Greetings and welcome to the sixteenth issue of Valutus SustainabilityR.O.I., a Recap of things that caught our attention along with some Observations and Intelligence.
In it we Recap some current stories and innovations from the world of sustainability. We include some Observations — in this case, on how table manners can inform sustainable policy—and some Intelligence. This issue’s Intelligence lays out the first half of what we call ‘Impacts Science,’ which deals with measuring the impact of what we do. More and more companies are asking if it's possible to measure their total impact; our answer is yes, through Impacts Science. (Note: next issue we unpack submerged value and its place in Impacts Science. Stay tuned.)
As always, we hope you find all this worth your time. If so, please consider forwarding to your colleagues. Thanks for being part of making the world a better place.
The Value of Values
Here's what's inside, if you'd like to pick and choose...
Event horizon and shadow of a supermassive black hole in galaxy Messier 87.
Photo taken April 11, 2017. Image by Event Horizon Telescope. Image source: Wikipedia
In a world of disquieting news, it’s a relief that some of the solid underpinnings we’ve counted on for a hundred years are still standing. Old Einstein isn’t beaten yet, even if we needed stars whirling around a supermassive hole in space to prove it.
This month we have stories on some other old reliables.
View of the Baltoro glacier, Karakoram range, from the air. Photo by Guiljem Vellut. Photo source: Wikipedia
The ‘third pole’ for one, earth’s high country. This region at the top of the world holds the third-largest repository of fresh water on earth. It sits atop India like an icy — though melting — crown. So why is a major city in India running out of water?
Photo by Serhii-Pechenyi / Unsplash
Trains in the sensitive Yucatan, the EU stepping up to reforest west Africa, and the ubiquitous cigarette filter round out our roundup this month.
Photo by NomadSoul1
Observations takes the cacao reforestation story mentioned above and brings it into the kitchen. It's all about minding our manners.
Photo by M. Durinik
Intelligence is our paean to something we’ve often touched on before: catalytic impact and submerged value, in our discussion of what we call Impacts Science. This concept is so important to business – and the world – that we’re exploring it both this month and next. Here in Part 1 we’re explaining how we can measure real, full impact – including things many feared impossible to measure.
In all there’s some challenging stuff in this issue, no doubt, but also some good news and useful tools. In this odd time, it’s worth remembering that, while the ground seems shaky beneath us, we and our planet are holding, for now.
Chocolate Reforestation: Virtual Forests in Europe
Chocolate bars. Photo by Mae Mu / Unsplash
In an era of deflection, ‘virtual’ water, trash sent overseas and general lack of accountability, it was refreshing to see a headline like this in The Guardian last week:
“EU moves to tackle deforestation caused by chocolate and other products.”
Huh? The cacao industry — and Europe’s role in it — has a pretty sordid history when it comes to supply chain. Child kidnapping and slavery on cacao plantations, for example, is still a problem in Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Burkina Faso.
Photo by Willy Wonka070 / Pixabay
Consider this Guardian headline from just a year ago:
“Chocolate industry drives rainforest disaster in Ivory Coast.”
Since the turn of the century, Ghana, for example, has lost 81,000 hectares of primary forest and 1,021,000 hectares of tree cover. Forest cover continues to recede at about 3% per year. The other west African cacao-growing nations had similar numbers; for example, Côte d'Ivoire has lost 80% of its rainforest just since 1960. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Experts estimate that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is related to cocoa farming.”
Photo by David Greenwood-Haigh / Pixabay
The question of who should take responsibility for remediation is a matter of debate. The farmers themselves? Local or national governments? Or the corporations that continually use more and more of the cacao produced? Cacao has been particularly problematic as it is grown largely by a vast group of smallholders, most of whom are subsistence farmers. The European Campaign for Fair Chocolate notes that, “many cocoa farmers and workers in the Global South have to get by on less than 1.25 US dollars a day, below the threshold of absolute poverty.” This imbalance in profits leads directly to farmers clearing more land — i.e., cutting down forests — to grow ever more cacao.
Slash and burn deforestation in Isalo National Park, Madagascar.
Photo by Antony Stanley. Photo source: Wikipedia
To be fair to the corporations, the supply chains for their diverse product lines are enormous. Nestlé, for example, deals, “directly with more than 716,000 farmers worldwide to source raw materials,” and 114,000 of those grow cacao. Monitoring and influencing that many links is a gigantic task. On the other hand, these issues are far from new, and it’s late in the game for the forests.
