, is one I like to watch.

In any case, CBS News Commentator Nancy Giles made a point in her segment that made me think about what I was doing; she talked about the fact that we have too much going on to stop and smell the roses. She's right, as far as I can tell. From a green perspective, it made me pause and think about the choices I make and their effects on carbon emissions and the environment. Taking on a graduate program that meets once a month clear across the country is certainly not a green choice. Neither is buying Dunkin' Donuts Iced Coffee in single use plastic containers, or ordering take-out in the same kind of containers, single use. Why did her segment make me think about green issues? Mostly because her point, that we are a nation moving too quickly, relates to having a better sense of the world we inhabit and what really matters, from friends and family to clean lakes, streams, and air. Most of us want that, right?

So, what am I doing? I've decided to work on changing my habitual trips to D&D when I am out and about, and especially when I am traveling on business. It'll be tough for a while, but in the end, it'll save me time and money. It's a small start, but one that can at least make me feel like I'm doing something. Oh, and the trips across the country once per month? I'll take the money I saved on D&D coffee and buy some carbon indulgences from NativeEnergy and see if that helps.

By the way, I took a break from economics (shut-down price and marginal analysis) and watched a bit of the Green Teen Choice Awards (the regular Sunday night Fox programming was preempted). I noticed the green label and wondered how it was green. All I could find was this, finding out about what celebrities were "going green". At least green was mentioned.

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Position Papers"

I chuckled when I read some position papers from the IBWA recently. These are for the most part press releases designed to make the industry they serve look like heroes and protectors of their customers. I particularly like comments like this, taken from IBMA's response to San Francisco's mayoral ban on bottled water: Image from BrandChannel.com.
Bottled water is one of thousands of packaged foods and beverages used by consumers every day and bottled water containers are fully recyclable and should be properly recycled through whatever system a local municipality has in place. Overall, the bottled water industry, like many others in the food and beverage industry, works to reduce its environmental footprint.
Nothing they say here is necessarily false, and one can certainly see how the industry could be stunned that they would be singled out for punitive action. At the same time, they're clearly shrugging off producer responsibility to the municipalities that are burdened with the collection of the used bottles. Where does that get us?

While waiting at the local Jiffy Lube while my fossil fueled mode of transport had its oil swapped, I noticed this article from Time Magazine's August 20th edition. It was a few months older than the article I commented about from Fast Company, but essentially said the same things; bottled water uses a heck of a lot of energy in its "manufacture" and delivery, not to mention disposal. In essence, this is a global luxury, some would say an indulgence. The marketers will say they are providing what the market desires, convenience and purity. Given the conventional economics worldview, with the environmental costs borne by others besides the bottled water manufacturers, aren't they behaving rationally?

What's a enviro-conscious consumer to do? Carry a good old fashioned refillable water bottle and use water fountains and taps. I have used drinking water from airports all over the country as well as various rest stops along the highways of the northeast without a hitch. Maybe its not as cool, or the flavor is not as crisp, but I'm well hydrated

Sunday, August 19, 2007

It's Getting Real

Image from Commercial Debt Consultants.

With the signing of some tuition reimbursement papers, this entry into graduate school is quickly becoming "real".

This is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a friend about going to school:
I have decided to take the plunge and start BGI this fall. I have to admit that I am a bit worried since I am doing this as somewhat of a "Maverick" [bad word?]. My manager understands my desire to pursue an advanced degree, but I have only been on board since last December and I have not established my street cred as deeply as I would like. That said, if I cannot convince people internally that we have to take action regarding sustainable biz, then it's really not the right place for me anyway. In a perfect world, I'd be in an org. that wants to pursue susbiz and I would be the investment/catalyst with management buy-in. On the other hand, I think this will be a good management and political learning experience that will serve me well in the future. I can completely understand his concern for my overcommitment to school & work...and he has been open and honest with his thoughts that if he perceives that I am slacking with work, it will be time to make a choice. I am planning NOT to reach that point. For once, I am optimistic and excited...though bouts of anxiety creep into my consciousness almost daily.
Some "real world" comments from my manager boils down to this (I have paraphrased):
I have...concerns about your ability to devote the effort needed for BOTH this academic pursuit and your job...If this interferes with your job, I will likely ask you to choose between continued employment and this program.
His comments are completely fair. He is ultimately responsible for hitting revenue targets for the company, therefore, as a good functional manager, he is focused on that goal. It's his responsibility to keep me on task as well. I am very grateful for his support, considering I am a relatively new employee. I guess I am stupid enough to give this a go. Heck, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Economics 101

