Media Coverage Archives

October 22, 2007

BusinessWeek Moves the Debate

Well, it was bound to happen around now. Once every magazine had done a cover story on the wonders of going green (my previous post here), the media had to turn on itself and declare it all a sham. It's the normal course of things.

BusinessWeek's cover this week, "Little Green Lies," certainly tries to be incendiary. The subhead: "The sweet notion that making a company environmentally friendly can be profitable is going up in smoke." But dig in and the reality of the article is equal parts insightful and inane/obvious (a bit more of the latter perhaps). And it doesn't actually say anything all that different than green business writers/thinkers have been saying. If one of the main messages is that it's not so easy to go green, I can only say, no kidding.

And in a funny turn, BusinessWeek managed the feat of starting the cover parade in January and taking just 9 months to totally contradict itself. But let's look at a couple of the specific complaints.

First we have the repeated stories of eco-champion Auden Schendler at Aspen Skiing failing to get his management to green light green expenditures. The story seems to be that the ROI was not always enough. On this one, I couldn't agree more in part. Yes, any investment in a company competes for cash with all other options. And, yes, looking at pure ROI, some energy efficiency investments won't look great (they may take 5-10 years or more). But as a reader of Green to Gold knows, I don't believe that traditional cost/benefit analysis is doing a very good job. It doesn't take into account intangibles at all.

What's the value of reducing risk of energy spikes? (By the way, how do some of the ROI calculations from not that long ago when oil was $40/barrel look now?). What's the marketing value of walking the talk? How will employees feel?

The other point the article brings out is that it's tough to convince people and move a culture. Not everyone buys it — the story of one manager not believing the high ROI for a project is, sadly, not surprising. This is partly a legacy of green guys in a company not getting business respect. So, again, the idea that this is all hard is not shocking.

But a core criticism in the article — the attack on Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) as a way for companies to offset emissions — is a deeper and much more important question. It's incredibly complicated how or if RECs create real demand and generate renewable energy. Lowering the costs for wind generators (by paying them the additional value of the REC) should in theory drive growth (Micro Econ 101). But the article is fairly devastating on the scale of the REC vs. the cost of generation. One argument could be that the market for RECs has to grow much more so that the price rises (Micro Econ 101 supply and demand). That would potentially expand production. But the point that a REC today doesn't exactly mean less fossil fuel today is well taken.

But I focus on another lesson here: RECs and all offsets should be a last resort (no skiing pun intended). First, cut emissions through eco-efficiency. Second, generate renewable energy onsite. Then seek the highest quality offsets.

In the end, this article is a sign that we're evolving. The author may not realize it, but the piece is telling companies to look at the full value chain environmental impact (not just measure emissions at owned facilities, a mistake Nike makes, according to the author) and measure emissions completely before making claims. I couldn't agree more.

If I've learned a couple things (or strengthened some assumptions) in the year since Green to Gold came out it's this: we're just getting started, companies have a long way to go, and it's not easy. I started reading this article thinking it was so odd as a juxtaposition with the Wal-Mart meeting the other day that really was the starter's pistol on this movement: strange, I figured, that it's getting started in earnest right when BusinessWeek declares it over. But the reality is that this article doesn't match the aggressive title and sub-title — the content is actually a sign that all of this is for real. Only fundamental shifts in how business works cause this kind of scrutiny and warrant tough questions.

This piece is actually making the case for a main arm of the Green to Gold story: know your footprint, do things that actually reduce yours or your customer's, and then take credit for it. As the Aspen Skiing Company shows, getting frustrated with lack of progress — as Schendler so rightfully does — and getting some of those steps reversed, is a recipe for trouble.

We're at an odd junction in the greening of business. Millions of business people are just now coming to the table and seeking some easy wins. They're moving incrementally, or trying to skip steps entirely. At the same time, some "old-timers" who have been working hard for years are getting frustrated at the lack of speed. It's like they're finally not alone in the wilderness and they want to start running. The problem is that everyone else is just starting their training for the race. Like Schendler, the leaders are getting impatient and pushing hard. I'm not sure which force will win, but it's going to be an interesting battle.

