Mega-Issues Archives

December 22, 2011

Top 10 Green Business Stories of 2011

Yes, it's December again somehow: time to look back on what we've learned and oversimplify into a handy list. Here's my take on the 10 big stories in sustainability and green business this year:

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1. The usual sustainability drivers got stronger
Ok, this one is cheating a bit, but on a fundamental level, the top themes in green business haven't actually changed too much (see the 2010 list). So, rather than take up valuable list real estate with these perennial favorites and big-picture drivers, I'll quickly list them in one big bucket of mega-trends:

  • The rise of the consumer around the world, related to...
  • China, China, and China. From relentless demand for resources to bamboo-like 9% growth to vicious competition for the technologies and industries of the future, China will be the big story for a long time.
  • The greening of the supply chain. Big organizations keep asking more of their suppliers.
  • Increased demand for transparency and its close partners, (a) the quest to define and develop useful sustainability metrics and (b) the growing sustainability data explosion.
  • The military continues to lead the way on energy and climate.
  • The ongoing failure of policy at a global level (with the important exceptions of some successes/workarounds such as new mileage targets for cars and trucks and a carbon tax in Australia).

These drivers underpin a number of stories from 2011, but a few new themes came out as well. Here's the rest of my top 10 stories, with callouts for companies and examples that typify the trend.

2. Malthus strikes back: Coca-Cola takes an $800 million hit on commodity costs
Coca-Cola was not alone in facing increasing costs in 2011; one of my clients, Kimberly-Clark, took an earnings hit from record pulp prices. These companies are notable victims of a new reality: resources are constrained and input prices are fundamentally rising.

For over 200 years, from Thomas Malthus to the Limits to Growth gang, many people have made the case that it won't be long before we'll run out of food, energy, materials, and on and on. It's an idea that has enthralled many, but has seemed to be wrong. But this year, something felt different as we hit 7 billion hungry, striving humans on the planet. While "running out" isn't really the right phrase, it's clear that delivering many commodities to market is getting harder and more expensive (we don't dig for oil a mile under the ocean for the heck of it). And the dangerous mix of supply crunch and rising demand is only increasing, across nearly all commodities.

In January, China "seized" its rare earth metals (meaning it wouldn't export them anymore). In June, the New York Times declared a warming world hostile to food production. The best analysis of the resource scarcity mega-trend came from asset manager Jeremy Grantham. His analysis of commodity availability on a finite planet is compelling, thorough, and absolutely fascinating. Here's the gist: after 100+ years of fundamentally declining resource prices, the data show a rising trend for nearly every input into our society. Business as usual is no more.

3. Climate Change Arrives: Texas weather triumphs over (some) ignorance
Climate change is here. The list of "once-in-a-century" storms, floods, and droughts this year is too long to list. I know, I know — no single storm or season "proves" climate change. Was a year like 2011 possible in a world without climate change? Of course. But please. Was a year like 2011 likely? Not at all. In the words of climate scientist Jim Hansen, we've loaded the dice in favor of extreme weather events.

From Thailand to Pakistan to Texas, some areas are deluged with water, while others have absolutely none. Please look at the numbers for how dry and hot Texas was this summer (I'll wait). The data speaks for itself: Texas' heat was literally off the charts this year. What was once temporary drought is looking more like permanent change. For another angle on a changing "normal," read Jeff Goodell's piece in Rolling Stone on "Climate Change and the End of Australia." Finally, if the immediacy of the "look out the window" method of gauging climate change didn't work for some, at least one major climate skeptic changed his tune based on longer-term data. Richard Muller ran the models himself and discovered that, surprise, the thousands of scientists before him had gotten it right. It's probably wishful thinking, but I believe the climate debate is actually over (and a solid majority of Americans agree).

