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Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

umair to business: be sustainable

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Whenever Umair Haque, whom I’ve blogged about here before, saves up some thoughts and posts them and titles them a manifesto, people take notice these.  There’s Fred Wilson’s post from a couple days ago promising to really digest the suggestions; there’s Michael Lewkowitz, whom I didn’t know until today, and who sounds like a sharp vc up in Canada; there’s me, writing this post.  Hey, I count.

I didn’t plan on writing two posts about this, but there was so much to think about once I got into the topic that splitting up the two big questions Umair brings up seemed like the smart thing to do.

I’ll get right to the point.  Here’s another link to Umair’s post, if you’d like to read it first: A Manifesto for the Next Industrial Revolution.  The end of his post gets into suggestions for big sustainable opportunities to pursue, which goes beyond what I think I can talk about in a single post.  This post is about how an existing business can think about sustainability.

How can Businesses Make the World Better?

This question assumes, as Umair strongly believes, that economic progress doesn’t appear to be lining up with improving welfare and prosperity for everyone, as many of us have either hoped or assumed (or for cynics, doubted) it would.

The world is getting phenomenally richer – but the costs of that wealth seem to be endemic poverty for vast swathes of the world’s population, the poisoning of the water we drink, the pollution of the air we breathe, and the fraying of the social and cultural fabric that binds us together.

I agree with him regarding many aspects, (including allocating environmental costs), but regardless I don’t feel like you have to agree 100% with the above statement to appreciate a discussion of how to improve a system that could clearly stand some rethinking.

Restructure your Thinking around Sustainability

The first way to make the world better is a DNA (philosophy, mindset, fundamental strategy in Umair’s vocabulary) shift to sustainability–not just environmental, but people sustainability and market sustainability as well.  Umair says below that technology alone will not achieve a sustainable economy, and I’ll give him that, though as he admits, technological advancement will continue to play a critical role making the world better.  He just calls the DNA shift harder, and he may be right, since it’s a departure from the present course of most businesses.

Even if we invent a magic energy or food source tomorrow, it does the world little good if it’s in the hands of a Bill Gates 2.0 – the amount of new value that’s created is minimized. Conversely, it also does us little good if it’s in the hands of a Ford 2.0, who’ll just push-market next-generation gas guzzlers that put us squarely back into an energy trap.

The real problem is that the industrial economy is riddled with incentives to rip your head off, sell you lemons, maximize so-called “profit” at all costs, and exert power against you – not for you. That’s why it seems that pain, suffering, and value destruction are deeply embedded in the very DNA of our rusting, industrial-era economic system itself.

And that means that though technology is necessary, it’s not sufficient. What’s harder – and what truly unlocks new value – is new DNA. The fundamental question new DNA must answer is this: how do we organize and manage resources so they’re not depleted, crushed, strip-mined, and slashed-and-burned?

We need company and organizational DNA to get reinvented with a long-term view towards creating sustainable businesses and a sustainable world.  For a terrific perspective on that idea, Yvon Choinard’s book about starting and running one of the most sustainable companies out there (patagonia) really opens your eyes to what kind of a shift in mindset Umair is talking about.

Why be Sustainable?  Is it a Moral Imperative?

One reason to go the sustainable route is if you believe it’s a moral imperative–that it’s actually unethical for a business to operate knowingly in a way that is not sustainable, even if it’s legal.  However, as one of the commenters on Umair’s post points out, I think it’s going to be difficult for businesses to come together to agree with that until a new generation of business leaders, raised with all this talk of sustainability, takes hold.  That means you’re putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage by being sustainable, which means that, until the government steps in and regulates industries across the board, allocating environmental and social costs more effectively, sustainable companies are going to be on the down-and-out.

Should businesses sacrifice themselves for the ethical opinions of its leaders, even when not asked by the law? That’s a tough question for a private company.  As for public companies, in the US, leaders get taken to court for acting counter to the interests of shareholders.  To me, this means that the moral imperative is instead for both companies and individuals to push our government to reform the regulatory environment as quickly as possible, towards more effectively lining up with the realities of life on earth as we understand them now.

