Welcome to the March 2019 issue of Valutus SustainabilityR.O.I., a Recap of things that caught our attention along with some Observations and Intelligence.
This month’s Recap stories run the gamut from peat moss to pixels, and we think you’ll find them compelling. Observations chronicles the struggles of sustainability executives to attain real authority and what, specifically, we must do about it. Intelligence offers a peek at one of our most powerful tools: one that makes materiality analyses faster and much more valuable.
We hope you find this issue of value. If you do, please consider forwarding to your colleagues. Thanks for being part of making the world a better place.
The Value of Values
This month’s issue is a study in the importance of small things.
Very, very small things.
Legionella Bacteria. Photo by Tatiana Shepeleva
Two stories are about sphagnum moss, better known as ‘peat,’ tiny plants with minute star like leaves that have had a huge impact on our race and could turn out to be the deciding factor in the progression of climate change. Peat is so important, and has so many uses, it merited two separate treatments this month.
Another item delves even deeper, into the tiny, mysterious world of microbes. Some, as we detail below, enjoy snacking on our species’ most pernicious industrial by-products while generating streams of electrons that may come to power our devices one day soon
Photo artwork by Drew Graham / Unsplash
We have a story, too, about yet another tiny thing: pixels. It turns out the way we represent climate change in our imagery can tip the balance between indifference and action.
That does it for the small stuff. But Observations once again hosts a big issue: our failure, even in 2019, to break sustainability officers through to C-Suites and boardrooms, and some very specific and concrete things we can – and must – do about it.
Photo by Pressmaster
Finally, we’ve talked a lot about materiality’s foibles and fixes in these pages. In Intelligence we bring you a peek at our own materiality tool, one we’ve designed the foibles out of and the fixes into. Take a look; we believe it could save you a lot of time and, more importantly, help you create a great deal more value from your next materiality project.
For Peat’s Sake: Moss 1
Farm with stacks of peat. Painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1883. Source Wikipedia
As creatures of land and fresh water, humans have lived much of their history on peat. It is found on every continent. There are huge reserves on islands such as Indonesia, Borneo and New Zealand. The largest peatland in the tropics, greater in size than England, was discovered in the Congo basin just within the last five years, and another was found recently in Peru.
Sphagnum moss wound dressings being made at the University of Toronto c.1914. Photo source: Wikipedia
Americans think of peat as something to line flowerbeds, but peat has been useful for thousands of years. It’s been used in medicine for a millennium at least, particularly on the battlefields of World War I, when bandages were in short supply but sepsis was not.
More recently, it has been adapted to replace chemicals in industrial cooling towers, swimming pools and other water sinks where bacteria, mineral scale, and corrosion are problematic (see Re-Peat: Moss 2, Cooling Towers, below). Peat-smoked barley gives some Scottish single malts and ales their peculiar ‘peaty’ flavor. Houses were built of it across Iceland, Norway and elsewhere on the tundra. And, of course, it is best known around the world as fuel: many parts of Europe and the UK depended on peat as others did wood or coal, long before recorded history.
Harvesting the peat at Westhay, Somerset Levels.
Photo by Alexander Eric Hasse (1875 - 1935). Photo source: Wikipedia
Peat is a deep, soil-like layer made from accretion of decaying plant matter in wet conditions: A swamp, a bog, a mire or, in the case of the Congo, a lake bed back during the Pliocene. Small plants, such as sphagnum moss (peat moss) live and die in small pools and mires and their mass accumulates very slowly. Many peat bogs are only about 10,000-12,000 years old, having formed in the wet pools left behind by the receding glaciers of the last ice age. As these tiny sphagnum mosses grow, they take up carbon, then decay and give off carbon.
Photo by Ibrahim Shabil / Unsplash
“Bogs are extremely important for humanity,” explained Professor Sergey Kirpotin, director of the BioClimLand Centre of Excellence for Climate Change Research in Tomsk, Russia, in The Siberian Times. 'Over thousands of years, bogs have been absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it at peat deposits… Bogs function as a sort of natural freezer as they don’t let the carbon build up in the atmosphere.”
Peat takes up about 3% of the earth’s land surface, yet holds more carbon than all other plant materials, including global forests, and 42% of all carbon stored in soil. The Congo deposit is easily one of the most carbon-rich lands on earth at an estimated 30 billion tons, while overall, peat masses are estimated to contain more than 550 gigatons. In aggregate, peatlands take up and store far more carbon than is released, under normal conditions. But, of course, we are not in normal conditions.
Photo by Tomáš Malík / Unsplash
The frozen tundra of Siberia — larger in area than France and Germany combined — hold an incredible weight of carbon which warming has begun to release.
