Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Accolades for Tricks

DowJones Sustainability Index (DJSI) released its Annual Review this week. According to Marc Gunther, Senior Writer for GreenBiz.Com, there are about $6 billion worth of financial investments that track the DJSI including mutual funds and ETFs from Barclay’s Capital and Credit Suisse. But considering the scale of our total financial investment market, $6 billion hardly justifies the urgency we need to focus on sustainability. Yet, it is “clearly better to be in the DJSI than to be out.

Sure, DJSI matters mostly because of a certain “prestige” in the eyes of the beholden shoppers, but who should really care if the global companies are in or out of the Index?

Consumers ought to care. They need to be informed and make decisions that are healthy for themselves as well as the human ecology. Without the comparison index, they would have to amass the comparison data on their own. They are the least capable of burdening the cost of such a task. If things should be left in the consumer’s hand, no one would act unless they should decide to pool their resources and wiki a consumer driven index. Still, that would require a large investment from the crowd in terms of time. But hey, crowd sourcing seems to be reinventing every wheel humans ever managed to invent recently and I should expect no less from the wisdom of the crowd on the Internet-steroid.

But what about the companies that are listed or de-listed from the DJSI each year? Should they really care or should their responsibility end with some middle management filling out all those reports to compile the data, perhaps selectively, just so they can get a “Carbon Disclosure Project Salute” or a “Sustainability Accolades”?

[Accolades: plural of ac·co·lade (Noun); an award or privilege granted as a special honor or as an acknowledgment of merit. Synonyms: tribute, commendation, acclaim, applause, ovation, acclamation, approval, admiration, approbation, testimonial, praise welcome, flattery, kudos, adulation, homage, compliment, pat on the back, encomium . . . .]

I’d say the companies should really care. In fact, I would go as far as to say these companies should care more than the consumers should. Because these companies can absorb more easily the cost of composing such an index and these companies stand to benefit most from creating such marketing frenzy to help sell their product or services. They are also the most capable to influence a paradigm shift to responsible consumption. Sure, the overall consumption level will balance and the proverbial pie is not infinite for the human race to gobble up resources ad infinitum; but let those companies who would be early birds to the sustainability fad take advantage of its eager followers. As far as fads go, sustainability is a much classier one than the Kardashians.  

Jokes aside, the DJSI, or any sort of industry index, should help companies gauge not only their internal performance in comparison to other companies, but should also help them weigh the amorphous value society assigns to the idea of a longer lasting human experience. Is it really only worth $6 billion? Or is our great expectation to exist on this planet worth a bit more? That, I leave to your existential judgments.

Let’s get back to the DJSI then. This year, the Index included Target, Hewlett Packard, Canadian National Railway Co. and Enbridge Inc., a Canadian oil & gas company that is best known in the U.S. for spilling 20,000 barrels of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in the most costly onshore spill in U.S. history. Appalling, yes; apparently, the DJSI follows a “best in class” approach so everyone gets a trophy. There are also ample reasons to reward best efforts here, plus it would be difficult to compare sustainable practices across industries. So a "class" approach does make sense. But does this suggest a rather low bar in the oil and gas “class” in general? Or better yet, isn’t there also some kind of internal consistency problem of including oil and gas market in a sustainability index?

Those are insignificant rhetorical questions.  The bigger issue is not whether the DJSI includes or excludes a company or a class of companies, but that there are very few evidence suggesting that the DJSI really matters to companies or investors. Comparing to the MSCI World Index, which benchmarks market performance, the DJSI under performs. The under-achievers seem rampant in the industry. According to GreenBiz.Com, companies reporting to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) announced plans to reduce their CO2 emissions by 1 percent a year. This is far short of the 4 percent goal agreed upon at the UN negotiations.

