FOOD Inc. Shows That Consumers Can Change Corporations

October 14, 2009 1 comment

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I just returned from seeing FOOD Inc., a new documentary about the industrialization of the American food industry. I knew the basic message would revolve around how distant we as a nation have become from the food we consume. I also had a feeling that Monsanto and their evil seed empire would make an appearance. What I was not expecting was to learn so much about how the incredible quantity of meat we eat in our country is supplied. I was also surprised to hear that the rise of fast food created a demand for cheap ingredients and helped spur the growth of the modern day corporate farm.

When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, his infamous expose of the meat industry in the early 1900s,  his words shed light on both the unsanitary processing facilities as well as the exploitation of immigrant workers in the meat factories of Chicago. The public was outraged and demanded safer meat, a bit ironic because Sinclair had hoped to raise awareness of the dangerous working conditions. The Pure Food Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act gave people safer meat and workers better conditions. Evidently these changes, and others that followed, were effective, for being a meat packer became a well-paid and respected position by the 1950s, in line with the often venerated American autoworker. This is in stark contrast to today’s meat plants, which are among the most dangerous places to work in the US. So what happened? Among other reasons, FOOD Inc. says, McDonald’s happened.

By getting rid of its waitresses and turning their kitchen into an assembly line, McDonald’s developed the foundation for the modern day industrial food company. People were trained to perform the same job over and over and over again. They were treated as machines, paid a low wage, and disposed of at will because other workers were readily available to take their place. As fast food grew, McDonald’s needed larger and larger quantities of meat, potatoes, chicken, lettuce, etc. They demanded that farmers ensure consistent quality in their products while at the same time decreasing their cost. How were the farmers of the 1950 and 1960s able to meet this demand? They were not and the corporate farm was born.

According to the movie, in the 1970s, the top four beef producers made up approximately 20% of the industry. Today, they account for almost 80%. The US has gone from having hundreds of slaughter houses to only thirteen major factories that process beef. Not only are the cows being kept in high density feedlots, they are being feed a diet of corn instead of what ruminants typically eat, grass. Corn is used because its production is heavily subsidized by the federal government and the cost to ranchers is actually below the cost of production. It also makes the cows grow larger and fatter.

The corn produces an unnatural environment in the cow rumination chamber and encourages the growth of harmful e-coli. Reports of e-coli tainted meat increased throughout the 1990s and we have even seen other crops, such as spinach and peanuts, become infected over the last few years. E-coli outbreaks have killed multiple people, one of the most notable of which was a 2 1/2 year old boy who died twelve days after eating an infected hamburger while on vacation with his family. This tragedy was the impetus for Kevin’s Law, a food safety bill that has been bounced around Capital Hill for almost a decade but has yet to find its way into law.

Despite a fair amount of doom and gloom concerning the current state of our food system, FOOD Inc. offers a strong sense that this madness can be stopped. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia is an honest, humble, and insightful spokesperson for a farming system that treats animals as living beings and rewards small scale agriculture with fresh, nutrient packed, and delicious food. The audience clapped when he mused about what happens to people who treat cattle, chickens, and pigs as if they were only a raw material. He wondered how we will treat our neighbors, our community, and the rest of the world if we can’t treat our food and the people who raise and process it with respect.

After the movie ended and the house lights came on, I left the Portsmouth Music Hall thinking about what Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, said near the end of the film about the power of consumers. He assured us that companies will do what we as consumers want. When Wal-Mart customers showed a preference for milk free of rGBH, an artificial growth hormone, the company switched to non-rGBH milk. This has more or less “nailed the coffin” on rGBH because of Wal-Mart’s tremendous buying power.

Each time we buy an item at the grocery store or the farmers market, we are sending a message to the food industry. Companies spend millions of dollars every year to find out what consumers want. Let’s make sure to tell them we need local food grown and raised with care on organic farms. And this food will taste even better when we know our choices are changing the way the modern way farms operate.

Is LEED Really Leading?