“A thaw of the frozen bogs, which take up as much as 80 percent of the landmass of western Siberia, will release billions of tonnes of methane – a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere,” Professor Kirpotin continued. That, he concluded, will greatly speed up the effects of global warming around the world with potentially devastating consequences.
A few years ago, the carbon released from smoldering peat in Indonesian Sumatra and Borneo was estimated to top the combined emissions of the whole United States economy, according to Indonesia’s Mongabay. According to the UN, such peat fires account for up to 5% of carbon released through human causation and they “may have indirectly killed up to 100,000 people through the toxic haze, in addition to causing $16.1 billion in economic damage.”
So, what do we do about this oddly contrary biomass, this sieve for impurities that cleans our waterways, wetlands, and lakes, this carbon-storing boon?
We know melting releases methane. Burning releases C02. Draining means reducing carbon storage. Strike three. There is only one positive solution: keep the peat in place. Replant or reflood extant peatlands and keep the tundras cold enough to maintain carbon storage.
Can we do this? We don’t yet know. What we do know is this: our own fate is closely tied to that of the peat.
Re-Peat: Moss 2: Cooling Towers
Photo by Thomas Millot / Unsplash
It is said that a rolling stone gathers no moss. Yet moss is gathering in the roiling waters of industrial cooling towers, where factories need to purify the water for recycling or reuse. Currently, this is normally done through the use of chemicals – but moss is beginning to replace them. That’s because sphagnum (peat) moss, the material that cleanses our rivers, streams, and lakes, can do the same for cooling towers.
Photo by Susana / Reshot
One large manufacturer recently piloted using moss in two small cooling towers at a plant in North Carolina. They found such a reduction in mineral scale deposits, corrosion and bacteria, that they went ahead with using it in the facility’s two much larger towers. The results: the company is on pace to save close to a million and a half gallons annually along with 800 pounds of chemicals (a reduction of about 80%). Because there are as many as two million industrial cooling towers in the US alone, this technology has the potential to remove millions of pounds of chemicals from the waste stream every year and to save billions of gallons of water in the process.
Photo by Zbysiu-Rodak / unslplash
Swimming pools, too, can benefit from the moss. In fact, one of the innovators of sphagnum for industrial use, Creative Water Solutions (CWS) out of Minnesota, initially tested the product in residential pools and spas. “We saw a one-third decline in chlorine demand for the water immediately,” Thomas Schaffer, leading the testing in two St. Paul, Minnesota, pools told The New York Times. And the decline has continued: “we’re now using two-thirds less chlorine,” Schaffer says.
This is one of those delicate balances the world must strike. The moss must be harvested if we’re to cut incredible amounts of chemicals from our pools, spas and cooling towers, and yet, as we note in our article, For Peat’s Sake: Moss 1, above, we must keep the moss in place, frozen in the north, unburned in the south, in order keep greenhouse gas levels manageable.
Can we do both? If sustainable harvesting is possible. One approach being used by many Canadian producers, according to The Washington Post, is “restoring harvested bogs by allowing them to re-flood and seeding them with shredded moss grafts that grow and knit together. The moss covers the harvest site within five years, he said, and the bog is “back to a near-natural condition within 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Worth A Thousand Words?
For Sustainability, It Depends
The zeppelin Hindenburg on fire, Manchester Township, NJ (USA) 6 May 1937.
Photo by Sam Shere (1905–1982)
Iconic photos of the Hindenburg, or Hiroshima after the bomb, leave a lasting impression. Yet the indelible image of Napalm Girl, who symbolized the Vietnam war, was more than that: it was a call to action for a generation of young Americans. A young black man being torn at by a German shepherd caused not only anguish but an outcry and a trip to the south for thousands of civil rights workers. A tear in the eye of a Native American sparked a wave of litter laws and environmentalism all over the U.S. In the ‘picture worth a thousand words’ department, these images stand out, not only as symbols but also as beacons demanding a response, a human response. And the humanity involved seems to be the key.
When it comes to sustainability, while images of starving polar bears and melting ice sheets make our peril clear, they do not, apparently, evoke the human-to-human response that galvanizes most of us to actually do something. In an article entitled, “Why climate change photography needs a new look,” BBC Futuresuggests we may be approaching climate change imagery the wrong way: by leaving out the people.
Accordingly, we scanned Time Magazine’s ‘100 most influential pictures of all time’ and found that 84 of those frames contained human imagery.
“Images without people on them are unable to tell a human story,” said the director of Climate Visuals, psychologist Adam Corner, to the BBC. Which means images like this one, of a factory belching fumes...
International Paper Co., Memphis, TN Pulp Mill. Photo source: Wikipedia
are likely less compelling — in terms of desire to act — than an image such as this, which represents the same thing but with a human in the frame.
Photo by anankkml
As the BBC noted, “After asking people at panel groups in London and Berlin, and through an online survey with over 3,000 people, the [Climate Visuals] team concluded that people were more likely to empathize with images that showed real faces – such as workers installing solar panels, emergency respondents helping victims of a typhoon or farmers building more efficient irrigation systems to combat drought.”
Photo by Makenna Entrikin / Unsplash
As Corner notes, there is so much evidence now of climate change that finding scenes of humans affected by it is all too easy. Starving polar bears and smokestacks notwithstanding, we might be wise to give sustainability a human touch.
Garbage in, Electrons Out?
Thermophilic Bacteria Do Both
Bacterial biofilm matts on a Yellowstone geyser. Photo by Nicolasintravel / Unsplash
Imagine you’re curled up in your favorite chair reading an old sci fi tome. In it, earthlings learn to interact with alien creatures who eat toxins and breathe electricity, in an atmosphere inhospitable to humans. These aliens may, just possibly, hold the key to saving our home planet, yet communication is difficult and dangerous. Humans who fall into their acidic pools dissolve in moments, so they are forced to communicate using an instrument known as a potentiostat.
Issue #1 of Amazing Stories, April 1926. Photo source: Wikipedia
Before you close the book in disgust, consider this: perhaps the humans in the story represent researchers from Washington State University. Maybe the aliens are thermophilic bacteria living in Yellowstone’s superheated, geothermal pools. And just possibly, those bacteria hold a key to saving our home planet.
Oh, and yes, really, don’t get too close. If you fall into certain of these pools, the sulfuric acid and heat will dissolve you. The potentiostat? Beam that up too; it’s real.
Thermus Aquaticus Bacteria. Photo: Diane Montpetit
(Food Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
It has long been understood that some bacteria can break down, or ‘eat’, various pollutants, chemicals and biological agents. The electrical properties of some bacteria have also been previously studied. But now, the critters living and creating biofilm matts in certain Yellowstone thermal pools have been found to do both. These microbes could be made to generate enough electricity to power small electronic devices while gobbling PCBs and other environmental toxins for lunch.
“Such bacteria can ‘eat’ pollution by converting toxic pollutants into less harmful substances and generating electricity in the process,” according to Science Daily, and the Journal of Power Sourceswrote that microbial fuel cell (MFC) reactors are “able to generate electricity by capturing electrons from the anaerobic respiratory processes of microorganisms.”
Many toxic chemicals and radioactive substances have been dumped in harsh land and marine environments, in ditches and pools at industrial sites, or at nuclear waste sites, which is why these creatures may be perfect for the work at hand. “The bacteria perform their useful tasks while in spore form, a dormant stage of growth that can handle extreme heat, radiation and lack of water — all useful traits for an organism that might be employed in some of the worst manmade environments,” relates Live Science.
Potentiostat. Photo source: Public Lab Wiki
When these tiny workhorses will be put to practical use is unclear, but researchers at MIT are currently working on the problem. “The vision is to harness the most-powerful bacteria for tasks like running fuel cells or purifying sewage water,” explains Forbes.
It may read like science fiction but, down the road, we may be powering our phones and computers with these earth-based, pollutant-munching, electron-streaming aliens. In the meanwhile, steer clear of their pools and hold on to your potentiostats.
Breaking Through to the C-Suite:
A ‘How To’ for Sustainability Executives
Last November we ran a piece in this space entitled, Periphery: On the outside looking in. We noted that, even at this advanced stage of our climate and resource debacle, sustainability practitioners still do not possess the same status in corporations as their purely business-minded brethren. The article was based on a survey of the ‘about’ sections of corporations where top sustainability influencers work, to see if those individuals made it to the masthead. In a word: they didn’t.
In case we were inclined to doubt the implications of that finding, this month we came across a list — compiled annually by longtime sustainability recruiter Ellen Weinreb — naming each and every US publicly traded company with a Chief Sustainability Officer. All 44 of them.
The report is interesting reading, but perhaps the most compelling metric is this: when the list began in 2011 it chronicled 29 CSOs. In other words, we’ve added a whopping 15 CSOs in the last 8 years. Fifteen! That’s under two per year, during the hottest decade in recorded history! Here we are, in the Year of Our Climate, 2019, and only a handful of our biggest corporations have broadened their C-Suites to include a CSO. And, as one sustainability expert told Valutus, “of the 44 current CSOs, if you ask how many of those have the real authority of a C-level position, the true answer is: Zero.”
So, what’s up with that? Are the vast majority of companies doing nothing to further planetary sustainability? Are their lower-level Heads of Responsibility, Executive Directors of Corporate Citizenship, Global Sustainability Leads and the like mere functionaries without influence or value? Certainly not. So why? Why don’t they inhabit a corner office — and real power — in every major corporation?
