Net Impact Soap Box

Monday, May 12, 2008

Corporate Reputation: Does Being Ethical Matter?

Companies spend huge amounts of money to be 'socially responsible.' Do consumers reward them for it? And how much?

May 12, 2008

For corporations, social responsibility has become a big business. Companies spend billions of dollars doing good works -- everything from boosting diversity in their ranks to developing eco-friendly technology -- and then trumpeting those efforts to the public.

But does it pay off?

Many companies hope consumers will pay a premium for products made with higher ethical standards. But most companies plunge in without testing that assumption or some other crucial questions. Will buyers actually reward good corporate behavior by paying more for products -- and will they punish irresponsible behavior by paying less? If so, how much? And just how far does a company really need to go to win people over?

To find out, we conducted a series of experiments. We showed consumers the same products -- coffee and T-shirts -- but told one group the items had been made using high ethical standards and another group that low standards had been used. A control group got no information.

In all of our tests, consumers were willing to pay a slight premium for the ethically made goods. But they went much further in the other direction: They would buy unethically made products only at a steep discount.

What's more, consumer attitudes played a big part in shaping those results. People with high standards for corporate behavior rewarded the ethical companies with bigger premiums and punished the unethical ones with bigger discounts.

Finally, we discovered that companies don't necessarily need to go all-out with social responsibility to win over consumers. If a company invests in even a small degree of ethical production, buyers will reward it just as much as a company that goes much further in its efforts.

Below, we'll look at these tests in more detail. But first, a definition -- and a caveat.

For our purposes, "ethically produced" goods are those manufactured under three conditions. First, the company is considered to have progressive stakeholder relations, such as a commitment to diversity in hiring and consumer safety. Second, it must follow progressive environmental practices, such as using eco-friendly technology. Finally, it must be seen to demonstrate respect for human rights -- no child labor or forced labor in overseas factories, for instance.

Now the warning, which may not come as much of a surprise. Even though we think ethical production can lead to higher sales, not all consumers will be won over by the efforts. Some may prefer a lower price even if they know a product is made unethically.

With that in mind, here's a closer look at our results.


Our first experiment asked two questions. How much more will people pay for an ethically produced product? And how much less are they willing to spend for one they think is unethical?

To test these questions, we gathered a random group of 97 adult coffee drinkers and asked them how much they would pay for a pound of beans from a certain company. We used a brand that's not available in North America, so none of the participants would be familiar with it.

But before the people answered, we asked them to read some information about the company's production standards. One group got positive ethical information, and one group negative; the control group got neutral information, similar to what shoppers would typically know in a store.

After reading about the company and its coffee, the people told us the price they were willing to pay on an 11-point scale, from $5 to $15. The results? The mean price for the ethical group ($9.71 per pound) was significantly higher than that of the control group ($8.31) or the unethical group ($5.89).

Meanwhile, as the numbers show, the unethical group was demanding to pay significantly less for the product than the control group. In fact, the unethical group punished the coffee company's bad behavior more than the ethical group rewarded its good behavior. The unethical group's mean price was $2.42 below the control group's, while the ethical group's mean price was $1.40 above. So, negative information had almost twice the impact of positive information on the participants' willingness to pay.

For companies, the implications of this study -- albeit limited -- are apparent. Efforts to move toward ethical production, and promote that behavior, appear to be a wise investment. In other words, if you act in a socially responsible manner, and advertise that fact, you may be able to charge slightly more for your products.

On the other hand, it appears to be even more important to stay away from goods that are unethically produced. Consumers may still purchase your products, but only at a substantial discount.


Our next test looked at degrees of ethical behavior. For instance, are consumers willing to pay more for a product that is 100% ethically produced versus one that is 50% or 25% ethically produced?

To find out, we tested consumers' responses to T-shirts from a fictitious manufacturer. We divided 218 people into five groups and presented them with information about the company and its product. One group was told the shirts were 100% organic cotton, one group 50% and one group 25%. Another group -- the "unethical" one -- was told there was no organic component. The control group got no information.

