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May 13, 2014

Keep Good Companies

My current column in Sierra magazine ("Money Talks, Carbon Walks"), describes how each of us can help build the fossil-free economy by exercising our influence as consumers and investors. Most of us will do that because we believe it's right but, as I wrote in Sierra: "If environmental concerns aren't reason enough to divest from the dirty energy sector, do it out of selfishness, because companies that depend on their fossil fuel reserves for future earnings are simply a bad investment these days."
 
That gets to a bigger point. Some companies look at the future and prepare not only to adapt but also to thrive. Others can't shake their ties to the past, whether that's digging up fossil fuels or manufacturing buggy whips. Guess which ones have proven to be better long-term investments?
 
The Koch brothers won't be happy to hear it, but economic success in the future will require a commitment to sustainability -- whether you're talking about clean energy, clean water, or fair labor practices. Companies that haven't figured that out by now are already falling behind, whether they know it or not
 
We don't have to wonder which companies "get it." A new report from Ceres, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainability leadership, examines the sustainability record of 613 U.S. companies. Together, these companies account for almost 80 percent of the total market capitalization of all public companies in the country.
 
As the report's title ("Gaining Ground") suggests, the overall trend is positive. Companies are paying more attention to sustainability issues than they were two years ago. Seven out of ten, for instance, have at least some kind of strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. What tempers that good news, though, is that progress is not happening anywhere near fast enough. We're already feeling the effects of climate disruption. The deadline for reducing emissions fast enough to avoid a climate catastrophe is, as they say, nonnegotiable.
 
It's not too surprising that many of the companies that are furthest ahead of the pack on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting renewable energy are from the high-tech sector. Some of these companies were prompted by direct advocacy by Greenpeace; others were motivated to respond to concerns of shareholders, and the values of their own employees. Each company knows well the importance of adapting to new paradigms. They also use a lot of energy. Increasingly, though, that energy is renewable.
 
Google has committed over $1 billion to renewable energy projects such as large-scale wind and rooftop solar. These projects will generate far more electricity than it uses for its own operations. Apple Computer recently announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers are powered by clean energy sources.
 
But the food and beverage sector is the one where the highest percentage of companies has set formal, time-bound emissions-reduction targets. The reason is obvious if you think about it: These companies can already see how climate disruption is affecting their operations. How will you sell coffee if there's no place to grow it? How will you manufacture soft drinks if you can't find the water? How will you serve guacamole if you can't get the avocados?

That's why Starbucks has set goals of reducing its energy consumption by 25 percent and of covering 100 percent of its electricity consumption with renewable energy by 2015. And just last week, Mars, Inc., the maker of Snickers and Uncle Ben's rice, announced that it will partner with Sumitomo Corporation of America on a wind farm in Texas that will generate more power than the company uses for all of its U.S. operations.
 
In the 21st century, it's already clear that investing in clean energy is essential for companies that want to flourish. But unlike any previous major economic shift, this time we don't have the luxury of letting things happen in their own good time. According to the International Energy Agency, our global clean energy investment needs to be about $36 trillion over the next 36 years if we want an 80 percent chance of limiting the climate warming to 3.6 degrees F.
 
Can we do it? We have to. And that means doing whatever we can to encourage not just our government (local and national) but the companies that we do business with (and that we invest in) to take action. When a company like GM, Nissan, or Tesla doubles down on electric cars, we need to support that decision, if we can, with our wallets.
 
The transition to a clean, renewable economy has already started. Our job now is to kick it into high gear.

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