Graph from Sparknotes.com text from "Economics" by Krugman and Wells
A fairly basic supposition of economics lays the groundwork for the consumer society, not the "...very hard..." comment.
Why do the choices I make interact with the choices you make? A family could try to take care of all its own needs—growing its own food, sewing its own clothing, providing itself with entertainment, writing its own economics textbooks. But trying to live that way would be very hard. The key to a much better standard of living for everyone is trade, in which people divide tasks among themselves and each person provides a good or service that other people want in return for different goods and services that he or she wants.
How hard is hard enough w/o taking everything out of the planet to support our "quality of life"?

Oh boy, look what elese I learned today.
  • Demand is perfectly inelastic if it is completely unresponsive to price. It is perfectly elastic if it is infinitely responsive to price.
  • Demand is elastic if the price elasticity of demand is greater than 1; it is inelastic if the price elasticity of demand is less than 1; and it is unit-elastic if the price elasticity of demand is exactly 1.
  • When demand is elastic, the sales effect of a price increase dominates the price effect and total revenue falls. When demand is inelastic, the price effect of a price increase dominates the sales effect and total revenue increases
  • Because the price elasticity of demand can change along the demand curve, economists mean a particular point on the demand curve when referring to the price elasticity of demand.
  • The availability of close substitutes makes demand for a good more elastic, as does the length of time elapsed since the price change. Demand for a necessary good is less elastic, and more elastic for a luxury good.
I just finished two marathon days of study on micro and macroeconomics in preparation for a "diagnostic exam". this will apparently either qualify me for starting without remedial economics class or to assess where I need to spend my prep time before school starts in October. I had forgotten what it was like to study, and exercise one's analytical capacities. It was pretty darn frustrating, but also encouraging when I felt like I was starting to "get it".

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Racing to the Bottom?

August 14, 2007 Mattel Said to Plan 2nd Toy Recall, By David Barboza. It would be Mattel's second major recall in a month because of defective toys that were made in China.

This a good example of business risk associated with "racing to the bottom", taking advantage of inexpensive labor w/o managing the supply chain as closely as they should. Given the recent losses associated with Mattel's recalls, were the cost savings realized with the move to a country with lower environmental standards and corporate oversight worth it? Would a financial analysis bear out the investment made 15 years ago? I bet the managers that made the decision reaped the short term benefits (what did the stock do at that time?) and are nowhere to be found in Mattel's organization today.

An article posted to The Huffington Post entitled, China's Quality Problem: A Long-Term vs Short-Term Thinking Teachable Moment, highlights the danger of thinking "end of pipe", in this case referring to Dr. Deming's work on what I would summarize as Total Quality Management. The quote highlighted in the article is appropriate to those thinking about designing industrial systems to mimic nature and systems thinking relative to sustainable business:

You cannot produce high quality [environmentally benign] products by inspecting them at the end of production. All you can do at that point is prevent poor quality [harmful] products from reaching consumers, at a tremendous waste of time, energy, and materials. High quality [environmental neutrality] results from a process of redesigning your manufacturing processes - including your relationships with your suppliers - so that your products are built correctly in the first place. This is a long-term process requiring a continuous learning and improvement mindset.
I added the terms in the [brackets] to bring some sustainable thinking into the topic.
What appears in the Economist issue dated August 18th, China's Toxic Toymaker. Granted, the overall percentage of toys affected is more than likely very low. It's very easy to blow something like this way out of proportion (as many things are in the US media), especially since it potentially affects children. The trade protectionists will be grabbing this and using it to their advantage. What I see is an opportunity for more corporate diligence in the supply chain, preventing these issues from happening at all.

