Corporate Sustainability Storytelling: The Whack-a-Mole Response Needs to Stop

Why is it that some environmentalists feel the need to play whack-a-mole whenever a leading brand peeks its head above the fray to publicly declare a corporate sustainability achievement?

I’m not going to cite specifics – just look at the comments section of any major news outlet covering a big brand sustainability announcement – but I do want to address the negative impact this has on business stepping up for the environment.

As an environmental NGO with a history of working in the trenches with powerful businesses, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) often gets to play the mole role. We’ve endured our share of slings and arrows since first partnering with McDonald’s over 25 years ago, so I can empathize with companies who are reticent to step up and publicly acknowledge the sustainability work they are doing.

EDF has thick skin and a singular mission to forge solutions that help people and nature thrive. It’s not always the same for major brands that have to balance the needs of shareholders, suppliers, employees, communities, and yes, the planet. It’s difficult to step forward and share sustainability stories when doing so invites backlash. I get it.

While environmentalists push for change in corporate business and policy practices, we must also adjust our attitudes in working with and encouraging those businesses who are trying to make a difference.

Basic behavioral psychology leads me to believe that if we want more major companies innovating, executing and sharing best corporate sustainability practices, the whack-a-mole approach needs to stop. Read more

Regulation as a Platform for Innovation

IMG_0187To get anything accomplished, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One unsung story buried in last week’s release of EPA’s new source methane rules may make good options even better – driving innovation and offering industry more options to meet the methane challenge.

The new rules target a pervasive problem: methane – the primary component of natural gas – leaking throughout the oil and gas value chain. Methane emissions represent a waste of saleable resources, a reputational risk, and a contributor to both poor local air quality and climate change.

Under the EPA’s framework, oil and gas operators must take steps to minimize emissions from new and modified sources – from finding and fixing leaks to swapping out equipment to reduce methane vented from pneumatic controllers and pumps. Companies in Colorado working to comply with the state’s similar rule have reported that putting similar measures in place is cost-effective, even generating positive returns from selling the captured gas.

But what should an agency do when the solutions available now are reasonable but not perfect? Existing strategies don’t monitor all the time – only a few days a year. So leaks and malfunctions can be missed, or leak for months before they are fixed.

MDC-devices-in-fieldNew technologies – emerging from research labs, startups and mature companies in adjacent sectors – can help spot leaks at lower cost, including through continuous monitoring. EDF’s Methane Detectors Challenge will launch pilots of sensitive, rugged, low-cost continuous methane monitors with oil and gas operators. Due to collaborative partnerships, these innovative technologies are advancing rapidly.

In a regulated industry like oil and gas, adaptability as technology progresses is key to ensuring operators can use more effective and lower-cost solutions as they become available. That insight led many innovators, forward-thinking oil and gas operators and EDF to call on EPA to include a pathway to innovation in the final rule. Read more

3 Ways NGOs Can Help Sustainable Supply Chains Grow

Maggie headshotEarlier this week, a former sustainability executive with McDonald’s delivered a wake-up call for environmental groups, listing “5 ways that NGOs stunt sustainability.” In this article, Bob Langert explains the ways that nonprofits are failing to help companies turn sustainability commitments into on-the-ground results. In the context of sustainable palm oil, he notes:

“You can’t just go after big brands and expect them to manage a supply chain that has them seven stages removed, starting with the smallholders, to mills, then plantations, to storage facilities, refineries, ingredient manufacturers and then product manufacturers, then into a final product a retailer sells, such as ice cream, a granola bar or shampoo — with palm as a minute ingredient.”

He’s right – sustainability in supply chains, especially in agriculture, is incredibly complex.

So how can environmental groups effectively champion sustainability progress throughout global supply chains, from the C-suite to crop fields?  Here are three ideas EDF has learned from deep, on-the-ground partnerships with leading brands. Read more

Sustainable Supply Chains: No More Excuses

ElizabethSturcken-(2)_287x377A question for forward-thinking business executives: if you could do something that would directly reduce more than 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of water usage, and two-thirds of tropical forest loss globally… wouldn’t you do it?

The answer: yes, of course you would!  That’s why you’re forward-thinking!

That’s also why Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been working in supply chains (for years) to improve the impacts of the global production and use of consumer goods.

Those impacts are huge. Really getting at them, unfortunately, has not been so easy. The excuse that we’ve heard over and over again boils down to “you can’t manage what you can’t see.”  Basically, while most companies’ impacts are in their supply chain, most businesses have very little knowledge of how those supply chains actually function.  And, the further up in the chains you go, the less visibility there is.

EDF has a lot of first-hand experience with this: after years of on-the-ground work with farmers, our Ecosystems team knows precisely how difficult it is to capture impacts at the farm level.  Despite the on-farm benefits of optimizing fertilizer use in cost savings, reduced greenhouse gases and increased water quality, fewer than 20 % of companies collect this data.

TSC2011lgHow do I know that statistic? Because The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) has just released Greening Global Supply Chains: From Blind Spots to Hot Spots to Action, their first-ever impact report.  It’s full of stunning data about the huge weight that consumer goods place on people and the planet. Since it covers more than 80% of consumer goods product categories, it is the comprehensive way to understand environmental hot spots in global supply chains.

Which means the “no visibility” excuse is now officially over. Read more

Mothers and CEOs: Why Corporate Sustainability Reports Matter

Walmart has just released its report on Corporate Sustainability—the “Global Responsibility Report”.

Nicknamed the GRR, the joke around my office is that “GRR” sounds like a growl—GRRRR. But while its seventy-three dense pages might seem daunting, the GRR is anything but scary. In fact, from my perspective as both a mother and someone with unique access to the day-to-day workings of Walmart, I have to say that it’s a must-read.

Why? Because like all corporate sustainability reports, the GRR tells the story of how big business is—or is not—adjusting their operations to help the planet and its inhabitants.

And by inhabitants I mean you. And me. All of us.

Meet Super-Eco-Business-Mom When new mom JENNY AHLEN feeds her daughter, she may also be pondering this question: how do we feed a global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050? That’s because Jenny is also EDF’s team lead for their partnership with Walmart, which gives her both a unique perspective and a unique power. She knows the stakes are high for the world her daughter will grow up in. But Jenny is in a position to do something about it. Thus, she spends her days working with the world’s largest retailer trying to figure out the best approach to “fertilizer optimization”: the science behind increasing yields while reducing the environmental impacts of crop production. How did Jenny arrive at this nexus of the nursery and contemporary eco-business?

To all the mothers of the world: like you, I want the best for my child. While there are many things we can’t control about our kids’ world, we do have power over things like what goes in and on their bodies, which toys can help them learn, and how to create a safe and loving environment for them to grow. Knowing what’s in these sustainability reports means knowing whether the stores and brands we choose every day are working with us, or making our job harder.

To all the C-suite executives: See above. Mothers everywhere are starting to demand both transparency and action around creating a healthier world for our kids. We are your customers, and we’re sending you a demand signal to make us happy.  Coincidentally, it can make your business more efficient, more profitable and more resilient—all things that your shareholders will love to hear. Believe me, you want to be able to issue a sustainability report that’s both real and robust.

So if the GRR is Walmart’s report card on global responsibility, how did they do? Read more

Walmart Makes Progress on Its Sustainable Chemistry Policy

Behind the Label_FIt’s been two and a half years since Walmart first committed to adopting a sustainable chemistry policy. Since then, consumers, companies and advocates have been watching the retailer with interest. Today, Walmart released its ninth annual Global Responsibility Report (GRR), which outlines its environmental and social activities for the past year. For the first time, this report includes information about the progress it has made against its Sustainable Chemistry Policy adopted in 2013, which aimed for more transparency of product ingredients and safer formulations of products.

According to Walmart, it has reduced the usage (by weight) of its designated high priority chemicals by 95 percent, a pretty sizeable number. Walmart has said that it will post more specifics in the coming weeks on its Sustainability Hub, including quantitative results on all aspects of the policy’s implementation guide and details about how they achieved the substantial reduction.

casestudy-walmartWhile this is a promising step in the right direction, the GRR doesn’t identify the high priority chemicals that have been reduced. It is difficult to fully appreciate Walmart’s accomplishments without knowing the names of these chemical targets. We expect that the names of the high priority chemicals will be revealed on the Sustainability Hub.

Walmart’s announcement marks the first time a major retailer has publicly measured and shared the progress it has made against its commitment on chemicals. This is especially important to EDF because we know through research and experience that shared stories about progress can prompt others to follow, to the benefit of public and environmental health.

We believe there are three key factors that have made Walmart's progress possible: 1) the existence and use of a 3rd party-managed chemicals database that can generate quantitative, aggregate information about the chemicals on Walmart’s shelves, 2) a policy that prioritizes specific chemical targets, and 3) a time-bound business commitment to track and share progress publicly (in Walmart’s policy they committed to start sharing progress in 2016). We look forward to the day these practices reflect the business norm rather than the exception.

Market leadership will always have an important role to play alongside policy in driving safer chemicals and products into commerce. EDF looks forward to the additional details forthcoming on Walmart’s Sustainability Hub.

Follow Boma Brown-West on Twitter: @Bbrown_west

Also of interest:

Why Google and the Rest of Corporate America Needs the Clean Power Plan

victoriaThe Clean Power Plan  (CPP) is topping the news as major coalitions of supporters have filed amicus briefs with the D.C. Circuit Court. With leading brands like Google, Apple, Adobe, Amazon, IKEA, Mars and Microsoft all stepping up and voicing support, you might wonder – what’s in it for them?

The plan, which will lower the carbon emissions from existing power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, is a practical, flexible way for the U.S. to cut climate pollution and protect public health. President Obama has called it "the single most important step that America has ever made in the fight against global climate change.”

It’s encouraging to see many states, cities, power companies, public health and medical associations, and environmental organizations continue to push for smart environmental policy. The full list of Clean Power Plan supporters is here.

We are particularly excited about the range of private sector support for the Clean Power Plan.

When it’s fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan will create $155 billion in consumer savings—putting more money back into the pockets of customers. And, a successful Clean Power Plan will help companies meet their renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets.

What’s in it for Companies? Here's what the Clean Power Plan will provide: Read more

Storytelling for Sustainability – It’s Time for Corporate Leaders to Gather ‘Round the Campfire

Nancy Buzby Environmental Defense FundThe term ‘greenwashing’ might be officially outdated. In 2016 the number of companies making unmerited PR splashes over sustainability is far outweighed by those who are taking significant strides forward and not talking about it. When faced with the science of climate change and transparency into corporate accountability in 2016, sustainability is simply part of doing business.

Yet many leading companies still shy away from fully embracing their sustainability stories.  Excellent, groundbreaking work is happening across the private sector with no-one around to hear. To re-philosophize the old saying… if a tree grows in a deforestation zone, and no one is around to hear the re-surging wildlife, does it make an impact?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Corporate sustainability has reached new heights, driven new innovations and industries, and been embedded at the core of business strategy and systems, yet there are still barriers to sharing this information publicly.

Having just surfaced from taking a deep dive into Environmental Defense Fund’s 10-year history of working with Walmart, I’m particularly focused on all the great corporate sustainability stories that need to be told. I was also encouraged to see this theme emerge at the recent GreenBiz16 conference and in their follow up article.

Companies are effectively doing a disservice by not getting such messages out there. What if your company is "walking" more than it is "talking"?

Joel Makower, Chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz

As an environmental NGO that has partnered on the ground with leading brands for over 25 years, EDF is keenly aware that companies are often doing considerably more sustainability work than they publicize. Why is this? It could be out of fear of greenwashing; fear of financial stakeholders assuming that mindshare has been taken away from the next quarter’s earnings; or perhaps fear of being perceived as irrelevant to their target audiences.

Let me quickly debunk each excuse using the theme of transparency: Read more

Go Farther, Faster to Cut Truck Pollution

jason_mathersThe U.S. has put in place well-designed policies to cut climate pollution, and, with adopted and proposed policies, the nation’s 2025 climate reduction goals are within reach.  However, we are not there yet, and important work remains.

Big trucks have a critical contribution to make in cutting emissions now and well into the future. Cost-effective technologies are available to significantly reduce fuel use. Conversely, if we don’t take common sense steps today to cut climate-destabilizing emissions from this sector, climate emissions are projected to rise by approximately 15 percent by 2040. This is particularly problematic when you consider that the nation must reduce carbon emissions by at least 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 to prevent severe, potentially catastrophic, levels of climate change. Without further action to cut emissions from heavy-trucks, the sector would consume nearly 40 percent of our national 2050 emissions budget – a level that is clearly not sustainable. Read more

Three Ways to Step Up Corporate Sustainability Leadership

Tom Murray, VP Corporate Partnerships, EDFAt COP21, the governments of almost 200 nations spoke with one voice to fight climate change. Global corporations played a critical role in making this breakthrough moment possible. Now it’s more important than ever that US business leaders continue to lead, sending a powerful message to the world about our commitment to a thriving, clean energy future.

So what can forward-thinking companies do to show leadership on climate and position their firms to succeed in the low-carbon future? Here are three ways that corporate leaders can step up their sustainability efforts in 2016:

1. Set public, science-based emission reduction goals that extend beyond your operations and into your supply chains

business leverageCompanies around the world are increasing their climate leadership and ambition. Announcing big numbers is no longer enough. Greenhouse gas (GHG) targets must be based on what science tells us is required to limit warming and stabilize the climate.

One major corporation that has actively engaged its supply chain is Walmart. Working closely with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the world’s largest retailer exceeded its 5-year goal and reduced 28 million metric tons of GHG from its global supply chain and product life cycles. EDF was on the ground, providing the science and uncovering the GHG hotspots in Walmart’s supply chain. By sending the right demand signals, Walmart was able to engage its vast network of suppliers to unlock innovation and drive emission reductions, proving that big goals drive big innovation.

In addition, Kellogg has announced it plans to cut GHG emissions by 65% across its own operations, and for the first time, work with suppliers to cut supply chain emissions by 50% by 2050.

Leading companies recognise that today’s environmental challenges are too big to tackle on their own. Taking a systems-approach means looking beyond the four walls of your company, collaborating with key supply chain partners, and sending a clear demand signal for sustainable products and practices across your supply chain. Read more