Water Archives

January 6, 2011

Is Water the Next Carbon?

Note: This post is co-authored by Will Sarni (see bio below)

We all take water for granted. Even though water is critical for human life, ecosystems and as a major process or product input for industry, it's a resource that very few of us think actively about managing. And of all environmental issues, it's the least debatable; when there's no more water in a region, you don't need scientists to tell you.

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Companies need to develop strategies for managing this important resource as water stress becomes the norm in many regions of the world. As a starting point, some organizations are now conducting "water footprints" to figure out where in the value chain their businesses are vulnerable.

Doesn't this sound familiar? Haven't we been down this road before with energy and carbon emissions? It's very easy to describe water as 'the next carbon', and many have, but it's not really the same. Before we lay out some reasons why, let's look at a few recently released reports that highlight how businesses are beginning to approach this challenge.

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has been extremely successful in compelling companies to assess their carbon footprint, develop carbon strategies, set reduction targets, and reduce their emissions. Now the CDP has turned its attention to water as well and recently released the results of its first Water Disclosure (WD) questionnaire (pdf).

Here are a few highlights from the 2010 CDP WD report, which went out to 302 of the world's largest companies. Of the respondents (and 25 unsolicited submissions)...

  • 50 percent of the companies foresee near-term risks (1 to 5 years), with 39 percent currently experiencing impacts such as disruption to operations from drought or flooding, declining water quality, and increases in water prices.
  • 67 percent already report on water related issues to the board or executive committee level.
  • 89 percent have developed specific water policies, strategies and plans
  • 60 percent have set water-related performance targets.


And the CDP WD is not alone — several key reports on water risk and opportunity have recently been released.


The bottom-line conclusions from all of these reports are in general these:

  1. Water demand is increasing
  2. Climate change will impact water availability
  3. Water quality is decreasing
  4. Price does not reflect the real value of water (which causes massive underinvestment in infrastructure, which we'll show in the next post)
  5. The public and private sectors need to collectively develop new ways to manage water.

Ok, so back to water and carbon. In the sense that businesses need to consider the risks and opportunities inherent in managing natural resource pressures, they represent similar challenges. But we see a few additional, fundamental differences between the two:

  • Carbon is fungible but water is not. The environmental issues stemming from emitting of a ton of carbon are fundamentally the same everywhere on the planet.
  • In contrast, geography and time are critical aspects of water availability and management. All water issues are local — any global water strategy is actually implemented within each and every watershed.
  • Water has a strong social and cultural dimension. Many people believe in a "human right to water" which makes pricing this resource even harder than putting a price on carbon.
  • Water is the ultimate renewable resource — we just need to price water according to value and ensure we do not continue to manage it as a throw away commodity.
  • Finally, to be overly obvious, water is desired, beneficial, necessary.


Given these significant differences, it would be tempting to say that companies need to develop a stand-alone strategy for water. But instead we recommend integrating water strategy into energy, carbon, and other resource strategies, all while navigating the differences between them.

The investors behind CDP understand the business imperative to managing water well, as do some of the companies with the most to gain in solving the problem. (Note: In part 2 of this post next week, we'll look at some companies both reducing water risk and also generating new business opportunities by helping others manage this precious resource.)

How aware is your organization of its own risks and opportunities? Now is the perfect time to answer this question. It's not too late.

Guest co-blogger Will Sarni is a director with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leads Enterprise Water Strategy for Deloitte's Sustainability Services. He is an internationally recognized thought leader on sustainability and is the author of the upcoming book, Corporate Water Strategies (Earthscan).

(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)

January 17, 2011

Innovation in Managing Water

Note: This post is co-authored by Will Sarni (see bio below)

Last week we asked, "Is Water the Next Carbon?". Although our short answer was "no," we believe that managing water will become a critical business skill for the 21st century. Need drives innovation, so this week we want to highlight some of what is happening in the new markets in water.

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First, even large companies are carving out new niches to help businesses and communities manage water scarcity.

For example, GE's investment in water technologies is well known, and its leadership stems from its ecomagination portfolio of products. GE not only recognizes the critical role technology plays in addressing water scarcity, it also understands the challenging interconnection between energy and water: increasingly, the world will be needing low-energy water treatment technologies.

