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Greenpeace last week released the results of its third-annual green electronics survey – a look at how leading electronics manufacturers companies are doing. All but Apple and Phillips of the 21 companies contacted agreed to be ranked on three criteria; removing toxic substances, responsible take-back of their end-of-life products and energy efficiency.

The survey was motivated by the fact that throughout a product’s lifecycle – from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal – electronic products have the potential to impact human health and the environment through the release of dangerous substances and energy consumption.

China is the world center for processing IT products and that country’s environment is paying the price. Printed Circuit Board and battery power production especially create heavy metal pollution.

Part of the problem is consumer demand for cheap products that don’t reflect the true cost of production – they don’t reflect the toll on the environment, on public and worker health.

Furthermore, IT companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in, which means we consume endlessly looking for the newest or better product, boosting company revenues but at huge environmental and social cost, that, again, is not reflected in the price we pay.

The Greenpeace survey found a general improvement in green features compared to the previous two surveys in 2008 and 2007, including a significant decrease in use of hazardous chemicals and almost all products met or exceeded energy efficiency standards.

But lifecycle management was still the weakest point, with very little use of recycled plastic, varying take-back practices and few marketing efforts to prevent fast obsolescence of products.

Generally, also, Greenpeace found that electronics companies were becoming more transparent in the amount and type of product information provided to customers, often listing product’s chemical make-up and performance details.

Apple and Philips, however, once again refused to disclose any information to Greenpeace. Of course this reluctance to provide information is disappointing and not limited to probing by Greenpeace.

Beijing-based IPE, led by environmental activist Ma Jun, has also over the past year focused on the IT sector for its significant contribution to environmental degradation in China.

IPE has also contacted electronics companies about environmental violations and Apple is among those refusing to address questions about noxious emissions by factories producing its products.

Writing in a Guardian blog earlier last year, Ma Jun said 34 Chinese environmental organizations, including Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Green Beagle, questioned heavy metal pollution produced by companies in Apple’s supply chain in a letter sent to CEO Steve Jobs. Last week Ma Jun said that the only response from Apple has been a demand for proof that the polluting factories are producing electronics for Apple.

“The links between these companies and Apple are clearly established,” Ma Jun said last week. “We are working now to provide the company with hard evidence. Their unwillingness to release information about their production processes reminds me of Nike in the 1990s,”

By contrast, in an interview with Asia Water Project last year Ma Jun praised Hewlett Packard and Samsung for duck disclosure and movement toward greener products. Indeed, HP and Samsung were among the companies singled out in the Greenpeace survey for the producing some of the greenest products.

Why single out Apple, as IPE has done? Does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game, for producing innovative, quality and well-designed products, have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost? Shouldn’t Apple be a leader also in its production processes and not a laggard?  Should we as consumers not demand more from the companies that sell us our products?

Fortunately, consumers ARE beginning to taking note. Companies that fail to adapt are poised to suffer huge reputational and revenue losses as a consequence.  A game-changing opportunity awaits those companies that choose to meet this challenge.

 

The world’s problems are too vast for philanthropy or governments alone to solve. The US$300 billion spent by U.S. philanthropists last year is just not enough to make a significant dent, while foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of global gross domestic product.

The reality is that only by harnessing the markets, large-scale private and institutional capital, will we even begin to meet the challenges posed by massive population growth, meet our many needs, address issues around water scarcity, our depleted resources as well as our polluted air and water.

Philanthropy can help spur innovation, it can be used as risk capital, to develop models for social benefit that can then be scaled. Governments can help take that innovation to scale but they can’t do it all. Only markets have the potential to bring about real change at the scale and speed we need that to happen.

In other words, we urgently need to take social investments out of the realm of just doing good and plant them firmly in business models in order to make our world fit for our children and grandchildren.

But how does that happen?

A new report released last week by J.P. Morgan and the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the Global Impact Investing Network  (GIIN) attempts to advance this discussion.

The report argues that impact investments are emerging as an alternative asset class, thus allowing the sector to be considered alongside any other as part of an investment portfolio.  Impact investments in this instance are defined as investments intended to create positive impact beyond, although not to the exclusion of, a financial return.

“With increasing numbers of investors rejecting the notion that they face a binary choice between investing for maximum risk-adjusted returns or donating for social purpose, the impact investment market is now at a significant turning point as it enters the mainstream, ” the report states.

It addresses questions such as what defines and differentiates impact investments, who is involved in the market and how they allocate capital. Also considered is what makes impact investment an emerging asset class, how much return investors are expecting and receiving,  how large is the potential opportunity for investment in this market and what does risk management and social monitoring involve?

The report analyzes five sectors that serve bottom-of-the-pyramid populations (the global population earning less than US$3,000 annually): Urban affordable housing, rural access to clean water, maternal health, primary education, and microfinance.