Long-term competitive advantage.

So how should business leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs see sustainability in our current business environment?  As a source of long term competitive advantage.  Work with politicians, if possible, to help them understand the costs and concerns associated with your business that aren’t accounted for in today’s regulatory environment.  Educate customers as to what needs fixing in your industry, what you’re doing about it, and how they can help, by voting at the ballot and with their purchasing decisions.

And think long-term.  Allocate costs correctly yourself in preparation for the day, hopefully not too long in coming, when the regulators force companies to do so.  Brag about it to your customers.  When you know where the business environment is headed, you can swim with the current instead of against it, and prepare yourself to be at an advantage when things settle out.

What does this have to do with most companies?

Loads of companies, especially in the internet space, can remain blissfully ignorant of greenhouse gases, global warming, and starving people elsewhere in the world with no consequences.  What should these companies and entrepreneurs make of all this talk about sustainability?

I think sustainability in the broader sense, beyond the environmental sustainability most people discuss, is about being honest about what you know–with yourself, your employees, and your customers.

Here are a few standard dishonest tactics:

  • manipulation (hiding important facts for your benefit)
  • bait and switch (say, introducing a new opt-out advertising mechanism without warning, like beacon into facebook)
  • push marketing a product that you know destroys wealth or value in the long run (umair’s ford 2.0 example, though I know too little about ford’s history to point a finger specifically at them)

If you wouldn’t be comfortable explaining to an audience of friends and family why you made the strategic decision you did, to me that’s not a sustainable strategy.  To agree with that, you have to believe that in the end, the truth will out, and that trust matters.  This broader view of sustainability loops back into my previous post about employing “be good” as part of your company strategy.

In my next post I’ll look at the second big question Umair discusses: How should we go about solving the world’s big problems?  I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, so it should be interesting to try to put into words.

Please comment if you like.

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Written by blakeweb

June 25, 2008 at 5:17 pm

bush administration climate report says no more skiing in the rockies

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visit nytimes articleIn case you didn’t catch this, there was an article today in the New York Times outlining the major points in a Bush Administration climate change report, commissioned in 2003 and released today, signed by 3 cabinet members. On the map you can see the projected increase and decrease in annual rainfall for different areas of the country, and the journalist also pulled out the following interesting conclusion:

The West will not only face a dearth of water, but also large shifts in when it is available. Water supplies there will be transformed by midcentury, with mountain snows that provided a steady flow of runoff for irrigation and reservoirs dwindling. That flow will be replaced by rainfall that comes at times and in amounts that make it hard to manage, the report and authors said.

Also, to put this into context, “the report’s emphasis [is] on the next 25 to 50 years, when shifts in emissions are unlikely to make much of a difference in climate trends.” So there’s not much we can do about it, in the authors’ view.

So it’s understandable but important that not only will the amount of precipitation be changing a lot, but the type and timing of that precipitation is likely to change dramatically, so much so that I’d guess skiing in the rockies will be dramatically affected. And keep in mind that this conclusion comes from a review of recent climate change studies, summarized and signed off on by the Bush Administration. We’ve come a long way in a few years.

This is of course not to say that a good chance of not being able to ski in the continental US within a few decades is up there with the biggest ramifications of climate change. It just drives the point home that life is going to be measurably different a few decades from now in many ways we may not yet realize–we won’t just be able to crank up the a/c a bit in the summer and enjoy the milder winter and be done with it. And it seems it’s already too late to stop some of those significant changes.

[Source: New Climate Report Foresees Big Changes in Water Supplies and Agriculture –]

Written by blakeweb

May 27, 2008 at 8:38 pm

garden activism? what about activism in general?

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I just read an interesting perspective in an article in the new york times magazine online advocating garden activism. I don’t have a ton of time to reflect on activism in general, but I wanted to take the opportunity to briefly discuss the writer’s opinions on what types of activism are best.

