ICYMI: EPA's climate leaders, toxics in the food system and more

In Case You Missed It

ICYMI: EPA's climate leaders, toxics in the food system and more

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

Time was (and not all that long ago), you could read a week's worth of articles about corporate sustainability over breakfast. The good news is that times have changed, which is also bad news: Even after duly separating the wheat from the chaff, there's more news out there than any one reader could possibly ingest, let alone digest.

That's where we come in.

Every week, we sift through the thousands of stories that cross the wires and news feeds, culling the most interesting tidbits -- and a few what-the-heck stories that caught our eye. It's a subjective experience, of course, and we welcome your comments and feedback and suggestions (send them to [email protected]).

Here's what you may have missed this week:

Corporate Commitments

Ford announced a goal to cut waste from its automobile manufacturing 40 percent by 2016. Achieving the goal would mean that each vehicle produced would send just 13.4 pounds of waste to landfills. Meanwhile, Ford rival General Motors announced late last year that it has now made 103 facilities -- including distribution facilities and offices -- completely landfill-free.

Starbucks announced it would source 100% certified sustainable palm oil by 2015, in response to a shareholder resolution filed by Green Century. Buying certified sustainable palm oil is intended to slow the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia in particular in exchange for palm tree plantations to source the oil. A number of companies have also committed to a similar goal, including SC Johnson, Unilever, McDonald's, and Cargill.

Marks & Spencer is expected to announce next week at the Ecobuild conference in the UK that it will "include 'green clauses' in all future property leases and retrospectively add the clauses to 70 existing leases," according to BusinessGreen. The policy is intended to disclose, and hopefully therefore improve, the environmental footprint of shopping centers and malls where it does business.

The Research Front

The heads of the hundreds of top-shelf companies that make up the Business Roundtable -- including IBM, AT&T, Johnson Controls, and Microsoft -- released "Taking Action on Energy," [PDF] a detailed outline of a comprehensive national energy strategy that would equally prioritize sustainability and economic growth and job creation. Included in the report are the group's three overarching goals for a long-term national energy policy:

  • Boost economic growth by ensuring access to affordable energy supplies and pursuing cost-effective energy efficiency measures;
  • Enhance energy security by providing an adaptable, reliable and diverse portfolio of energy resources; and
  • Promote environmental stewardship by improving energy efficiency and ensuring responsible management of natural resources.

These commitments come despite the recent Oxfam report detailing how companies are falling far short of their CSR commitments -- The Guardian notes that the report "accuses businesses of being overly secretive, making claims of sustainability and social responsibility difficult to verify on the ground").

Speaking of a disconnect between words and actions, MIT's Sloan School of Management offers a deep look at how companies can avoid the perception of greenwashing by effectively communicating about their CSR work. Among the 7 tips:

1. Don't be afraid of the media (ahem!)
3. Address big issues head-on.
7. Do what you say.

On the more practical side of high-tech green developments, a few smart grid items crossed our radar:

The WorldWatch Institute released a report detailing the continued spread of smart grid technologies, with the United States still leading the pack of nations that are funding smart grids:

The United States topped other countries in investment in smart grids, spending $4.3 billion in 2012, although that was 19 percent below the 2011 figure of $5.1 billion. China invested $3.2 billion in 2012, an increase of 14 percent over 2011. Smart grid directives in the European Union drove a 27 percent increase in European spending to $1.4 billion in 2012, up from $1.1 billion in 2011. Latin American investment in smart grid technology remains relatively small, totaling $400 million in 2012.

China's rising investment in smart grid technologies stems from its plans to update its poorly designed and inefficient transmission system, and China is poised to surpass the United States in smart grid investment in 2013. Other countries in Asia are also investing in smart grid technologies and deployments. South Korea, as of February 2012, had deployed smart meters to fewer than a million households, or roughly 4 percent. And Japan is already home to one of the most efficient electricity grids in the world, with distribution losses averaging 4.9 percent over the period 2000 to 2010.

And two separate reports published this week deal with smarter water-heater technologies: BusinessGreen sums up reports from SSE, Dimplex and Ecofys that look at ways to use more-efficient water heater technologies to store renewably generated energy. SSE and Dimplex claim that their "new efficient storage heater had the potential to provide the UK with 13GW of additional capacity that could help to avoid the need for new back up gas power plants."

Saluting the Climate Leaders

The EPA on Thursday announced the 23 winners of the Climate Leadership Awards. Among the businesses and business leaders recognized for their leadership include GreenBiz ally Tamara "TJ" DiCaprio, Microsoft's Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability (who just presented a One Great Idea about Microsoft's internal carbon tax at the GreenBiz Forum in New York City. In the supply-chain category, Cisco Systems, IBM and San Diego Gas & Electric all won awards. The EPA also announced awards in greenhouse gas goal-setting and -acheivement, with Abbott, Office Depot, Raytheon, and Tiffany among the winners in the goal achievement category and Bank of America, Lockheed, and Wells Fargo among the winners in the goal-setting category.

Recapping the ARPA-E Summit

The Department of Energy's ARPA-E convened its annual meeting on Monday to discuss forward-looking energy projects. The New York Times' Green blog covered the highlights:

[T]he breakout sessions held true to Arpa-E's tradition: there were lots of swing-for-the-fence ideas. These included finding a high-efficiency, low-cost way to turn surplus natural gas into liquid fuel for cars and trucks, and identifying something to burn other than hydrocarbons so that carbon dioxide is not one of the byproducts....

One particularly ambitious idea presented on Monday was to re-engineer plants so that their leaves reflect rather than absorb more light. In an age of global climate change, with shifting rainfall patterns, changing reflectivity holds appeal. The technology would save water, which means saving energy because the water that the plants need often must be pumped. It could prove a way to help crops grow with less rainfall.

Bad Food

You've probably seen the latest in a series of research studies that portray organic foods as not as good for you as they claim. The latest article is a study that looked at the diets of 10 families for five days and tracked the prevalence of BPA and phthalates in the diets of people who either received instructions on how to minimize the potentially harmful chemicals in their diets, or received a "catered diet of local, fresh, organic food."

Surprisingly, the concentrations of BPA and phthalates in both sets of families' bloodstreams were 100 times higher than the general population. So obviously you'd expect to see headlines like this from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "UW study finds chemical risk in organic diet."

In fact, of all the people who covered this story yesterday, only Grist nailed the story in its headline (even if they only linked to a Fast Company article in its write-up): "Entire food system may be contaminated with BPA and other plastic nasties."

The problem, of course, isn't organic vs. not organic; it's that BPA and phthalates are in plastics that are used throughout the food system -- in this case the contamination is probably because "the food supply is systematically contaminated with high phthalate concentrations," in the words of the study.

Speeding Greener Around the Track?

In the wake of the historic eighth-place finish by Danica Patrick in the Daytona 500 this past weekend, it's only fitting that there is other car-racing news -- and even other female-driven car-racing news: VegNation is fielding a "vegan-themed" stock car in a to-be-determined ARCA race in 2013.

Driven by "environmental activist and race-car driver" Leilani Münter, the car will be sponsored by VegNews magazine, Wildlife Works, and 1% for the Planet. Unfortunately for the planet, aside from the theme, the car appears to have no actual sustainability benefits. (Although you can read here for a closer look at NASCAR's sustainability efforts.)

If only Münter were an F-1 driver, she could drive my own personal favorite racer, what I affectionately think of as the choco-car....

Thanks for reading, and please leave your tips and feedback in the comments below or by email to [email protected].

Magnifying glass photo via Shutterstock.