That is why the concept of the EU working on the problem is such welcome — and novel — news. The smallholders do not have the resources. Local and national governments in Africa have few resources to spare as well, and corruption is rampant, as is conflict. In Liberia, for example, “timber revenues played a major role in financing the Sierra Leone civil war.”
Machine gun mounted on a pickup truck, 2nd Liberian civil war. Photo source: Wikipedia
More good news is that several of the corporations involved have now clearly embraced sustainable practices, accountable sourcing, preventing child labor — another critical issue for cacao production in Africa — and now are working on protecting forests.
Drying African cacao beans. Photo by Ingrid Bischler / Pixabay
Both Hershey’s and Nestlé have focused on distributing diverse seedlings to farmers for shade and biodiversity, and on planting more trees. Both have made public commitments to mapping all of their cacao suppliers, a critical step in managing supply chain practices, and also to education. This is not always easy. Nestlé alone works, indirectly, with 87,000 small farms.
House surrounded by forest, Awo-Omamma, Nigeria. Photo by Yao Adantor / Unsplash
As for the EU, it “accounts for as much as 36% of all global imports of crop and livestock products associated with deforestation,” according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The EU's plan calls for “working with governments to promote better use of land and resources, managing supply chains, and carrying out research. As one official put it, “The EU does not host the world’s major primary forests on its territory, but our actions as individuals and our policy choices have a major impact.”
Photo by Daniel Fazio / Unsplash
As yet, the EU remedial efforts are prospective, and of course the proof will be in the (chocolate) pudding. But it is indeed a positive step to see both corporations and a government saying, in effect, we were part of this mess, it’s up to us to fix it.
It is refreshing to see a large government body in the developed world accepting some responsibility for damage done in developing nations that produce their chocolate. More of those kinds of headlines would be very, very welcome.
Of Jaguars and Hydrogen: Mayan Train or Train Wreck?
Yucatan ruins, Uxmal, Mexico. Photo by Marv Watson / Unsplash
Trains. For some that word carries magic. One carried Lenin across Europe to foment revolution, another took Lincoln home for burial. Initially, they went so much faster than anything else it was necessary to slice time into zones. Trains opened up the American west, the Russian hinterlands and impenetrable mountain and forest country around the globe in a way no covered wagons or ships could do.
Photo by Paul Blenkhorn / Unsplash
The coal-and-wood-fired behemoths of yesterday have evolved and today’s train transport is largely a diesel-driven or electric industry, contributing about 0.3% of global greenhouse gases (GHG), or 2% of all transport emissions. Per passenger mile at distance, while buses are on top, trains are still well ahead of gas-burning automobiles, and well in front of airplanes when it comes to efficiency.
The diesel engines used in trains, however, are highly problematic in terms of carbon emissions, according to an analysis last year by National Geographic. This is set to become less of an issue going forward, as trains are moving towards no-emissions hydrogen cells to replace diesel. (Maglev, another method of locomotion, will be discussed in a future issue.) Because trains run along set tracks at weight and speed, they are uniquely positioned to “feed energy captured from regenerative braking back for storage or use.”
On the other hand, because of their immense weight – a fully loaded coal car, for example, can approach 300,000lb (136,000kg) — and also because of all the humans they can carry, who all require food, water, shelter, plumbing, and souvenirs, and who roam in places they could not reach before — trains have a unique effect on wildlife, habitat, and culture.
Any fan of the cowboy-and-Indian genre recalls that trains figure heavily in populating and exploiting lands that had formerly been the home of only indigenous tribal populations. The famed Trans-Siberian Railway, to name another example, “brought with it millions of peasant-migrants from the Western regions of Russia and Ukraine. Between 1906 and 1914, the peak migration years, about 4 million peasants arrived in Siberia,” a then-unspoiled and highly sensitive subpolar region.
 Wikipedia, Trans-Siberian Railway. Citation: Dronin, N.M.; Bellinger, E.G. (2005)
Bashkir switchman near the town Ust' Katav on the Yuryuzan River between Ufa and
Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains region, c. 1910. Photo source: Wikipedia
Like auto roads, railroads also fragment animal habitat. They often stretch immense distances on solid, raised artificial berm that impedes animal crossing. The Trans-Siberian, for example, travels just under six thousand miles (9,000+ kilometers) from its European capital, Moscow, across the vast hinterlands to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. This journey traverses, as do many other rail systems, some extraordinarily sensitive ecosystems.
Finally, because trains involve completely unique rights-of-way, move across state and international borders, and carry every imaginable type of cargo, they are intrinsically political by nature.