Buyer's Remorse

What am I getting myself into? With much gnashing-of-teeth, shrugging, hand-wringing, eye-rolling, wailing, sobbing, watery-eyed mumbling, and exasperated two-way pleading, I may be closer to proceeding.

The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur re: grad school. I've been thinking about this for a long time, and have the decision all figured out in my head. The problem with that is simple, no one else has any idea what I am thinking, especially my wife. Generally, I would like to assume that everyone thinks the way I do, and would somehow understand the what and why of my thinking without me saying a word. Of course, that's not the case. Considering that a decision to go back to school, to an institution that is new and relatively unknown, affects my wife as much as it affects me, how could I wait so long to talk about it? Simple, I was afraid the answer would be "no". What? You mean there are practical elements to consider when contemplating monthly sojourns across the country to learn about sustainable business in the "wilderness" of Bainbridge Island?

It's bad enough that I have enough self-defeating worries, doubts, and anxieties welling up internally. Do I need any more? Maybe not, but others might. Here are a few gems (how 'bout second thoughts):
  • What's the future value of the degree? (is BGI too "out of the mainstream" (that's the point, correct)?
  • Assuming the main biz schools start adopting more sustainable educational methods, will BGI be part of that or be overlooked and passed by?
  • Quality of the education; who are these people and what are they teaching me?
  • Is spending $60k really what I need to do (no one can answer this but me)?
  • Would I be better served waiting and pursuing a degree elsewhere (I am sick of waiting!)?
  • Will I get stuck in an endless circle of kumbaya (this is a 1/2 joke)?
  • What is I turn out to be an idiot and can't hack it?
Some of these questions have no answer, or can only be answered by yours truly. Some of them have been addressed with conversations with current and former students, people familiar with the institution, and others with a general MBA background. Given the youth of the program, there's an element of experimentation for me and for the university. I am investing in a start-up venture that is providing me with an educational experience that I believe will add value to my life. Symbiosis anyone?

I suppose there is no "right" answer that will descend from the heavens (choose your own religion) and crash into me like some half-crazed nymph recently released from Pan's Labyrinth. It's my choice, made along with the support of the people that matter to me and that's that. I suppose I should take a flyer...and maybe it'll stick.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Vote for Local Ecopreneur

Some of you out there may know about Recycline, a cool Boston-area business making personal care and consumer products from Stonyfield Farm yogurt cups (and other materials). They are currently a Forbes Boost Your Business Contest second round competitor. There's nothing better than supporting a local business working to make a positive environmental and social impact. I use their toothbrush, but I must admit that the Preserve razor was not up to the high performance standards of the Gillette Mach3. Hmmm? Is that a partnership opportunity?

The following is an excerpt from their latest newsletter:
Recycline has just been given a great opportunity to reach more people with our
environment-friendly products. We've been named one of 20 semifinalists (out of
1,000) in the Forbes.com Boost Your Business competition. First prize is $100,000 which would go a long way to helping us spread our message—using Earth's resources more efficiently and giving consumers better choices for the everyday products we all use.

Here's your chance to help others discover Preserve: please click here to cast your vote forward this message to your friends, family, and, well, anyone you know. The
$100,000 prize will allow us to launch our first-ever mainstream marketing campaign and enable us to introduce Preserve products far and wide.

Thanks for your support—and for spreading the word to your family and friends!

For the Earth,
Eric Hudson and the Recycline Team
Check 'em out, vote for them, and pass it along.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Why an MBA?

As I (we) go through this exciting, scary, and anxious time deciding about pursuing a sustainable MBA, I find myself asking the question, "why do I want to do this?". It's a reasonable way for my mind to wrap itself into a knotted mess of neurons, serotonin, and adrenaline; sometimes called "self-doubt".

Well, despite the grim reality of the financial implications of an MBA, and the sure-to-be difficulties associated with the endeavor, the meeting of the Cleantech crew of NetImpact Boston did nothing but reinforce my desire to GO.