In addition, all the groups but the control were shown a short paragraph detailing the detrimental effects of nonorganic cotton production on the environment.

Then the participants were asked how much they were willing to pay for the shirts on a 16-point scale, ranging from $15 to $30. As in the first test, we found that people were willing to pay a premium for all levels of ethical production, and they would discount an unethical product more deeply than they would reward an ethical one.

But consumers didn't reward increasing levels of ethical production with increasing price premiums. The 25% organic shirts got a mean price of $20.72 -- not much different from the 50% ($20.44) and 100% ($21.21).

It seems that once companies hit a certain ethical threshold, consumers will reward them by paying higher prices for their products. Any ethical acts past that point might reinforce the company's image, but don't make people willing to pay more. (Of course, if 100% ethical becomes expected among consumers, anything less may be punished.)


In our final experiment, we looked at the attitudes people bring to the table. If consumers expect that companies will behave ethically, will that change how much they reward and punish behavior? What if they expect that companies are just in it for the money, maximizing profits and not taking ethics into account?

Once again, we tested coffee drinkers -- 84 this time -- and split them into groups that received positive, negative and no ethical information about the manufacturer and its methods. But first we measured the people's attitudes toward corporations and labeled them high-expectation or low-expectation.

Once again we found that -- regardless of their expectations -- consumers were willing to pay more for ethical goods than unethical ones, or ones about which they had no information. Likewise, negative information had a much bigger bearing on consumer response than positive information. People punished unethical goods with a bigger discount (about $2 below the control group) than they rewarded ethical ones with premiums (about $1 above the control group).

So, what effect did consumer attitudes have? People with high expectations doled out bigger rewards and punishments than those with low expectations. Those with high expectations were willing to pay a mean of $11.59 per pound for the ethical coffee, versus $9.90 for those with low expectations. And the high-expectations group punished the unethical coffee with a price of $6.92, versus $8.44 for low-expectations consumers.

The lessons are clear. Companies should segment their market and make a particular effort to reach out to buyers with high ethical standards, because those are the customers who can deliver the biggest potential profits on ethically produced goods.

Read more!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

'Genocide' Olympics

April 24, 2008

When it comes to doing business in China, Sudan, and Myanmar, will constructive engagement work, or is divestment the answer? How can corporations operate in countries with corrupt government regimes and improve human rights? This Economist article suggests the trend among human rights circles is toward collaboration among governments, NGOs, and corporations.

By the standards of any previous boss of Coca-Cola, Neville Isdell is remarkably enlightened. Under his leadership, the soft-drinks giant has adopted a strategy of extending access to water supplies in the developing world, especially in Africa, where Mr Isdell spent 26 years. It is an active member of several organisations committed to promoting human rights, including the United Nations Global Compact. Even so, Mr. Isdell now finds himself accused by human-rights activists of “complicity” with one of the world’s most prominent human-rights abusers—the government of China.

No doubt sponsoring this summer’s Beijing Olympics once seemed like a good idea to Coca-Cola and a gaggle of other big companies such as General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, McDonald’s and Samsung. The marketing benefits of the Olympics are believed to be huge, which is why Coca-Cola has been doing it continuously for 80 years.

Yet by branding the Beijing games the “genocide Olympics”, after the Chinese government turned a blind eye to the Sudanese government’s atrocities in Darfur, human-rights activists are threatening to lay waste to the $1 billion or so that sponsors have paid—and turn what they hoped would be an association with a joyous celebration of sport into a tricky exercise in reputational damage limitation. Firms that criticise China publicly over human rights risk antagonising not just its government, but also its people—a billion-odd potential customers. Recent protests in China against Carrefour, a French retailer, in response to pro-Tibet demonstrations in France, highlight the dangers.