4. High-profile "failures" shake up clean tech: Solyndra has its day in the, um, sun
What can one say about the failure of solar company Solyndra? It certainly has become a media darling for clean tech skeptics. Soon after this quasi-fiasco, a few other stories seemed to indicate that corporate America was backing off of green tech. Google stopped its high-profile pursuit of cheaper-than-fossil-fuel renewables, and California utility PG&E quietly pulled the plug on its carbon offset program. In my view, none of this is all that distressing. So one technology and company failed miserably (and perhaps the government made a bad investment choice). And some initiatives didn't work out as planned. So what. Whether it's government money, venture capital, or corporate initiatives, you gotta place lots of bets to get some winners. These were all experiments, and you always learn from what doesn't work. But the real reason I'm not too worried is that...

5. ...clean tech is rising fast: Renewable investment tops fossil fuels for first time
Markets have a remarkable way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. While the overall carbon emissions news is not good, the renewable energy market is growing very fast. The sector is larger than most people realize, with clean tech investment hovering around $200 billion globally. Total investment in new power generation is a good indication of where we're headed, and for the first time renewables beat fossil fuels globally. Right now, the U.S. and China are entering a trade battle over solar subsidies, which tells me it's a real market now. They wouldn't be arguing if the prize were not very large.

5b. Nuclear on the outs

Following the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, the once-resurgent nuclear industry is flatlining: generation actually fell globally in 2011, with Germany alone shutting down 8 gigawatts' worth. In September, Siemens, one of the world's largest nuclear power plant suppliers, exited the business. CEO Peter Loscher declared Germany's plans to move aggressively toward renewables "the project of the century."

6. Water rising — both literally and as a serious issue for business: Honda's supply chain gets slammed, Levi's gets creative
A list of floods that devastated lives, homes, and countries this year would be tragically long. So it's no wonder that business started to wake up to the serious danger that storms and shortages present to their operations, both from direct damage to property and from massive production interruptions (i.e., "business continuity"). Think back to the January floods in Australia which covered an area larger than France and Germany combined. The extreme weather seriously disrupted coal production, one of the most important economic engines in the country. At the microeconomic level, consider what Thailand's floods have done to the market for disk drives, or to supply chains for Honda and Toyota (which are dealing with a double flood hit from the tsunami as well).

On the use side of the water issue, companies with products that depend on water in production (beverages) or in use (shampoo, apparel) are also seeing the writing on the wall and getting creative. Levi's announced a low-water jeans production method, Unilever started asking customers to shorten showers, and beverage companies are working with farmers and NGOs to drive water use down throughout the value chain (see my last blog, co-written with Andy Wales from SABMiller). In 2011, the phrase "water footprint" became a lot more common.

7. Value chain and transparency partnerships growing: The apparel industry bands together
One of my favorite new partnerships is the new Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an impressive mix of powerful retailers, apparel manufacturers, and NGOs. The group is leveraging extensive data from Nike and the Outdoor Industry Association on supplier sustainability performance (energy, water, toxicity, etc.) for "every manufacturer, component, and process in apparel production." The goal: to reduce negative environmental and social impacts of the $1.4 trillion market for clothes and shoes.

The larger trend here is the continued growth of "open" — open data and open innovation, including new value-chain business partnerships and cattle-call contests inviting in any and all ideas. The movement has been building for years, from P&G opening up its product development pipeline early in the 2000s to the launch of the GreenXchange for sharing green patents early in 2010. But the trend accelerated this year, with GE's expanded Ecomagination Challenge and other coalitions and open competitions.

8. Valuing and internalizing the externalities: Puma Calculates its Environmental P&L
A few very cutting edge companies are starting to ask some deeper questions about the value they create and destroy in the world. Puma, in a surprise leap to the front of the sustainability leadership pack, commissioned TruCost and PwC (full disclosure: I have a partnership with PwC) to assess the value of its total environmental impacts from operations and supply chain, including carbon pollution, water use, land use, and waste generated. The total: 145 million euros. In a similar vein, Dow Chemical launched a 5-year, $10 million partnership with The Nature Conservancy to "value nature" (so called "ecosystem services") as an input into their businesses. It's unclear what companies can do with these numbers since externalities are by their nature, well, external to the regular P&L. But it's the beginning of something very important — companies are starting to understand the real value and costs of their businesses, to themselves and to society. Watch this space.

