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8 ways Big Data helps improve global water and food security

Published October 22, 2014
8 ways Big Data helps improve global water and food security

Big Data is transforming agriculture, and just in time. The demand for food is expected to double by 2050 as the world's population heads toward 9 billion people and increasing incomes allow many more to afford a better diet. Lack of water is a critical constraint to increasing food production, particularly as droughts and other consequences of climate change are making water scarcer.

To help solve this enormous challenge, the agriculture and water communities are harnessing Big Data to ramp up food production with less pressure on our water resources. Experts from around the world gathered in Seattle this week at the Water for Food Global Conference to discuss ways to harness this data revolution in agriculture. Hosted by the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska in association with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the conference focused on mobilizing Big Data to improve global water and food security.

With that in mind, here are eight ways Big Data is helping to create a more water- and food-secure world.

1. Satellite imagery and data

Satellites gather vast amounts of data that are used at global and local scales. For example, satellites can track atmospheric patterns, precipitation and ocean currents. Combined with weather data, researchers are using satellite data to develop better forecasting and risk-management tools to help farmers, whether in Nebraska or Ethiopia, make better decisions, and to help governments better plan for droughts and floods. Satellite data also can be used to home in on local areas to precisely map landscapes, analyze soils or assess crop yields, among many other uses.

2. Groundwater monitoring

Globally, agriculture consumes 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, primarily for irrigation, and groundwater is a key source of irrigation water. Data regarding aquifer conditions, groundwater withdrawals and other metrics are critical for water managers to prevent catastrophic aquifer depletions. Although water metering to potentially regulate use is unpopular — most recently in California as the state undertakes new groundwater management rules — it's been successfully used in areas of Nebraska for more than 40 years to help maintain groundwater levels, despite having the most irrigated acres in the nation.

Credit: Lee via Flickr

3. Viewing advantages

These days, most people are familiar with the potential of drones outside the military. In agriculture, drones will help farmers, water managers and researchers peer into places otherwise difficult to see. They capture images of entire fields and can zoom into individual leaves to determine the plant's condition. Researchers are developing drones to go beyond capturing images to actually interact with the environment, taking leaf samples, gathering water samples, measuring crop height or applying herbicides to individual plants.

Cameras — and the ability to process huge data files — are giving us new perspectives on our world. In one example, the Platte Basin Timelapse Project from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln placed more than 40 cameras along the entire length of the Platte River watershed, from the headwaters in the Colorado Rockies through Nebraska to the Missouri River. The cameras take a picture every daylight hour. The visual timeline gives scientists, resource managers and the public a greater understanding of the influences agriculture, municipal water supplies, geological processes, restoration projects and other activities have on the watershed, leading to better watershed management.

4. Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture defies the stereotype of farmers as low-tech traditionalists. Today, a host of technology from GPS-equipped tractors to remote-controlled or even automated irrigation systems is turning farming into a high-tech business.

Water sensors placed throughout a field monitor soil moisture in real-time, which help a farmer decide when and how much to irrigate. Fed to computer-controlled irrigation systems, that information allows precise water applications rather than a single amount across an entire field.

In another example, computer-equipped combines gather data during harvest to create detailed yield maps, which are used to create a precise prescription of fertilizers and other inputs to improve productivity the following year. Such advances translate into higher yields using less water and energy. And, thankfully, the high-tech nature of agriculture is also attracting young people back to farming.

5. Global atlases

Where in the world do we have existing farmland with the capacity to produce much higher, stable yields? Which river basins are running dry, and why? Researchers are gathering and analyzing satellite, atmospheric, on-the-ground and historic data to create mapping tools and models that help governments and others improve agriculture and conserve water.

For example, the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, a global collaboration led by the Water for Food Institute, identifies existing farmland worldwide where significant gaps exist between actual and potential yields for different crops. The atlas estimates global yield trends and food security for global analyses and, perhaps more important, helps individual countries identify production potential to improve policy and to better strategize resource allocations and trade opportunities.

Credit: Bioversity International

6. Regional mapping

Countries are taking on their own Big Data projects to better plan for the future. Sri Lanka, for example, recently began mapping many of its primary river basins and modeling climate risks to develop a comprehensive flood and drought mitigation plan. In the Dominican Republic, I participated in a project that created a spatial database of the country's entire irrigated properties. The data allows water managers to better maintain the country's extensive irrigation canal systems, conserve water and create equity among water users.

7. Smartphones

Big Data analysis and modeling can reach even subsistence farmers in remote areas. Many farmers in poor, rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, long isolated by insufficient phone service and roads, have cellphones. They now have access to weather forecasting and market information to make better decisions, manage money and develop a wider support network, thereby improving livelihoods as well as local water and food security.

8. Research advances

Science is driven by data. Greater data gathering and computing power is allowing researchers to develop drought-resistant crop breeds, better understand climate change and create models that help us understand risks and opportunities moving forward, among other research goals.

Much data is flowing in agriculture, creating numerous opportunities to increase food production without compromising limited water resources. But many challenges remain to ensure the data flows efficiently and to those who need it most.

Top image of water on data DVD by panda3800 via Shutterstock.



Christopher Neale

Director of Research
Daugherty Water for Food Institute, University of Nebraska
Christopher M.U. Neale is director of research at the Robert B.