So, as we celebrate our annual "Accolades" of sustainable fads with the DJSI, the CDP, and others (including the Top 20 corporate users of solar power in the US, the 2012 Good Company Index, and the annual Newsweek “green” rankings), let us remember that fall is also a season when we hand out candies and treats to little monsters with tricks.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

EPA Invites Communities to Engage Technical Experts

EPA announced today an open invitation to communities to solicit the EPA for technical assistance in sustainable growth in their area. According to the EPA, communities that adopt sustainable growth strategies have been shown to expand economic opportunity; but the goal of sustainable growth is as much about protecting the health and environment of the people as it is about growing economies.

Under the EPA’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program, activists can engage the EPA on their expertise applicable to rural, suburban, and urban areas. The expertise area include:

• Smart growth and economic development to help communities get better financial results from public and private investments
• Green street strategies for managing polluted stormwater
• Land use strategies to protect water quality
• Parking audits to make the best use of parking for existing and planned land uses
• Bikeshare system planning to create alternative commuting options
• Community design for aging populations to ensure residents can live at home as long as possible
• Green building toolkit to overcome common barriers
• Strategies to help small cities and rural areas develop in ways that retain unique community characteristics 

EPA is asking communities to apply for assistance with one of the specific tools mentioned above. If the request is selected, the community will work with an EPA-supported team of experts on applying those tools during a two-day workshop.

Participants in this program are expected to learn about the policies and practices in these areas as well as how to leverage smart growth development strategies. EPA will select 44 communities for this program. Selection of participants will be a joint effort between the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities program.

The Partnership program integrates agency collaborations and coordinates federal investments in infrastructure, facilities, and services to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

The open invitation period extends one month, from September 26 to October 26. EPA will host a webinar to discuss the program and the application process on September 21 from 1:00 to 2:30 Eastern time.

EPA is working to make all the Building Blocks tools available online. For more information and application instructions for the Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program, please see: EPA's Building Blocks site.

For more information on the webinar, please visit the EPA website here.

More information on the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, please visit the EPA's site on the Partnership program.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Digitdoodles' Edict Number One - Thou Shall Have Free Speech.

Google's decision to censor an anti-Islamic video in Libya and Egypt underscores the delicate balance we experience as a global community so well connected on our digitdoodles. Under immense public pressure, including lives lost, Google pulled the plug at least temporarily within Libya and Egypt.

In a public statement, YouTube expressed concerns for Free Speech but noted the exceptional circumstances of violence. You Tube gave the usual “our hearts are with . . .” speech, which turns the question towards the public: are you so willing to have your free speech at the cost of innocent lives? If so, then let blood be on your hands. Google wants no part of it.

I can understand Google’s position and unique risk. Its platforms are accessible nearly around the world. It provides a valuable service to the global digitdoodle community where we come together and build unimaginable things even if it is only in digitspace. Google’s operations implicitly suggest a duty to regulate its content accordingly with the laws of nations and within its many sovereign jurisdictions. Many countries put immense value on lives and have a Good Samaritan law of some sort; Google is perhaps choosing to risk the Free Speech as a safer bet—a sort of diversification of social risk in the geo-political market place if you will. I wouldn’t want to face the grieving family on the other side either. I’d rather battle it out with the First Amendment nerds. So the “our hearts are with them” argument stands.        

With this implicit duty to regulate, Google perhaps signals a paradigm shift from the once global reality of governmental politics to now prevalent company policies. As with the all-important glue that binds the nations—a protective order of free speech that encourages cooperation and understanding, we now see companies play more of an "adjudicatory role on free speech." Where stakeholders often demand immediate action to protect the interests of their companies, a company like Google really has very little choice. (I would imagine decision to do nothing might also land Google in trouble.)

This paradigm shift comes at an interesting time after the Citizen United case. But it also solicits criticisms from powerbases such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

"Once YouTube has made the decision to pro-actively censor its content, they start down a slippery slope that ends in YouTube Knows Best moral policing of every video on their site. It is disappointing to see YouTube turn its back on policies that have allowed it to become a such a strong platform for freedom of expression.

Global Voices’ co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon questioned if this is the start of something more sinister in theory: that violence could be used to stifle expression.