9. The people speak: Keystone and OWS
Speaking of getting companies and governments to think longer term about value and costs to society: against all odds and expectation, the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada — led most prominently by uber-environmentalist Bill McKibben — were successful (for now). And what can one say about Occupy Wall Street? The movement is, in part, about this larger question of value and values. Do we value the right things (equity, fairness, justice) or just promote growth and profit above all? Currently, our businesses are driven entirely by quarterly profits. Pursuing the short-term payback can cause a firm to deviate wildly from actual, long-term, sustainable profitability. This disconnect was bound to stir some passions eventually. Whatever your politics, ignoring or dismissing this movement is a big mistake. The concerns underpinning the anger out there stem from concern about what's good for the long-term, and what's truly sustainable. None of these questions are going away.

10. A path to sustainable consumption begins to emerge: Patagonia asks us to buy only what we need
Perhaps the most heartening business story of the year came from perennial thought (and action) leader, Patagonia. Its Common Threads campaign/business model questions consumption at its core. The company announced that it would take back its clothing and refurbish, resell, reuse, re-whatever. The website proposes a grand bargain - we make clothes that last, and you don't buy what you don't need. A holiday ad got more specific and demanded we "Don't buy this jacket." Patagonia is testing new ground and it's not a gimmick — it's a sign of the future.

Looking Forward to 2012 and beyond: New business models coming
Patagonia has always been at the leading edge; it was one of first companies to buy organic cotton or to turn recycled plastic into fleece. Now it's showing the way to new business models. I've written about this kind of heresy before, but the few examples out there are generally B-to-B (Waste Management, Xerox). Patagonia's move is a warning shot over the bow that the consumer-facing consumption question is coming. The near future will hold more questions about how businesses can and should operate in a resource-constrained, hotter, drier (or wetter) world. And companies will increasingly question the wisdom of focusing on quarterly profits. It won't all come to fruition in 2012, but it's on its way.

As usual, I'm sure I'm missing many great stories in my list. I look forward to your suggestions. Happy holidays and Happy New Year!

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter @GreenAdvantage)

September 9, 2012

Politicians Who Deny Climate Change Cannot Be "Pro-Business"

It finally seems to be dawning on many Americans that there's something to this climate change thing. The historic drought has been hard to ignore. While belief in a long-term trend because it's hot out right now is a bit ridiculous, it's a start.

You can see a shift in how the media covers weather. The statement "because of climate change..." is often stated clearly without caveats such as, "what some scientists think may be a warming planet." You see it in the UN calling for action to help the hungry cope with rising food prices "in an age of increasing population, demand and climate change."

And you see it in the growing number of mega-corporations — including America's Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Cisco, HP, J&J, Nike, and P&G — signing on to the "2 Degree Challenge Communiqué," a call for the world's governments to take strong action to slow greenhouse gas emissions.

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Climate change is basically accepted as fact the world over. But you wouldn't know it watching our political conventions (or at least one of them). So while the world seems to be waking up to a fundamental, existential threat to our species (and not to "the planet," which will be fine with or without us), the US policy debate remains mostly deaf, dumb, and blind.

Climate change has become a political "third rail," harder to talk about than changing Social Security or Medicare. We didn't hear any mention of it at the GOP convention, except as a punchline, and we didn't hear much at the DNC convention...except for one quick, but important, remark from President Obama. Former President Clinton mentioned energy efficiency and Vice President Biden said the words "clean energy" once. But then President Obama, after duly noting the chance to create more natural gas jobs, spoke about building wind turbines and reducing dependence on foreign oil. Finally, he stepped firmly on the third rail: "Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke; they are a threat to our children's future."

This is great, but let's not get too excited. One line does not a policy make.

