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Green Links: Friday Round-up

October 18th, 2013 | Posted by Claire Sommer in Green Links - (0 Comments)

So much good stuff.

DVR Alert! A new “Climate Tipping Points” TV series starts Sunday at 9pm EDT http://wxug.us/18tli 

If you want great cities, grow good citizens. Cogent truth from future-thinker Alex Steffen http://www.alexsteffen.com/2013/10/reboot-the-civic-sphere/ …

Super piece on perverse outcomes of pay & price transparency, for corporate responsibility and metrics folks
http://www.thelowdownblog.com/2013/10/open-season-on-ceo-pay.html …

Incongruity meet sustainability: Sustainable business leaders call on Obama to approve Keystone XL pipeline?
http://goo.gl/fb/72A6K

Meme tracker: Carbon Tracker says that climate communication memes like “unburnable” and “stranded assets” are showing up in sell-side conversations. http://shar.es/EEMKp

Air pollution causally linked to cancer. What are the implications for the U.S. EPA, climate action and sustainable business? http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/10/17/2795791/air-pollution-cancer/ …

Fuzzy and unclear no more. A new Green Building certification puts rigor to Net Zero Energy certification http://fb.me/10D8PuPMc 

Financial astrologers? Surely it’s snark? http://on.ft.com/GSItEp  Or a re-tread of this 2007 article?: http://on.ft.com/1hZJWEG

 

Big Data is a big deal. But it’s not the Be All and End All.

Just because you can analyze everything, doesn’t mean you should.

Or that it will help you solve your problem.

Here’s Part 7 of my co-authored series on Sustainability Metrics Pitfalls for Greenbiz.com.

Dodging Big Data’s big problems

Many people are very high on Big Data. Perhaps they are right to be. Like many of the earlier pitfalls, but even more so here, are there things this super-powered use of numbers might be blocking us from seeing? As Big Data lets the forest become more understandable (both metaphorically and literally), will we miss more lessons from the trees?

The increasing emphasis on data, technology and efficiency will not make it any easier to ignore the still commonly downplayed social and equity side of sustainability. But perhaps, if privacy and the other above concerns with Big Data are faced with foresight, creativity and an enhanced sense of fairness, we might find that they actually help us move towards sustainability, surprising the skeptics among us.

And then we might possibly avoid the common fate of earlier breakthrough technologies: one step forward, followed by a half step back — at the least.

Just when you think you’ve got a system, life throws you a curve ball.

Here’s Part 6 of my co-authored series on Sustainability Metrics Pitfalls for Greenbiz.com.

We dive into how Sabremetrics has changed the business of baseball, and come up with practical resources for Sustainability practitioners to keep their eye on the ball.

What “Moneyball” can teach us about sustainability metrics

One theme of this article (and to a degree, the entire series) is to consider what you’re not measuring and the possible relevance to sustainability. Other than the education field, probably nothing shows this more starkly than sports.

Life’s complicated. That’s the simple part.

Here’s Part 5 of my co-authored series on Sustainability Metrics Pitfalls for Greenbiz.com. We dive deeper into Complexity scholarship and offer some practical resources for Sustainability practitioners to make things simpler.

Why Sustainability Metrics Need to Mix Simplicity With Complexity

Over the course of this series, we’ve described pitfalls where steps that look like the right course sometimes backfire. Life cycle analysis, for instance, may lead to a surprise about the assumed high priority of recycling for every item.

But systems thinking is hard. So in this piece, while we continue to provide additional reasons why it’s essential, we add some “practically idealistic” ideas to make it more feasible.

 

The devil’s in the (complicated) details.

You know the old joke that if a problem can be fixed with money, it’s not a problem?

Same goes for measuring Sustainability. If a measurement problem can be fixed with numbers, it wasn’t much of a problem to start with.

Real problems are complex.

Here’s Part 4 of my co-written series on Sustainability Metrics for Greenbiz.com:

Why Complexity Matters When Measuring Sustainability

We note that systems thinking is starting to come up in sustainable business conversations, but remain concerned about persistent mindsets that ignore complexity. Without it, sustainability practitioners are unequipped to grapple with a point that should come up early in metrics work: “Did we just miss something very important?”

Too many articles implicitly distill big problems into linear, simpler solutions. While the latter have an important place, the large reliance on them fails the global test — in all senses of the term — that our world’s challenges demand.

Green isn’t always what it seems.

AT&T claimed to be the “World’s Record” holder for recycling phones, and paid Guinness for the right to say so.