First why activism in the first place? The article gives one reason: the people to notice that something is wrong should take action themselves, otherwise no one will. Plus, politicians generally aren’t techno-experts, so they’re not going to realize something needs to change until either a group of experts or their constituents (ideally both) are banging on their door demanding it.

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do.

I agree that activism is necessary when there’s something wrong with the market, and the incomplete allocation of environmental costs into commodities and energy is the biggest example out there. Yvon Choinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing, goes much farther in communicating the depth of the problem in environmental cost allocation, and ties this trouble directly to the need for activist companies and individuals to blaze a trail that others can learn from and follow. Not doing so is sort of like avoiding taxes by basing your company in the Bahamas once you’ve already benefited from the education and infrastructure present in the US to help you get your start. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, it’s just not as right as it could be.

Unfortunately, the article goes on to elaborate on how ‘garden activism’ is superior to other means of taking an active role in combating the current issue of people and companies ‘stealing’ from the environment (without realizing it of course).

The “cheap-energy mind,” as Wendell Berry called it, is the mind that asks, “Why bother?” because it is helpless to imagine — much less attempt — a different sort of life, one less divided, less reliant. Since the cheap-energy mind translates everything into money, its proxy, it prefers to put its faith in market-based solutions — carbon taxes and pollution-trading schemes. If we could just get the incentives right, it believes, the economy will properly value everything that matters and nudge our self-interest down the proper channels. The best we can hope for is a greener version of the old invisible hand. Visible hands it has no use for.

What I don’t like about this is that the article has glossed over the real trouble here–that environmental costs are not being completely allocated. When you realize this is the core of the problem, it doesn’t make sense to minimize the impact of ‘market-based solutions’. We can continue relying on markets if we look at what we have as a problem with the market. We just need to correct the market–to get the incentives right–so that companies and individuals can continue operating in their own best interest and continue to drive the progress that makes the world a better place to live.

Overall I think the point the article tries to make is great–planting a garden can really help you to reconnect with the world and understand firsthand that the earth takes care of us well as long as we return the favor, plus home-grown veggies are the best there are.

Written by blakeweb

April 23, 2008 at 1:16 am

Posted in environment

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austin city council in the process of actually trying to help barton springs

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This is not to say that the city council has completely ignored Barton Springs in my lifetime so far here in Austin, but I can safely say that not enough has been done considering just how fantastic Barton Springs is, and how vital it is to me every time I rave to someone in another city about why they should at least visit.

There’s an article in the local paper today about a serious plan for improving and rehabilitating some aspects of the springs that the city actually paid money for–a great move, in my opinion. Some of the highlights:

1. Rehabilitate the steps and add native plants at Zilker Ponds

2. Renovate and reconfigure bathhouse to add a visitors’ center and return ticket sales to the rotunda

3. Renovate Eliza Spring amphitheater and reconnect the spring flow with the main body of the pool

4. Redesign an inlet grate to prevent clogging during floods; add openings to upstream dam to improve water flow

5. Add small south bathhouse and pave south parking lot

6. Study designs for skimmers to get rid of algae; remove gravel in pool’s deep end

7. Add two new stairways down to creekside and replace concrete embankments with stone

8. Rehabilitate stonework and salamander habitat at Sunken Garden

Some local groups quoted in the article sound like they don’t expect much good to come of any city action whatsoever, which rings familiar to me–in my memory they don’t often support any plan that they themselves didn’t first propose. Groups like Save Our Springs have a great mission, but I believe (and I apologize, but I’m not going to dig up their history for you right now to make my case) they often seem to lose a grip on making incremental improvements in favor of holding out for what they see as the perfect solution.

I’m just glad that, from the looks of it at least, the city is actually putting some money and brainpower into what I think is a big piece of what makes Austin one of the best cities out there, to visit or to grow up in.

barton springs pool

photo props: city of austin

Written by blakeweb

April 5, 2008 at 8:15 pm

Posted in environment

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