Jaguar. Photo by Ian Lindsay / Pixabay
All these threads are currently being woven together like patterns in a Mayan textile, as Mexico is constructing a 900+ mile (1500+ kilometer) railway in the Yucatan peninsula. This case is reason enough to explore where we are, as a general matter, with trains in 2019, as a proxy for the more than 850,000 miles (1,370,782 kilometers) of track — some 34 times around the earth, or about 4 times the distance to the moon.
Mayan woman with hand-woven textiles.
The new line is designed to move millions more tourists to ancient Mayan sites which are not easily accessible by road. Construction began last December and will cut through hundreds of miles of virgin forest, further endangering jaguars, riling up indigenous communities, crossing fragile aquifers, and bringing millions more tourists to areas previously lightly visited. The project, according to observers and activists, was essentially bulled through by the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO).
Mayan ruins in Calakmul, Mexico. Photo by Jorge Rodriguez / Pixabay
The Washington Post’s‘World Post’ called the project, “The Mayan Train Wreck.”
As Victor Lichtinger, Mexico’s former Secretary of the Environment, and co-writer of the above article, wrote, “the Mayan Train will hurtle through the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest tropical forest reserve. The city of Calakmul is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s known officially as the Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul,” which, “sits at the heart of the second-largest expanse of tropical forests in the Americas…Once penetrated by the train, however, the inevitable consequence will be development at the expense of nature.”
Karst pavement, Dent de Crolles, France. Photo by Poncetdespontets.
Another major issue is the crust of the Yucatan floor. As Mexico Daily noted last December, “Experts… warn that the land above the aquifers may not be able to support the weight of the tracks and passing trains,” because the limestone ‘karst’, which is highly prone to cracks and sinkholes, creates, “a risk of fissures opening up if the railroad is built where there is only a thin layer of karst."
The President has largely ignored the howls of the Mayan remnant populations, environmentalists, water experts, geologists and scholars, and is pushing ahead with the project. However, the plan as stated is to use hydrogen-powered, zero-emissions, regenerative braking locomotives to haul the train.
Coradia iLint hydrogen fuel cell locomotive, Germany. Photo source: Wikipedia
Dubbed hydrail by experts, the Coradia iLint passenger train unveiled in Germany in September of last year uses hydrogen fuel-cell technology, with a fleet of the same French-built engines planned for delivery in 2021. Numerous other nations, including France itself, expect such trains to be on the rails within three or four years.
At the same time, while the Yucatan line is touted as ‘high speed rail’ (HSR), it is slated to go no more than 80 mph (130 kph). That makes sense, as that is near the top speed of most extant hydrogen systems, but it is far behind true HSR which is roughly twice as fast.
The Yucatan train is also expected to include the regenerative braking technique noted above to convert the energy used in braking these giants into electricity for use, or for holding in lithium or other storage cells for later use. Since a single loaded carriage can weigh in the hundreds-of-thousands of pounds, and move at speeds up to 80 miles an hour or more, slowing or stopping just that one car involves an enormous amount of kinetic energy. The energy needed to stop an entire loaded train is truly staggering. With regenerative braking, a big chunk of that energy can be saved rather than radiated out as heat.
Friction disk train brakes. Photo by Samuel Zeller / Unsplash
Generally the wear-and-tear from friction also degrades the brakes quickly. Regenerative braking not only saves brake wear but, in passenger trains, it also reduces CO2 emissions by 8% - 30% depending how often the train stops. (Freight trains have lower efficiency due to infrequent stops.)
So here we have — from a climate standpoint — one of the world’s best forms of transport, slated to be even better using hydrogen and the cool, newfangled, insanely efficient braking systems. Yet it’s not clear if, going forward, a heavy train will plunge through the Yucatan karst to its doom, or whether the fate of the western world’s largest and most regal cat is in even graver peril.
We have a potential economic boon for Mexico, with higher levels of tourism and more people exposed to some of the world’s most fascinating ancient sites. Yet those sites will also be exposed to all those people, their waste products and the development they inevitably bring.
Water, Water Everywhere But…
Drought at the Top of the World
Photo by Martin Adams / Unsplash
The moon, a paltry 250-thousand miles out as the rocket-fueled crow flies, has been at the center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s efforts since the agency was formed in 1958. Mars rovers have found evidence of water on that frozen, dusty world some 140-million-miles away. We know the composition of Saturn’s rings, of Jupiter’s moons, even the mass of poor, downgraded dwarf-planet, Pluto, just about four-and-a-half-billion miles from Earth. And astronomers just located two stars rotating around one another billions of light-years across the galaxy.
The Hind Kush range from space. Photo by Apollo 9/NASA, 1969. Photo source: Wikipedia
NASA does indeed focus outward at deep-space curiosities, yet NASA also gave us the first tantalizing photographs of our own planet from outside its atmosphere. Since then NASA has continued to look down as well as up, with instruments so sensitive they can see and measure many things about our earth we on its surface cannot.
Three years ago, NASA trained its sights — and a new research group called the High Mountain Asia Team (HiMAT) — on the part of the earth closest to space: the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram range. Virtually all of the 125 mountains over 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) reside here, though many were unknown until recently.
Young Indian woman selling bottles for Ganges water. Photo by Haridwar. Photo source: Wikipedia
“For most of human history, a detailed scientific study of these mountains was impossible,” NASA’s Carol Rasmussen asserts in an article published last month. “The mountains are too high and steep, and the weather too dangerous. The satellite era has given us the first opportunity to observe and measure snow and ice cover safely in places where no human has ever set foot.”
Why is NASA so interested in what, from space, looks like a bad case of planetary acne? Water. This region holds so much fresh water, in the form of snow cover, rivers, glaciers and permanent (or what was once considered permanent) ice, that it’s known in scientific circles as the ‘third pole.’ The team has 30 years of satellite data from which to draw and is monitoring the fast-changing current conditions carefully.
A Himalayan river, Tibet. Photo by 213852 / Pixabay
At least six major river systems bring water to almost one-and-a-half-billion thirsty people from this region. The Ganges, for example, springs from The Cow’s Mouth at the base of the Gangotri glacier, 11,500 feet up in the Himalayas. The Indus rises from Manasarovar Lake in Tibet while the Yarlung Tsangpo, which flows from the Angsi glacier — also in Tibet — carved a canyon both deeper and longer than our Grand Canyon, while forming the upper stream of the vast Brahmaputra system.
So…why is there drought in many parts of Nepal and Tibet?
And…why are parts of India running out of water?
Water pump, India. Photo by Patrick Beznoska / Unsplash
For the mountain regions themselves, the answer appears to be partly the changes in climate being tracked by NASA. It used to snow later in the season, feeding local streams, rivers and lakes. In 2016, a government survey team found that it had not snowed in the town of Almora, elevation 1,600 m (5,250 ft) for three or four years. Indeed that town, just northwest of the Nepalese border and south of Tibet, was at the center of a declared drought that year along with a total of 8 mountain districts in the north country.
Gary Braasch, writing in World View of Global Warmingreported that, “in the fragile ecological zone in the hilly areas of Uttarakhand, human activities, including agriculture, cause extensive land degradation which, in turn, adversely affect water retention and recharge. The problem of water shortage, exacerbated by extreme weather events such as erratic rainfall, cloudbursts, unpredictable temperatures, etc., leads to detrimental effects on agriculture, forestry, and even manufacturing.”
In other words, in the midst of an incredible abundance of fresh water near at hand, the changes in climate are causing widespread drought. It turns out that glacial melt only provides a fraction, some 4%, of the water feeding these massive river systems. They rely instead on rain and late-season snowmelt for their supply, as do the local areas.
Melting glacier in the Himalayas. Photo by Blas.
Thousands of miles away, Chennai (formerly Madras), on India’s east coast, just ran dry, and experts suggest if major change is not effected within five years, there will be a massive humanitarian crisis of hunger and thirst all across that nation. “The destruction has just begun," an official in Chennai predicted. "If the rain fails us this year too, we are totally destroyed."
Chennai, India. Photo by Timon Studler / Unsplash
But is there actually a shortage? An October 2017 report from the Indian Central Water Commission (ICWC) — just released to the public last month for some reason — suggests otherwise. “India is not a water deficit country,” concludes the report, “but due to severe neglect and lack of monitoring of water resources development projects, several regions in the country experience water stress from time to time. Further neglect in this sector will lead to water scarcity in future.”
The problem in Chennai is urgent. As the Asia Timesreports, “Urbanization at massive levels, poor water management, severely frothed lakes and rapid pollution have led to reduced groundwater levels. Those are falling so fast that the federal government in 2018 predicted there would be no groundwater left below the city, at levels possible to reach, by the end of 2020.” The report also cites the incredible number of government-funded wells, over 20 million, which are depleting groundwater rather than pulling from rivers and streams. According to the report, reservoirs are only now being considered.
Tea Plantation, Munnar, India. Photo by Bhupesh Talwar / Unsplash
Nearly 85% of the total demand for water is for irrigation,” according to the Central Water Commission report, which means food as well as water are in danger. One of the key drivers, the report suggests, is a population that continues to grow rapidly.
“The most serious concern,” it reads, “is the growing population, which is likely to increase to 1.66 billion by 2050,” from 1.37 billion currently.
The reason for optimism, if the report is on target, is that mismanagement can be reversed. The fact that there are detailed analyses of what is not working leaves open the possibility that changes could be made. The report’s conclusion, however, is not so encouraging.
Satellite image of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and their drainage delta. India,
Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) are shown. Photo source: Wikipedia
“Further neglect in this sector will lead to water scarcity in future,” the report concludes? For Chennai, that future is now.
Mr. Butts and the Filter Factor.
Mr. Butts, from Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau. Image source: Wikipedia
Basketball fans use the term ‘four-point swing’. Your team is driving the court but the other team blocks your shot, and makes a perfect pass for the slam at the other end. You lost two, they scored two: a four-point swing.
Red Auerbach with Hall of Famer Bill Russell after winning the 1966 Championship.
Photo by Fred Keenan. Photo source: Wikipedia
Aside from Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics coach legendary for lighting cigars to signal imminent victory, there’s little connection between basketball and tobacco. But the ‘swing’ is a useful metaphor for that little brown cylinder at the end of most modern cigarettes: the filter tip.
Cellulose acetate cigarette filter before and after smoking. The material is designed to turn brown
via heat, rather than toxic particulate buildup. Photo by Akroti. Photo Source: Wikipedia
Numerous studies have shown there is no health advantage to one of these ‘filters’ even though they turn brown as the cigarette burns. “One chemist,” noted Cecil Adams in the Washington City Paper a few years ago, “discovered that if you adjust the pH in cellulose-acetate filters, you can get them to change color during the smoking process, making it look like some really bad stuff is being screened out.”
The New York Times quoted Stanford historian Robert N. Proctor who claimed, “Filters are the deadliest fraud in the history of human civilization…In the U.S., 400,000 people a year die from cigarettes — and those cigarettes almost all have filters.” (Some 97% do, in fact.)
Photo by Matthew MacQuarrie / Unsplash
The result is a mountain of filter-tipped butts — “the most common form of anthropogenic (man-made) litter in the world,” according to Keep America Beautiful (KAB) — tossed and flicked into the streets, finding their way to lakes or to the sea, and doing a great deal of damage.
Street art by Magda Drobczyk, Woclaw, Poland. Photo by Pawel Czewiński / Unsplash
Some tobacco companies are making serious and legitimate attempts to lean into sustainability. Carbon. Water. Energy. Value chain. This is all critical stuff for organizations of this size and scope. Certain strains of tobacco also show real promise as pesticides and as biomass for fuels, and if either of those work out, tobacco could place some weight on the other side of the scales.
In the meantime, however, cigarettes’ main purpose is to deliver nicotine, via 5.6 trillion cigarettes every year, to more than a billion smokers. Of those, about 4.5 trillion filter tips are not properly disposed of and remain in the environment, it is believed, for up to 15 years. As a rolling total, therefore, the number of filters on our land and water at any given time is truly staggering.
Philip Morris, in their 2018 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report, says their products contribute, “0.1 million tons” – that’s 200,000,000 — of butts and filters to the waste stream every year .
Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya / Unsplash
This is, in part, because while sale of cigarettes themselves is heavily regulated, their disposal is not, other than by local litter laws. The vast majority of butts are disposed of the moment they’re no longer needed. On fire moments before, tipped with ash on one side and saliva on the other, barring an appropriate receptacle directly at hand these tend to get flicked — that is apparently the technical term — to the nearest curb, storm drain, or beach.
Cigarette companies are focusing on this litter problem, and there is some compelling evidence that this approach is helpful. KAB reports that when its program is implemented, cigarette littering goes down by 50%, an impressive number.
In 2016, the Ocean Conservancy sponsored a worldwide beach cleanup by more than half a million volunteers. Their report of the event had some highly specific statistics on the nature of what they found. Enough plastic balloons to loft a walrus. Total weight of trash exceeds that of 700 elephants. Four hundred nine thousand plastic straws. One-and-a-half million plastic bottles and — wait for it…1.83 million cigarette butts.
Heartbreaking photos of birds feeding their chicks discarded filters have gone viral on the internet and for good reason: the nicotine and other chemicals inside are toxic. We noted above that prepared tobacco can be a potent pesticide, and this may be desirable in garden or farm applications, but out in the environment, it’s potentially deadly to life.