September 19, 2009 1 comment

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Until recently, when I talked with people about LEED certification, I typically needed to follow the acronym up with the term “green building”. Although the standard has been around since 1998, it remained mostly unknown to a large segment of the population. This has been changing recently as following LEED guidelines has become increasingly popular with new construction projects across the country. My company’s building is pursing accreditation and our town library was awarded LEED certification two years ago. LEED is in the news more often but unfortunately, the press it is receiving is not always positive.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and contains several different standards, including one for new construction and major renovations of corporate and public buildings as well as one for the operation and maintenance of existing buildings. New construction is focused on five areas: sustainable site development, materials selection, energy efficiency, water savings, and indoor environmental quality. Buildings are ranked on a 100 point scale in which 40 – 49 points earns a Certified ranking, 50 – 59 brings Silver, 60 – 79 equals Gold, and projects over 80 points are rewarded with Platinum LEED certification. The 14,000 buildings across the US that have received LEED accreditation or are in the process of pursing certification must certainly be state of the art, environmentally efficient, and cutting edge, right? Not always. I believe that LEED has been a fantastic stepping stone toward sustainable building design and construction but is not always leading the way to a “green” future. Others agree.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), which developed LEED, was the focus of a recent New York Times article on its previous standards. Evidently, the Federal Building in Youngstown, OH is Certified LEED but failed to be energy efficient enough to earn the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star label. After reviewing last year’s energy bills, the cooling system seems to have contributed to the building’s inability to become an Energy Star Partner. It has become obvious to the USGBC that annual performance needs to be tracked and they announced last week that existing LEED buildings will be asked to voluntarily send in their energy bills. They also have plans to require new projects to submit five years of energy use data as part of their certification process. This is certainly great news and shows that the developers of LEED are willing to analyze their program and adapt their credentials for the betterment of all. But they seem to have a fair amount of work to do. Their recent standard came out in April of this year and as my story below illustrates, the criteria can still guide participants into questionable practices while constructing their buildings.

This week I worked at a new convention center on the East Coast. I was happy to learn that it was applying to be a Certified LEED building. Good for them, I thought. It appears that most new large construction projects today are pursuing some level of LEED certification. When I walked into the south hall, I was surprised to see most of the carpet was stained and deeply discolored. I assumed that something had happened during its installation but was later told that in order to gain LEED points, the carpet was being reused from an old exposition center on the property that was being converted into offices. This fits into the “refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle” mantra but I felt odd about what I saw. This must be a good idea, I told myself, despite the stains and the general “something is not quite right here” feeling I got when I saw the old, worn carpet next to the new, bright carpet.

Yesterday I entered the center at 7:30am and saw a crew of four people cleaning the carpet. When I left for lunch, I saw the same people continuing to clean the carpet. And when I called it a day at 6:30pm, guess what? They were still cleaning the carpet. All that work and the stains seemed just as noticeable as ever. And I thought, all of this for some LEED points?

The carpet cleaning was not working and I assume pressure from management will make them use less benign cleaning agents to remove the stains before the sales office begins giving tours to potential clients. If this happens, then everyone involved in the project may feel that LEED points do not make sense. Put in old carpet and clean it with toxic agents? That just doesn’t add up.

What if I am wrong and the stains are left as I saw them today? Management will certainly feel they need to explain the stains to visitors and will educate everyone who steps into the building as to why the carpets of a brand new convention center look twenty years old. I can hear the comments now. “This is LEED? I don’t like it. I’ll think twice about looking into it when my company is ready for a new building.” “Can’t those tree huggers allow our town to have a new, clean center we can be proud of? These stains are horrible.” And so, with either path the center chooses, cleaning with un-natural products or leaving the rugs stained, LEED’s reputation will suffer.

I am left thinking that the USGBC needs to revamp their LEED criteria so it guides those seeking certification toward pragmatic solutions rather than suggesting confusing strategies. Maybe it is time for them to pull into a rest area, review a road map, and make sure they are truly leading us in the right direction.