Another major industrial company moving to address water risk is ITT, the world's largest supplier of pumps and systems to transport, treat, and control fluids. ITT has a stake in seeing cities and companies invest in water management, but the company is discovering a relatively low level of awareness of the need.

ITT conducted a survey titled "The Value of Water" highlighting both how much water we waste and exploring the critical gap between the current price and the real value of water. We spoke with Colin Sabol, a Vice President at ITT, about the survey and ITT's goals.

In the US, ITT tells us, about 650 water mains break each day at a cost of $2.6 billion per year. Our crumbling infrastructure on the whole loses 1.7 trillion gallons of water per year, equal to the water use of 68 million homes. On the positive side, approximately 95 percent of individual consumers said water was the most important service they received in their home. And consumers said they'd pay more for improved water infrastructure.

The business community was another story, however. Three-quarters of corporate respondents told ITT that they take clean water for granted. As Sabol says simply, "The infrastructure is literally out of sight, underground." That's why ITT has a big challenge in conveying to its customers the importance of investing in its services. But if this shift in thinking happens, the business opportunities are likely to be vast.

Secondly, it is often innovators who must lead customers down new paths, showing them new ways of managing a resource and saving money that they didn't know were possible. So in addition to large multinationals such as GE and ITT, there are a number of startups in the process of bringing new technologies to the water industry. Several of these innovators participated in recent competitions such as the annual ImagineH2O and the CleanTech Open. Both of these groups may play a crucial role in creating an ecosystem for water innovation.

This year's ImagineH20 finalists illustrate the diversity and imagination of the entrepreneurs paying attention to the opportunities in the water industry (here is a sample of these innovators — you'll see a couple themes, including capturing wasted energy in the water system).

  • Agua Via developed a nanotech membrane that enables desalination at a 66 percent energy reduction and 50 percent cost reduction, providing energy efficient purification and wastewater remediation.
  • BlackGold Biofuels recovers energy from wastewater streams, creating lucrative renewable energy assets from pollution liabilities.
  • FogBusters treats petroleum, biofuel and food processing wastewater "better, faster, cheaper, cleaner and greener" while capturing the FOG (fat, oil and grease) to make into biodiesel.
  • NLine Energy, Inc. converts wasted energy found in water transmission and distribution systems into renewable energy.
  • Puralytics, winner of this year's CleanTech Open, uses photochemical processes work to break down or remove contaminants from water.
  • Water Resources Management Co. helps water utilities realize the full benefits of their investments in advanced meter reading, system control and asset management.

To get a sense of what companies are doing about water, check out these and other ImagineH2O finalists as well as the work of ITT and GE — they all highlight the exciting business opportunities and challenges in the water industry. It's a space worth watching as these challenges are expected to become more pressing in the coming years.

Guest co-blogger Will Sarni is a director with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leads Enterprise Water Strategy for Deloitte's Sustainability Services. He is an internationally recognized thought leader on sustainability and is the author of the upcoming book Corporate Water Strategies (Earthscan).

(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)

November 28, 2011

Water's Economics as Muddy as Ever

(Note: This blog is co-authored with Andy Wales, Global Head of Sustainable Development for SABMiller plc, one of the world's largest brewers)

It's hard to put into words how dry and hot Texas was this past summer. "Off the charts" is both figuratively and literally accurate: the data for the last 100 years shows a tight regression of temperature and water availability in Texas...except for the 2011 drought, which is far off the line (three degrees hotter with an inch less rainfall than any previous year).

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The economic cost of the drought has been incredible; Texas lost $5.2 billion in agricultural production alone. With agriculture making up 9 percent of the state's economy, and water shortages already threatening growth in the state's energy industry, it's not a reach to suggest that the future of the Texas economy will be tied closely to water availability. And it's not a short-term problem, either. As Columbia University's Richard Seager told the New York Times this summer, "You can't really call it a drought because that implies a temporary change...You don't say, 'The Sahara is in drought.' It's a desert. If the models are right, then the Southwest will face a permanent drying out."