5 concepts that could revolutionize 3-D printing

Published October 21, 2014
5 concepts that could revolutionize 3-D printing

Back in the dark ages of mainstream 3-D printing — say, five years ago — the next-generation hardware was idealized as a game changer in consumer electronics.

Users could create just about any kind of plastic trinket they could imagine, so long as they came back several hours later to claim the object after it finally finished rendering.

Along with shorter print times, recent years have ushered in new competition, market segmentation and economic incentives for 3-D printing. A horde of startups and public companies have already entered the $2-billion field, but tech giants like Amazon Inc. are also now circling to plot new competing offerings or scout acquisitions.

From improved efficiency to more advanced fabrication possibilities, specialized 3-D printing subsectors are emerging that cater to an array of enterprise buyers with money to inject into the field. Machines can now produce materials with potential health applications, such as human cartilage, plus batteries, LEDs and motor components.

“These advances have brought the technology to a tipping point — it appears ready to emerge from its niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications,” notes one 2014 report by New York-based consultancy McKinsey & Company.

In the meantime, researchers are also starting to piece together the puzzle on what the proliferation of 3-D printing technology could mean from a sustainability perspective. Generally, higher-volume production lowers the amount of energy wasted. But the amount of waste and potential for harmful environmental impacts of materials used in the supply chain still varies.

Here, a guided tour of five trends driving innovation in the 3-D printing space — and the companies angling to make the most of them:

1. Advanced manufacturing

Industrial designers have been relying on 3-D printers to generate rapid prototypes for decades. But analysts now say that the real business value of the technology lies in the production of market-ready components.

"The money is in manufacturing, not prototyping,” wrote Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at the 3-D printing-focused advisory firm Wohlers Associates, in a report on growth in the market.

That dynamic is appealing for governments and large companies (think General Electric and Tesla) committed to pursuing advanced manufacturing that could create jobs while maximizing efficiency, which is no easy task.

Well-established 3-D printing businesses, like 3D Systems, are now positioning themselves as generalists that can help customers ranging from automakers to hospitals manufacture components and materials. Then there are upstarts like Silicon Valley’s Made in Space, which has adapted 3-D printers for zero-gravity conditions to create replacement parts for the International Space Station.

The potential upside for the environment is huge, given that old-school manufacturing processes relied heavily on fossil fuels and unrecyclable materials (not to mention the toxic runoff that has resulted in some areas.)

How “green” a 3-D printing operation is still depends largely on the supply chain of the sector at hand. Some machines work with recycled plastic filaments, while others rely on new types of inks or metals that sometimes require chemical agents or generate toxic, un-recyclable waste. To that end, there are multiple efforts afoot in the world of open source, or RepRap 3-D printing, focused on recycling wasted polymers.

It is also worth emphasizing that manufacturing automation also comes with other challenges, like the elimination of middle-class jobs or a need to retrain workers on new skills.

Still, Wohlers Associates projects that 3-D printing will be a $10.8-billion business by 2021 — an optimistic forecast that has spurred some pundits to worry the field may be ballooning too fast, into a bubble.

2. The Amazon effect

As with other tech fads of the moment, like drones and instant retail delivery, one major wildcard in the realm of 3-D printing is how tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Google might come into play.

Amazon recently unveiled a 3D Printing Store offering jewelry, toys, décor and customization options branded with the tagline “shop the future.” That effort throws quite a wrench into the plans of upstarts like Shapeaways also chasing the made-to-order 3-D printing market.

Apple, meanwhile, has been quietly filing patents related to 3-D printing. Google is also rumored to be mulling its own offering in the space after signing on earlier this year to help 3D Systems build a high-speed 3-D printer. If and when that project comes to fruition, it could be a good thing for cutting down on the environmental toll of 3-D printing, since, “Anything that reduces the time spent running also reduces eco-impacts,” reports University of California, Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Jeremy Faludi.

Finally, there are older printing industry powers, like Hewlett-Packard, who are looking to regain the profit that comes with operating on the bleeding edge of a given technology. Following years of lagging revenues and missed sales targets, the company earlier this month announced that it would split into two companies: an enterprise software business and a hardware business that includes several 3-D printing initiatives.

What exactly this all might mean for sustainability writ large, however, remains supremely unclear. While there are companies working on 3-D printing techniques with applications in fields such as renewable energy (portable wind turbines), most efforts in the space among bigger tech players have focused first and foremost on making consumer goods at relatively low costs. 

3. A new material world

While more primitive 3-D printed products were usually confined to resin or plastics, evolving fabrication capabilities now make it possible to print metals, organic matter and a whole range of non-conventional materials.

ExOne, a spinoff of multinational manufacturing company Extrude Hone Corporation, is one company that attempts to lure customers with the marketing slogan “Go beyond mass production with imminent materialization,” adding that improving metal printing techniques mean that “Inventory is no longer needed.”

Though there are huge long-term implications for reducing wasted materials, the company’s stock has struggled with uncertainty about how fast buyers will gravitate toward new supply processes. 

Another concern is the potential damage caused by producing materials like photopolymers, which are produced through a chemical reaction with a toxic heavy metal. Metals, batteries and LEDs also present challenges when it comes to recycling or disposal.