To Google’s defense, it does make earnest efforts to highlight the challenges they face in protecting users' rights to free expression. It publishes a regular transparency report detailing government requests to restrict their content. It has also been active in with the Global Network Initiative, aimed to advocate for free speech. In general, without exceptional circumstances, Google is playing nice.

There is a lesson to be learned from Google. While companies cannot predict when and if any similar exceptional circumstances will occur to affect them, companies should have policy on hand to decide who is responsible to make decisions in a crisis and what values and maxims ought this person follow. The threshold question perhaps depends on local laws and companies should be preparing to play an adjudicative role. Having a plan and a principle guide will ease public confrontations with free speech, but a company must always remember Digitdoodles' Edict Number One - Thou Shall Have Free Speech. Or else the digitdoodlers shall rise.   

And speaking of Free Speech, here is something completely different for you U.S. digitdoodlers out there: 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Food is Life

When I was young, I lived with my grandparents out in the Gobi. When my grandpa was sick, grandma and I would trap an old hen she had raised to cook because the Chinese believe chicken soup can cure all diseases. When we would trap our hen for these occasions, I would be in charge of holding the wings and its head back, so the neck would be bent and exposed. My grandma would cut open the hen’s throat like a professional assassin. Dark red blood would gush and the hen would struggle a few times and limp to its death. The very first time I saw what had happened holding on to the poor thing, I was immobilized with fear. I almost let go, but because my grandmother had put her hands firmly over mine to hold on to the hen, I had no other choice but stare in the eyes of that poor bird and watch her struggle and die. Her blood slowly drained into a rice-bowl my grandmother had placed underneath. She would catch all of the blood and add a bit of salt and steam it to gelatinize for soups later.

“You’ll get to eat the bird brain so you can get smarter.” She would always say nonchalantly.

It wasn’t until later in life I would realize her lack of interest in the bird’s life was not void of emotion. She approached her killer instincts with something more important in mind: feeding her children so they would survive, keeping the family healthy so we could prosper. But she never wasted any part of the bird after its timely death. She would boil the bones twice to get out all of the nutrients and sure enough I would always get the chicken brain along with all the other edible parts: gizzard, liver, heart. Grandma would always say that if I had wasted any part of the hen, then she would've killed the bird for nothing. I had to face reality: the bird was dead and I could not let it die for no reason. I began to associate guilt with food; so began the wonderful relationship.

But it wasn't until later in life I would realize: Food is life; and there is more wisdom to eating it than just guilt.

These days, you can't find old hen like my grandma would raise them. The US supermarkets of today are full of young, plump and juicy chickens that probably never left the confines of a small cage, fed with an accelerated diet not meant for them along with a host of antibiotics to keep problems at a minimum. These birds were probably put into their packaging by machines without some horrified kid to witness the slaughtering. 

Who am I kidding, the chicken we find these days doesn't even taste like the old hen my grandma would cook then; and I think it's all because of a dark hidden conspiracy . . .

Déjà vu is a system glitch trying to tell us something. 

These days, we seem to live,and are happy with our alternate reality; where we are far removed from the emotions of connecting with our food. We are happy not knowing that fish have eyes, or chicken have feet, or that baby cows are slaughtered mercilessly for our enjoyment. These days, everything taste like everything else and nothing taste like anything--not even food taste like food anymore.

Life these days, as it turns out, does not live much like life I remember from my days in the Gobi, holding on to a dead bird suddenly realizing food is more than just something edible in a plate.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

People Talk, Channels Blur, Stories Create Ripples.

There are many ways to make a change towards a sustainable economy. Consumers can start buying sensibly; producers can conduct process improvements to save energy and recycle materials for their productions; but the deal makers, the middlemen, are often in the best position to be the game changers. The interchange of transactions has control at both end of the transactions—distributors can translate market demands to the production side and reinvest momentum in the sustainability transformation on production back into the consumption stream in the form of market advertising.

Nexus: a node where change is transformed 

into reality to all of its extensions.

Goodwill for goodwill is the exchange and as far as consumption goes, I’d rather support this than just buying into the whole “more is better” thing. 