Still, Obama's admission that climate change is real (a low bar for showing leadership these days) is light years from Governor Romney's dismissive attitude. His convention speech mocked President Obama for his earlier promise to "begin to slow the rise of the oceans." Romney offered instead to "help you and your family" — as if the health and state of our entire planet has nothing to do with the health of our families.

Here's what makes the general silence on climate and the mocking from the self-identified pro-business party so absurd: tackling climate change is the smartest thing we can do for both our public health and our private sector. Reducing carbon emissions from our power plants, cars, and factories cleans the air and saves a lot of money. At the macro level, the burning of coal alone costs the U.S. about $350 billion per year in health (asthma, heart attacks, and so on) and pollution costs. At the micro level, from companies down to households, the opportunities to get lean and save money are vast.

But more strategically, tackling carbon is an immense economic opportunity. Here's billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson on the upside potential:

"I've described increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as one of the greatest threats to the ongoing prosperity and sustainability of life on the planet. The good news is that creating businesses that will power our growth, and reduce our carbon output while protecting resources, is also the greatest wealth-generating opportunity of our generation. [There is no] choice between growth and reducing our carbon output."

This quest will drive innovation and create millions of jobs for some lucky companies and countries. Is this multi-trillion-dollar opportunity something we really want to miss out on? The other major economies are not sitting this one out. Germany is quickly moving its electric grid to renewables. China is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to energy efficiency and much more to the clean economy in general.

But let's say you don't buy the argument that fighting climate change keeps us competitive globally, saves trillions of dollars, and generates new wealth. Then how about the overwhelming national security rationale? Using less oil, for example, reduces funding to petro-dictators around the world. The former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, puts is very bluntly: "Your gas money funds terrorism."

On this score the difference between the parties is stark. The DNC's platform includes the words "climate change" at least 18 times and lists it as an "Emerging Threat" along with cybersecurity, biological weapons, and transnational crime. While "emerging" may not be the word I'd choose, it's leaps and bounds beyond the GOP' s party platform, which mentions climate change just once...and again, only to mock it. Their platform complains that the Obama administration has elevated "climate change" (with the sarcastic quotation marks) to the level of a severe threat to our security.

But let's be clear: it's not the Democrats or even President Obama specifically that declared climate change a national security threat. That would be the Pentagon in its Quadrennial Defense Reviewtwo years ago.

A strong plan to tackle climate change through government policy, business innovation, and citizen action is not just something that's not optional; it's preferable. Moving away from carbon to a cleaner economy makes us healthier, more profitable, and more secure.

My work is not political — I try to help companies create business value from sustainability and green thinking, so I normally avoid these kinds of discussions. But the discrepancy in party positions on this most critical issue has become too extreme to ignore.

There's blame on both sides, but let's not pretend the two parties neglect climate change equally. Yes, it's a shame that most Democrats will not stand up and proudly stand behind many of the positions in their own platform. But the GOP's denial of climate science, and all the risks and opportunities it presents, is surreal.

Their views and policies on climate won't help our businesses deal with, and profit from, the largest market shift we've ever seen. And they won't help prepare our country for the hard realities of life in the 21st century.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online and on Bloomberg - see the active commentary on either.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter@GreenAdvantage)

November 5, 2012

Should Companies Care If Hurricane Sandy Was "Caused" By Climate Change?

(Catching up on re-posting pre-storm and storm week posts...happy voting day)

Hurricane Sandy has killed more than 100 people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, and caused billions of dollars in damage. The scene around my Connecticut home is not pretty, with downed trees and power lines everywhere. It's a serious time, and a time for some serious questions. Why did this happen? And from a business (or any) perspective, does it matter whether this megastorm was caused by climate change? I'd say no... and yes.

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First, the "no" part...