December 10, 2009

News Flash From Bjorn Lomborg and the WSJ: We Should Help Poor People

For some reason I can't understand, Mr. Skeptical Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg keeps getting space in places like the Wall Street Journal and Time to peddle his drivel. The Journal has given Lomborg a weekly op-ed for about 6 weeks to talk about how we shouldn't really tackle climate change.

Here's how each of these weekly missives work. Lomborg picks out one person in a country to talk to and asks them how much they care about climate change. Yesterday, he told us that a very poor person living near Mt. Kilimanjaro doesn't care so much about melting glaciers, but cares more about education about HIV. Last week we learned that a very poor person living near Himalayan glaciers that are melting, which will create vast water and food shortages, also cares more about pressing daily issues of local poverty. Earlier, a very poor person living in Africa told Lomborg we should tackle malaria directly rather than take on climate change. Wow, these are real surprises.

Lomborg's sole purpose in life seems to be creating false arguments that nobody is really making and then knocking them down. In the malaria article, he makes it sound like all the government, NGO, and business work to battle climate change is intended solely to stop the spread of malaria (which may become more prevalent as warmer weather makes things more hospitable to mosquitoes at higher latitudes). So, he says, the potential investment of trillions of dollars to create cleaner, more efficient economies is an expensive solution for malaria. Treated bed-nets are much cheaper.

Well, yeah, no kidding, Bjorn.

As if anyone is saying that reducing carbon is just about malaria, or water supplies in Asia, or only any one of the many specific issues Lomborg splits up into little targets and compares to the whole (inflated) price tag. And, by the way, who said that tackling climate change is separate from helping the poorest among us? The issues are all integrally related and the poorest are being hit hardest by climate changes already. Lomborg always seems to be arguing against some phantom Birkenstock-wearing Greenpeace activist chained to the bulldozer of the 1970s.

The logic and arguments for decoupling our economies from carbon have evolved tremendously and include national competitiveness and job creation, healthier air, eliminating reliance on fuels from parts of the world that fund terror, and reducing dependence on volatilely-priced, and declining, resources that will raise the cost of doing business over time. This is why many important capitalists such as Jeff Immelt at GE (but not the US Chamber of Commerce of course) are making the business case for climate action.

You'll notice that none of these other reasons actually depend on believing fully in the science. And they make for more prosperous economies, which can help the poor the most. And guess what, we have to walk and chew gum at the same time -- we have to think holistically and tackle issues in a synchronized way.

But overall, what I really love is Bjorn Lomborg taking his argument for helping the poor to the skeptics of the world and going through the Wall Street Journal -- as if this is the crowd lining up to send development money to countries for food, water, and bed nets. Who is he speaking to?

Perhaps the real question here is this: What the heck is wrong with the Wall Street Journal? Today, they pick up Lomborg's arguments hook-line-and-sinker and offer an assemblage of greatest hits on not taking action. But yesterday was really hilarious.

They printed one op-ed -- in a series of daily, relentless lamenting about climate science -- laying out how climate skeptic bloggers (who almost all have no climatology or geology or any -ology background) have dismantled the idea that the actual measured data show an increase in GHG gases (the famous "hockey stick" chart) or any warming at all. Yet, in the same issue of the paper, the WSJ printed a truly helpful, excellent article looking at the main arguments/myths from the skeptics and comparing them to what the scientific community is really saying. The very first comparison is this one...

WHAT THE SKEPTICS SAY: The Earth isn't warming -- at least not to any extent that could actually be called a "crisis." And some data even suggest that the Earth is getting colder. The planet may have grown warmer over the course of the 20th century. But that warming stopped more than 10 years ago, and since 1998 the trend shows less warming or even cooling...

THE RESPONSE: It's true: By most measures, average temperatures this decade seem to have plateaued. But this isn't evidence of a cooling planet. Partly, it's a result of picking an exceptionally hot year -- 1998 -- as a starting point..the long-term trend since the mid-1970s shows warming per decade of about 0.18 degree Celsius (about 0.32 degree Fahrenheit)...The '00s still have been exceptionally warm: The 12 years from 1997 through 2008 were among the 15 warmest on record, and the decade itself was hotter than any previous 10-year period. While 2008 was the coolest year since 2000 -- a result of the cooling counterpart of El Niño -- it was still the 11th-warmest year on record. And 2009 is on track to be among the five warmest.

