Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

This infographic, from LearnStuff.com, gives a good graphic representation of the extent of climate change and its effects — in case you’re not convinced already! Reality is catching up to film depictions of what was expected to happen far in the future. Seeing Superstorm Sandy flood parts of New York City made me feel like I was watching The Age of Stupid or Earth 2100 — except it was happening now, not in some distant future.

As the infographic shows, if we continue on our current trajectory, things will only get worse by 2050. And given the fact that many predictions have turned out to be too conservative, 2050 might be an optimistic target.

Depressed? While this can be depressing, it can also be a call to positive action. More people are realizing climate change is real, and upon us already. So let’s choose to make a difference. You can start by sharing this infographic to help show that action is needed. Together, we can make some real changes!



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Glass of Chocolate Milk with Two StrawsEvery time I hear about the sharing economy, I think it’s an idea so great it has to catch on like wildfire. What could make more sense than eschewing rampant consumerism in favor of sharing? It’s clear we need to stop buying stuff we’ll rarely use and instead move to sharing, so we can access that stuff just when we need it.

But I live in San Francisco, where I’m surrounded by like-minded people. Is the sharing economy really the next big thing that’s already happening?

The truth is, we already do a lot of sharing. Think about it this way. Have you ever bought a slice of pizza? When you did that, you didn’t pay for the whole pizza, did you? Bingo — you were sharing! Have you ever ridden a bus or subway? Again, sharing! Come to think of it, even driving your own car involves sharing — of the roads we all help pay for.

But while buying a slice of pizza or riding a subway have become so acceptable that we don’t even think of them as sharing, other similar activities just aren’t as accepted yet. Sharing taxis is a case in point: not only does sharing make it easier to get a cab when they’re scarce, but you can also save money by splitting the fare. Yet most people are reluctant to share a taxi.

Recently we’ve seen some breakthroughs to this reluctance, and last week, a panel of four prominent members of the sharing economy explored how this is happening.

Superstorm Sandy put sharing in the spotlight, at least for a while. As a panelist from Weeels described, because his company facilitates ride sharing, they were called in to help after the storm. When taxis were scarce, their service helped both drivers and riders make the best use of the few vehicles that were available.

Well, we all know that during disasters people are more likely to share and help one another. But while recessions and natural disasters help make sharing palatable, we need to get beyond that for sharing to prosper.

And that will mean changing our perspective about what’s okay to share. The idea can’t be forced on people — they have to see what’s in it for them.

The panelists contributed great examples of the benefits. In addition to Weels, there was representation from SolarCity, which sells solar leases to homeowners, making it much easier for many Americans to go solar; BrightFarms, a company that provides a kind of “produce purchase agreement” to supermarkets, ensuring that both the stores and customers will get fresh produce; and Krrb, an online peer-to-peer marketplace that differs from Craigslist in operating more like a store, with accountability to customers for the products sold there.

We’re seeing added benefits to sharing when it comes to crowdfunding, which lets people pool their resources to make all kinds of projects happen. A great example is Mosaic’s new online marketplace, which is making it possible for people to invest in community solar projects and earn solid returns.

Despite the benefits, some barriers remain — perceptions being a major one. Another is the built environment. Sharing on a large scale is far more popular in urban areas, where it’s also more of a necessity and provides more obvious benefits. It’s a challenge to promote the idea in more rural or even suburban areas, especially in a culture built on the ideas of space and individualism.

Of course, our culture is also increasingly urban, and that will help advance the sharing economy. So too will the fact that so many resources are becoming more scarce, which leads to a real need to share them.

The conclusion of this panel? At the moment, getting people to participate in the sharing economy is still a challenge. But whether or not we want it to, sharing is bound to become the norm.

This post was originally published at Mosaic.

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BHP_coal_admits_climate_change_0We hold these truths to be self-evident: that fossil fuels cause climate change and the extreme weather we’ve been seeing — and that the world needs to wake up and kick the fossil fuel habit.

Sure, those of us who call ourselves environmentalists take those as truths, but a major coal company? Yet that’s exactly what the Australian BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, has just copped to.

Explaining the company’s decision to retrofit one if its coal-exporting facilities against significant weather events, BHP Billiton executive Marcus Randolph was quoted as saying, “As we see more cyclone-related events … the vulnerability of one of these facilities to a cyclone is quite high. So we built a model saying this is how we see this impacting what the economics would be and used that with our board of directors to rebuild the facility to be more durable to climate change.”

Yes, you read that right: climate change.You gotta love the irony. Not only is this major coal company acknowledging that climate change is real, but they’re investing in protections against the effects of said climate change — which they helped cause. They’re making a significant investment to protect themselves — from themselves.