One especially cutting-edge field with lots of logistical questions left to be answered relates to futuristic R&D underway on 3-D printing more finicky organic substances, like food and internal organs. Estimates vary widely when it comes to how soon that technology might be on the market, let alone what kind of supply chain might be entailed with faux-brains.

4. The maker craze

As businesses rush to make sense of the commercial manufacturing opportunities opened by 3-D printing, enterprising individuals and upstarts have also seized on unprecedented access to the high-tech equipment. The potential upside is drastically cutting down the time it takes to design and execute a new product.

Pair that with consumer shifts toward local and artisanal goods, and you have the “maker” craze fueled by demand for more transparent supply chains and a goal of supporting local economies.

MakerBot, a 3-D printing company with Brooklyn hipster credentials, was acquired for $604 million last year by Stratasys — one of the industry’s heavyweights that, like 3D Systems, was founded during the dot-com era.

Stratasys has also grown its presence in the maker scene by partnering with TechShop, a company with members-only workshops across the country targeting hands-on inventors looking to build their own products.

Those types of smaller, more consumer-friendly “FDM” 3-D printers actually can have “a negligible percent waste, if your model doesn't need any support material to shore it up,” notes Berkeley’s Faludi. Inkjet 3-D printers, which use a combination of polymeric ink and a UV-curing process, waste 40-45 percent of their ink, which also can’t be recycled, he added.

For would-be makers alienated by the prospect of hammering out product specs on their own, more consumer-friendly companies like Shapeaways offer on-demand product design and printing. 

5. Software meets hardware

You can’t use an inkjet printer without ink, and today you can’t use a 3-D printer unless you’ve modeled your product with advanced imaging software.

That’s where companies come in to create a blueprint for 3-D printing jobs.

However, that seemingly-straightforward process has become murkier in recent years as lower-cost or free modeling services become more common.

Autodesk, known for its AutoCAD design software popular with architects and builders, launched its own free demo software last year. The company also recently announced that it will branch out into hardware to sell its own 3-D printers and embark on an open source platform, Spark, to spur innovation in the space.

Longtime French competitor Dassault Systèmes also first gained prominence for its CAD software but has recently taken to acquiring social media and Internet companies. The strategy is to focus more on collaborative design.

Along with these software providers called on at the inception of a new 3-d printed product, there are several other hard-to-categorize business models popping up at the tail end of the supply chain. One example related to raw materials are trash “pickers” in developing countries like India, who are now seeking ways to establish fair trade practices for plastics they discover that could be repurposed for 3-D printing.

For now, the question is which companies and inventors in the increasingly crowded 3-D printing field can best adapt to a rapidly-changing market without succumbing to the financial ups and downs that accompany nascent technology sectors.

Top image by John Biehler via Flickr.



Why designers are on the front lines of climate change

Published October 21, 2014
Why designers are on the front lines of climate change

Now more than ever, society is accepting that climate change is upon us. From President Obama to GE's Jeff Immelt, leaders are confronting the reality we face: The global population will hit 9 billion by 2050, and we need our resources to scale and stay within our finite and dwindling carbon budget.

With scientists estimating budget exhaustion by 2032 if we continue on our current path, there is only one possible solution to avoid climatic bankruptcy: Stop spending and start bringing our systems to net-zero today. We must shift from discussions and debates to a real vision for our future — a vision of a net-zero carbon world, where net-zero solutions comprise our energy systems, cities, infrastructure and product design.

While government action and leadership are essential to reaching a net-zero carbon world, we already have seen how innovation driven by design — from solar- and wind-harnessing power solutions to radically efficient buildings — can be more the carrot to regulation's stick. It shows us what is possible and inspires confidence that we can do this.

When it comes to addressing climate change, we should be as impatient about the world being made and built around us as we are about government action. Cities can set energy-performance targets such as San Francisco's goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Businesses can commit to higher-performing operations, such as Microsoft's companywide carbon neutrality initiative. When city and business leaders demand climate-conscious solutions, designers hear the clear call to action.

Designers embrace constructive constraints; constraints inspire innovation in design. Acknowledging our limited resources and global social issues as constraints, designers across the world are now playing a major role in solving our world's epic challenges. This design-led revolution reimagines products, structures and systems from those that deplete to those better aligned with our population and planetary needs. When it comes to tackling climate change, designers can bring to life the net-zero carbon world we envision by designing for zero.

[Learn more about smart cities at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

City and business leaders possess the power to advance the revolution. By collaborating with designers, architects and engineers, business and city leaders can have more influence than ever before on the impact of our infrastructure. Answering their call, designers can use tools that simulate carbon impact before anything is built or made. They can analyze energy performance, resulting in buildings that produce more energy than consumed. They can iterate with multiple rapid digital prototypes to develop more efficient infrastructure and involve more stakeholders.

This dynamic can be seen at The Pusat Tenaga Malaysia Zero Energy Office Building, one of the world's first carbon neutral and zero net energy commercial-scale buildings. The structure was designed to consume 85 percent less energy than conventional Malaysian office buildings through an integrated design process approach, responding to the conditions and needs of its specific site. Across the world in Fort Collins, Colo., another new standard is being set with the introduction of the Zero Energy District, or FortZED, where an entire cluster of facilities are designed to be net zero. Throughout the U.S., a growing list of 2,030 districts, representing more than 100 million square feet of commercial buildings in downtown districts, are all working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Scaling from products to buildings to cities and supply chains, designing for zero inspires a new way of thinking across many sectors. When we break down the silos among industries, we can connect and combine individual solutions to create a world where modern life doesn't have to mean planetary destruction.