The Journal is as schizophrenic as the population I suppose, but the op-ed pages are totally out to lunch. We need good reporting now about what we know, and what we don't -- not ideological blustering. And we need to stop creating false tradeoffs between helping the poor and helping the planet, as if the poor -- and all of us -- don't live and breathe on that planet.

This first appeared on Huffington Post.

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November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy=Climate Change? Some big names are believing it.

[Note: With power out and limited connectivity, I've gotten behind on re-posting blogs that I've written elsewhere like HBR ...I'll put a few in a row up over the next few business days.]

This is just a quick blog to recognize that the devastation from Hurricane Sandy has had one important silver lining -- many mainstream voices, especially in the business community, seem to be waking up to the connection between extreme weather and climate change. (My take on this is on my Harvard Business Review Blog here, and I'll post it here next week.)


Two news items have given me real hope.

1) Businessweek blares on its cover, "It's Global Warming, Stupid"
After the required caveat that no single storm is "caused" by something as long-term as climate change, the business magazine declares, "Clarity, however, is not beyond reach" and explores how scientists are increasingly willing to draw the connection. Bravo Businessweek.

2) Mayor Bloomberg's titles his endorsement of President Obama, "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change."

In his own words, "The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast -- in lost lives, lost homes and lost business -- brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief...Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be -- given this week’s devastation -- should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

Bloomberg then cites Obama's work on fuel-efficiency and increased controls on mercury emissions which restricts coal burning...and highlights how Romney has reversed himself on climate change since his days as Governor.

This is clearly noteworthy that a well-respected moderate has made climate change the deciding factor in his vote for President, especially since the topic did not come up in the debates for the first time since 1984.

The media, the business world, politicians...all are waking up to the deep connections that today's events have to longer-term trends and the actions we all take. I have hope that we will mobilize fast enough now.

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November 8, 2012

The Fantasy of the "Sad Green Story"

(Note: This blog is co-authored with my colleague Jigar Shah, a partner at Inerjys and a board member of the Carbon War Room, where he served as its first CEO. Jigar also founded SunEdison, helping to create the multibillion-dollar solar services industry.)

To get back to some non-election topics...A couple weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed entitled "A Sad Green Story" about the (supposed) travails of the green movement over the last 10 years. The idea that the clean technology sector is failing, or that it's a bad investment, is common enough in the business world and pundit class. But it's patently false. So what is Brooks talking about and what's really true here?


Brooks focuses in part on whether Al Gore has made money on clean tech — a total distraction that has no bearing on the reality of climate change or the growth of clean tech. What's more important is Brooks' absurd logic that an entire sector of the economy is a "sad story" because some government-supported companies struggle, go under (Solyndra), or get acquired (battery maker A123). And how can Brooks tear down the government's involvement in promoting the deployment of American green innovation while providing no tangible idea of how he would do it better?

Most of us watching or working with the clean tech sector agree that government shouldn't try to pick winners (see Jigar's take on Solyndra's failure here), but we can propose a plausible model of how the government might play a more productive role. This ranges from providing a roadmap for remaking the multitrillion-dollar energy sector, to providing leadership by example (and scale) when purchasing new technologies.

For proof of how crazy all of this criticism of clean tech is, we need look no further than a recent Times-reported story on natural gas. Natural gas is a booming industry. But as the paper of record reports, it turns out that one key part of the natural gas value chain — that is the step of actually digging it up — is struggling financially. Small, scrappy entrepreneurs like Exxon Mobil are, according to its CEO, "losing our shirts today... Were making no money. It's all in the red."

This is exactly the same economic story that Andrew described a few weeks ago about the solar industry. The manufacturing end of the chain, experiencing a glut of supply, is losing money. But downstream users of the product, solar panels in one case or natural gas in the other, are doing very well. The financial struggle for some companies in both solar and natural gas is a sign of a boom, not a bust.

So we assume David Brooks and other green skeptics will soon write about the "sad brown tale" of the (also) highly subsidized industry of fossil fuels, which, since some people are losing money, must be shut down and mocked. We'll hold our breath.