Coca-Cola is doing some good things in Darfur, from providing i\mmediate relief on the ground to meeting “stakeholders” to try to figure out solutions to the crisis. But is this enough to buy Coca-Cola the right to remain silent in public about China? As Mr Isdell puts it, “rather than make public statements, we have chosen a more direct and, in our view, more effective route to help address the staggering human suffering in Darfur.” Not good enough, retorts Human Rights Watch, along with other campaigning NGOs.

It is tempting to dismiss this as another example of the old divide between political activists who favour protest and business realists who favour “constructive engagement”, which has cropped up dozens of times—not least during the debate over sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Yet the battle over the Olympics paints a false picture of the current relationship between business and human-rights activists. What is striking today is how often activists, big firms and governments are in agreement about the importance of human rights, and are working together to advance them.

This new consensus is reflected by the lack of serious opposition to a new report by John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative on Human Rights, which proposes a new framework that states clearly that firms have a responsibility actively to respect human rights. If this is adopted by the Human Rights Council in June, as seems likely, it will be the first time that the UN human-rights machinery has taken a substantive position on companies’ responsibilities. Mr Ruggie hopes for greater clarity over the duties of firms and governments, and a better balance between protecting the legitimate interests of investors with the needs of host states to discharge their human-rights obligations.

The adoption of a UN standard is likely to trigger a new spurt of activity in defining best practice, much of it involving collaboration between businesses and NGOs. This will build on work in recent years, which began after Royal Dutch Shell, an oil giant, was embroiled in scandal surrounding the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian activist and writer, in 1995. Among other things, a campaign by Global Witness, an NGO, resulted in the Kimberley Process, which attempts to keep “conflict diamonds” off the market; another collaboration led to a code of practice requiring firms to oversee the human-rights compliance of those responsible for ensuring their security in dangerous places, including government soldiers.

The Global Compact, which obliges signatories to uphold certain basic standards, has also been popular. Over 3,000 companies have signed up, including several in China. Though weakly policed, the compact has some teeth: 335 firms were struck off its list of signatories in 2006.

Chinese firms are slowly becoming more sensitive to human rights, says Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chairman of Anglo American, a mining giant. Rather than criticism, says Sir Mark, Chinese bosses respond far better to patient explanations that older multinationals became supporters of human rights because they learnt to their cost that when those rights are ignored, bad things happen. Despite the Chinese government’s many failings, its promotion of the “harmonious society” is taken seriously by Chinese bosses, says Sir Mark. Invoke this term, he says, and they get the message.

Read more!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Chastised by bloggers, Dell aims to cut down on waste

May 9, 2008

Never doubt that a small group of loud, critical bloggers can change Dell's packaging." Photos published on the internet during Earth Week of a tiny flash drive arriving to a customer in a giant box provoked enough outcry in the blogosphere that Dell is taking immediate steps to reduce packaging waste. The company has sent a directive requesting that envelopes be used for small items, and plans to reduce the size of its boxes in the short term. Says Dell, "Our sincere gratitude goes out to everyone who pointed this irregularity out to us." Which is an awfully polite response, considering Gizmodo's not-so-polite headline about the overpackaging: "Dell's wasteful shipping habits take a steamy dump on the environment."

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Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
May 7, 2008

by Clay Shirky

I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset. It wasn't until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.

This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I've finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus--"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And a little bit at a time they move the article--fighting offstage all the while--from, "Pluto is the ninth planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system."

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we're still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there's an interesting community over here, there's an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can't predict the outputs yet because there's so much complexity.

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you're going. That's the phase we're in now.

Just to pick one example, one I'm in love with, but it's tiny. A couple of weeks one of my students at ITP forwarded me a a project started by a professor in Brazil, in Fortaleza, named Vasco Furtado. It's a Wiki Map for crime in Brazil. If there's an assault, if there's a burglary, if there's a mugging, a robbery, a rape, a murder, you can go and put a push-pin on a Google Map, and you can characterize the assault, and you start to see a map of where these crimes are occurring.