Local Food: Another Piece in the Sustainability Puzzle

September 3, 2009 Leave a comment

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August is New Hampshire Eat Local Month and a great example of the growing push to reorganize our society and economy around environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices. Eating local foods not only helps combat global warming by reducing the transportation required to get food to our tables, it provides a major boost to the Granite State economy. Increasing the production and consumption of locally grown food and moving away from super-sized supermarkets is an important step in creating a truly sustainable society.

The development of the modern day grocery store did not happen over night; however, more has changed in the way we grow and purchase food during the past 50 years than during any other time in human history. The current model favors rapidly produced items made from ingredients that are increasingly devoid of nutritional value. Food is a multi-billion dollar business in the US and much of what we find in our Hannaford, Shaw’s, and Market Basket stores comes from monstrous manufacturing facilities completely detached from the reality that their products are intended to nourish people.

Instead of providing healthy food choices at honest prices, most of the over 45,000 items found in a typical supermarket reflect the attitude of their makers. Primarily, that food is just another product to sell. Our consumer driven society has let them be successful in marketing this food because we like the promises of fat free ice cream and the sound of exotic spring water. When the marketing efforts are more important than product itself, we have a problem. The recently released movie Food, Inc. likens today’s food industry to the giant cigarette companies that once stood proud and tall as model corporate citizens. Both, it claims, mis-led the public about the effects of their products and both fought vigorously to continue their charade while the health of our country suffered. Phillip- Morris had to change its name, it now goes by Altria,  and its strategy, such as focusing on reducing under age smoking, because of the dubious nature of its business. I wonder if Kraft, and its horrible products like lunchables which have 17 grams of fat and 1100 mg of sodium in a single serving, will one day be forced to do the same.

The wonderful truth about local food in New England is that it can supply most of what we want as consumers. Our farmers’ markets abound with fresh vegetables, ripe fruit, and many locally produced jams, breads, meats, and dairy products. The food tastes better because it was picked recently when it was ripe, not weeks beforehand and then shipped to us from 3000 miles away.  Producing and consuming foods within a local geographical region is a model that thrived for several thousand years. It is time to focus on local food grown within a few hundred miles of our homes and businesses and restoring our communities to fully functioning organisms.

The transition to a new food economy is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. What could be more natural than buying food from your local farmer, to say nothing of growing some yourself. California and Mexico provide examples of where the process becomes more difficult. The San Joaquin Valley produces more than ten percent of our county’s food. Turning off their pipeline of lettuce, raisins, beef, and asparagus may help the farmers in NH but many of those in CA would have to shift into new industries as their national markets are reduced by a growing demand for regional food.

Which brings me back to August being NH Eat Local Month. Initiatives like this start the discussion. Many of us have been speaking about the benefits of local food for years. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to which my family and I belong is an example of what happens when local food becomes important to many residents of the same locale. Together with about 30 other members, we pay the farmers at Brookford Farm in Rollingsford, NH for a share of their harvest. In return we recieve twenty pounds of fresh produce every week as well as milk, yogurt, eggs, a chicken, and some beef. What could be better? Fresh food from local people.

As we close in on 2010, I often find myself excited thinking about the changes taking place here in NH. The University Office of Sustainability (USO) at UNH is doing fantastic work with their Food & Society Initative, which promotes local agriculture and the concept of a Sustainable Food Community. The number of farmers’ markets across the state has risen from less than 20 to over 100 in the past decade. This equates to more local food available to more citizens and less manufactured food required by our population. As individuals, families, and businesses become increasingly involved, momentum is building and another piece in the sustainability puzzle is being put into place.

Kimpton Knows What It Takes to Be Sustainable

August 15, 2009 2 comments

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The dawn of the green movement in the hospitality world goes back further than one might think. While many companies in the hotel industry have only recently embraced the environmental aspects of corporate social responsibility (CSR), Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants has over 25 years of experience caring for both the earth and its people. They provide several examples of how to do well by doing good. I believe it is time for the entire world to follow Kimpton’s example and reinvent the way we do business by re-prioritizing what really matters. I am talking about incorporating profits, people, and the planet into ones organization and using Kimpton as an example of how to make this happen.