Brooks' column is also filled with fantasies and misstatements that would be easy to correct with a simple Google search. As Andrew mentioned in his previous blog post, the percentage of our electricity coming from green energy has doubled in just four years — that doesn't seem like much of a sad story. Brooks also dismisses the idea of green jobs with no data to back up his position. Of course there are green jobs — there are 100,000 people working in solar in this country today. And, not for nothing, but the fastest growing green jobs markets are in politically red states. (We'll stop there and let climate blogger Joe Romm tear apart some of the more subtle Brooks fallacies.)

From a practical perspective, green technology is succeeding in part because we have oil prices that are stuck near $100/barrel, and water challenges that are creating deep competition between agriculture and oil and gas in places like Colorado. At some point Brooks and others will also have to acknowledge what the U.S. military, particularly the Navy, has already determined: future conflicts will arise over resources like oil and water; climate change is a security threat; and pursuing a renewable energy future is a safe, logical path.

In the end, fact-free attacks on all things green need to stop. Like in all industries, some paths are profitable and some are not. But we'll only find out what works if we invest in new growth sectors and not act like the sky is falling — or that there's some devious green investing cabal secretly making money — when some companies fail. Sad business stories become happy ones through persistence and overcoming failure. Not understanding that is Brooks' greatest fantasy.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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April 17, 2017

Pepsi, United, and the Speed of Corporate Shame

(The last few weeks have been eventful in the realm of public corporate debacles and foot-in-mouth disease. This article from last week got some good commentary on the HBR site, much of it about whether business schools are teaching people to be ethical and humane. In this piece I look at Pepsi and United, but to be clear, these situations are very different in intention and speed of response to a public problem. What connects them in my mind is primarily about the three themes in this article -- speed of transparency, expectations of customers and the world, and internal culture.)

United Airlines has leapt into a brand disaster of mythic proportions. In a scandal that’s still evolving quickly, the company’s employees had Chicago Department of Aviation officers forcefully remove a passenger — a paying customer sitting in his seat — from an overbooked flight. Around the world, people watched a video of the bloodied man being dragged down the aisle. The company’s stock lost hundreds of millions of market cap , but the damage to the brand (and future sales) may be far higher.

The incident, along with some other recent brand missteps, highlight some basic realities about the world companies operate in today. Three themes seem critical.


1. The speed of shame is as fast (and as ruthless) as the internet. When will companies realize that everyone now has a video camera on them, and that they can broadcast live on Facebook within minutes? People can now destroy brand trust at the speed of light, with consequences that are far-reaching. For example, in China, a critical growth market for the airlines, the disturbing passenger-shot video story has gone super-viral (likely in part because the passenger manhandled by United was Asian). It was the number one topic on Weibo , China’s version of Twitter, with 100 million views. And while it’s way too early to predict the financial damage in that country or more broadly, the brand will likely keep taking hits for a while — other stories about being mistreated by United are getting airtime and countless people are pledging to stop flying United.

Yet United is far from the only company to experience instantaneous negative reactions recently. Last week, PepsiCo ran — and then quickly pulled — an advertisement showing the model Kendall Jenner breaking through a line of protesters (who looked more like they were at a dance party) to hand a Pepsi to a police officer. Jenner’s offering of 12-ounces of peace and love seemingly solves all of society’s tensions. The backlash, especially from those who saw a jarringly off-note take on Black Lives Matter protests, was justified — and unbelievably fast. Has there ever been a major ad that debuted and was pulled in less than 24 hours?

In both cases, word spread partly though dark humor, which raced around Twitter, Facebook, and newscasts, including a map of a United plane with a section labeled “Fight Club.” And Saturday Night Live’s brilliant take on Pepsi captured the essence of what was likely a well-intentioned effort. SNL gave us an imagined conversation between the ad’s creator and his family (unseen on the other end of a phone call, like an old-school Bob Newhart routine). His dawning realization that he’s made a big mistake is comedy gold. Humor plays a big role in stories going viral and, in cases like these, it may help people cope with upsetting images. But it doesn’t do the brands any favors.