The trend is clear globally as well. Due to rising population, coupled with increasing demands by the agriculture and energy industries (often referred to as the water-food-energy nexus), global demand for clean water will outstrip supply by an average of 40 percent by 2030. While this reality poses grave risks to thousands of communities, it is also the driver of a daunting, and often confusing, economic dilemma which businesses must prepare for. It's time for companies operating in the many dry regions around the world to equip themselves with the tools and mindset they need to navigate this new normal.

While access to water has been recognized as a basic human right, it is also increasingly clear to see that it is a commodity — a resource in high demand that should be valued according to its supply.

But for such a transparent substance, water's economics are anything but clear. Water is one of the world's most glaring commercial anomalies, with a price reflecting nothing more than the costs to extract and distribute it. The value is exempt from the ebb and flow of the market. Even as demand vastly outpaces supply, the market price is as static as a boulder in stream.

With such imprecision in the marketplace, companies must take it upon themselves to identify long term risks, quantifying the true value of water in order to steer clear of long-term hazards. Much of the leading work in understanding water risk has come from Coca-Cola. The beverage giant is now working with the World Resources Institute's Aqueduct Initiative and sharing its extensive global database of previously proprietary data on water availability and risk. By identifying these risks, Coca-Cola is providing a strategic resource for broader communities facing water shortages.

Many companies are now calculating their "water footprint," which adds up the water they use throughout the value chain. The first corporate water footprint was jointly published by SABMiller and WWF in 2009, and since then Coca-Cola, Nestle, and UPM-Kymmene, and others have published footprints for key product lines. However, while the problem affects people globally, water is inherently local, so a global corporate footprint is only so useful. What the calculation does do, however, is help companies highlight those specific, local dangers where a low water supply could disrupt both business operations and the surrounding community.

But managing the risk, and preparing for the 40 percent global supply gap, will require a tough balance of local and large-scale, collective action in cities and watersheds around the world. Andy Wales' company, SABMiller, recently invited businesses, NGOs and other organizations to join a global water initiative, the Water Futures Partnership, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the German development agency (GIZ). This article is part of an ongoing invitation to companies and NGOs worldwide to join the partnership.

From SABMiller's experience — and the work of others across many business sectors — we have learned that once a company understands water's real economic value, both innovation and efficiency weave their way into long term water plans. MillerCoors, for example, has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to help farmers develop a tool to save potentially more than 400,000 gallons of water in every crop rotation - a saving of nearly 20 percent. This kind of deep supply chain work fits the model of "shared value" creation that strategy guru Michael Porter laid out in HBR earlier this year.

While some voices in Texas have called for more action from the government, the real opportunity for leadership will be in the private sector. The leading water-aware companies may be better attuned to slowly emerging water disasters and best equipped to help reduce the gap between supply and demand. They will avoid business disruptions and build more resilient enterprises. They will also, by recognizing the true value of water, help protect everyone's access to clean water.

(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)

Related Posts (with Will Sarni)
Is Water the Next Carbon?
Innovation in Managing Water

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)

December 22, 2012

Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2012

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It's time once again to try and summarize the last 12 months in a handy list. But before I dive in, some quick thoughts.

It was an odd year for green business, and it began with some mixed signals about how far companies were coming on sustainability. A GreenBiz report indicated that progress had slowed or even regressed, but MIT and BCG also declared that sustainability had reached a "tipping point" with more companies putting sustainability "on the management agenda."

In reality, both views were right. Corporate sustainability lost some of its sexiness from previous years, as it grew more entrenched in day-to-day business. Some parts of the agenda — eco-efficiency and resource conservation for example — are widely accepted now, and it's rare to find a big-company CEO who doesn't have sustainability on his or her radar.

The mega forces driving sustainability deep into business — such as climate change, resource constraints, and transparency — are getting stronger. We may not be keeping pace with these pressures, but leading companies continue to evolve more sustainable strategies and tactics. Let's look at some top macro- and company-level stories.