For just these segments of the impact investing universe, the report identifies a potential profit opportunity of between $183 and $667 billion as well as  investment opportunity between $400 billion and $1 trillion over the next decade.

Many impact investments will take the form of private equity or debt investments, the report says, while other instruments can include guarantees or deposits.  Publicly listed impact investments do exist, although as a small proportion of transactions.

B-Lab differentiates Impact Investing and Socially Responsible Investing, which has been around for some time, defining SRI (estimated at $2.7 trillion in 2007) as primarily negative screening, or investment in screened public equity funds that avoid so-called ‘sin stocks’ or seek to influence corporate behavior.

The core of the II asset class is that the model of the business (which could be a fund management firm or a company) into which the investment is made should be designed with the intent to achieve positive social or environmental impact, and this should be explicitly specified in company documents.

There are a handful of investment funds established to finance businesses that address social problems, especially in the developing world. Examples of funds working in these space include Acumen Fund, Root Capital, E+Co and IGNIA, among others.

A significant challenge identified in making impact investments is sourcing transactions. Many impact investment recipients are small companies and the majority of deal sizes analyzed from our investor survey are less than US$1m.

Particularly for investors based in different regions, the costs of due diligence on these investments can often challenge the economics of making such small investments.

Another, of course, would be setting the reporting standards needed to establish just what constitutes a social or environmental return on an investment. This is something on which GIIN and B-Lab are working hard.

It’s great to see a mainstream financial institution dipping into this discussion.

Last week,  I participated in a panel discussion at INSEAD, Singapore on impact investing and many of the points above were discussed at length. In particular, we spoke of the  challenges of II in a developing world context where this is urgently needed.

 

We recently spent time in Northern Sulawesi with Dr. Lynn Clayton at Nantu, which is the 62,000 hectare forest conservation area that the Oxford-edcuated biologist has worked effectively to protect from loggers and poachers over the past 20 years.

I was struck by the incredible size of the trees, the quantity of unusual birds, the general force of nature and indeed the privilege of spending time in such an untouched environment.

Separated from varied threats by a team of rangers who protect trees with trunks the width of houses, the endemic species, the babirusa and anoa among others, Nantu truly is like another world, a parallel and agreeable universe that is largely free of any human footprint.

Immediately evident is the interconnectedness of the forest – the trees, the plant life, the soil, the wildlife, the rain that cascades in waterfalls, that each facet of life adapts to meet its own needs, adjusting for self-preservation.

Also noticeably absent in this harmonious environment: evidence of humans. The footpaths along the perimeter and to a blind for watching babirusa at a  salt lick, the ranger stations, a community of gold miners deep within the forest, are the only apparent  confirmation that humans are part of this forested world.

The opposite side of the Nantu river is where the local  communities have established themselves – many of them brought in as a result of the government’s transmigration program, designed to move landless people from densely populated areas to less populous parts of the country. This tells another  different story: Kilometers of denuded land, the occasional lone tree, fields of wheat and a few other crops.

Still, when crops fail in these areas, inhabitants are forced to look for alternative income and that, most recently, has involved illegal gold mining inside Nantu or rattan collecting for local officials interested in seizing control of the protected area and its precious assets for their own benefit.

Clearly we need to preserve natural environments, which exist as lungs for the world, as repositories of biodiversity and as guardians of the watershed for local communities. But we also need to consider the need of communities to generate income to feed their families, to live decent, rural lives.

Although carbon REDD (reduced emissions from degradation and deforestation) in the future may become part of the puzzle, paying communities to help protect forests and the cost of conservation, that is not the only answer.

Generating livelihoods for communities  and building businesses that help pay for conservation must also be part of the solution. Dr. Clayton has been working with local families to plant cocoa and build livelihoods. So far about 100 families have received saplings over the years and many are now deriving income from their crops.

But even that is a balance. How to satisfy the local community and not attract others looking for similar rewards?

Are you building an interesting forestry conservation model that involves communities?

 

We recently hosted a forum with the Asia Foundation on Philanthropy and Climate change.  We hoped to encourage Asian funders to draw the lines between climate change (something that seems often hard for the individual to grasp) and the more tangible and immediate air pollution, forestry degradation, water scarcity etc.

We also hoped to then get them to think beyond the environment to a wider philanthropic portfolio and to consider the impact of climate change on livelihoods, health, education – even how funders in the arts might get involved to build awareness around the need to act.

Why? We feel that given the enormity of the problem, it’s often hard for the individual funder, the family office foundation, to see how they might act in any way that is impactful.

But what we found was remarkable energy in the room. Rather than despair, we felt that participants left informed and energized by our panelists and keynote speaker, Stephen Heintz of Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has an excellent environment and health, southern China program, managed by Shenyu Belsky.

Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and head of the New York’s NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, provided an overview of climate science – setting the scene for discussion. Dr. Hansen, an advocate for a carbon tax, spoke of our inertia in the face of an emergency, the possible extermination of species, receding glaciers, bleaching of coral reefs, acidification of the ocean, basically that we are a planet out of balance.

Heintz also spoke about urgency, describing climate change as a “planetary threat that knows no bounds.” He emphasized the particular threat in Asia – that of 16 countries facing extreme risk, five are in in this region and they are among the most impacted, low-lying Bangladesh for example.

In all, he said, global warming could cost southeast Asia 6-7 percent of GDP. Clearly, Asia is squarely at the intersection of climate and development and he emphasized the need for new ideas and new ways of thinking, something that accurately reflects current realities and anticipates new needs.

It is easy, Heintz pointed out, to be discouraged by the science, yet philanthropy, government, civil society and the private sector all have roles to play. In reality , it is imperative that we act because, inevitably, climate change will impact every other issue that we are working on.

Global grant-making, Heintz said, has increased dramatically over the past decade yet environmental issues are way behind, receiving only 5 percent of funding. Resources targeting climate change specifically, of course, are far less.

The philanthropy sector, Heintz said, can play a crucial catalytic role, take risk, experiment, support advocacy to change public policy and trigger larger systemic change. Important will be innovative public-private partnerships, helping to develop emerging models of low-carbon prosperity. His was an excellent speech.

Our three panelists, Runa Kahn of Bangladesh’s Friendship, Dorjee Sun of Carbon Conservation and John Liu, an environmental filmmaker and journalist based in Beijing, spoke of the practicalities of working effectively within this context – and they also were inspiring.

Runa spoke about making life possible for the 4 million people living  in impossible circumstances in Bangladesh’s northern chars, John Liu on a massive ecological restoration project in China and showed the results, Dorjee on carbon, community and market solutions for saving forests.

The entire session was expertly moderated by the Asia Business Council’s Mark Clifford who managed to draw together the discussion, keeping an often amorphous and difficult topic moving toward practical solutions and away from fear.

The forum was a private side event to the C40 Climate change conference early this month organized by the Civic Exchange and supported by the Hong Kong government and Jockey Club Charities Trust.

It would be great to hear about other experiences linking climate change with a wider philanthropic portfolio, about nudging funders into action in this arena.

Global environmental damage from human activity cost the world US$6.6 trillion last year, according to a new UN study.

That amounts to 11 percent of global GDP and amounts to 20 percent more than the US$5.4 trillion decline in the value of pension funds in developed countries caused by the global financial crisis in 2007/8.

The study, by UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and UNEP Finance Initiative, estimates that the world’s top 3,000 public companies were responsible for one-third of the damage, or US$2.15 trillion.

Other takeaways from the study:

  • Environmental harm could affect significantly the value of capital markets and global economic growth
  • Global environmental damage is estimated to cost $28 trillion by 2050

Why should investors care? The study warns that as environmental damage and resource depletion increases, governments will start applying a more vigorous“polluter pays” principle.

That means the value of large portfolios will be affected through higher insurance premiums on companies, taxes, inflated input prices and the price tags for clean-ups.

As a result, workers and retirees could see lower  pension payments from funds invested in companies exposed to environmental costs, says the study, conducted by Trucost, the global environmental research company.

Sectors most responsible for the damage, including air and water pollution, general waste, resource depletion and greenhouse emissions, included: Utilities; oil and gas producers; and industrial metals and mining. Those three accounted for almost a trillion dollars’ worth of environmental harm in 2008.

Why are investors still not providing leadership on this? Clearly, environmental externalities generated by one company have the potential to affect their portfolio. There is every incentive.

Already in China, low estimates are that Water scarcity and pollution alone represent 2.3 percent of that country’s GDP, according to the Asia Water Project. And China has said that, overall, environmental pollution costs the country 10 percent of GDP annually.

A sustainable global economy means we MUST stop drawing down our natural capital.

 

 

Mountains of garbage in Mumbai

Mountains of waste

 

We hear about climate change all the time now, we know it’s bad, we understand much of the science behind the phenomenon. But what can we do? No really, what CAN we do? How does this broad concept connect with our daily lives? 

We turn off and unplug appliances, we try to take public transport where possible, we use fewer resources, turn down the air conditioning in summer and heat in winter, we buy less bottled water. 

But often we don’t stop to think about the rest of our lives. We still want to eat strawberries in winter, meat flown in from the U.S. We (or our children) still buy clothes where often quantity and price reigns over quality. 

We look for lower prices (because we’re hooked on cheaper is better) and then don’t have to think so hard about whether or not that particular cheap item that clearly is not taking into account the environmental or social cost of  production is actually needed.  