I do not think anyone would be surprised to learn that it was Kimpton’s first hotel, the Bedford in San Francisco, that in 1981 began looking after its waste in a sustainable manner. Or that the “Eco Floor” at Hotel Triton, another SF establishment, set the bar for environmentally sustainable lodging in 1994, literally helping California write their Green Lodging Program standards. The West Coast just seems to have a knack for combining their social and environmental causes with their business ethics. But after the initial excitement has faded, how does a company sustain its commitment to the environment for over a quarter of a century?

According to a speech at last year’s EcoCity 2008 conference, Steve Pinetti, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Kimpton, said being green requires two things: weekly meetings and a dedication to reach ones goals knowing the road will always be rocky. “Adults are like college students. Give them a month between meetings and they will wait until two day before and try to cram.” Mandating weekly meetings is absolutely an important step because it allows people to maintain their focus on the end goal. After talking about frequent meetings, Mr. Pinetti then gave an outstanding example of the dedication his company displayed while trying to grow its sustainability program.

When Kimpton decided to switch to earth-friendly cleaning products at all of their hotels, they ran into obstacles again and again. Unable to find a national supplier, they had to deal with six regional suppliers, which naturally increased the complexity of the entire project. Then when experienced cleaning personnel said, “I don’t see any foam. These products don’t work,” Kimpton embarked on a company wide campaign designed to educate their housekeeping staff on the differences between traditional and sustainable cleaning products and how to effectively use the new, green cleaning agents. After training, the hotels complained that these products still did not work, so Kimpton continued to find a solution that would make their goal of using earth-friendly products a reality. They hired a water engineer to test the water at each of their properties and guess what they found. There were nine distinct waters, all with their own pH, across their organization and each water required the cleaning solution to be fine-tuned so it would work effectively.

What began as a relatively simple project took one year but in the end Kimpton had a sustainable cleaning solution. It also had first hand experience about what it takes to truly commit an organization to walking a green path. Today, Kimpton’s dedication is as strong as ever. Here are several examples of what they do to protect the planet and its people.

EarthCare, Kimpton’s flagship environmental program, is as much a philosophy as it is a standard. Employees are empowered to make the choices they believe will make a difference. Every hotel has two EarthCare Champions, employees who lead the initiatives at their own properties and meet with champions from other hotels on a weekly basis to discuss their latest triumphs and work through their most recent setbacks. Since 2005, all hotels and restaurants in the Kimpton family have been required follow the EarthCare program. Now they each adhere to a 50 point list which includes using recycled paper, removing phone books from guestrooms (they remain available upon request), and conducting efficiency audits on their water reducing technologies.

Providing guests with a green meeting option is now common place in the industry. Events at Kimpton properties are always eco-friendly because they were the first company to roll out twelve sustainable practices to all of their meetings at all of their hotels nationally. With Kimpton, every meeting is a green meeting and another opportunity for the company to showcase its true commitment to sustainable hospitality.

During the summer months, Kimpton actively educates its guests and the public-at-large about The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a non-profit focused on preserving community land for people to enjoy. TLP’s Parks for People program is a key focus of Kimpton’s fund raising efforts and hotels will donate $10 per room night when guests request the “TPL Rate”.

Rounding out its social responsibility initiatives, Kimpton donates 100% of its profits from many of the products on its on-line shopping site, Kimpton Style. The Live accessories fund Kimpton’s Red Ribbon Campaign to fight HIV while all proceeds from the Eco line go to Parks for People and money from the Travel & Gifts page are donated to Dress for Success, a organization helping low-income women move into the workforce.

The successes, as well as the stumbling blocks, Kimpton has achieved showcase that they know what it takes to effectively implement a triple bottom line strategy into their business model. I find it very telling that Steve Pinetti’s email is available if people want to share their green travel tips with Kimpton. In many other companies, sustainability is handled by someone in operations, not the Vice President of Sales and Marketing. To be sure, Mr. Pinetti is not alone in developing Kimpton’s eco-strategy, but he appears to be intimately involved. To me it says that being sustainable is such an important aspect within Kimpton that the responsibility to manage the company’s green efforts is linked with the responsibility to manage the entire business. That is impressive as well as encouraging, and a piece of wisdom any organization can use when they begin to focus on people and our planet as well as profits.

Green Engage – IHG’s Answer to Global Warming

In early 2009, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) launched its own on-line sustainability program. Designed to aid hotel managers in reducing the waste, water, and energy consumption of their properties, Green Engage is revolutionary within the hospitality industry. Never before has a hotel company developed their own tool to measure, assess, and reduce the resources they use and the garbage they create.

Green Engage was conceived after IHG completed an extensive consumer research project in 2008. In addition to the standard guest wishes of ‘nice location’ and ‘good price’, they noticed that more people were interested in hotel sustainability practices than ever before. Combining this new data with their own interest in reducing the green house gases of their properties, the concept of a single, on-line application that would allow all IHG hotels to document, manage, and report their sustainability efforts was born and Green Engage was rolled out in January 2009.

Green Engage lives up to its name, providing data and suggestions for every department a of  hotel beginning with the site selection process for new properties.  During the construction, guidelines for sustainable materials are provided and information on IHG specific concerns, such as creating an effective and efficient building envelope to “maintain the desired indoor conditions and … permit the use of natural ventilation, passive heating, and day-lighting” are available.

Super efficient HVAC, lighting, and mechanical systems are suggested as a good way to reduce the hotel’s consumption and publicly showcase the efforts each IHG hotel is making toward becoming a more sustainable operation. The progress of all hotels is available to all lIHG properties so managers are able to research which green initiatives best suit their property and which programs will provide the best ROI.

IHG created the Green Engage platform to be used at all 4,100 of their properties and last year began training its Americas Region on what sustainability means to a hotel. Green Aware (About, Water, Air, Recycling and Energy) courses were provided to managers at approximately 500 hotels. And it does not stop there.

In September 2008, IHG moved its corporate headquarters into a new, green building in Denhem, England. This state of the art, sustainable building includes the Green Room, a mock up of their “room of the future,” that will allow them to test new sustainability products and systems before rolling them out to some of their 620,000 guestrooms world wide. For the rest of the building, not only were local, sustainable suppliers given preferential treatment, 400 tonnes was construction debris was spared from a life underground in landfills. Instead, 90% of the project’s waste was reused or recycled, reducing green house gases, bringing new life to previously used materials, and in the end, sustaining life for us all.

IHG provides another example of a company that “gets it”. Bringing sustainability into an organization does more than protect the earth. Being green provides cost savings from increased efficiency and conservation. These efforts can be rolled into new marketing opportunities focused on the rapidly growing eco-consumer. Sustainability programs can also make sure a business is ahead of the inevitable regulation that will stop those who lag begin in their tracks and reward those who stayed ahead of the curve. Like FairmontHotels and Resorts, IHG is leading the way in green hospitality, showing everyone that green business is good business.

Fairmont Continues to Fulfill Its Sustainable Mission

July 2, 2009 1 comment

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts recently added another guideline to its already impressive environmental program. Their new Green IT initiative will help the company reduce its carbon footprint by focusing on waste reduction, energy conservation, and responsible purchasing. The plan will be in place by the end of the year and includes guidelines for charitable giving and electronic recycling as well as a corporate wide power management scheme pushed down to each employees’ workstation. As these changes are implemented at more than 50 Fairmont properties spread across the globe, the company will enjoy cost savings and the satisfaction that comes with broadening its industry leading environmental sustainability program.

Fairmont’s Green Partnership Program was launched in 1990 and rather than remaining static, it has pushed them to consider their effects on the environment throughout the organization. From installing sustainable energy management systems for both guestrooms and function space to seeking out community members in need who can accept unused food and household products, thus keeping them out of landfills, Fairmont aims to minimize its impact on the natural world and promote sustainable business at every turn. For example, the Lexus Hybrid Living Suite at the Fairmont Washington, D.C., features style from famed green interior designer, Kelly LaPlante, while at the company’s Scottsdale property, faucet aerators and low flush toilets have been installed as a way to reduce water consumption in this desert environment.