Incorporating design into decision-making can help prolong our carbon budget and lead society to develop net-zero carbon systems and structures that one day will be commonplace. We need to challenge ourselves to design-for-zero together, today.

blueprint_byggarn.se_sstock



How She Leads: Sara Greenstein, Underwriters Laboratories

Published October 21, 2014
How She Leads: Sara Greenstein, Underwriters Laboratories

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the careers of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

Sara Greenstein jokes that her first university economics class had more people than the central Illinois farm town where she was raised. Now, she's a self-described global citizen.

As president of UL's supply chain operations and sustainability business units, and a member of the executive team, Greenstein shepherds the company's mission to "bring safe, sustainable and compliant products to the global marketplace." Among two of its biggest accomplishments: an ongoing quest to accelerate adoption of zero-waste strategies and a mission to support more transparency about what's in products consumed around the world.

Greenstein was instrumental in expanding its footprint in Japan, India and China; and more recently was behind the acquisitions of IDES and Innovadex, since combined into a massive materials information database. She landed at UL after several classic business process strategy assignments with the likes of Boston Consulting Group and Arthur Andersen Business Consulting. In her mind, it was a short-term gig.

"Thirteen years later, I am here and have had a lot of various roles," she told GreenBiz. "Through all of them, I've been able to have an impact on our mission and on our business, which I think is the primary thing that has kept me here."

I spoke with Greenstein about what shapes UL's philosophy, and why "sound science" is important for meaningful progress.

Heather Clancy: Give me a sense of UL's reach and where you believe that it has the most impact? 

Sara Greenstein: We have been active pioneers in terms of leadership standards, product certifications and testing methodologies, and sound science that has fed current environmental practices. As we move forward, we're taking that what I call science-backed, technology-enabled capability and embedding it in the supply chain — all the way back to the raw materials and every other link thereafter, to the end product — to help understand broader social impacts, environmental impacts and human health impacts. 

You can only do that when you've got a framework that includes consensus-based standards, that includes third-party verification of performance and efficacy against those standards, and the technology, connectivity and security that's required to link all those various strains in a very global and complex world. From a UL perspective, our mission — I'm sorry, our reach — will only continue to evolve from where we are today, both organically and inorganically. 

Clancy: How have the acquisitions of IDES and Innovadex expanded UL's services?

Greenstein: We are able to provide the technology across the supply chain so decision makers can force products that are healthy, safe [and] sustainable and either formulate (if it's a material, if it's a chemical or chemically formulated product) or design … a product to meet multiple requirements — compliance requirements, perhaps performance requirements, sustainability requirements, and/or individual brand requirements that are being asked of them. 

[Learn more about sustainable supply chains at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

Where UL Prospector (the combined IDES and Innovadex platform) comes into play is as a public forum where hundreds of thousands of formulators come every day to get technical information they need when determining what materials to buy to formulate a product. Our supply chain software [offers] a very data-secure environment where suppliers provide very important information in a proprietary fashion that enables them to respond to any compliance requirements that are asked of them by any decision maker further down the supply chain

A retailer or a brand or a end-product manufacturer has requirements that they demand, whether it's because they have to comply with various regulations around the country or the globe, or because of their own internal policies and requirements. We have a connected, secure mechanism by which we feed that information up and down the chain. We layer our environmental and sustainability standards as filters onto that information. The end result is all about safe, healthy, sustainable products and processes to produce those products.  

Clancy: A moment ago, you referred to growth, organic and otherwise. So can we expect any additional acquisitions?

Greenstein: I think the answer is yes. We are at the beginning of a long journey, and to be honest, the strategy that we are deploying is one that is, I believe, going to continue to grow for decades. From my perspective, and this is something that we talk about pretty intensely here at UL Supply Chain, the whole notion of safe in the broadest sense — safe, secure, sustainable supply chains and the science of sustainability — are to the next century what electrical and fire safety were to the last. We are actively investing and charging hard to do what we can do to solve that safety challenge. It's our mission. 

Clancy: Recognizing that you have a pretty big purview, what would you say is your team's most important priority?

Greenstein: I think the most important priority for the next probably six to 12 months will be to drive consensus in the market amongst the diverse stakeholders around a common set of requirements, all of which improve the state of sustainability, if you will. To get everybody working from the same page, recognizing that continuous improvement can only happen once we've got a common set of criteria and standards from which to work. From that, true innovation and improvement can occur. In the absence of that, there are inefficiencies and therefore less productive work underway for everybody, for everybody along the supply chain. The sooner we can gain consensus with real science and experience around a common set of sustainability and regulatory compliance for major markets, the faster progress can be made. 

Clancy: You've spent a lot of time in Japan, India and China, so how has that impacted your perspective? 

Greenstein: I think one of the most enriching things about my journey here at UL has been that I've become a citizen of the globe, right? So I am as comfortable in the business environment in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, as I am in Germany and Italy and the United States. 