Fact is, Sprint is far ahead of them, but missed the boat on telling their customers.

What’s the harm? Well, greenwashing erodes customer trust.

Greenwashing makes consumers feel tricked and less likely to believe genuinely green claims that might positively influence their choices.

Hat tip to Marc Gunther for his reporting.

Via SustainableBusiness.com:

Sorry, Wrong Number: AT&T’s Recycling Claim Doesn’t Add Up

AT&T says it collected 3 million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. Sprint says it collected 11 million in 2011–an average of more than 200,000 a week, easily topping AT&T’s so-called record.

Gunther uses this example as an opportunity to talk about how businesses can do a better job of assessing, counting and reporting on their environmental impacts.

What’s needed here are common metrics and better transparency, as well a concept called sustainability context. Sustainability context that seeks to put corporate claims in the context of what the planet’s limits are when it comes to greenhouse gas reductions, water usage and the like.

Context is a fascinating development that brings absolute limits and thresholds into the mix.

“How many?” leaps beyond “Out of how many?” to the real question we face: “How much can the planet handle?”

Now things are getting interesting.

People are really bad at math.

When you start paying attention, you start noticing all the ways that humans miscount, ignore, dismiss, subvert or otherwise mangle the numbers we use to draw conclusions and make decisions.

The problem is, we think we’re being rational. But we’re not.

This kind of cognitive dissonance makes my head hurt. Especially when it comes to how we as a collective society are driving headlong towards the Climate Change cliff.

Why on earth do we continue to make such terrible, terrible choices?

Risk expert David Ropeik has a bead on the answer. He writes about the choices we make that are against our best interests and in spite of evidence to the contrary:

Risk Perception

We worry about some things more than the evidence warrants (vaccines, nuclear radiation, genetically modified food), and less about some threats than the evidence warns (climate change, obesity, using our mobiles when we drive).

That produces what I have labeled The Perception Gap, the gap between our fears and the facts, which is a huge risk in and of itself.

The Perception Gap …produces social policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what in fact threatens us the most (we spend more to protect ourselves from terrorism than heart disease)…which in effect raises our overall risk.

Ropeik’s research is so satisfying to me because it explains why people act the way they do–sometimes inexplicably, often quixotically, frequently capriciously.

These kinds of inquires have led me to a writing partnership with Matt Polsky for GreenBiz.com. Our article series examines the pitfalls of sustainability measurements by drawing on examples from outside the business world.

Here’s part 1: What Sustainability Metrics Can Learn from School Reform

 

Sustainability measurement is counting what you care about.

That can take any number of forms.

What should get measured? Why, how, and for whom?

Here’s a link to eight articles that add new perspectives on the Sustainability conversation, and where the discussion might go from here.

I was happily in attendance for the talk mentioned in #6 on the convergence of business and biodiversity conservation and blogged about it here.

Via EarthPeopleCo.com:

 8 Articles That Will Make You Rethink Sustainability

Short (except for #5) but powerful potential thought-shifters on or related to sustainability

My thanks to Matt Polsky for sharing the link. He is a sustainability consultant and Senior Fellow for Sustainability Innovation & Multidisciplinary Thought with the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Bathroom tissue is a great Sustainability topic. 

Because every American household and practically every business buys it.

I’m pleased to hear that major paper company Cascades is expanding its commercial line of 100% post-consumer, unbleached Moka bathroom tissue.

I blogged here about the company’s January 2012 tip-toe into this niche-offering for the “dark green” environmentally conscious consumer.

(For the record, I am pro-bathroom tissue, just better bathroom tissue.)

Based on favorable response and demand, Cascades is now offering Moka in larger rolls and large-dispenser formats.

Press release via CSRwire.com:

Cascades Tissue Group Expands Moka Line as Demand for Unbleached, 100 Percent Recycled Bathroom Tissue Increases

Since its official launch in January 2012, Cascades Moka bath tissue has also been made available to corporate and individual purchasers alike through Office Depot. It recently won the Novae Quebec Eco-design Contest, which recognizes the smartest sustainable design ideas. The interest and growth for Moka is an indication that customers are now willing to forgo their traditional white bathroom tissue for a greener option.

The press release offers impressive statistics for their recycled paper products and then points readers to the Cascades “Sustain” site for more information.