Macro Trends

1. Historic drought and Hurricane Sandy sweep away (some) climate denial
For many people this year, climate change moved from theoretical to painfully real. Mega weather took many lives and cost over $120 billion in the U.S. alone ($50 billion for the drought, $71 billion for Sandy). After Sandy raged across the eastern coast, Businessweek blared on its cover "It's Global Warming, Stupid." New York Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican, endorsed President Obama in the election, titling his open letter, "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change."

As bad as Sandy was, the relentless drought across the middle of the country may prove more convincing in the long run. Corn yields per acre fell 19%, food prices rose, and water disappeared —the Mississippi River may soon struggle to support commerce. Individual companies are feeling the bite: analysts at Morningstar estimate that input costs at Tyson Foods will rise by $700 million — more than its 2012 net income.

Over one-third of the world's largest companies surveyed by the Carbon Disclosure Project arealready seeing the impacts of climate change on their business. So with life-and-death consequences and vast costs, we must have moved quickly to tackle climate change, right? Sort of...

The year ended with the failure, yet again, of the international community to come to some agreement on climate change. But country-level and regional policy moved forward: Australia passed a carbon tax, South Korea approved carbon trading, and California just began its own trading experiment.

Many countries also committed serious funds to build a clean economy: Saudi Arabia pledged $109 billion for solar, Japan declared that a $628 billion green energy industry would be central to its 2020 strategy, and China targeted $372 billion to cut energy use and pollution.

In the U.S., a backdoor approach to climate policy took over. The Obama administration issued new standards to double the fuel economy of cars and trucks, and the National Resources Defense Council (an NGO) proposed using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from power plants by 25%.

2. The math and physics of a planetary constraints get clearer
Arithmetic had a big year: Nate Silver's nearly perfect predictions of the election gave him the oxymoronic status of rock-star statistician. The math and physics of sustainability got some serious attention as well.

Writer and activist Bill McKibben wrote a widely-read piece in Rolling Stone about climate math — how much more carbon emissions the planet can take — and followed it up with a national awareness-building tour. Based on similar numbers, both McKinsey and PwC UK calculated how fast we must reduce the carbon intensity of the global economy (PwC's number is 5% per year until 2050).

And on the resource constraint front, Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of the asset management firm GMO ($100 billion invested), continued his relentless numbers-based assault on the fallacy of infinite resources. In his November newsletter, he demonstrated exactly how much of a drag on the U.S. economy commodity prices have become.

Nobody can really deny that, in principle, exponential growth must stop someday. Grantham, McKibben, and many others are making the case that someday has arrived.

3. The clean economy continues to explode
The rapid growth of natural gas production (the biggest energy story of the year) and the high-profile failure of one solar manufacturer (Solyndra) have confused people about the prospects for clean tech. In reality, the clean economy is winning. The share of U.S. electricity coming from non-hydro renewables doubled to 6% in the last 4 years. On May 26, Germany set a world record when it produced 50% of its electricity needs from solar power alone. In a mini political tipping point, six Republican senators publicly supported an extension to the wind production tax credit in the U.S. (which will expire in days), and got an earful from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

It wasn't just energy. One auto analyst declared 2012 the "Year of the Green Car," with more high-MPG models, 500,000 hybrid sales in the U.S., and plug-in sales up 228%. To cap the year, the pure electric Tesla Model S was selected as the Motor Trend Car of the Year.

Company Stories

This year, there were countless eco-efficiency stories about companies saving millions of dollarsand developing new tools to make buildings, fleets (Staples and UPS, for example), and manufacturing much leaner. Aside from that overall theme, the following stories grabbed me because of their connection to larger trends.

4. The green supply chain gets some teeth: Walmart changes incentives for buyers
This year, Walmart finally added a key element to its impressive green supply chain efforts. The retail giant's powerful buyers, or merchants, now have a sustainability goal in their performance targets and reviews. For example, the laptop PC buyer set a goal that, by Christmas, all of the laptops Walmart sells would come pre-installed with advanced energy-saving settings. It was by no means a hiccup-free year on sustainability issues for Walmart, with deep concerns about corruption in its Mexican operations. But the subtle change in buyer incentives is a big deal.