OK, so not everyone around the table was in the midst of an MBA or even thinking about it, but the ones that were (or had) were overtly enthusiastic about the experience and the possibilities it could open up. There were so many ideas being thrown around the table, so many concepts and examples of what companies were striving for with sustainable business, so much (to me at least) out-of-the-box thinking that I could hardly contain myself. In fact, given the selfish nature of all of us (human nature, or am I projecting?) I did my best to talk about what I thought I knew and what I wanted to talk about. Our fearless organizer for the evening, Asheen, did a admirable job keeping us on task, discussing Interface's and Timberland's differing yet fundamentally similar tracking of sustainable business and CSR metrics in their corporate operations.

Back to the initial question posed at the top of this posting, here is what I came up with for reasons to pursue a sustainable MBA:
  • I would like to develop a deeper and more rigorous understanding of how businesses operate and apply this knowledge to my own work
  • I would like a place to pursue the intellectual challenge of "sustainability" and organize my personal sustainable education into a usable form
  • I would like to commit to a program that will help me move my career toward sustainability related professional activities; to align my core values with what I do
  • I would like to share my business experiences and be part of an innovative community of like-minded people working to create a restorative economy based on a pragmatic understanding of where we are right now
  • I would like to help change the way we educate the coming generations such that sustainable efforts today are taken to a higher level
Does this pretty much cover it? If you want to do something, you'll figure out how to do it. In closing, the quote I was thinking of earlier this evening and could not remember (a bit trite, but appropriate),
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead (1901-1978), American Anthropologist

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Marlboro College Graduate Center Open House

I decided to attend the Marlboro College Graduate Center's open house yesterday in Brattleboro, VT. The drive out from Boston was uneventful,taking about an hour and fifty minuted and covering just about 100 miles as indicated by the mobile edition of Google Maps I have. I'd never been to Brattleboro before, and I was looking forward to seeing another one of New England's small cities, if only for a few hours.

I arrived at the open house a bit late, not realizing that there was a schedule of events to follow. Don Parker, a member of the admissions team greeted me warmly at the entrance and ushered me into the meeting. I thought that the open house was for people interested in the Sustainable MBA program, but it was for anyone interested in any of the Graduate Center's courses. There was a small group of people gathered talking about their interests, including a near graduate member of the MAT program, "Teaching with Technology". It was very informative to listen to a mid-career professional relate her experiences managing work, school, and family. Her enthusiasm for what she was studying and learning was plain to see, and the importance of her classmates to push and support her came through as well. I was relieved to hear that she experienced a fair amount of fear prior to starting the program. I guess I am not alone. One of the many emotions I feel when contemplating a return to school is abject terror.

I had a great conversation with Ralph Meima, the Sustainable MBA Program Director. We talked for well over an hour about sustainable business, reviewing each other's history with the concept and discussing how an MBA in sustainable business can help people like me. We spent a fair amount of time discussing what "sustainability" really means to businesses and the inherent problem trying to teach something that defies a standardized definition. I suppose that's one thing that attracts me to learning about it; the intellectual challenge of getting my head around what sustainable business means for individual companies, regions, and people. We talked about the reasons to attend business school and the potential to help create a regional sustainability "knowledge-base" in the Northeast similar to what is underway with BGI's help in the Pacific Northwest.
When you think about it, a central element of sustainability is working locally with supply chains that do not rely on energy intensive activities like long-distance shipping and importation of resources from other areas. Organizations like BALLE are working hard and making progress to create and maintain strong local economies. One of my favorite companies (one that I have fantasized about working with to recreate their model in other regions) working to create strong local economies for food is The Farmer's Diner, located in Quechee, VT.
I am digressing. I enjoyed my visit to Marlboro and would encourage anyone interested in sustainable business education to check out their program. While the 2007 class will be the inaugural edition for Marlboro (and something I am taking into consideration as I complete my admissions material!), I can not foresee interest in sustainable business education waning. I expect that in five years, people involved with programs like BGI, Presidio, Marlboro, Antioch, etc. will be heavily influencing "mainstream" business education. Innovation generally comes form the small and the new, not the establishment. Wouldn't it me cool to be part of that?