Before we answer this, consider the following two items. The first is a conversation we had with the CFO of a multi-billion-dollar corporation who said, “there are only two people who come into my office asking for money without numbers: HR and Sustainability.” This is one reason we aren’t invited to shake the trees from the C-Suite: we’re not seen as true business partners who speak the language of profits and tie our efforts directly to our company’s financial success.
The other is the parable of the Chief of Sustainability who wanted to replace the lights in every facility with LEDs. She had numbers, the project beat the hurdle rate for the investment, it had tangible benefits for utility and maintenance costs, and had environmental meaning. But the CEO and CFO intuitively thought, “that’s nice but that’s not our core business. We don’t compete on how well we manage our real estate and energy bills; we compete on the core engine of our business...and lighting isn’t it. We’ll invest in a production project instead.”
So, what do we do about this sad state of affairs? How do we get sustainability – and the chief officers thereof – both the recognition they deserve and the clout that should go with it?
There is only one way: we must demonstrate — in clear and unequivocal ROI terms — that sustainability is an absolutely critical driver of bottom-line performance in the company’s core business. (This can be either the company’s current core business or a possible future one.)
The 2018 Report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate concluded that by the year 2030 — twelve years hence — the amount of money humanity could save through a global shift to sustainable development is $26 trillion. With a “T.” The pie is huge, yet we generally don’t get our companies to buy a slice, and the reason we don’t is simple: valuing what we do is hard. What we deal with is far harder to quantify than many aspects of the business – and much of its value is submerged, invisible without careful analysis.
Standard ROI from stronger sales or more efficient processes has been studied down to its atoms, tools created, methods developed. Not so with the value sustainability produces, even aspects that are relatively intuitive, such as that living the company’s values improves talent acquisition and staff retention. How about sustainability’s ability to reduce risks or increase innovation? Can the value of those effects be quantified? This stuff is hard, but until we can do it we can’t expect to march into corner offices, demand big money – or even big respect – and get it.
Valutus has spent years building a set of valuation tools for exactly this reason, because until we have the ability to point to clear, business-oriented benefits – whether related to materiality, innovation, risk, talent acquisition and retention, sales, or strategy – sustainability will continue to be seen as an afterthought by too many. And until we can put quantified, concrete value – including surfacing and quantifying value that is currently submerged – we will continue to be less effective at driving the changes the world needs.
In other words: it’s up to us! It is our task to create demand for CSOs in every C-Suite, by building the same financial, dollars-and-sense business case for our projects that every business runs on. And it is up to us to take the strategic tack of making our projects so central to the business’s core drivers that they simply can’t be ignored – and neither can we.
Photo by Devin Avery / Unsplash
Materiality Tool with Foibles Out, Fixes In
We have written extensively in this space about materiality: how badly it is broken as practiced, and how, with a few simple additions, it can be fixed. To take this conversation beyond talking, we have built a tool that helps make materiality all that it should be.
The first problem we covered in our previous piece, that many, many more — and more types of — stakeholders must be surveyed for a well-rounded result, is made much easier by the tool, which makes contacting them and incorporating their input much simpler. In addition, the questions being asked of those stakeholders — questions often missed by traditional analyses, such as “what issues this company must address are most important for the world” (including linking to the SDGs) and, “is the importance of this issue changing over time?” — get deeper insights from them.
The tool also incorporates a different approach to the time period used in the analysis. Almost always, companies don’t incorporate the long term into materiality results, instead sticking to a standard 3-5 year timeline. But what about issues that are going to become very important in 7 years and that take 6 years to address? Obviously the business needs to address those now, yet they wouldn’t emerge from a traditional materiality analysis as priorities – since the analysis only covers (at most) the next five years, they might not even be included at all!
The purpose of the materiality analysis is not just to find answers, but to get them used – and that means making the output compelling is also critical. Unfortunately, most materiality results are in static form and are therefore much less persuasive. The outputs of our tool, however, are dynamic – including the ability to see all the results together or to zoom in on only what NGO stakeholders think, or what just the regulators think.
And there’s a final point: speed. Materiality can be a long, tiring process, with a lot of analysis of incomplete questions and data. Using this tool, we can produce a much better materiality analysis in about half the time needed by traditional approaches.
To learn more about our perspective on materiality, or to see a video of the tool in action, visit our materiality page.
Thanks for reading. I hope you found this worth your time.
If not, please accept my apology and just click the unsubscribe link. Our list manager promises that one click will take you off the list for good. (Or, don’t unsubscribe and we’ll work to make the next issue worth your while!)