ICYMI: SxSWxSustainability, groceries' carbon footprint and more

In Case You Missed It

ICYMI: SxSWxSustainability, groceries' carbon footprint and more

ICYMI — "In Case You Missed It"  is a regular Friday feature recapping the news of the week.

Happy Ides of March, readers! I hope you won't feel like I've stabbed you in the back this week: It turns out that the usual fire hose of sustainability-related information was turned down from 11 to just five or six, giving us only a gusher of news instead of an overwhelming torrent.

Still, more than enough to keep us busy, so let's get cracking:

Notable Reports

• This week marked the release of the 12th annual Clean Energy Trends report from Clean Edge (a company co-founded by our own Joel Makower). The Clean Energy Trends 2013 report continues Clean Edge's work in both looking back at the state of cleantech in the past year, as well as looking forward to what's ahead.

This year's report includes five trends to watch, as well as the companies that best illustrate this trend:

  1. Smart Devices and Big Data Empower Customers, Open New Chapter in Energy Efficiency (Nest Labs)
  2. Distributed Solar Financing Comes of Age (Mosaic)
  3. Under the EV Radar, Microhybrid Technology Saves Big on Fuel Consumption (Johnson Controls)
  4. In the U.S. and Overseas, Geothermal Picks up Steam (Energy Development Corp.)
  5. Perfectly Natural: Biomimicry Makes its Mark on Clean Tech (Biomimicry 3.8)

• A new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance this week projects that cellulosic ethanol  a low-carbon fuel not made from potential food sources like corn  is going to reach cost competitiveness with corn ethanol by 2016. This is good news for people and the planet, as Jeff Spross at ThinkProgress points out:

The requirements set by both the United States and Europe that a certain portion of their fuel supply come from biofuels have so far resulted in a huge diversion of corn crops away from use as food and into biofuel production. The increased demand for biofuels also drives farmers to dedicate land that could be used for food to biofuel feedstock production. ... On top of all this, corn-based biofuel use drives the conversion of grasslands and forest into cropland, even though the former two actually do much more to reduce carbon in the atmosphere than the latter.

• Your groceries are a much bigger part of your personal carbon footprint than you think, and retailers are lining up to change that. A new report from the U.K.'s Waste Reduction Action Programme combs through 150 studies to identify the environmental impact of grocery products, finding "the production and sale of grocery products to contribute between 21 to 33 percent to household consumption GHG emissions." I wish you could see this graphic more clearly (click on the image for a slightly larger, slightly fuzzier version), but it's showing the annual carbon dioxide equivalents of the various categories of groceries:

In short, chilled and frozen foods are far and away the biggest carbon culprits in the supermarket. (Surprisingly, baked goods are slightly lower in carbon than fruits and vegetables combined — no doubt good news for all you cupcake addicts.)

In response to the report, three of the U.K.'s largest grocers, The Co-Operative Group, Nestlé and Sainsbury's, have joined a pilot project to reduce the cradle-to-retail footprint of some of these products.

South by Southwest becomes a green launchpad

It says a lot (about me or the festival, not sure which) that I've heard much more about the companies and technologies coming out of Austin at the SXSW Festival this year than about the music. And I heard a surprising amount of sustainability-related news:

• Over at Time, Bryan Walsh has a look at the Pecan Street Research Project, "a collaboration of the University of Texas, Austin Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund and a number of other companies [that allowed Austin to] have gathered more data than any other place about residential energy use." The group's work on the big data coming out of Austin shows, unsurprisingly, that Austin uses twice the energy in the summer as in the winter, and that 50 percent of that energy goes directly to air conditioners. However, green buildings and buildings using rooftop solar could effectively cancel out that additional power use, or as Walsh puts it: "You might be able to Texas-proof your home." (We have a terrific video interview with Pecan Street's CEO from last October's VERGE SF conference.)

• At least two companies launched new sustainability-focused products in Austin this week. Geostellar is launching a Sustainable Energy Network aimed to help homeowners navigate the best options for installing solar power on their homes.