5. Transparency and tragedy raise awareness about worker conditions
Early in 2012, Apple took some serious heat for the working conditions at Foxconn, the giant company that assembles a huge percentage of our electronics. Later in the year, tragedy struck Dhaka, Bangladesh when a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory killed or injured hundreds of people. The company that owns the factory serves Walmart, Carrefour, IKEA, and many others (but in fact,some companies didn't even know that Tazreen was a supplier). It's unclear if any of these human and PR disasters will affect the companies downstream, but transparency and knowledge about the lives of the people who make our products will continue to rise.

6. Data gets bigger and faster: PepsiCo and Columbia speed up lifecycle assessments
The rise of Big Data was an important theme in business in general this year, but especially in sustainability. And nowhere is good data needed more than in the onerous and expensive task of calculating a product's lifecycle footprint. PepsiCo has had great success with the method, finding ways to reduce cost and risk for key brands, but execs wanted to apply the tool across thousands of products. To make the exercise feasible and affordable, they turned to Columbia University, which developed a new algorithm for fast carbon footprinting. This isn't just a wonky exercise: As PepsiCo exec Al Halvorsen told me, "the real reason you do an LCA is improve the business, to put more efficient processes in place, and innovate in the supply chain."

7. Sustainability innovation opens up: Unilever, Heineken, and EMC ask the world for help
This new world of social media, where everyone has a voice, can be tough on companies. Consumers can gather around a green issue and pressure companies to change their behavior. Some notable change.org campaigns this year challenged Universal Pictures (about its green messaging around The Lorax), Crayola (recycling markers), and Dunkin' Donuts (Styrofoam cups). But companies can also use "open" innovation tools to generate new ideas and invite the world to solve problems together.

Unilever, which has my vote for leader in corporate sustainability right now, held an online discussion or "jam." Then the company posted a list of "Challenges and wants" and asked for ideas on solving big issues such as how to bring safe drinking water to the world's poorest regions.Unilever has received over 1,000 ideas and is "pursuing 6 to 7 percent of these with internal teams." Other notable open innovation models this year included Heineken's $10,000 sustainable packaging contest (which yielded some very fun ideas like a roving tap truck) and EMC's eco-challenge with InnoCentive on e-waste.

8. The economy gets a bit more circular: M&S, H&M, and Puma experiment with closing loops
On the heels of Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign (one of my top 10 stories from last year), British retailer M&S began a program called "Schwop" that asked customers to bring back old clothes every time they bought new ones. This month, H&M also rolled out a global clothing collection and recycling effort.

Puma, after making last year's list with it's Environmental P&L, kept the momentum going andannounced a new "InCycle" collection with biodegradable sneakers and shirts, and recyclable jackets and backpacks. Remanufacturing has been around a long time, but closing loops is getting more popular every year.

9. Dematerialization gets sexier: Nike's knitted shoe shows off sustainable style
Keeping the apparel theme, um, running, check out Nike's new shoe with FlyKnit technology. The upper part of the shoe is constructed from a single strand, which greatly reduces waste and lightens the shoe dramatically. It's a great thing when a more sustainable design also coincides perfectly with customer needs. Enough said.

10. Zero becomes more the norm: DuPont, GM, and John Elkington show the way
The idea that organizations should send zero waste to landfill was once a niche idea, but it's quickly becoming the ante to enter the waste management game. Announcements on waste may not be exciting, but they demonstrate how companies can turn a cost center into a source of profit. DuPont's Building Innovation Products business reduced its landfill waste from 81 million pounds to zero in three years. GM announced that it would ramp up its already extensive waste reuse and recycling efforts, which are now generating $1 billion a year. And a plug for a fellow writer: In a new book, sustainability thought leader John Elkington made the case that the future would belong to the "Zeronauts," the "new breed of innovators determined to drive problems such as carbon, waste, toxics, and poverty to zero."

Five Questions For 2013

Some other promising stories are in the "too early to tell" stage, but bring up some key questions:

1. Can we standardize sustainability, which some smart folks began to do around rankings (GISR) and accounting (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board)?