At what point will a company like this decide that the costs of producing coal and other fossil fuels are no longer worth the return on investment? Weak prices have already led some coal companies, including BHP Billiton, to cut jobs. Add to this the cost of protecting their facilities from storms, and the ROI diminishes even more.

And there are other costs, as we’ve seen recently with Superstorm Sandy. We can’t put a value on people’s lives, the damage to communities, and the emotional effects of the storm. In pure financial terms, though, Sandy could cost $50 billion. What amount of retrofitting would it take to make cities like New York safe? Won’t we get a better ROI by investing in prevention?

Prevention would mean moving from fossil fuels to renewables. And Randolph seems to agree that we must at least limit fossil fuels. Referring to Australia’s carbon tax, he says, “there is not a qualifier saying it is okay to emit more greenhouse gases if the carbon tax is eliminated. An absolute ceiling is an absolute ceiling. Even if there isn’t a carbon tax, it still needs to be an issue we devote a lot of attention to.”

Randolph has even gone so far as to state, “In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem, how do you think this is going to evolve over a 30- to 40-year time horizon? You’d have to look at that and say on balance, I suspect, the usage of thermal coal is going to decline. And frankly it should.”

Strong words from a major contributor to the “carbon problem.” Why is BHP Billiton taking this position? Because climate change is affecting what the company cares about the most: their bottom line. Their main concern is profitability. Climate change is a threat to profits. So they’re doing what any sensible hard-nosed ballsy capitalist would do: they’re protecting their profits by investing in more durable facilities.

Could that same concern for profits lead beyond protecting against the effects of climate change to actually trying to prevent it? Maybe the lesson for environmentalists and policy makers is to understand what motivates fossil fuel companies. Forget about appealing to a green economy, solving world energy needs, and so forth. Tell them climate change is going to rob you blind unless you invest against it. And that means first admitting that climate change is real — real enough to affect your profits and maybe even put you out of business.

Randolph’s statements, and the company’s actions, are already making news — and they’re sure to make waves. If a large coal company like this one acknowledges the effects of fossil fuels, who are the climate deniers to turn to? Perhaps it’s time they faced reality and started working to reverse climate change. Perhaps concern for profits will force them to do so.

Looking to invest against climate change? Check out MosaicSunfunderRE-volvThe San Francisco Energy Co-op, and Everybody Solar.

This post was originally published on Mosaic.

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Over a year ago, I attended a webinar by the authors of Green Project Management, who argued convincingly that although projects fall on a spectrum from those that are green by definition to those that may have a few green elements, any project can be run in a more sustainable manner.

As it turns out, a lot of people are looking at ways to incorporate sustainability into project management. At a recent seminar I attended, Joel Carboni of Green Project Management (GPM) and Mark Reeson of QA Limited explained how to use their PRiSM methodology to make any project green – making sustainability an integral part of project management, not something tacked on as an afterthought.

Carboni and Reeson provide an approach to sustainability that goes beyond the well-known triple bottom line to assess 5 measurable elements of sustainability — people, planet, profit, product, and process — and encourages us to look at projects from a different angle. Their focus is not on the deliverable itself but on the method by which it is delivered. And they’re inspiring project managers around the world to make the shift to sustainability in business by being agents of change on a large scale.

Read more about their practical PRiSM methodology in my blog post for the SF Bay Area chapter of the Project Management Institute.

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Sue Amar, EcoTuesday ambassador Jesse Martinez, and EcoTuesday co-founder Nikki Pava

At a recent EcoTuesday gathering in San Francisco, Sue Amar, Sustainability Officer at salesforce.com, referenced what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “law of the few” (aka the 80/20 principle), according to which 20% of the people will bring about 80% of the changes in the world. She’s a prime example of this herself, having single-handedly started a robust sustainability program at salesforce.com.

While many companies have recently embraced sustainability — even Walmart! — Sue explained how salesforce.com, with their commitment to the cloud, goes beyond the usual efforts to green the supply chain, travel, facilities, and other such areas. But beware: You may think you’re already using the cloud, but not all clouds are created equal! The salesforce.com sustainability site delineates the differences:

  • On-premises cloud: Onsite hardware and software that must be bought, installed, and maintained.
  • Private (or “false”) cloud: A cloud that’s housed in a data center, uses virtualization technology, or is hosted — and still requires hardware and software that must be bought, installed, and maintained.
  • 100% cloud: A cloud that uses “multitenant architecture” to allow sharing and economies of scale — using a small number of servers that are optimized to do as much as possible. This cloud has the benefit of being 64% more efficient than the private cloud and 95% more efficient than an on-premises cloud.

This kind of focus has made salesforce.com a leader in sustainability among high-tech companies. And their commitment to sustainability has been solidified and advanced by one employee, Sue, who started their sustainability program as a volunteer (in addition to doing her regular job) and now leads the effort full-time.