For me, it boils down to what we do here and the reason why we do it, which is to provide safe living and working environments for people around the world. This matters everywhere. At the end of the day, I lead from a place of "I care." I genuinely care about the people who work for me, who work with me, and who we are doing this work for. …

Traveling the world, engaging with clients and colleagues and governments around the world just continues to invigorate why this matters and why we have to have perseverance and succeed here. Because 75 years ago, in the United States, people worried about plugging electronics in. We don’t worry about that here anymore. But we do worry about known carcinogens that our children are absorbing that we are unknowingly causing. If you see a river in China that's totally black because of the chemicals that have leeched into it, or the air there is so thick you can hardly breathe, you absolutely worry.

Being a global citizen of business just reinforces how connected we are, how our basic human needs are all similar, and frankly, why we have a responsibility to address it. 

Clancy: You're going to have more accomplishments in the future, of course, but up to this time, what do you consider to be your most important accomplishment? 

Greenstein: To me, it's my husband and three children. I'll also give you the professional one, but I think for me, having someone who I adore and adores me back kind of helps balance everything. And having three healthy, happy children, I feel blessed and grateful every day for that.

Professionally, I think it's having the opportunity to shape such an impactful business and really have the impact that I think UL has had and is positioned to have, and simultaneously watch the people that work for me grow and develop beyond where I think they probably thought they could. That's what gives me the most satisfaction. 

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor? 

Greenstein: I'm going to offer the following: I think the most important person who helps me do what I do, the way I do it, is my husband. He serves as everything from sounding board to support to friend and husband. At times, when I am working out what to do or how to do what I know needs to be done, knowing that I have such a strong foundation gives me the extra little push to do what needs to be done. What we do takes courage. There are fewer people who are willing to be brutally honest than I would hope. He's a very steady presence in my life, and I think he has had a big impact in helping me get to where I am. 

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Greenstein: I say first of all listen. I think listening is one of the most life-changing skills — listening to others and listening to yourself. Being able to listen, being willing to ask questions is critical in life and in business. 

And then I would say, be who you are. I've grown up in prominently male-type environments — both in the consulting world and then UL, the engineering firm. … I always encourage people to just be who they are and be less concerned about what they think they should be and be very honest about who they are. Know thyself. If someone is in alignment with who they are and is able to listen to others and themselves, they will succeed because they will be doing something for which they have passion, that they're capable of achieving, and that they enjoy. That is the recipe for success.

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Ellen Weinreb checks the pulse of the CSO profession

By Joel Makower
Published October 21, 2014
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Tags: State of the Profession
Ellen Weinreb checks the pulse of the CSO profession

The notion of chief sustainability officers inside major corporations is still opaque to most people, even some inside companies that have them. But to those in the sustainability field, the CSO function represents an important touchpoint about the overall field of sustainability: how, and how much, it is being woven into the corporate fabric.

Three years ago, Ellen Weinreb, whose executive search firm, Weinreb Group, focuses on sustainability and corporate social responsibility jobs and careers, took a peek inside the job of the CSO with a report called CSO Back Story. She dubbed it “the first-ever data driven report of its kind concentrating on analyzing and encapsulating the essence” of the CSO role. Among the commonalities she found was that CSOs were “business veterans who are good at leading new initiatives, cross-functional teams, and understand how to translate external factors into internal opportunities.”

Now, she's updated that research. The latest report (download) “explores the evolution of the CSO role across industries,” again taking the pulse of the profession.

Among her latest findings: the CSO role “is now increasingly tasked with delivering collective benefit,” both internally and externally. “To achieve this, CSOs are enlisting support across departments and functions, and building strong governance structures. Today’s CSOs are orchestrating company-wide CSR efforts.” In other words, woven into the corporate fabric.

That is leading CSOs to stretch themselves a bit, delving into parts of the organization that may not be their traditional sweet spot. Said Weinreb, who writes the Talent Show column for GreenBiz on sustainability professionals: “With businesses increasingly embedding CSR across their organizations, a successful leader must demonstrate not only a solid understanding of and background in sustainability systems, accounting and related areas, but also an acute sense of how she can help create value — for her organization as well as social and environmental stakeholders.”

Weinreb found 36 chief sustainability officers within large U.S. corporations, up from 29 in 2011. She counted only those with that actual title; many others consider themselves to be their company’s “chief sustainability officer,” even though their titles don’t reflect that. Only five were hired as CSOs by their companies. The rest were promoted internally, in many cases as a capstone to a long career within their company.

The report covers five shifts that “showcase the ways in which the CSO role has matured, evolved or shown renewed emphasis over the past three years.” They include:

  1. Collective benefit: The role of the CSO has transitioned from a focus on the tactical implementation of environmental and social initiatives toward an emphasis on delivering benefit for stakeholders and shareholders simultaneously.
  2. Innovation: Thinking beyond incremental improvements, CSOs are spearheading innovation in order to meet the need for sustainably designed products and processes that meet radically different criteria.
  3. Stakeholder signaling: CSOs actively are engaged in signaling the company’s commitment to sustainability across multiple channels. Communication of the sustainability agenda to external stakeholders, such as customers and the media, as well as internal stakeholders, such as employees, is a critical responsibility of the CSO.
  4. Access: Regardless of its hierarchical position, the CSO role touches the business at all levels and works across organizational pillars. The CSO moves seamlessly from collaborating with employees across the business to influencing the company’s core vision and strategy.
  5. A team sport: The success of the CSO hinges upon the careful orchestration and engagement of multiple teams throughout the organization. By embedding sustainability into all corners of the business, the CSO empowers business leaders to own.