Now, this already exists as tacit information. Anybody who knows a town has some sense of, "Don't go there. That street corner is dangerous. Don't go in this neighborhood. Be careful there after dark." But it's something society knows without society really knowing it, which is to say there's no public source where you can take advantage of it. And the cops, if they have that information, they're certainly not sharing. In fact, one of the things Furtado says in starting the Wiki crime map was, "This information may or may not exist some place in society, but it's actually easier for me to try to rebuild it from scratch than to try and get it from the authorities who might have it now."

Maybe this will succeed or maybe it will fail. The normal case of social software is still failure; most of these experiments don't pan out. But the ones that do are quite incredible, and I hope that this one succeeds, obviously. But even if it doesn't, it's illustrated the point already, which is that someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn't have imagined existing even five years ago.

So that's the answer to the question, "Where do they find the time?" Or, rather, that's the numerical answer. But beneath that question was another thought, this one not a question but an observation. In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: "Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves."

At least they're doing something.

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don't? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn't posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it's not, and that's the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

And I'm willing to raise that to a general principle. It's better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, "If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too." And that's message--I can do that, too--is a big change.

This is something that people in the media world don't understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race--consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you'll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it 's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

And what's astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they're discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they'll take you up on that offer. It doesn't mean that we'll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we'll do it less.

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we're talking about. It's so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let's say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that's going to be a big deal. Don't you?

Well, the TV producer did not think this was going to be a big deal; she was not digging this line of thought. And her final question to me was essentially, "Isn't this all just a fad?" You know, sort of the flagpole-sitting of the early early 21st century? It's fun to go out and produce and share a little bit, but then people are going to eventually realize, "This isn't as good as doing what I was doing before," and settle down. And I made a spirited argument that no, this wasn't the case, that this was in fact a big one-time shift, more analogous to the industrial revolution than to flagpole-sitting.

I was arguing that this isn't the sort of thing society grows out of. It's the sort of thing that society grows into. But I'm not sure she believed me, in part because she didn't want to believe me, but also in part because I didn't have the right story yet. And now I do.

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."

Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won't have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan's Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

It's also become my motto, when people ask me what we're doing--and when I say "we" I mean the larger society trying to figure out how to deploy this cognitive surplus, but I also mean we, especially, the people in this room, the people who are working hammer and tongs at figuring out the next good idea. From now on, that's what I'm going to tell them: We're looking for the mouse. We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.

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boardnetUSA - revolutionizing the way nonprofit boards and new leaders find each other

Want to serve on the board of a nonprofit organization? Check out this site:

boardnetUSA is a website that’s designed to be a marketplace where nonprofits looking to fill board seats can connect with individuals looking to serve on nonprofit boards.

The site is designed to be a common technological platform for a national collaborative network of communities working locally to enhance nonprofit board governance. This growing network of Community Partners work together on common themes of populating board rooms as well as individually developing services tailored to their local market.

The Volunteer Consulting Group, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization in New York City with over 30 years of experience aiding in the development and strengthening of nonprofit organizations, initially developed the concept of boardnetUSA. With assistance from philanthropic and corporate supporters the Volunteer Consulting Group serves as the primary management and coordinating entity of the growing national network that is boardnetUSA.

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Study find meat and dairy create more emissions than miles

Do "food miles" matter? Studies should that it's the realy climate change impact of the food chain is in the energy it takes to produce the fertilizer and pesticides that make the grain that make your meat. Transporting food has a relatively minimal impact.

By Rachel Ehrenberg
May 1, 2008

Diet substance has a greater impact than diet origin on greenhouse gas
emissions. Eat your veggies. Swapping emissions-intensive red meat and dairy for vegetables, chicken or fish can be as powerful as reducing overall food miles.

Buying local certainly reduces the miles food goes before we eat. But consumers aiming to shrink their ecological footprint will get more bang for their environmental buck by eating less red meat and dairy, reports a new study. The analysis finds that transporting food to the consumer accounts for only 4% of food-associated greenhouse gas emissions, while production contributes a hefty 83%.