We change our cars regularly, buy the latest Apple gadget (must have the ipad, the latest computer to stay in touch) and think nothing of chucking an iphone, ipod that has lasted only a year. 

What happened to the time in the not so distant past when we romanced a dress for a long time and just one purchase was ok, when we could buy fresh local produce and meat in season, when one car lasted a decade or more, when we didn’t need gadget upon gadget to be happy?    

So back to climate change: All of that consumption, flying goods around, needs energy. Production and energy (produced largely by coal in China) at least at the moment lead to air pollution and climate change. Sometimes we forget the connections. 

 In Hong Kong this week Clean Air Network has been good to remind us  with its tongue-in-cheek Fresh Air video what we face if we don’t change our bad habits:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmH3xCpOSW8

In Hong Kong we rightly complain about the state of the air we are forced to breathe and the government’s apparent lack of interest in addressing the pollution challenges – despite  HK$ half-trillion in fiscal reserves this year.

The moribund HK government seems incapable of taking action to protect its citizen’s health despite having the financial resources to do so. Clean Air Network is working hard and successfully to educate the public and stir the government to act, providing the tools and support to do so – hand-holding of sorts.

But perhaps part of the challenge is that in Beijing, from where I am working for three weeks, Hong Kong’s pollution pales by comparison – not that this city should set any standard!

Here, my eyes are a constant rimmed-red, a smog headache challenges concentration and my sinuses are in revolt. Here, the clouds are but a memory and weather is either cold or hot but never sunny, it seems, but there is only a steady grey. The near distance fades into a smog that anywhere else would be unbelievable.

This is the price of China’s progress, and, to be fair, of pulling an estimated 600 million people out of poverty over the past two decades by fulfilling our Western need to consume ever-more products. According to the ADB, over the past 20 years, China’s poverty rate fell from 85% to 15.9% – a huge challenge for any government and unmatched anywhere, anytime.

Still, what we hear more about in the West is the fantastic progress machine that is China, the well-oiled production centre for the world’s consumers.

The flip side of that for China’s citizens is the polluted rivers, the smog-filled air, the cancer villages in evidence countrywide, the drained aquifers, the contaminated land. All of these will be the Beijing government’s newest challenges if it is to keep its population healthy and maintain social stability, which is the utmost goal.

Highly polluted areas near factories have shown increasing cases of cancer.  Southern China is replete with communities that recycle electronic waste and here people are exposed to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.  The country’s myriad chemical factories produce carcinogens that enter the water and soil, also contaminating food grown on the land.

According to a recent Guardian article, in 2007, cancer was responsible for one in five deaths, and Chinese farmers are more likely to die of liver and stomach cancer than the world average.

Water supplies are polluted and aquifers significantly drained, something leading environmental activist Ma Jun warned about ten year’s ago in his book, China’s Water Crisis, which considered the local equivalent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau area suffers from environmental degradation that is threatening three major rivers: the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong. Melting permafrost and glaciers in the surrounding mountains are also eroding the grasslands and wetlands, causing the ground to lose its capacity to absorb water, according to AFP.

Xin Yuanhong, a government scientist quoted by the news agency says that at the current rate, 30 percent of the region’s glaciers could disappear within 10 years.

Climate change is also affecting the 580 million people living in these river basins.  This crisis also affects food security; drought and drying up water sources are severely lowering crop yields in the area.

By all accounts, the government increasingly understands the severity of the challenge. Careful Chinese environmentalists are being allowed to speak out. Indeed, many seem to be encouraged by the government to highlight bad practice by companies breaking local laws by emitting pollutants into the water, air and ground. Information disclosure has taken leaps forward in recent months.

Ma Jun and his Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs over the past several years have divulged information in online databases of air and water violations by factories throughout China. He has created a groundbreaking “blacklist” of polluters. At last count, IPE databases listed more than 60,000 air and water violations.

To be removed from the list, companies must take corrective action and accept IPE-supervised environmental audits of their Chinese factories. Ma is also a champion of increasing access to environmental information, which he believes will bring public pressure on companies to operate more responsibly.

In Yunan Province, Yu Xiaogang, another courageous environmentalist I met with recently, is also using information disclosure, to gain bank data. He and his group, Green Watershed, along with a network of nine other NGOs, are compiling information on loans granted to development projects that are damaging to local populations.

The group recently published the environmental record of 14 Chinese banks, looking at their policies, regulations, investments and loan portfolios, noting which were connected with environmentally damaging projects.

Yu is also working with communities to help them open channels with local financial institutions to discuss social and environmental impact ahead of any loan being granted to a large development initiative.

That Beijing seems to be backing the sort of discussion underway in China is certainly encouraging. It seems Hong Kong should be setting standards in the environmental arena not lagging behind its severely challenged neighbour.