Regardless of the cause, the cost to society of extreme weather has been rising for decades. The insurance giant Munich Re recently released a new report on the rapid increase in weather-related losses. In North America, the number of severe events has quintupled over the last 30 years. And while the report does indeed make the climate change connection directly, on some level it doesn't really matter for business. The problems and costs of extreme weather are the same either way.

Take the example of one of my clients, a Fortune 200 consumer products company. As the VP of global risk management told me, the most expensive events in company history in every weather category (flood, earthquake, hail, wind, etc.) occurred in the last few years. After making $50 million in insurance claims in 2011 alone, the company's insurance rates will certainly rise. But that's a side issue; the real problem is the constant threat to business continuity. At one of its large manufacturing plants in Asia, a drought stopped production for 3 weeks.

This kind of disruption is only going to grow. In the Thailand floods of November 2011, both the hard-drive industry and the automotive sector experienced serious supply chain problems. As Edmunds reported, car production dropped by 600,000 units and, in particular, "only a few critical Thai-built parts laid Honda low."

In a deeply unpredictable world, the challenge for multinational businesses is how to build resilient, flexible enterprises that rely on natural resources a great deal less than today (meaning fewer fossil fuels, less water, reduced waste, closed loops on key resources, and so on).

Smart companies will be examining supply chains and operations very closely for risks associated with water shortages, floods, storms, and resource constraints. Risk assessment is going to get much sexier and much more important to global organizations. Their leaders will also seize the opportunity to offer products and services that help other companies and society deal with a world of weird weather. Think drought-resistant crops, new insurance products, distributed energy systems (so homeowners won't care if the power goes out), and perhaps boats for getting around Wall Street.

OK, now on to the "yes" part of the discussion.

First, the necessary disclaimer: Scientists say that no single storm can be tied to something as large-scale and long-term as climate change (see the active debate going on here). But in the words of NASA scientist James Hansen, we're "loading the dice" and increasing the odds of extreme events by heating the oceans and putting more moisture into the atmosphere. The devastation around New York City is exactly what was predicted to happen more frequently.

But let's get real about business impacts. If you're going to really assess risk to your operations now and in the future, you have to understand how climate change will increase the likelihood of severe events and what it will mean for your value chain. Not doing so would be costly, stupid, and irresponsible to your shareholders.

Companies are waking up to the immediate impacts. The most recent report from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), compiled with the help of PwC (full disclosure: my consulting firm has a partnership with the U.S. arm of PwC), shows that most global companies acknolwedge climate-driven risks. Fully 37% of those reporting to the CDP — most of the world's largest companies — say that climate change is already creating business risk (up from 10% in just two years). Another 43% see risk to the business within the next 10 years.

So as companies wake up to this challenge, they are starting to talk about adaptation and the expense of getting ready for a hotter, dryer or wetter (depending on the location), more resource-constrained world. But adapting is just not good enough.

We really have to stop kidding ourselves that we can ride this out. We have to adapt, of course, but we also need to get going on a low-carbon agenda very quickly to mitigate the risk as much as possible. If you really listen to the scientists, the "business as usual" emissions path were facing over the coming decades could seriously destabilize the planet, which, I hate to state the obvious, supports our economy and way of life. The normal curve of expected possible outcomes is starting to include real risk to our species.

If you bring this level of threat down to the industry or company level, it causes you to rethink your business. As one tech executive said to me recently, "nobody's really going to care what operating system they have if they don't have food." Meaning, we better reduce the odds of disaster or our businesses won't matter much.

To those of you who fear that the cost of going low carbon will be too high, I have to ask: how expensive are storms like Sandy to business and society? In reality, tackling climate change is not an expense, but a very smart investment. It's a multitrillion-dollar business opportunity, or what Richard Branson calls "the greatest wealth-generating opportunity of our generation."

In short, this debate is about direction and speed. In terms of what direction your company should head to prepare for a riskier future of extreme weather, it doesn't really matter whether Sandy was caused by climate change or not. But how do we determine how fast we need to move in that direction? To answer that question, climate change does truly matter. It matters a lot.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewWinston)