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Can a discount change consumer choices for the better?

Walmart and healthcare insurance provider Humana are betting yes.

In a program touted as a first-of-its-kind partnership, Humana customers will get a 5% discount on healthy food choices at Walmart.

Via PRNewswire.com:

Walmart and HumanaVitality Partner for First-of-its-Kind Healthier Food Program Designed to Incentivize Wellness in America

Beginning on Oct. 15, more than one million HumanaVitality members who shop at Walmart will be eligible for a new program which offers a five percent savings on products that qualify for Walmart’s Great For You icon, including fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy.

This program is asking, will consumers buy more healthy food if we reduce the price barriers?

Which brings up what I think it a far more interesting question.

Why is it that apples are costlier than chips in the first place?

It’s not that the apples are expensive, really. It’s that the chips are cheaper, because of subsidies.

The question I’d like to see answered is:  What do consumer buying choices look like when incentives for making healthy food affordable are evenly matched with subsidies that allow  junk food to be so cheap?

While this is a little afield from my normal Sustainability posts, bear with me.

What if the question were instead, “Can a discount change consumer choices for the greener?

It takes us to the same place.

Like, say, with renewable energy sources.

We could just as easily ask : Why is clean, renewable power costlier than fossil-based fuels in the first place?

The answer is, it’s not. Fossil-fuels are cheaper because they are subsidized.

Worldwide, fossil-fuel is subsidized at six times the rate for renewables, according to the 2011 World Energy Outlook.

But grid parity–the point when renewable energy costs less than fossil-based fuels is coming, due to rapid advances in renewable energy technologies. It’s already a reality today in India, Spain and Italy.

(Update! Solar is cheaper than fossil in Massachusetts too.)

The playing field will look different once apples–I mean renewables–are on an even playing field with less-healthy, less-sustainable choices.

So, back to Walmart and Humana. What’s in it for them to discount apples?

If the bet pans out (and the research says it will): healthier, happier, loyal customers all around.

I support most anything that encourages consumers to buy healthier food. (If today’s Mark Bittman column linking Alzheimer’s disease to junk food doesn’t turn you off corn chips, I don’t know what will.)

I’m hopeful that the research that comes out of this partnership will help move Americans to buy more apples.

And by extension, support a shift towards supporting economically prudent, sustainable choices in other arenas, like energy.

Thanks to Jonathan Low for his post that alerted me to this story.

 

 

Sports apparel maker Puma is giving leather the boot.

After calculating the true, full end-to-end cost of including different materials in its products, Puma announced in June that it is phasing out leather from its products.

(I missed this news in the whole Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development conference media avalanche so I’m just catching up on it now.)

Puma is one of the few companies that has committed to publishing an environmental profit and loss statement. Its first report in November 2011 attaches monetary costs to the environmental impact of each step in its operations and supply chains.

To its credit, the company has decided that leather costs too much in environmental impact, so it won’t be used anymore.

Via ft.com:

Puma to kick leather into touch
Puma will have to stop using leather in its famous football boots and trainers because it is such an environmentally damaging product, the sportswear company’s executive chairman has said.

The measure showed the production and processing of raw materials was the biggest contributor to Puma’s environmental footprint, said Mr Zeitz, “with leather being the biggest impact driver”.

That is partly because cattle ranching soaks up water supplies and requires land to be cleared, which can affect plant and wildlife species, and also because of the chemicals and contaminants associated with leather tanneries.

But it’s important to remember that Puma isn’t really focused on “zero leather.”

Pulling leather out of the equation lets the company continue to produce goods, probably more goods, for increased revenues.

Just with a lighter carbon footprint overall.

As a society, in the pursuit of growth and enterprise, we as a society tend to go for “more.”

Reducing or ceasing consumption is not a popular topic of conversation, but it is an important one.

In the meantime, I think that efforts from companies like Puma to get to  “less” represent steps in the right direction to a more sustainable future.

Mark your calendars.

Here are upcoming NYC & Northern NJ events centered on Business Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, and Social Enterprise.

Sept. 21
“Springing beyond Rio+20: Toward a True Global Compact for Sustainable Development”
Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise
Madison, NJ
view.fdu.edu/default.aspx?id=5033

Sept. 21
GoGreenNYC
NYC
newyork.gogreenconference.net/program
@gogreenconf

Sept. 24-30
Climate Week NYC
www.climateweeknyc.org
@ClimateWeekNYC

Oct 2-3
COMMIT!Forum 2012
CR Magazine
www.commitforum.com
@commitforum

Oct. 3
2012 Innovation Summit: “Sustainability through Innovation”
FDU’s Institute of Enterpreneurship/The Institute for Sustainable Enterprise
Madison, NJ
view.fdu.edu/default.aspx?id=3712

Oct. 5
2012 Social Enterprise Conference
Columbia Business School
NYC
www.columbiasocialenterprise.org/conference2012/
@SEProgram

Oct. 15-19
After Rio+20: Moving Beyond 2015:Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties in a Post Rio+20 Future
Ramapo College Masters Program in Sustainability Studies
Mahwah, NJ
afterrioplus20.eventbrite.com

Nov. 9
Global Conference for Social Change: Making the Business Case for Sustainability
NYC Stern School of Business/Foundation for Social Change
NYC
www.stern.nyu.edu/experience-stern/news-events/global-conference-change-2012
foundationchange.org
@FoundChange

 

Are we there yet?

Malcolm Gladwell taught us all to look for those moments when great ideas take off like a virus. Seemingly all of a sudden, the accumulation of small actions snowball into large-scale change.

He calls them tipping points in his book of the same name.

Have we reached the “tipping point” for when the Sustainability conversation swings past “optional” to “business critical and here’s how we are doing it”?

MIT Sloan Management Review skated close to it, but pulled the punch with Nears a Tipping Point” in its February 2012 report:

Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point

“The data suggest that the sustainability movement is nearing a tipping point, the point at which a substantial portion of companies are not only seeing the need for sustainable business practices but are also deriving financial benefits from these activities.

Almost a third (31%) of companies say sustainable business practices now contribute to their profits, and 70% say it’s now permanently embedded in their management strategy.

Some 70% of respondents who say their companies have put sustainability on the  management agenda say they have done so in the past six years–and from this group, 20% say it’s happened in the past two years.

(If you are just skimming, turn to page 3 for a bar chart that looks a lot–a lot–like the famous hockey stick graph describing our earth’s rising temperature.)

Since then, I’ve been keeping an eye on the increased buzz and a huge increase in corporate reporting and rankings.

Which Mark Gunther wrote about last week on Greenbiz.com:

Why Sustainability Rankings Matter

This has been a big week for corporate sustainability rankings, with the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project releasing news reports.

Greenbiz’s Heather Clancy wrote a really nice write-up on the CDP report. She pegs the pressures being brought to bear on businesses to take action in the absence of government leadership:

“The new ‘normal’ for businesses is a period of high uncertainty, subdued growth and volatile commodity prices. If the regulatory certainty that tips significant long term investment decisions doesn’t come soon, businesses’ ability to plan and act, particularly around energy, supply chain and risk could be anything but ‘normal’.”

So, more momentum, more actions by more organizations, more media attention.

All well and good, but is it enough?Are we there yet?

I’m not sure, and I’m not sure we’ll know until we’re on the other side.

If we are truly at a point where most businesses, worldwide, are acknowledging, planning for, and acting to mitigate their climate change impact, I’ll be a happy camper.

Government support and structure will also play a key role. (In the U.S., we’ll know more on that score on Nov. 7.)

Then we’ll have to make the same shift with American consumers.

Won’t it be something when responsibly and prudently conserving our world’s natural resources will be the norm?

I sure hope so. And soon.

Shall we blame it on the rain?

Or maybe point at melting icecaps, rising ocean levels, tornadoes, tsunamis, and blistering drought?

Whatever the catalyst, many of the world’s biggest businesses are wide awake and moving on the climate change challenge.

They get that the world needs to slow down greenhouse gas emissions–pronto–or there won’t be nearly as nice a world for anyone who wants to run a business.

Not to mention live happily or raise kids.

That’s what I heard over and over yesterday from business leaders around the globe on Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) web conference.

CDP is a worldwide non-profit independent coalition of businesses committed to reporting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable water use.

The call was timed to coincide with CDP’s latest climate change report on its S&P 500 members:  “Accelerating Change to a Lower Carbon Future”.

Everyone on this web conference is fully on board that Sustainability progress is explicitly linked to business success.  So no surprises there. But what did surprise me was the candor with which they spoke about everything else.

There was frank talk about U.S. consumption patterns and foot-dragging on energy initiatives, the need for developing countries to be able to grow, and sobering data about how close we are to the 2-degrees point of no return.

One question really caught my attention was this: How do we enroll leaders for change at companies who don’t stand to benefit in the short term? (The question didn’t get any answers on the call, but I’m not sure there is one other than a combination of incentive carrots and regulatory sticks from government.)

A highlights video of the 2-hour call hasn’t been made available yet, but in the meantime, he’s an excellent write-up by BusinessWeek senior editor and content chief Diane Brady. She also ably moderated the call.

Via businessweek.com:

Climate Change Becomes a Business Reality

The takeaway from the discussions today with a mix of business leaders and investors at the CDP Global Climate Change Forum, which I moderated from New York, is that growing private-sector efforts to reduce greenhouse gases simply can’t move the needle on its own.What’s needed is government action to curb emissions through everything from taxes, carbon caps, and credits that can be traded, as well as incentives to invest in projects and products that may not pay off for years.

Businesses understand that climate change is real, that it is irrevocably changing our planet, and that they hold significant responsibility to make it better. Fewer emissions. Less water. Decreased pollution. Restored ecosystems. Healthier workplaces and homes.

Now that it’s a becoming reality for the business world, we need to ensure that the U.S. government is on board as well. And in serious action.

That’s where we all come in as citizens.

Follow the money.

That’s not only good journalism. It’s also a good way to uncover inconsistencies between what companies say and what they do.

An updated May 2012 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, A Climate of Corporate Control, investigates how 28 U.S. companies talk about their sustainability actions with one hand, and where they spend money with the other.

Sometimes, like in the case of Nike, all the messages match. Other times, such as with energy companies, they don’t.

It’s an interesting read about how the money U.S. companies spend to support or discount  Climate Change science influences public opinion and shapes  policy decisions.

Via Union of Concerned Scientists website:

The 2012 UCS report, A Climate of Corporate Control, looks at statements and actions on climate science and policy by 28 U.S. companies, shows how these contributions can be problematic, and suggests steps that Congress, the public, the media, and companies themselves can take to address the problem.

In other words, a major corporation may be saying one thing in its Sustainability Report, but saying something different or spending money to influence another point of view elsewhere.

Like this:

Some corporations are contradictory in their actions, expressing concern about the threat of climate change in some venues—such as company websites, Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, annual reports, or statements to Congress—while working to weaken policy responses to climate change in others.

As customers, shareholders, and business owners, we hold power to encourage more transparent, factual conversations with the companies we do business with, invest in, and support with our loyalty.

It’s up to us to start them.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Last night President Obama declared that tackling climate change is good for our country, our citizens, our economy and our planet.

Via the New York Times:

Obama Counterpunches “Climate Change is Not a Hoax”

“And, yes,” the president said, “my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet – because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future. And in this election you can do something about it.”

Not that he’s been sitting around. In spite of–and despite–Congressional energy policy gridlock, the Executive branch has been moving forward on energy independence, security and job creation.

Like this Aug. 30 Executive Order to clear roadblocks that have held back private sector innovation and investment.

Via Whitehouse.gov:

Aug. 30 White House Executive Order Signed by President Obama to Accelerate Energy Efficiency

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to promote American manufacturing by helping to facilitate investments in energy efficiency at industrial facilities, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Read this Greenbiz.com article explaining the Executive Order:

White House Efficiency Plan Will Up Output, Curb Emissions
The Executive Order aims to help address persistent regulatory, policy, and institutional barriers that have long-prevented proven efficiency technologies from being more fully utilized in the United States.

It also facilitates increased industrial energy efficiency investment through interagency coordination and convening of national and regional stakeholders.

For their part, business leaders aren’t waiting around either.

Via Insideclimatenews.org:

Major Corporations Aren’t Waiting for Washington to Reduce Emissions and Save Money

While Congress has halted work on federal climate legislation, many U.S. business are stepping up to reduce emissions.

With climate policy paralyzed in Washington, a number of leading U.S. corporations are going it alone, squeezing big reductions of climate-changing emissions from their operations and supply chains. With stakeholder criticism and other pressures building, more and more are also releasing rigorous climate data in their financial reports and enlisting third-party firms to make sure it is accurate.

Strong governmental, scientific, and public sector collaboration are a winning strategy.

 

Science tells us what. Policy tells us what to do about it.

Human-caused climate change is happening and it’s hurting the world we live on.

So why aren’t more citizens, businesses, and governments taking action?

I attended a lecture last night on just that topic at Rutgers University by Dr. Michael E. Mann, climate scientist and author of  “The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”

Dr. Mann started off stating that climate change science is not controversial.  Climate change science rests on established and well-understood facts and validated models.

The earth’s climate is changing rapidly, and perhaps irreversibly, due to human-created carbon emissions into our atmosphere.

With that out of the way, he recounted his reluctant evolution from policy-eschewing scientist to a front-line climate science  defender.

Think Attorney General subpoenas, Congressional inquiries, and even death threats.

All waged by policymakers, politicians, and those with financial interests in keeping climate change science from being accepted as basic fact.

It’s a fascinating story and I strongly recommend the book.

Watch a condensed 16-minute version of this same talk from his Dec. 2011 TEDx talk:

TEDxPSU – Michael Mann – A Look Into Our Climate: Past To Present To Future

And about that hockey stick?

Kudos for my alma mater’s student newspaper The Daily Targum for covering the well-attended event:

Author makes case for rising temperatures

Michael E. Mann, a professor in the Department of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, came to speak about his book, “The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines,” yesterday at the Cook Campus Center.

 “The hockey stick is a graph that my co-authors and I published more than a decade ago, which was an attempt to find how the temperature of the earth has changed over 1,000 years,” Mann said.

“It quickly became an icon in the climate change debate because it told such a simple story,” he said. “You didn’t need to understand the physics of how a climate model works to understand what this graph is telling you.”

His talk ended on the positive note that there is still time, not a lot,  to take action before we hit the point of no return. (Wonky but worth it.)

But first, we need to stop arguing about the science.

Learn More:

Aug. 30 White House Executive Order Signed by President Obama to Accelerate Energy Efficiency

Sept 6. Greenbiz.com: Article White House Efficiency Plan Will Up Output, Curb Emissions
(Greenbiz.com is a for-profit online news source covering Sustainable Business and related topics)

Sept. 7 New York Times: Obama Counterpunches “Climate Change is Not a Hoax”

Sept 7 Inside Climate News: Major Corporations Aren’t Waiting for Washington to Reduce Emissions and Save Money
(Inside News is a non-profit, non-partisan news source)