“There are many good reasons for going local,” comments Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. “But this study is important. Food miles alone are not a reliable indicator of environmental impact.”

For the average U.S. consumer, getting the equivalent of one-seventh of a week’s calories from chicken, fish or vegetables instead of red meat or dairy will do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than buying all local, all the time, the researchers say. Crunching the numbers revealed that delivery to the consumer accounts for only 1 percent of red meat–associated emissions. But the production path to red meat and dairy products is clouded with nitrous oxide and methane emissions, mainly from fertilizer use, manure management and animal digestion.

“Methane and nitrous oxide production are huge in agriculture,” says the study’s first author Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. These greenhouses gases are often left out of similar analyses, which have tended to focus solely on carbon or energy use. “That misses a huge part of the picture,” Weber says.

Weber, who conducted the study with colleague, H. Scott Matthews, notes that they aren’t trying to downplay the benefits of buying local. “I shop locally,” he says. “But there’s been so much emphasis on food miles. We felt it was important to look at the whole life cycle.”

Using data from the U.S. departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation and other sources, Weber and Matthews modeled the total greenhouse gas emissions generated in making and moving all sorts of foods from cereals to fish to cheese. The work, to appear in the May 15 Environmental Science & Technology, paints a broad brush, cautions Weber. Because the model uses Commerce Department data, the food categories are defined by Commerce Department food sectors. So while cheese and milk are considered separately, fruits and vegetables are put in the same category.

Apples and oranges aside, the paper “is an important contribution,” comments Greg Keoleian of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “More quantitative assessments like this are needed to help us understand the consequences of our choices.”

The research highlights how complicated those choices are. “There is no one silver bullet way of reducing climate change,” says the Leopold Center’s Pirog. “These are very complex systems.” He notes that the environmental burden of food goes beyond emissions — fertilizers often impact water quality, for example. And while land use may not be as efficient on a small local farm, if that farm’s beef cattle are eating grass, they may have a lot less environmental baggage than corn-fed cattle from a conventional feedlot. Other choices, such as purchasing heirloom tomatoes, are important for maintaining crop diversity, which makes the agricultural sector less susceptible to diseases and pathogens.

Weber and Matthews’ analysis looks at the hard numbers of getting food to the plate, and paying attention to that path has merit, says Keoleian. But Americans would do well to make those paths less traveled, period, he says. A 2003 study Keoleian conducted with University of Michigan colleague Martin Heller found that 26 percent of edible food in the United States is wasted, uneaten on the plate or left as offerings to the mold gods in the back of the fridge. Upgrading appliances, like refrigerators, can also substantially reduce food-related energy consumption, he says.

If there’s a take-home message, it might be that one-dimensional food choices aren’t very effective, Weber says. Pirog agrees. “As we look at food purchases we need to consider health, safety, the environment, economics and community,” Pirog says.

Overwhelmed? Don’t be. This new study just reemphasizes the sound advice people have been getting since elementary school, Pirog says. “Eat a healthy balanced diet, with a minimum of processed food. Eat a moderate amount of dairy and meat. Eat more whole grains and veggies. Following that advice will probably reduce your carbon footprint.”

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Is the drive for sustainability killing creativity?
May 9, 2008

Austin Williams, author of new book The Enemies of Progress, is convinced it is, but Pooran Desai of BioRegional Quintain has plenty of examples to back his counter-argument.

"Yes, sustainable design is killing creativity."
Austin Williams, Author, The Enemies of Progress

The commonplace assumption underlying even the most anodyne sustainability discussion is that human activity causes harm and should be reined in to suit whatever Nature’s limits allow. If our starting point is that increased human activity is inherently detrimental, then architects are simply in the business of damage limitation.

"No, sustainable design is not killing creativity."
Pooran Desai, Sustainability director, BioRegional Quintain

On the contrary, necessity is indeed the mother of invention and the greatest spur to creativity. There are endless examples of creative, sustainable buildings — ZedFactory’s BedZed, Rogers’ Welsh Assembly building, and Ted Cullinan’s Weald & Downland museum to name but three.