When it comes to being such facilitator of sustainable changes, there is one company worth mentioning. The Kroger Co., based in my hometown Cincinnati, is boasting some pretty impressive progress in zero waste production and energy savings.  

"In 2011, the world’s largest grocer [Kroger] saved enough energy to power every single home – more than 175,000 of them – in the city of Columbus for a year. Kroger also has 19 manufacturing plants that operate without sending any waste to landfills. And, the company has just begun converting unsold organic food into renewable energy that powers its Ralphs/Food 4 Less facilities."

These impressive results stemmed from a company-wide sustainability effort led by vice president Lynn Marmer. According to Mamer, Kroger composts a considerable amount of their food manufacturing by-products. Doing so, they were able to divert 90 percent of their waste from landfills to their production cycles. This earned them a Zero Waste designation from the EPA. Currently, Kroger is looking for way to apply recycle and reuse methods to their retail sector. Marmer also boasted a 32 percent energy consumption reduction in its operations since 2000. Kroger was able to achieve this by changing to LED lighting fixtures, using low “e” windows, installing solar-powered faucets, high-efficiency water heaters, and variable exhaust fans. Kroger also employed various heat recovery systems that recapture the heat from their refrigeration systems.
Over all, Ms. Marmer claimed Kroger saved over $100 million in their energy reduction initiatives in 2008 alone. So it appears sustainable thinking does produce results for the bottom line. Shush now you naysayers. 

Ms. Marmer also echoed consumer demands on locally produced products, sustainable seafood, and organic and natural foods:     
"Kroger is a leader in selling natural and organic foods. Some greener products that used to be more niche are now mainstream. For example, Kroger brand organic staples like salads, fresh milk and cage-free eggs."
Lynn Marmer, vice president of Kroger. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Organics - Status or Altruism, what is your motivation?

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food was a $29 billion industry in 2010 and is still growing. New York Times recently reported on a meta-study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, finding little to no health benefits from eating organic.  

Crystal Smith-Spangler, at Stanford University School of Medicine, collected some 200 peer-reviewed studies that followed people who were eating either organic or conventional food. The meta-analysis looked for evidence that the choice in organic food made a difference in the consumer's health. As expected, there were fewer pesticides found on organic produce; but the study found that vast majority of conventionally grown food did not exceed allowable limits of pesticide residue set by federal regulations. There is one study that Smith-Spangler reviewed which showed organically grown tomatoes contained significantly higher levels of antioxidant compounds; but as the meta-study concluded, the tomato study is only one study of one vegetable in one field. The meta-study revealed no conclusive patterns of increased nutrients in other organic produce.   

Immediately I found myself scrolling through facebook posts of the great “Organic” hoax. The Nay-Sayers pronounced organics a fraud; all those who were advocating for such a thing must’ve been crazy. The whole organic label thing is just another case of alien mind control/government conspiracy. 

Save yourselves!

But before conclusions are made and the curtain is drawn on organics, let’s look at exactly why we need to consume “organics.” Organic farming is a different style of agriculture. Organic farmers often grow a variety of crops to control pests. This increases biodiversity and ensures a level of security from single crop failure. Organic farmers also control the nutrients in their soil through compost or nitrogen-fixing plants thus reducing chemical run-off that could contaminate our water supply. Most organic farmers also supply to local markets, making their carbon footprint smaller from less packaging and transportation needs. Organic meats also contain less antibiotic-resistant bacteria; feeding less antibiotics to livestock reduces the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant super-bugs from wrecking havoc.    

So let’s get this straight. You want to buy “organic” because you care about our environment and our long term health and prosperity. You are eating certain types of produce and meat grown a certain way not only because it’s a status thing or a selfish need for yourself to live long and prosper, but because it’s good for others and good for the planet. If you believed you were eating some kind of super-food under the organic label because it will make you stronger and faster, I’d recommend you stop the fantasy and just purchase an Acme Superman’s cape. You’d have better chance of flying then. But if you are eating better ways because it’s the right thing to do and it’s healthier for everyone else, then I suggest you ignore the flurry of bad branding created by the Stanford study.