2. Everyone expects an apology — and a real one. Pepsi got this right. The company acted quickly and owned the error . As a spokesperson said, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize.”

United, on the other hand, has had a rough couple of days. The first statement from Oscar Munoz, the United CEO, was just bizarre, focusing on his employees while also using an awful euphemism for violently pulling someone off a plane: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

What’s different today is that everyone can feel personally engaged in what your company does to anyone. In Munoz’ first statement, he went on to say, “we are reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and resolve this situation.” That’s fine, but CEOs today need to “reach out” to the public, too. At the very least every passenger on that plane deserves some direct contact, but now millions of others want an explanation as well. In our social media dominated world, everybody has an opinion and feels like they’re owed something.

Munoz tried to make up for his first statement with numerous public apologies since — and they’re much better – but the reality is that the first one sticks and is a very public window into your company’s priorities and soul.

3. Employees must feel safe and empowered to speak up. The biggest question I (and many others) have about these recent brand disasters is this: Why didn’t anyone in these companies say something before things got out of hand? At Pepsi, there must have been employees – in the marketing meetings, on the set, or even in the ad agency – who felt like the unseen family members in the SNL skit. Many knew the ad was tone-deaf. If they believed they were expected to go beyond following rules and maximizing performance, United employees would have stepped in to de-escalate the situation once they realized something was going horribly wrong on that flight.

Of course, intentions do matter. In Pepsi’s case, the ad was likely well-meaning, so chastised execs and the brand will probably recover. United is in a radically different situation. As with the Wells Fargo and VW scandals before it, the problem here is a systematic set of expectations and rules, set from the top, that lead to very bad (and now public) behavior.

Companies need to think carefully about their policies and their crisis communications, so they can quickly move from a defensive crouch to honest, heart-felt apologies — and to real changes in how they operate. But most importantly, they need to assess whether their cultures allow their own employees the power and safety to stand in front of the train of fast-moving stupidity and say, “You shall not pass!” And they need to have executives who will listen to them.

The big takeaway here is that expectations about how companies operate — and their very role in society — are rising fast. Pepsi clearly had some inkling of this; just think about why the company wanted to say something about justice and understanding, even if it did it poorly. United (and its airline peers) had better wake up fast to this new reality as well.

All companies now operate in a world that’s closely watching their policies, actions, and how they handle themselves when things go wrong. When literally anyone can simultaneously act as a customer, a protester, a critic, and a muckraking reporter with a video camera, executives have zero room for error.

(This post first appeared in Harvard Business Review.

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Andrew's book, The Big Pivot, was named a Best Business Book of the Year by Strategy+Business Magazine! Get your copy here. See also Andrew's TED talk on The Big Pivot.

May 26, 2017

In the Fox Bubble, Body-Slamming a Journalist is Awesome.

I write mainly about corporate sustainability, climate change, and the like. But times have changed. My earlier career was in the media business where I worked at TIME Magazine and MTV, so I care deeply about the news media and how it's evolved. The challenges of false equivalence and the deep divides in the country are played out in our news.

I also see a connection to all the sustainability work I do. The information bubble that many live in is an enormous hurdle standing in the way of building a sustainable and thriving world -- if, for example, people keep hearing that climate change is not a problem, or even a hoax, they won't be on board for the changes that are coming and needed. My next blog will be cover some of the connection between our current political situation and sustainability.

Anyway, I won't reprint my latest blog in full here, but it's about what happened this week in Montana, and the vast difference in how media outlets covered it.

Please head over to Medium to check it out...


April 24, 2019

The Huge Flaw in the Impeachment Debate

I generally re-post everything I write or link to it elsewhere. While I mostly write about sustainability and climate, over the last couple of years I've ventured into politics more (especially since we can't solve the biggest sustainability issues like climate change and inequality unless we have a functioning democracy).

I wrote a short piece yesterday about impeachment. In short, I believe the dialog in the media is skewed; it assumes that just one political party should hold the executive branch accountable for possible illegality and corruption. That's not what the Constitution says. It's the Congress, not "the Democrats", that hold that vital responsibility.

If you're interested in my short take on it, I've posted it on Medium. It's behind a small paywall, but here's the "friend link" that should allow anyone to see it.