A woman’s place?

One of the notable findings was a large increase — 50 percent — in women CSOs over the past three years, from 28 percent in 2011 to 42 percent today. “I’m often struck by these photos of the leadership team where you see all men accept for the one woman — and she comes from Human Resources,” Weinreb told me recently. “There are some C-level functions that are seen as more feminine; human resources, for example. I wouldn’t want the CSO to take on a gender stereotype.”

We’re a ways from that happening. Women still represent a minority of CSO positions. And, at the risk of falling into a gender stereotype, there are traits in the CSO role for which women may be more naturally suited — among them, communications, bridge-building, collaboration and deflecting credit to others. And many women come to the CSO role through engineering, finance and science positions, traditionally male-dominated fields, as we've been featuring for years. Doesn’t seem like a gender problem to me.

But it’s not that simple. My colleague John Davies, in GreenBiz’s State of the Profession report, found that “while women constitute 50 percent of sustainability managers and 49 percent of directors, they account for only 37 percent of the vice presidents surveyed." Davies also found “an extreme lack of racial diversity in the profession as well as a significant pay gap for professional women.”

Weinreb’s CSO “back story” contains its own sobering findings. For example, a few companies have eliminated the CSO role since the 2011 report; another, a European company with a strong U.S. presence, moved the position back to Germany. It’s unclear whether this reflects a step forward or backward — whether CSOs disappear because their companies have lost their focus on sustainability, or because their former jobs have become broadly dispersed within the companies. Depends on the company, of course.

From here to obsolescence

Still, it's hard to make a case that CSOs eventually will become outmoded. When sustainability becomes “everyone’s job,” it’s really no one’s job — that is, no single individual who is accountable, or who holds the larger vision of how the company can align its business goals with society's. There’s a good case to be made that someone needs to be in charge. That will be one interesting trend to watch in the next tranche of research on the sustainability profession: not just the macro view of how many companies have CSOs, but also the micro view of where they sit within companies, their reporting relationships, the kind of clout they wield and their budgets and headcount. That will help tell a deeper story about the kind of influence such professionals are likely to have, now and in the future.

Weinreb believes the future seems bright for sustainability execs and discounts those who believe that successful CSOs eventually will work themselves out of a job. “I am of the strong belief that the CSOs play an extremely important role at the helm, steering the ship and staying the course,” she said. “I disagree with those that say they are working themselves into obsolescence.”

All images courtesy Weinreb Group

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Supply-chain fixes are the secret sauce for three NY companies

By Trish Donohue and Anahita Williamson
Published October 21, 2014
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Tags: Standards & Certification, Supply Chain, More... Standards & Certification, Supply Chain, Waste Reduction & Recycling
Supply-chain fixes are the secret sauce for three NY companies

Sustainable organizations can become preferred business partners, thanks to the demand for sustainable suppliers. Organizations that integrate sustainability into their operations likely will generate more revenue, retain and potentially create jobs, and reduce the risk of jeopardizing potential business.

Both of us work at the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, which assists companies in the state with their journey along the sustainability continuum. Through NYSP2I's "Sustainable Supply Chain" program, manufacturers learn to identify opportunities to become leaders in their industry sector by recognizing their impacts, determining a strategic certification or label to pursue and educating stakeholders on making sustainable purchasing decisions.

NYSP2I has assisted several companies with identifying opportunities to meet customer demands while reducing environmental impacts. Three are discussed here: a food manufacturer; a start-up packaging company; and an established granite countertop manufacturer. Each had an obstacle to overcome in order to gain or retain customers.

1. Baldwin Richardson Foods

Baldwin Richardson Foods wanted to be a greener supplier — and its customers demanded the same — but the company needed assistance to understand how to improve communication of its activities. BRF manufacturers and supplies custom developed products and ingredients for food service and consumer packaged goods companies. Using a supply chain sustainability assessment tool developed by NYSP2I, we performed an assessment at BRF to determine which common components of internationally accepted sustainability guidelines it was using.

NYSP2I staff conducted a review of BRF's policies, initiatives, relevant company data and production processes. Staff also interviewed members of BRF's sustainability team, as well as procurement, marketing and production department managers. The assessment identified opportunities for improvement and determined BRF's preparedness to fully report to its customers and stakeholders on its environmental sustainability commitments and efforts.

The assessment concluded that BRF is committed to sustainability and is well-equipped with the resources necessary to create a company with a competitive advantage due to its sustainability focus. As a supplier always striving for continuous improvement, BRF is able to support its supply chain and customer sustainability efforts and influence its suppliers to make sustainable choices. By retaining and growing customers, BRF expects to retain its current employees and add new jobs focused on sustainability.

Per John Cairns, BRF's director of engineering, "BRF has a better understanding of the appropriate reporting and documentation necessary for its sustainability actions as well as areas of improvement to help the company continue to make further enhancements to its sustainability practices. The assessment tool and report provided by NYSP2I has not only provided direction for BRF to supports its customers' sustainability efforts but also yielded insights for how the company can influence its own suppliers in making sustainable choices. With credibility as a supplier focused on sustainability, BRF has a recognized competitive advantage in the marketplace which makes the company a preferred business partner within the food and beverage industry."