2. Will we find a way to value externalities like ecosystem services and internalized, intangible benefits? (A focus of some of my work as an advisor to PwC US). For example, Microsoft launched an internal carbon tax and some major companies (Coca-Cola, Nike, Kimberly-Clark, etc.) pledged to value natural capital at Rio+20.

3. Will government get in the way or help, like when the U.S. Senate allowed the military to keep investing in biofuels?

4. Hertz and B&Q (Kingfisher) have delved into collaborative consumption (see WWF's Green Game-Changers report), but will the sharing economy make a dent on sustainability issues?

5. Finally, how much will we challenge the nature of capitalism, and what will that mean for how companies operate? (This is the focus of my next project.)

So many stories, so little time... on to 2013. Happy holidays and have a safe and wonderful 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 @AndrewWinston)

January 9, 2014

Business Resilience Comes from Working with Nature

[Note: This post is co-authored with Michelle Lapinski, a senior advisor on valuing nature at The Nature Conservancy]

Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that pummeled the U.S. northeast in October 2012, ranks as the second-costliest hurricane in American history, causing an estimated $68 billion in damages. One year later, the most powerful storm ever recorded to hit land devastated the Philippines.

With these once extraordinary events becoming more ordinary, it’s becoming clearer that businesses in vulnerable regions need to prepare. But how should companies go about building resilient enterprises that are ready to face extreme weather and other effects of climate change? One powerful, underleveraged option is to use nature to protect our coasts and physical assets — that is, to invest in so-called “green infrastructure” a term meant to differentiate projects from more typical “gray” or man-made infrastructure solutions (such as dams, levees, and water treatment systems) that we build to cool and purify water or defend our buildings and assets against the elements.

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Our natural world already provides immensely valuable services to make our economy and society possible. Most obviously, we get all our food, minerals, and metals from the ground, and forests provide wood and oxygen. But there are more subtle benefits: forests also clean our water and coastal wetlands and reefs provide natural defense from storms and floods. They can help us manage rainwater and wastewater. These services, which are not currently valued in the marketplace, protect both people and commercial and residential assets.

So a city or company looking to safeguard its water supply, for example, could invest in protecting or restoring lands instead of building a new water treatment plant (which is exactly what the New York City did when it bought land in the Catskill Mountains in 1997 — this initiative avoided up to $8 billion in costs for a new filtration facility and saved $200-$300 million in ongoing operation and maintenance costs).

But is this kind of green infrastructure approach generally as effective? Is it cost competitive? A recent paper by Shell, Dow, Swiss Re, Unilever and The Nature Conservancy concludes that frequently, it is.

Using standard cost-benefit analysis, the study compared some natural solutions to more traditional infrastructure investments. In all of the completed corporate projects, the green option won out toe-to-toe on capital expenditures and operational expenditures

Here’s one of the more compelling examples highlighted in the paper:

One of Shell’s joint ventures, Petroleum Development Oman LLC (PDO), uses constructed wetlands to treat produced water from oilfields. PDO’s extraction activities produce a lot of oily water as a by-product. After investigating alternative, low cost solutions to treat and dispose of the water, PDO built a natural wetland system that uses sunlight, reeds, and gravity (to flow water down in steps) in place of extensive water treatment and injection operations. The latter, gray option would have required significant electric power and produced high greenhouse gas emissions… and it would’ve cost a lot more.

On every important measure — capital expenditure, operational expenditure, and performance — the constructed wetland outperformed the traditional approach. Power consumption and CO2 emissions were reduced by 98%, which lowered operating expenses dramatically. And as a bonus, the wetland provides habitat for fish and hundreds of species of migratory birds.

In this particular case, PDO only needed the natural option, but the study concluded that hybrid solutions – combinations of green and gray infrastructure — may often provide the best mix of benefits. Together, green and gray solutions combine some of the resilience inherent in natural systems with the way an engineered solution can solve a specific challenge.

Shell isn’t the only company that discovered the savings from green infrastructure. The report includes case studies for Dow, which also utilized a constructed wetland at one of its facilities, reducing capex expense by a factor of 10. Today, Dow is exploring additional applications of green infrastructure and is engaged in a multi-year collaboration with The Nature Conservancy on valuing ecosystem services, which includes evaluating the viability of natural infrastructure at its largest production site.