Cascades Moka gets 80 percent of its pulp mix from post-consumer material and 20 percent from recovered corrugated boxes. The new pulp mix used in this product offers a reduction in overall environmental impact by at least 25 percent when compared to the pulp mix used in the Cascades 100% recycled white bath tissue – already regarded as a leading sustainable product. The product is also offset with 100 percent Green-e® certified renewable wind electricity; saving 2,500 pounds of CO2 emissions for each ton produced.

A projected 3.4 million1 tons of bath tissue are used annually in the U.S., 53 percent of which is made from virgin fiber sources2. Cascades estimates that if a complete conversion was made to their environmentally preferable 100 percent recycled Moka bath tissue, it would save 30.6 million trees and 68 million GJ of energy annually, which is equal to the annual consumption of 619,811 households3.

Non-virgin fiber sourcing, lower CO2 emissions, fewer chemicals–all good.

But how good? Here’s where Sustainability Context comes into play.

“How do these numbers fit into an overall bigger picture?”

For starters, each of these numbers, as a numerator, needs a denominator. See Marc Gunther’s Fortune article for more on this idea.

Out of how much: What percentage of Cascades’ overall production and revenues do Moka products represent? How many trees are farmed every year?

Compared to what: What similar products are available to North American customers? European customers?

Until when: Do the Moka line and other recycled paper products reduce Cascades overall energy consumption? Is the company moving towards defined, absolute energy and CO2 expenditure targets?

Show me the money: In what ways and by how much does the Moka line benefit Cascades’ business bottom line?

Much harder questions.

Sustainability metrics in context are relevant not only to business customers buying Cascades products, but also the company’s supply chain partners, stakeholders, investors, governmental connections, environmental groups, and competitors.

Not just for numbers’ sake, but to help purchasers at every step of the supply chain make better decisions.

A new study partnership is underway that will hopefully produce new tools for measuring Sustainability objectives in general, with a focus on the ubiquitous bathroom tissue and towel market.

Via Greenbiz.com:

What Companies May Gain from P&G Study on Sustainability Metrics

Proctor & Gamble and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced they’ve begun a collaborative research and development study that…will focus on metrics within corporations’ manufacturing facilities and their supply chains.

The Cincinnati-based consumer products giant is teaming up with researchers at EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory (NRMRL) in a five-year study that aims to develop a scientific approach to analyzing and measuring sustainability within its tissue and towel products division, said Annie Weisbrod, Ph.D., a principal scientist at P&G.

While 100% hundred percent recycled bathroom tissue is readily available for home use, putting unbleached and beige Moka on the supermarket shelf would be an additional, greener choice.

If it takes off, a product that’s better for the earth and our health can also be a cheaper choice.

What do you say, Cascades?

Counting by itself is meaningless.

Learning that a company sent 30 fewer tons of trash to the landfill this year  doesn’t help you understand how a company is doing in the bigger picture.

But it’s a start.

The next step  is to put those numbers into context.

Like asking,  “Out of How Many?” and “Compared to What?”

In the above example, we might want to know what the total landfill tonnage is, and year-over-year change. How does this year’s reduction compare to how similar and nearby organizations perform?

Does this change represents a beneficial or harmful effect to the local economy and environment? What is the landfill’s capacity and status?

Where did that trash go instead of the landfill, and did that have a greater negative impact? And so on.

Mark MacElroy, founder and executive director at the Center for Sustainable Organizations, is one of the forerunners bringing Sustainability Context into the larger conversation.

A good starting point is his July 2011 Sustainable Brands article, Sustainability Context – What Is It?

From there, a new August 2012 article from Fortune writer Marc Gunther applies these principles to a comparison between how telecomm giants Sprint and AT&T report their sustainability metrics.

Via MarcGunther.com:

Sprint vs. AT&T: Metrics That Matter

It’s great that 3 million cell phones were collected for reuse or recycling, but how many cell phones did AT&T ship? Nice that 50.1 million pounds of scrap was kept out of landfill, but how much scrap, in total, did the company generate? 5,114 alternative-fuel vehicles sounds like a lot, but I’d be even more impressed if AT&T had a total of 10,000. If it has 100,000, or 300,000, I’m a lot less impressed.

Put another way, Gunther says, numbers without their context are “numerators in search of denominators.”

I think that’s a neat way to frame the initial steps of a complex issue.

If this sounds a lot like materiality, you’re right. Knowing what’s important, or material, about a company’s performance is chained to putting data into context for making better decisions.*

(*For more on this connection, McElroy, co-authoring with corporate sustainability architect Bill BaueGRI and Sustainability Context: Explain It Like We’re Four)