2. Ecovative Design

Ecovative Design is developing a new class of high-performance products which serve as environmentally responsible alternatives to traditional foam packaging, insulation and other plastic-based materials. Ecovative's Mushroom Packaging is made from agricultural byproducts and mycelium, or mushroom "roots."

Credit: Ecovative

A large global electronics company with sustainable supply chain goals was very interested in Mushroom Packaging for protective packaging. However, this company wanted Ecovative to prove the product was compostable at industrial composting facilities. So in an effort to gain this potential customer's business, and others', Ecovative decided to pursue The Biodegradable Products Institute scientifically based label for compostable materials that biodegrade in large composting facilities. Products with the BPI label can be readily identified as compostable, which quickly allows customers to make an informed choice.

[Learn more about smarter supply chains at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

Ecovative requested that NYSP2I provide assistance in obtaining BPI certification for Mushroom Packaging. After passing disintegration testing to prove its materials are biodegradable in an industrial composting facility, and meeting other requirements, Ecovative's product qualified for BPI certification. Ecovative projects up to a 20 percent increase in customers as a result of becoming BPI certified, along with potentially creating new jobs in New York.

According to Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist at Ecovative Design, "NYSP2I researched and managed the testing of Ecovative's Mushroom Packaging to achieve BPI certification, which is critical for meeting customer expectations for using a biodegradable package and reducing the environmental impacts of product end-of-use. These clear and quantified claims allow Ecovative to expand its market opportunities and potentially increase sales by 20 percent, leading to employee growth at our New York state facility."

3. M.C.M. Natural Stone

M.C.M. Natural Stone Inc. manufactures granite countertops, landscaping products, fireplace surrounds and accent pieces. M.C.M. is expanding its business to include the recovery and reuse of granite waste to produce 100 percent recycled granite pavers, veneers and mosaics, known as "Bella Terra" products.

M.C.M. noted that in the industry, up to 30 percent of the original granite slab is considered to be scrap after cutting for install. The scrap is sent to the landfill. M.C.M. recognizes an opportunity to avoid the landfill by salvaging these scrap pieces of granite for use as pedestrian and light traffic pavers.

Credit: M.C.M. Natural Stone

To make this opportunity viable, M.C.M. requested that NYSP2I evaluate its Bella Terra Granite Pavers for mechanical performance and determine if they are a feasible alternative to other manufactured paver products on the market. The Bella Terra Granite Pavers successfully met or exceeded the ASTM requirements, which is information that the company can use to market these pavers to architects and construction contractors.

Additionally, because Bella Terra is a recycled product, NYSP2I determined that the pavers can contribute to credits for U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification for building construction projects because they are locally sourced and are made from 100 percent pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.

These characteristics enable M.C.M. to expand its market to environmentally conscious commercial customers looking for sustainable products, which increases sales and enhances material recovery. M.C.M. projects an increase in annual revenue of 15 percent, which will allow it to add additional employees. "By validating our granite pavers meet or exceed the standard requirements of other competing products on the market, and the potential for assisting customers with gaining LEED credits, M.C.M. Natural Stone is now able to enhance our ability to market and sell our products made from 100 percent waste that would otherwise be sent to landfills," said Mike Valle, founder and general manager, M.C.M. Stone, Inc.

Identify areas for improvement

To be sustainable suppliers, companies need to recognize where they can improve, then act to implement changes that support people, planet and profit. The NYSP2I Sustainable Supply Chain program helps companies in New York to recognize opportunities to reduce their costs and environmental impacts, expand their customer base, increase revenue and create jobs while creating a more sustainable supply chain.

Top image of ice cream with caramel sauce by Viktor1 via Shutterstock.

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Anahita Williamson

Director
New York State Pollution Prevention Institute
Anahita Williamson is the director of the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Anahita Williamson has a strong background and extensive experience in the field of environmental engineering, including manufacturing process modification for improved material recovery and reuse, design for the environment and life-cycle assessment. Prior to joining NYSP2I, she served as a senior engineer at Xerox Corporation where she assisted in implementing companywide sustainability and pollution prevention processes.
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Where is water tech when you need it?

By William Sarni and Scott Bryan
Published October 20, 2014
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Tags: Water
Where is water tech when you need it?

There are no shortages of stories on the environmental, social and economic negative impacts of water scarcity and the drought in the U.S. in general and in California in particular. Stories about innovative solutions to address water scarcity and water quality, and the opportunity to ramp up investments in said solutions in the U.S. and globally? Not so much.

Singapore, Australia and Israel often are heralded as the global water-innovation hotspots. In these countries, water scarcity and security concerns have spurred innovative policies and investments in creating water-innovation hubs.

Here in North America, the government of Ontario, Canada has made similar strides with its 2010 Ontario’s Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act in an effort to advance resource efficiency and innovation at the municipal level while positioning the province as a global leader in water technology and innovation.

In the U.S., several regional economic development efforts are investing in water clusters. However, the current scale and pace of North American water innovation doesn’t begin to match the scope of the actual market opportunity or underlying resource challenge.

[Learn more about water issues at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

The American water industry employs about 700,000 workers, including 30 utilities that support some 289,000 jobs, for about $52 billion in total annual spending. The water sector is also faced with an estimated $1 trillion in needed infrastructure investment, according to the Brookings Institution. However, water receives relatively little attention from investors and entrepreneurs who typically seek to introduce disruptive business models and technologies to solve market challenges.

