Introducing the Sustainability Truth-O-Meter

The Inside View

Introducing the Sustainability Truth-O-Meter

Out of left field comes the jarring news all over the media and digital world that your product uses 1,000 gallons of water. But you’ve never even seen this statistic before.

An undercover video selectively shows clips of animal handling abuse. Is it legit?

An NGO states your company is a top user of palm oil. You believe it’s a minor part of your supply chain.

Nothing jolts you more than public claims that make you flat-out wonder if they’re true. Have you had that feeling?

When you are on the front lines of corporate sustainability issues, these charges are distracting, damaging and can elicit disdain — but you cannot ignore them.

The battlefront that emerges around such claims often creates a mad scramble for you and your communications and media teams.

Suddenly, you have to prove your innocence by a 4 p.m. deadline. How unfair, as whoever is making the claim possibly took months/years to study their claim — or didn’t take any time at all. In many instances, it’s mission impossible to spontaneously fact-check.

You wonder about whether whoever made the claim withstood a legal review of accuracy. Were they held to the same level of accountability? In your company, nothing goes public without a thorough legal vetting.

Even if the claim is technically true, it may be conceptually wrong or misleading, with little or no context.

This is really unfair, which is why I am introducing the Sustainability Truth-O-Meter.

Here’s how it works:

1. Spend quality time learning and talking to at least three experts (striving for a balance, including an industry perspective) to learn more and dig deep about a claim.

(Note: I know critics discount industry scientific input as biased. However, I would argue the NGO input is biased, too. When I first started working on scientific sustainability issues, I was very naïve, thinking “science” would show the truth in black and white. I have learned otherwise. )

2. Ask these experts to provide data/substantiation about the truth of the claim.

3. Grade the claim as follows:

  • Green: True
  • Yellow: Mostly true
  • Black: Mostly untrue
  • Red: Flat-out wrong

If you want the Sustainability Truth-O-Meter to step in — that is, for me to vet the claim — let me know via the Comments section below, or send me a private email at [email protected].

With the inaugural Sustainability-O-Meter, I have chosen a claim that originates with Michael Pollan, the well-known journalist, professor and writer on food issues:

Fuels rush in

In presentations, including a New York Times conference on Food for Tomorrow last fall, and other public venues, such as at the Edible Education course he teaches at UC Berkeley, Pollan claims :

“(It takes) 26 ounces of oil to produce one double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. We’re eating a lot of oil.”

I figured I would go to the National Cattlemen’s and Beef Association first. I know and respect the work Kim Stackhouse has led, quarterbacking NCBA’s first life-cycle analysis, or LCA. Stackhouse told me:

“From a scientific perspective, claims like these seem to pulled out of the air. I have no idea how they derive these conclusions, what input parameters they use or what boundaries are followed. ISO standardized LCAs don’t support these generalized statements. Actually, ISO LCA standards really discourage this kind of generalized reporting.”

Stackhouse used as an example the recent NCBA beef LCA.

“It measures 14 sustainability indicators (the largest LCA ever to be conducted on a food system). The impacts of fossil-fuel use (which is obviously inclusive of crude oil — but not limited to it) are measured across all 14 of our indicators: energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, resource use, etc. We have no way to quantify the amount of oil it takes to produce a pound of beef and I would argue that neither does Pollan. There is no science that would argue for or against this number he uses.”

Stackhouse also reminded me that its not literally “oil” but all fossil fuel equivalents,  and, according to NCBA studies, about half the fossil-fuel impact proceeds cattle raising, such as transporting, storing and cooking refrigerated/frozen beef. 

Hypothetically, tofu burgers could have a similar LCA profile for this part of its life cycle.

What does LCA say?

Next, I reached out to Troy Hawkins, director of life cycle assessment at Enviance, a firm dedicated to LCA with experience working with many products and companies.

Hawkins was helpful, sending me several peer-reviewed studies, showing a wide range of data, with the low end of about 3 ounces per quarter pound of beef, to a high of 33 ounces.

So, Pollan’s claim fell within the high range. Hawkins stressed another point: Don’t look at a product’s LCA in isolation. He shared confidential estimates of peer-reviewed studies showing several products in non-food areas where the energy used is as high or higher.

I next went to Walter Falcon, a distinguished senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute. Besides being a very good, objective expert, Falcon has cattle ranching in his blood, being the son of an Iowa cattle feeder.

"You have taken on a huge task," Falcon told me. "I do not think there is one answer to your oil-in-a-Quarter-Pounder question, but a whole range of answers depending on assumptions. The devil is in the (really big) details."

He asked more questions than are answerable, which reminded me that many underlying assumptions are important and variable or interpretive.

For example, Falcon asked, “How does one cost — in energy terms — an eight-year-old cow that has been producing milk for years, and then is sold to a packer who makes mostly hamburger from the cow? Does one include feed for the entire eight years? What does one do with imported grass-fed beef from Australia that goes into hamburger? Is the oil-cost per pound of beef (from the same animal) the same for hamburger as for a rib roast, or should hamburger be thought of more as a by-product?”

So I couldn’t really get an answer from Falcon, other than him wishing me, “Good luck with your effort.”

The main truth I found is that that it’s so hard to find out the truth.

And Michael Pollan agrees. In a recent email exchange, he stated:

“I agree with your premise that these numbers are difficult to pin down. We made our best effort to do so in order make the point that there's a lot of fossil fuel in our food — whether it's 26 ounces or 16 ounces or 36 is journalistically, if not rhetorically, important.” Pollan also agreed the data is dated and there are “tons of variables.”

Lastly, I do believe the 26-ounce claim is made to paint a bad picture of beef. Yet, as Falcon reminds us, “there is much more to judging the goodness or badness of a food product than its energy content.”

Why bash beef?

In an effort to go beyond bashing beef, WWF is working with ranchers, processors, retailers and other NGOs to create metrics and protocols for the production of sustainable beef.

I tried to pin down WWF’s viewpoint. Dave McLaughlin, its head of food and agriculture, was of a similar mindset as Falcon. 

“Beef has a bigger ecological footprint than other foods, as measured by its use of land, water and energy," McLaughlin wrote to me. "Sustainability is a complex topic that encompasses social, economic and environmental issues."

For example, he cited the newly released USDA data that the vast majority of cattle are raised on family farms. Additionally, the top 1 percent of America’s largest cattle producing farms are responsible for more than half of cattle sales.

When it comes down to it, I know a lot more now — yet I admit a lot of anguish in rating the claim using the Sustainability Truth-O-Meter.

Believe it or not, after spending several hours/days studying this, my gut tells me the answer is, “I don’t know.”

If the New York Times called me today to verify this claim, I would stammer. I cannot be dumb and say, “I don’t know. So much sustainability information is complex, hard to boil down to a sound bite.”

After hemming and hawing, I would tell the Times this claim is mostly true, although on the high range of various studies, plus it’s out of date and out of context.