And CarbonStory is trying to harness the crowdfunding craze to combine all the latest SXSW buzzwords  gamification, social networking, crowdsourcing, etc. etc.  with carbon offsetting: Join the CarbonStory network, estimate your footprint and find projects you want to pay to support to offset your footprint for a month. It's a concept.

• In a short summary of the conference over at The Guardian, Matthew Yeomans writes about how sustainability is central to SXSW, unless you are going to the session on "What we can learn from the Unabomber."

CSR report recap

I like to read sustainability reports. I find it really interesting to see the different ways companies talk about their efforts, their successes, their shortcomings and so on. I realize that not many others do, so we'll consider this a bit of an experiment  a brief recap of some notable sustainability reports from the past week.

• Nestlé released its latest Creating Shared Value report this week, showing a mixed bag of progress on green issues: water use and intensity down, energy use up but energy intensity down, renewable energy use up slightly, emissions and emissions intensity down. And the company is setting a number of big new goals, including:

  • GHG intensity reductions of 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2015.
  • 100 percent certified palm oil by the end of 2013.
  • Water intensity reductions of 40 percent over 2005 levels by 2015.

Tom's of Maine, the natural toothpaste maker from the Northeast, released its first sustainability report, but it measures "goodness" instead of sustainability: "Healthy goodness, environmental goodness, and human goodness." As a first report, Tom's is mostly laying the groundwork for what's to come, and they've set a broad array of goals for 2020, including:

  • Zero waste at their manufacturing plant.
  • Roughly 20 percent reduction in transportation emissions.
  • Get 50 percent of suppliers reporting reductions in energy use.
  • A 30 percent reduction in virgin materials in packaging.
  • And let consumers and employees direct 100 percent of corporate philanthropy.

• Finally, a report about reports: The Conference Board released a report this week exploring how companies report on sustainability across the world. The good news is that the number of Chinese companies publishing sustainability reports grew by one-third in the past year, and that shareholders are pushing for even more companies to do so in the coming years.

Odds and sods

• Metrus Energy and CalCEF this week announced the launch of a $150 billion fund to finance energy efficiency in small- to medium-sized properties. Metrus is one of several companies to focus on innovative financing for energy efficiency, with CalCEF working to raise $10 million from investors to spur the fund's launch. Lauren Hepler in the Silicon Valley Business Journal explains that, "businesses accepted [into the fund] will split initial energy cost-savings with the investors paying up-front costs for design and installation of energy-saving technology."

• Get ready for the next "Greenest Olympics Ever": Hot on the heels of London 2012, we've got Sochi 2014 taking place in Russia in just one year. In addition to a robust sustainability page, the Sochi games this week signed Dow on as the Official Carbon Partner of Sochi 2014. Dow will be contributing expertise, technologies and products to minimize the carbon impacts of the Games.

• The greenest small businesses: Green America announced this week the three winners of its quarterly "People & Planet Award," recognizing the greenest small businesses. This time around, Green America gave props to Preserve, recyclers of #5 plastics and makers of new plastic-based products (covered extensively here, here and here); CompostNow, a home-pickup service for compostable waste; and Hummingbird Wholesale, an Oregon-based wholesaler of organic, local and regional foodstuffs.

Your random moment of good news

Out here in California, looming water shortages are the biggest current impacts we're feeling from climate change so far  this past winter has been the driest in recorded history, even as other parts of the U.S. get regularly pounded with record-breaking amounts of precipitation. So I take this as more-or-less-unreservedly good news: Lockheed Martin, "better known for building jet fighters and lethal missiles," as Reuters points out, believes it has found a way to use carbon nanotubes to cut the energy needed for desalination by 99 percent  and therefore the costs to run desalination plants.

Thanks for reading! As always, send us all your tips and feedback, and watch your back out there today (especially if your name is Julius Caesar ...).

Olympics photo via Dow