Looking at the numbers, it is reasonable to conclude that the drought has had no impact whatsoever on investments in the water and wastewater sector. According to the Cleantech Group, investments from corporate and venture equity in water and wastewater technology totaled $140 million for 33 venture deals for the first half of 2014. This is compared to $317 million for 58 deals in the first half of 2012.

A recent report by McGill University and Utrecht University, summarized in Nature Geoscience, highlighted six strategies to address the water shortfall by 2050. These are not new, but focusing on these key areas is the place to start for any entrepreneurs residing in multinational corporations, startups, the public sectors and NGOs. They include agricultural productivity, irrigation efficiency, improvements in domestic and industrial water-use intensity, increasing water storage in reservoirs and desalination of seawater.

Let’s buckle down on water-tech innovation to meet the energy, water and food needs for our current and projected global population. 

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Rupert Murdoch's News UK is leading media against climate change

By Jessica Shankleman
Published October 20, 2014
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Tags: Employee Education & Training, Energy Efficiency, More... Employee Education & Training, Energy Efficiency, Green Team
Rupert Murdoch's News UK is leading media against climate change

When it comes to tackling climate change, the media has "an innate" responsibility to pratice what it preaches, and should not rely on the growth of digital publishing to curb its carbon emissions, the chief operating officer of News UK has said.

Speaking to BusinessGreen after News UK last week became the first media company to secure the Carbon Trust Triple Standard for reducing CO2, waste and water use, Chris Taylor, said all businesses should be aware that they are "custodians of the environment for future generations."

"I think if we are writing and commenting on these matters as we do regularly, then it's only fair that we try to practice what we preach," he said.

News UK has slashed its carbon emissions by 50 percent since 2008, and its new offices next to London Bridge's Shard building now recycle 80 percent of their waste, up from 10 percent at the old Wapping offices.

The new complex also has no car parking spaces except for disabled drivers, in order to encourage employees to use public transport or cycle.

"The Times is very famous for its cycling campaign as an alternative to driving to work," said Taylor. "To do these things ourselves only adds to the level of credibility. I think it's just something in the company that everyone buys into, so as a joiner you feel a bit out of place if you were trying to rail against that."

News UK's strong commitment to green best practices may come as a surprise to some environmental campaigners, who have accused The Sun and The Times of promoting climate skeptic arguments and being highly criticial of decarbonization policies and investments.

Arguments against efforts to curb emissions do not appear to have been embraced by the company's management, but Taylor insists it is not within the remit of the News UK management to dictate editorial policy on environmental issues. "The Times and our other newspapers have comprehensive editorial independence from the leadership of the company itself," he said. "It doesn't have to be the case that the newspapers have to report what the policy of the company is, and in fact there are many high profile cases in the industry where that's not been the case."

Securing the Carbon Trust standards has required initiatives right across the business, and Taylor explains how steps have been taken to ensure the measures embraced by News UK are compatible with a busy newsroom. For example, the management decided to make it easy for employees to recycle by sorting waste off site rather than asking people to separate waste in different bins.

However, some of the biggest environmental wins have been achieved outside the newsroom, in the print production facilities, where News UK also prints The Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Evening Standard and The Metro as well as its own newspapers.

Printing facilities require supercharged air conditioners to deliver the precise humidity levels that ensure the ink sticks to the page. But News UK cut its air conditioning demand by 70 percent, through scheduling and engineering improvements that has saved a total of 2,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the Euroscentral print site in Glasgow has reduced its water use by 44 percent, while the Broxbourne print site in Hertforshire has curbed all non-paper waste going to landfill by three-quarters.

Taylor maintains that its efforts are having a wider impact on the newspaper industry too, with the "real wins" coming from publisher to publisher collaborations.

For example, since September 2013, News UK and The Telegraph have combined their distribution programs, reducing the need for 15,000 van journeys a year and cutting mileage for distribution vans by 1.2 million miles. Taylor said he hopes to roll this collaborative approach out with other papers in the future in a bid to further reduce mileage.

But should News UK really be focusing its efforts on reducing the footprint of print when some argue the platform rapidly is becoming outmoded?

Taylor said in fact the opposite is true, that it would be easy for a publisher to claim that a shift to digital naturally would fulfill its environmental commitments, when in fact active steps to improve environmental performance still need to be taken. This is in part because News UK's digital subscription services for online content have not led to the same widening gap between digital and print distribution that other outlets with free online sites have seen. "We here firmly believe that in an environment where you charge for all of your products as we do, it's really about consumer choice and we don't see people moving away comprehensively from print," Taylor said.

Instead he argued that all newspaper outlets should be taking practical steps to develop more efficient processes that improve both the environment and their balance sheets. "Our view is that the printed product is here to stay certainly for the next 20 years, so it's about having the two things to co-exist side by side," Taylor added.

As the newspaper industry continues to face challenges in monetizing online publishing and managing declining printing sales, perhaps News UK's approach to delivering a more efficient printing and distribution model could help improve both its financial and environmental performance for years to come. Rupert Murdoch's Twitter account may have confirmed that the media magnate is somewhat sceptical about the need for action on climate change, but at least one of his companies appears to remain fully committed to curbing its environmental impact.

This article originally appeared at BusinessGreen

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