Companies with common challenges can identify savvy, shared investments in green solutions for wastewater treatment, desalination, or coastal defense (using, say, wetland and reef restoration) and potentially collaborate on new green infrastructure opportunities at co-located assets.

Collectively, the companies in the report concluded that green infrastructure solutions should become a major part of the modern engineer’s standard toolkit: “Incorporating nature into man-made infrastructure can improve business resilience —and bring additional economic, environmental and socio-political benefits.” The report also provides an emerging set of performance metrics that managers can use to assess and compare green and grey infrastructure options.

As the damages from (and costs of) extreme weather and other disruptions soar, investing in resilience becomes a better deal. And nature can provide many of the solutions we need to both save money and protect our assets. So run the numbers on green infrastructure solutions. The calculations are likely to show that green options are the best investments.

(This post first appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog network.)

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

February 27, 2014

It Just Got Easier for Companies to Invest in Nature

Nature is valuable. But figuring out how valuable has been challenging. By some measures, the services that nature provides business and society — clean water, food and metals, natural defense from storms and floods, and much more — are worth many trillions of dollars. But that number is not helpful to companies trying to assess how dependent they are on natural resources, or how to value them as business inputs.

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In recent years, many large companies have realized that they need to get a handle on these issues, and that doing it well creates business resilience. But figuring out what steps to take has been challenging. Into that void steps a new, very helpful tool, the Natural Capital Business Hub. The Hub is a project run by the Corporate EcoForum, The Nature Conservancy, and The Natural Capital Coalition (and built by Tata Consultancy Services). It builds off a partnership launched at the Rio+20 summit in 2012 with companies such as Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Disney, Dow, GM, Kimberly-Clark, Nike, Unilever, and Xerox. At the time, they produced a report with case studies showing how companies have managed natural capital issues. The Hub expands that effort, making much more information available and searchable.

The Hub basically does four things:

  • Provides case studies of corporate action for benchmarking and learning, which you can search by industry, region, ecosystem, or value-creation focus (cost reduction, brand building, etc.).
  • Offers perspective on how to make the business case internally by laying out how valuing natural capital helps business.
  • Gives us a framework for implementation and a thorough description of (or links to) the best tools for valuing and managing natural capital.
  • Opens up collaboration opportunities by listing programs that need more partners and builds a network of professionals (with 2Degrees Network) who are working on these issues.

The case studies are ostensibly the core of the site. Project managers, facility heads, executives who make capital decisions, sustainability managers, and many others can learn from the work that leading companies have done already. Managing natural capital is a young field, but Dow, for example, is now three years into its six-year partnership with The Nature Conservancy to “recognize, value, and incorporate the value of nature into business decisions, strategies and goals.” (The company just released the latest update on the partnership.) The Hub is a place to start your research and learn from Dow and many others.

On the site, you can find stories of completed projects or prospective collaborations that need more partners to get off the ground. In the first category, you’ll find stories like the one about Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican food company that owns Sara Lee, Hostess, and Pepperidge Farms. Bimbo needed to manage stormwater around a site in Pennsylvania. Using natural or “green” infrastructure such as rain gardens and forest buffers — versus “gray”, manmade systems like retention ponds and pipes — the company reduced ongoing operating costs and avoided the complications of burying pipes in sensitive ecosystems.

On a somewhat larger scale, consider Darden restaurants (owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and many more) and its efforts to save fisheries. As companies like Unilever and McDonald’s have long recognized, ensuring healthy fish stocks isn’t a philanthropic nice-to-have, but core to business survival: no fish, no fish sticks, lobster plates, or Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. Darden is working with the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and others to target valuable fisheries and manage them closely.

What’s interesting about the Darden case study, and the Hub in general, is that this project is just getting started — essentially, it’s an open call for collaboration. The Hub is innovative and helpful because of the partnership tools. Natural capital issues are not easy and cross many lines – every company, city, and home in a region, for example, depends on water and flood protection. No organization or region can act alone, and it shouldn’t. By listing the major collaborations that are actively searching for new partners, the Hub has done a great service.

(This post first appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog network.)

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