A section of the audience at EcoTuesday

EcoTuesday itself is another excellent example of the power of one or two people. Just a few years ago, the this networking group for sustainability professionals didn’t exist. Now, thanks to its two founders, Nikki Pava and Oren Jaffe, it’s spread to cities throughout the U.S and is providing a wonderful and inspiring venue to learn about what people like Sue Amar are doing.

This latest EcoTuesday gathering has inspired me to look into how I can help promote sustainability at my own workplace. Although Adobe is already strong in this area, I know there’s always more that can be done.

Every EcoTuesday evening I’ve attended has been similarly inspiring. I’ve met others working on sustainability and learned about all kinds of green resources and ideas.

Over a year ago, Erica Mackie spoke at EcoTuesday about GRID Alternatives, a local nonprofit she co-founded that provides solar to low-income families. Since then, I’ve volunteered at their Solarthon and convinced my employer to sponsor them. Not only that — a good friend of mine learned about the organization from me and is now working for them. If I hadn’t heard about GRID at EcoTuesday, perhaps she wouldn’t have thought to apply for the job, and they’d be out a great employee. But wait — there’s more! GRID was started by just two people who wanted to make a difference and saw a need that they could fill. They started small, but 10 years later, they’re growing by leaps and bounds. They’ve installed solar systems for over 1,000 families, preventing over 100,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

This shows what the vision of one or two people can create. Though we all rely on others and we need to work together to achieve our sustainability goals, each one of us can do a lot. Any of us who worry that we can’t make a meaningful difference should look at what people like Nikki Pava, Erica Mackie, and Sue Amar have done. That should be enough to restore our faith in the power of one.

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Now and then, you hear something about Walmart going green. But what does this really mean? Isn’t Walmart an evil mega-store known for selling low-quality products and treating its employees badly? So how can we trust their talk about sustainability? I learned more about this last weekend, at a Green Project Management seminar titled “The Tipping Point: Walmart’s Journey to Sustainability.” Sustainability strategist Mikhail Davis discussed Walmart’s commitment to sustainability, from his vantage point of having been one of the consultants who helped them in this effort.

As Davis noted, sustainability is always a journey whose destination you never reach. But it’s undeniable, however you may feel about Walmart, that they’ve undergone a huge transformation — and most significant is the fact that as the world’s largest company, they’ve had a far-reaching influence that goes well beyond their own walls. In fact, a Sustainable Business Forum article notes that some prominent sustainability leaders consider Walmart’s green initiative to be “the best thing to happen to the environment in the U.S. in the past 10 years.”

Still, most people don’t think of using the words “Walmart” and “sustainability” in the same sentence. Walmart hasn’t fully succeeded in telling this story to the public because so much of their sustainability effort is hidden in their supply chain. Yet it was concern about their increasingly bad reputation that led CEO Lee Scott to adopt what he now looks back on as a defensive strategy. It wasn’t long till he was convinced to see sustainability as a business opportunity rather than just a way to stay out of trouble, and the strategy transformed into a long-term offensive one.

Walmart’s adoption of sustainability came from the top: there was no rank-and-file demand for it, and in many ways it wasn’t a natural fit for the company. However, a number of factors made it possible for this strategy to take hold there:

  • Walmart is a mission-driven company whose mission is to improve the lot of lower-income people by enabling them to purchase items at lower prices. It wasn’t hard to add sustainability to this mission, especially when it resulted in lower prices and healthier items.
  • Walmart’s “Ready, Fire, Aim” culture made the company willing to try new things and take risks.
  • Some aspects of the company’s leadership style helped move the strategy forward: Their quantitative leanings helped because the company was hyper-aware of anything that lowered prices and raised sales. Their tendency to be confrontational ensured that they’d push suppliers to do more.
  • The company motto “Eat What You Cook” encouraged executives to experience how their decisions affected things on the ground. While CEOs at many companies would consider it beneath them to go out to observe good and bad cattle ranching practices, this was not an issue at Walmart. Getting top executives to see environmental issues first-hand was an important tool in the move to sustainable practices.

The first step Walmart took was to calculate its carbon footprint. This is where Walmart’s story becomes especially interesting, because it was determined that 92% of the footprint was in the supply chain. A strategy was adopted with 3 sustainability goals, the 3rd being the most ambitious:

  • Use 100% renewable energy.
  • Produce zero waste.
  • Sell products that sustain resources and the environment.

To help achieve these goals, the company created networks of participants ranging all the way from Walmart to suppliers to government organizations, and even some NGOs that had previously been some of Walmart’s staunchest foes. Each network developed a sustainable pathway from the company’s current practices to sustainable practices.

They started with quick wins that could be implemented with existing technologies and business models, which helped them make rapid progress on their first 2 goals — and realize substantial savings. In a company with such a quantitative bent, this caught a lot of people’s attention and made it all the easier to move ahead with the overall strategy.