Sustainability has led to an explosion of creativity in every field: in engineering (concentrated solar power, energy from waste, anaerobic digestors, thin-film photovoltaics); materials (cement replacements, recycled plastics); governance (carbon trading, the Merton rule in planning, sustainability managers); supply chain management (One Planet Products, M&S Plan A, B&Q One Planet Home); environmental economics; household gadgets (wind-up radio, the Interflush water-saving device); and transport (car clubs, electric city cars, hybrids, the Oyster card, my zero-waste, zero-carbon waste cooking oil-powered sports car).
"Yes, sustainable design is killing creativity."

The commonplace assumption underlying even the most anodyne sustainability discussion is that human activity causes harm and should be reined in to suit whatever Nature’s limits allow. If our starting point is that increased human activity is inherently detrimental, then architects are simply in the business of damage limitation.

How can architecture maintain the illusion of genuine creativity without challenging this widespread malaise? Crystal ball-gazing, eco-miserablist architect Sue Roaf argues that “everyone needs to futureproof themselves against what lies ahead”, as if whatever it is, it’s bound to be bad.

If we define “creativity”in terms of minimal impact survivalism, then shanty dwellers are wonderfully creative with tarpaulin and string. But coping strategies are nothing to celebrate or emulate. Transforming Nature and social barriers, and not accepting so-called environmental parameters, is what meaningful architectural creativity should be about.

The mantra “less is more” has gone from being a defining moment in modernist thought to the unquestioned orthodoxy of our environmental age. Unfortunately, its progressive content has been stripped away.

Efficiency used to encourage us to design creatively in order to, as Buckminster Fuller implied, do more and more. Now, environmental efficiency states that using less is an end in itself. Sustainability is a moral injunction for restraint. Architecture has become a carbon spreadsheet. In that sense, the essence of imagination is lost.

"No, sustainable design is not killing creativity."

On the contrary, necessity is indeed the mother of invention and the greatest spur to creativity. There are endless examples of creative, sustainable buildings — ZedFactory’s BedZed, Rogers’ Welsh Assembly building, and Ted Cullinan’s Weald & Downland museum to name but three.

Sustainability has led to an explosion of creativity in every field: in engineering (concentrated solar power, energy from waste, anaerobic digestors, thin-film photovoltaics); materials (cement replacements, recycled plastics); governance (carbon trading, the Merton rule in planning, sustainability managers); supply chain management (One Planet Products, M&S Plan A, B&Q One Planet Home); environmental economics; household gadgets (wind-up radio, the Interflush water-saving device); and transport (car clubs, electric city cars, hybrids, the Oyster card, my zero-waste, zero-carbon waste cooking oil-powered sports car).

The world has changed in only a couple of years. The days of plentiful, cheap oil have gone for good. For the first time in 40 years, food security is back on the agenda — not only as an international political issue but as a domestic one as well. We now know we must find solutions which enable us to lead high-quality lives within the limits of the planet’s finite resources. Creativity is not about ignoring constraints. That is madness, literally a state of dissociation from reality. Creativity is about solutions which overcome constraints.

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Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders

March 21, 2008

Fashions in goodness change, just like fashions in anything else, and these days some of the very noblest people have assumed the manners of the business world — even though they don’t aim for profit. They call themselves social entrepreneurs, and you can find them in the neediest places on earth.

The people who fit into this category tend to have plenty of résumé bling. Bill Drayton, the godfather of this movement, went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford and McKinsey before founding Ashoka, a global change network. Those who follow him typically went to some fancy school and then did a stint with Teach for America or AmeriCorps before graduate school. Then, they worked for a software firm before deciding to use what they’d learned in business to help the less fortunate.

Now they work 80 hours a week, fighting bureaucracies and funding restrictions in order to build, say, mentoring programs for single moms.