An area where Fairmont truly shines is its extensive Eco-Meet program. Designed to provide superior sustainable service to conference planners and attendees, it is divided into four parts: Eco-Accommodation, Eco-Cuisine, Eco-Service, and Eco-Programming.

  • Eco-Accommodation provides energy efficient lighting and information about Eco-Meet in all guestrooms.
  • Eco-Cuisine means guests will enjoy high-quality food made from local, organic ingredients.
  • Eco-Service aims to make functions sustainable by using china and cuterly along with bulk cream and sugar and to ensure meetings are greener by providing white boards instead of flip charts.
  • Eco-Programming allows planners to provide sustainable education to meeting attendees through guest speakers, an eco-TV channel in each guestroom, and by assisting in carbon footprint calculations and offset purchases.

Fairmont’s Green IT is another example how this Canadian company “gets it”. Bringing sustainability into an organization does more than protect the earth. Being green provides cost savings from increased efficiency and conservation. These efforts can be rolled into new marketing opportunities focused on the rapidly growing eco-consumer. Sustainability programs can also make sure a business is ahead of the inevitable regulation that will stop those who lag behind in their tracks and reward those who stayed ahead of the curve. Having known all of this for the past twenty years, Fairmont is positioned to continue leading the way in green hospitality, pulling the rest of the hospitality industry behind them.

Audi and Facebook Go for the Green

On June 22, 2009, Audi announced it will donate $1 to The Nature Conservency’s Facebook Cause for each Facebook member who joins the Conservancy’s on-line program. The German auto maker is known for crafting luxury vehicles, not for combining sustainability and social media. Is this green-washing or just a new method for companies to involve the community in their corporate social responsibility programs? I believe it is the later and think Audi and The Nature Conservency have made a wise move.

This all revolves around Audi rolling out its TDI clean diesel in the United States. What folks around the world have know for years, that unleaded gasoline is less efficient and releases more particulate matter into the atmosphere per mile driven, has never really found a place in the American psyche. We equate diesel with working vehicles; from 18 wheelers that carry our goods across the country to bulldozers that move dirt from here to there. We all agree that no matter what a diesel engine does, one thing is for sure: it belches dirty exhaust into our skies and thus must be bad for the planet. Right? Well, sort of….

Diesel engines release more greenhouse gases than unleaded engines; however, diesel engines have become more efficient than their unleaded cousins. In fact, the 15% increase in greenhouse gases produced by a diesel engine actually turns into a 15 – 25% decrease because a diesel engine uses less gas to move itself from point A to point B. So, Audi’s claims that their TDI clean diesel is similar to hybrid cars  and better for the Earth than unleaded engines is true. I don’t see any green-washing here.

As far as developing a partnership with The Natural Conservancy and providing funding through their Facebook Cause is concerned, I think it a fantastic idea. In fact, I think Audi is one of the first of what will be many companies that join Facebook Causes. Based on my own searching, they appear to the be only car company associated with a Facebook cause. And they choose one of the best respected environmental advocacy and action groups in the world with which to work. For over half a century The Nature Conservancy has worked hard to preserve our planet. To date they have protected 119 million acres of land and 5000 miles of rivers across the globe.

I have heard that Audi capping its donation at $25,000 is proof of its less than sincere commitment to the planet. I believe that the $25,000 is symbolic, a way to drum up support for its TDI system in America as well as an opportunity to explore the new world of social media marketing. The current facts are clear:  a TDI diesel engine is cleaner than a standard unleaded engine.

And now that Audi and The Nature Conservancy have partnered for a green cause using Facebook, I predict that corporate relationships with environmental advocacy organizations which use the ever growing network of social media will become a staple of the sustainability movement. I look forward to watching as this latest chapter in corporate social responsibility is written.