Why the photo of Poison Ivy? It's CO2 related. I heard portions of a story on Poison ivy's potential increase in size and toxicity due to predicted rises in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Great. I have been extra cautious about Poison Ivy after contracting some nasty cases as a child. Now, there will be more of it...yet another (personal) reason for me to want to do something about CO2 emissions through sustainable business.

I snapped the photo above with my phone while stopped on the Palisades Parkway overlooking the Hudson River. The view was amazing. The hopelessly jammed George Washington bridge I had just escaped from was off in the distance, hazily dangling over the water.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Subsidies, Incentives, and Costs

There were two articles in the NYTimes Mobile Edition that caught my eye today relating to energy, sustainable development, and economics. The first, Energy Bill Aids the Expansion Plans of Atomic Power Plants, comments on the "hidden" provision on the current energy bill for federally guaranteed loans for the construction of nuclear power plants, and the second, Brazil, Alarmed, Reconsiders Policy on Climate Change addresses Brazil's changing attitude toward climate change responsibility (image at top-right taken from NYTimes article).

Governments are poor choosers of winning technologies. While market failures are signs that governments may need to step in to rectify the failures (regulating land use patterns to lessen traffic congestion for example), there is scant evidence that command-and-control economies work. As with the current ethanol craze, which is more of a way to create jobs in the corn belt states and help large agri-businesses (pardon the anti-corporate tone) than a way to lessen our GHG emissions and our dependence on foreign sources of energy, choosing to provide government backing for technologies can be a slippery slope. Yet again, the obvious and more cost effective solution is to reduce the amount of energy we're using in the first place. Source reduction. Building more nuclear power plants and developing different fuel sources for the same addictions do not solve the problem of inefficient buildings and auto-centric development patterns.

Brazil's "realization" that they are a part of a larger global community is not much of a shocker. OK, I am not a Brazilian political leader, but it seems pretty obvious that actions they take affect their population and the rest of the planet. When developing countries point their collective fingers (I could not help it) at the developed northern hemisphere and say that it's their responsibility to take action and "make it right", they have a point. At the same time, ignoring their own contribution to the global problem of climate change is ignorant and myopic. Why not invest in currently available technologies that democratize energy and "leap frog" the dirty first industrial revolution?

Non sequitur...Now that Rupert Murdoch owns Dow Jones, will we be FOX-ified?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

July's Business Travel

July started off with some telecommuting and vacation on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It was a beautiful week, with July Fourth falling on a Wednesday, causing all sorts of confusion for professionals wondering what weekend would be the "holiday" weekend.

Business travels took me to a power plant on the shores of Lake Ontario (to see a massive cold front come in over the lake), the Baltimore area, and the craziness of northern NJ and western Long Island. The traffic I experienced on the trip to NJ and Long Island was insane. It took two hours to get from the East Hanover area to Westbury, NY, a trip of 67 miles on highways. The number of people there is just astounding, and the amount of fuel that we are all gobbling...I could do the math, but it's A LOT. It is at times like that, when I look around and see what's going on, that I wonder, "where's this all going?" As a side note, we crossed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (shown above from an MTA website). I love the way the photograph romanticizes this feat of human accomplishment. The green trees framing the foundations of the bridge. When you drive over it, it's noisy, crowded, dirty, and the scenery is acres and acres of refineries and industrial development. It's like a scene out of Bladerunner.

On to my monthly CO2 emission sinning!

Business Auto mileage:
1707 miles
1562 driving alone + 145 miles as a passenger (from 290 "actual passenger miles"; I use my scientific "fudge factor", dividing passenger miles by 2, to obtain my contribution).

Air Travel:
~600 miles
~600 miles round trip from Bradley International Airport, CT to BWI

Some energy related news from the Environment News Service; House Passes Energy Bill, Battles Loom in Senate. There remains much to reconcile between the House and the Senate's versions as well as the looming threat of a presidential veto. Given the history of energy bills that fail to help us reduce our energy use, I am not holding my breath that this will be some sort of breakthrough piece of legislation.