Earlier generations of benefactors thought that social service should be like sainthood or socialism. But this one thinks it should be like venture capital.

These thoroughly modern do-gooders dress like venture capitalists. They talk like them. They even think like them. That means that aside from the occasional passion for heirloom vegetables, they are not particularly crunchy. They don’t wear ponytails, tattoos or Birkenstocks. They don’t devote any energy to countercultural personal style, unless you consider excessive niceness a subversive fashion statement. Next to them, Barack Obama looks like Abbie Hoffman.

It also means that they are not that interested in working for big, sluggish bureaucracies. They are not hostile to the alphabet-soup agencies that grew out of the New Deal and the Great Society; they just aren’t inspired by them.

J.B. Schramm created a fantastic organization called College Summit that provides students with practical guidance through the college admissions process. Gerald Chertavian, a former software entrepreneur, created Year Up, which helps low-income students get apprenticeships in corporations and packages its fund-raising literature in the form of an I.P.O. prospectus.

The venture-capital ethos means instead that these social entrepreneurs are almost willfully blind to ideological issues. They will tell you, even before you have a chance to ask, that they are data-driven and accountability-oriented. They’re always showing you multivariate regressions or explaining why some promising idea “didn’t pencil out.” The highest status symbol in their circle is a Rand study showing that their program yields statistically significant results.

Bill Gates, who fits neatly into this world, came to dinner with journalists in Washington last week. He looked utterly bored as the conversation drifted to presidential campaign gossip. But when asked about which programs produce higher reading scores, the guy lit up and became a fountain of facts and findings.

The older do-gooders had a certain policy model: government identifies a problem. Really smart people design a program. A cabinet department in a big building administers it.

But the new do-gooders have absorbed the disappointments of the past decades. They have a much more decentralized worldview. They don’t believe government on its own can be innovative. A thousand different private groups have to try new things. Then we measure to see what works.

Their problem now is scalability. How do the social entrepreneurs replicate successful programs so that they can be big enough to make a national difference?

America Forward, a consortium of these entrepreneurs, wants government to do domestic policy in a new way. It wants Washington to expand national service (to produce more social entrepreneurs) and to create a network of semipublic social investment funds. These funds would be administered locally to invest in community-run programs that produce proven results. The government would not operate these social welfare programs, but it would, in essence, create a network of semipublic Gates Foundations that would pick winners based on stiff competition.

There’s obviously a danger in getting government involved with these entrepreneurs. Government agencies are natural interferers, averse to remorseless competition and quick policy shifts. Nonetheless, these funds are worth a try.

The funds would head us toward this new policy model, in which government sets certain accountability standards but gives networks of local organizations the freedom to choose how to meet them. President Bush’s faith-based initiative was a step in this direction, but this would be broader.

Furthermore, we might as well take advantage of this explosion of social entrepreneurship. These are some of the smartest and most creative people in the country. Even if we don’t know how to reduce poverty, it’s probably worth investing in these people and letting them figure it out.

They won’t stop bugging us until we do.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Environmental Defense partners with private equity firm

The Environmental Defense Fund has struck a first-of-its-kind "green portfolio" deal with gigantic private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. The partnership plans to develop tools to measure and improve the environmental performance of KKR'S U.S. companies, with metrics including energy efficiency, greenhouse-gas emissions, water consumption, and toxic waste.

KKR has more than $185 billion in revenue and owns 46 companies, including Toys "R" Us, U.S. Food Service, Sealy, Nielsen, and Energy Holdings (formerly TXU); EDF and KKR were involved in brokering a 2007 buyout of TXU that resulted in coal plants being canceled, and the transaction spurred partnership talks between KKR and EDF.

Who ever said good can't come from coal?

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New report from SustainAbility on the Social Intrapraneur

New report from SustainAbility on the Social Intrapraneur (those who make change within big corporations). Great reading for anyone interested in CSR thinking about whether to try to make big change locally (nonprofit/social enterprise) or small change globally (CSR at a big for-profit).

Download the report here:
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