Friday, June 26, 2009

How clean is your technology?

Many are confused by the number of terms being slung around in the Green Arena today. One of the most common is “Clean Tech.”

Clean Tech, which is short for clean technology, is often used interchangeably with the term green technology. However, clean tech is broader in scope and is driven by market economics (versus regulations). Clean tech covers several industry sectors, including: energy generation, storage and efficiency, transportation, building, manufacturing, recycling and waste management, and agriculture.

Essentially, though, the term cleantech refers to products or services that reduce or eliminate our negative environmental impact while improving the sustainable use of our natural resources. Cleantech products or services not only provide better performance, they often do so at lower costs.

According to the Cleantech Group, LLC, clean tech venture investments in North America, Europe, China and India totaled $8.4 billion in 2008, up almost 40% from 2007; however those figures dropped sharply in the first quarter of 2009 as cleantech investments underwent a “period of transition.”

Nonetheless, based on a 2009 survey of venture capitalists around the world, the National Venture Capital Association predicted “The cleantech sector is poised to become the leading investment category….” And the London-based New Energy World Network has reported: “More substantial funding is coming with the US American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), which contains over $100bn of dollars in direct spending, loan guarantees and incentives to promote the development of cleantech in energy, water and environment.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reduce, reuse...or compost?

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed waste containers labeled: “recycle,” “compost,” and “landfill.” Okay, I was familiar with “recycle” (plastic, paper, or cans) and with “landfill” (we call that trash, here in L.A.); but what on earth was supposed to go in “compost”?

The EPA defines compost as “organic material that can be used as a soil amendment or as a medium to grow plants.”

On our family farm in southern Illinois, we did not have a garbage disposal. Instead, we disposed of all food waste by simply tossing it out in one of the fields around our home. That which was not eaten outright by the critters fertilized the soil to help our crops grow. It was what we would call a win-win-win in the business world.

However, I’d never seen an official “compost” can in a public venue before. What was that about?

Apparently, composting is big business. Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. offers curbside pick-up of food scraps and other compostable materials, which comprise about a third of all residential garbage. Over 300 tons of food scraps and yard waste are collected each day and then processed by large-scale composting facilities outside of the city.

Participating customers can throw everything from food scraps and tree trimmings to paper take-out boxes (you know, those oil-stained pizza boxes that regular recyclers won’t accept) and even cutlery labeled “compostable” into green compost carts. The waste is then processed and turned into a rich, organic material which can be used to fertilize local vineyards and farms as well as for landscape supply yards.

In addition to providing a quality product for local businesses, Norcal Waste Systems and its subsidiaries are helping to meet San Francisco’s mandated goal of diverting 75% of garbage to recycling by 2010, surpassing California’s 50% recycling law (AB939). Currently, food waste in most cities goes directly to landfills where it decomposes and creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Reducing the amount of food waste we dump into our landfills could have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions as well as on the cost to those businesses who receive discounts off their garbage bills. According to Norcal Waste Systems, “Many restaurants are composting over 75% of their waste! With up to 75% discounts off your garbage bill for recycling and composting, you WILL lower your garbage costs by recycling and composting more.”

And that’s food for thought.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What are YOU doing to be more Sustainable?

Several people have asked me to define some of the “green” business terms that are in use today, so I thought I would include one definition a week (some of these are also listed in the glossary of my book). This week, I’d like to address the question: What is sustainable?

On January 26, 2007, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13423, which stated: …“sustainable” means to create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans…

Long before that, though, many businesses and individuals understood the importance of working and living in such a manner that the capital they used would not take away from the capital of future generations.

Recently, the word “green” has been used interchangeably with “sustainable” when it comes to describing business practices. However, sustainable business practices often include several characteristics including economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility—both in terms of how a business contributes to society and how a business treats its employees and its suppliers.

Many businesses today are trying hard to meet their “triple bottom line” – profit, planet, and people – and most are finding that these three are complementary facets of the same big picture. In fact, in order to sustain or stay in existence, many businesses are falling back on time-honored practices of reducing their waste (i.e. “going green”) and of reaching out to their communities for mutual support and potential sales.

So my question is: What are you doing to be more sustainable? Please let me know!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A song for your thoughts

Sometimes a picture or, in this case, a song really is worth a thousand words.

I recently came upon a truly inspirational TV ad for Optus that was technologically amazing as well as effective in terms of business branding. Optus, in case you've never heard of it, is one of the largest telecommunications companies in Australia.

According to its website, "Optus believes that its responsibility as a leading corporate is more than just solid financial performance.... We consider that community, environment and workplace are important pillars of our corporate social responsibility."

In its 2008 Corporate Responsibility Report, Optus addressed how, using the Global Reporting Initiatives "G3" sustainability reporting guidelines and guided by the principles of the AA1000 Assurance Standard, the company self-declared its performance in terms of economic, environment, community, people and marketplace.

Such reporting goes way beyond vague and generic discussions of what is the triple bottom line (profits, planet, and people) and takes the talk straight to the heart of the issue: What does it really mean to be sustainable in a global market? And what are the quantifiable standards for being "green" in an era when greenwashing is running rampant?

Right now, most industries are searching for answers to those questions. Doubtless, they will develop commonly accepted standards for sustainability, which can then be verified by independent third parties. For now, though, many businesses are navigating through uncharted waters as they "progress along [their] reporting journey..."

Enjoy the Optus "Whalesong"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Reinventing General Motors

General Motors filed for Chapter 11 today, which wasn’t a big surprise. According to GM's Reinvention website, their decision to declare bankruptcy is not “the end of the American car” but “the rebirth of the American car,” which led me to wonder: What was the first American car?

The Library of Congress lists several “Automobile Firsts” on its Everyday Mysteries website. Americans, it seems, were somewhat late getting into the internal combustion engine game, coming in after Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in the late 1800’s. But even before the Germans came up with their elegant internal combustion engine, a Scotsman by the name of Robert Anderson invented the “electric carriage” in the 1830’s.

By the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles outsold all other types of vehicles in the United States. Then crude oil was discovered in Texas, which drastically reduced the price of gas in this country; and Henry Ford came up with an assembly line process that could produce an internal combustion vehicle for less than half the price of an electric car.

Now, we seem to have come full-circle. GM is putting a lot of emphasis on paring down the number of its lines and focusing on core products such as the Chevy Volt, an electric car that is due to launch in 2010. According to the GM-Volt website, “The near death of the auto industry is bringing with it the slow death of the combustion engine.” Out of the ashes, apparently, will come the E-REV or Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, able to travel up to 40 miles using a lithium ion battery and then to use a gas-powered engine that drives a generator to provide electric power beyond that 40 mile range.

Blamed by some for being complicit in killing the electric car in the late 1990’s, GM is apparently making a conscious decision to reinvent itself and its product line. “This is not about going out of business,” says the voiceover on GM Reinvention, “this is about getting down to business.”

Ultimately, though, the real test for an automobile manufacturer is whether or not anybody will buy their vehicles. So my question is: Would you buy an electric car?