After the quick wins came innovation projects. One example of such a project was Peterbilt producing the first hybrid big rig truck for Walmart. When a company as large as Walmart approaches a supplier with a request, the supplier is more likely to commit the R&D dollars or provide special deals because they know how much business they’ll get in return. In another example of this, GE gave Walmart a deal on LED lights. Not only did this save the company in power costs, but it had an unintended benefit: LED lighting makes products look better, which leads to increased sales. The company’s sophisticated real-time inventory tracking tools allowed them to see this benefit immediately — a good illustration of how Walmart’s penchant for quantitative measures helps promote sustainability.

This example points to another interesting thing about Walmart: The move to sustainability was not driven by consumers any more than by employees. There’s still no widespread green market, and most people think of green as an elitist niche market. So Walmart hasn’t marketed the green aspect of its products as more than a nice side benefit.

They do promote green products by taking actions like placing them in strategic locations in the store — and they continue to keep prices low, showing that sustainability can be affordable. In some case that’s easy — fair trade coffees, for example, are cheaper because there’s no middleman. And in cases where it isn’t easy, Walmart still tries to find a way to go green while keeping products affordable. In a company that considered itself the expert in cutting costs, it’s interesting to see how sustainable practices have taken them even further.

Walmart’s sustainability strategy has endured and become a major part of the organization. The strategy’s effect has reached far beyond just cutting costs, reducing liabilities, and improving their reputation, though those are important benefits. It’s also energized the company and its employees and helped Walmart attract and retain talent by really engaging their ~ 2 million employees. And it’s encouraged innovation both within the company and throughout their extensive supply chain. Walmart still has some real issues to deal with — but whatever you think about them, becoming more green has allowed the world’s largest retailer to occupy a uniquely influential position in the green economy.

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In a recent post I covered some of what my employer, Adobe Systems, is doing in the area of sustainability. I’m glad to note that we’re just one part of a larger trend in business. Many others are joining in as they see the effects of going green on their bottom line, and a recent MIT Sloan report finds that most businesses are anticipating “a world where sustainability is becoming a mainstream, if not required, part of the business strategy.”

John Viera at the SF Green Festival

Auto makers are no exception. At the recent San Francisco Green Festival, John Viera, Director of Sustainable Business Strategies at Ford, gave a behind-the-scenes look at what that company is doing to not only be more sustainable but also encourage their suppliers to do the same — an important component in what large companies such as Ford are doing.

Ford has embraced a vision to provide sustainable transportation that’s affordable environmentally, socially, and economically. The strategy for achieving this vision has three phases:

  • Near term, happening now: Begin the migration to advanced technologies, including advanced gas engines, hybrids, and cars powered by natural gas.
  • Middle term: Fully implement known technologies, including electric vehicles, in addition to concentrating on areas such as weight reduction.
  • Long term (which stretches, for now, to 2030): Continue with hybrid technology and alternative energy sources such as fuel cells and hydrogen-powered engines.

In a major shift, the focus of the company has moved from maximizing speed and power to making engines smaller and more efficient, and improving fuel economy.

A big push at Ford now is electrification. This year they’ll  provide a couple EV models, and by 2012 they plan to have 5 new ones available in the U.S. They also make moving to an EV as easy as possible for the customer: their cars provide in-car information including icons that show you how efficiently you’re driving, and when you by an EV from them, the Best Buy Geek Squad will come to your home to install a charger.

To address concerns about battery disposal, Ford is collaborating with other auto companies in the End of Life Vehicle Solutions consortium on requirements for disposal and recycling.

In addition, Ford is using more renewable resources in their manufacturing. They’re known for incorporating recycled blue jeans in their cars but also use materials such as hemp, flax, and switch grass as fiber reinforcements. Ford vehicles are 85% recyclable, and the goal is to get that number to 100%.

Ford purchases their materials locally when possible, and they also produce as many kinds of vehicles as possible in one place — something made possible in part by the fact that they use the same basic structure for many of their cars. Their Michigan plant, for example, produces gas, electric, and hybrid vehicles. That factory is also home to Michigan’s largest solar array, at 500 KW.

There’s no disputing the fact that Ford, like many auto makers, still produces gas-guzzling SUVs with low mileage. But the fact that such a mainstream company is getting into the business of sustainability bodes well. While electric vehicles still can’t be said to be cheap, Ford’s commitment to provide affordable cars for the average consumer will help bring them within the reach of more people.

How sustainable are these efforts toward sustainability? Ford has been moving in this direction since at least 2007, and given the positive financial benefits, they’re likely to continue. In fact, the poor economic climate encourages sustainability, which tends to positively affect a company’s bottom line. That, coupled with regulatory requirements and pressure from consumers, should help keep companies like Ford on the path to sustainability.

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