Tobacco field under irrigation.
One study tested the toxic effect on a critical food-chain species of water flea and found that 1 used butt per 2 gallons of water was a fatal dose. A more recent study found that, “Even one butt in a liter of water can kill…fish in a period of 96 hours.” And here’s a cute tidbit for you, according to the same research: The level of nicotine in 200 used cigarette filters can kill a human!
Cork-patterned cigarette ‘filter’ tip on the ground. Photo by Ray Reyes / Unsplash
Of course, there is another way that even one cigarette butt can kill many humans:
According to a Longwood University study, “about 900 people in the United States die each year in fires started by cigarettes, and about 2,500 are injured.”
In other words, this is far more than an aesthetic issue. The food chain right up through humans are endangered by this refuse.
Photo by Khai Nguyen / Unsplash
Today, the industry’s main focus is on new smokeless tobacco products, yet these new ‘heat-not-burn products also have — wait for it again...disposable filter tips on the end. Philip Morris suggests that, “The heated tobacco units are not burning or contaminated by smoke, so consumers find it more convenient to keep them for proper disposal later.” Hmm. Possibly.
One potential solution is to regulate these materials as ‘hazardous waste’ rather than simply litter, which triggers a whole different level of accountability and consequence for manufacturers. An excellent treatment by Tobacco Control on various proposed remediation options can be found here. However we can find no evidence that any of these have been adopted in any jurisdiction. A California bill to ban cigarette filters at source has died in committee several times, though some communities in California are implementing bans of their own.
Antique tobacco leaf chopper. Photo by aetb.
The tobacco industry does not currently have an alternative to the filter issue other than to focus on post-end-user disposal. There is no current slam-dunk solution, but we could sure use a four-point-swing in the other direction.
Photo by Later Jay Photography / Pixabay
You Wash-I’ll Dry:
Kitchen Manners and Reciprocity
In most American homes there is a tacit understanding. I cooked; you clean. This is a simple but basic principle, right? Divide the labor so no one has to do too much. Everyone has a share in the food and in what it takes to make it and clean up after it.
It’s not a very hard concept to grasp, after all. Those who did not cook may even say, “Hey, I’ll wash, you dry, okay?”
This type of kitchen reciprocity is taught in families from coast to coast as something we call manners. Good manners suggest those who enjoyed the meal participate in cleaning up, at the very least.
Yet we have only recently begun to apply this principle to our business husbandry. Some timber companies, for example, used to clear-cut trees with no thought of replanting, though that has been changing in recent years.
Mining. Photo by Dominik Vanyi
Mining can be a similar case, such as the practices that took “the richest hill on Earth” and made it the US’s largest Superfund (toxic waste remediation) site.
When it comes to international trade, we often see more of these bad manners. Others dig up or grow what we want using their natural resources, and then send it to us – cheaply. We get the benefit of what they do, and their natural resources (often severely undervalued) take the hit.
The concept of ‘virtual’ water is, at least, an acknowledgement of the facts on the ground. “They grew it with their water, we ate it without using our water, hence, they are running out of water.” We should, for manners’ sake, at least acknowledge this paradigm.
But the consequence of this type of bad manners is now coming home to roost. There is no ‘here’ and ‘there’ anymore. The trees that were cut down for our chocolate over ‘there’ now have consequences ‘here.’ the consequences of what has been done can now be felt in the developed world too.
Which is why our story (above) about the European Union and the Chocolate companies finally saying, you know what? This mess was in large part due to us and we need to fix it so let’s commit some millions for education, for remediation, for sustainable practices going forward, okay?” is a true breath of fresh air. Yes! Great!
The EU has not had time yet to follow through on their commitment to help reforest west Africa, but their clear statement that, as the recipients of all that delicious chocolate, they have a stake and a responsibility to those who worked so hard, and lost so much, to deliver it.
Call it justice, call it guilt. Call it ‘virtual forest’, or climate concern, or what you will. But at its heart it is a simple lesson we all learned whenever we put down our napkins and stood up from the table: do our share; don’t take without giving back; even out the division of labor.
Sometimes, at dinner, when we haven’t learned our manners well enough, we get stood in the corner or sent to our rooms. We can’t afford that now. Good manners suggests we take responsibility for the damage we’ve done, work to repair the damage we’ve done, and most importantly, do no more harm going forward.
In short: we all need to mind our manners.
Paulo Alessandro Bolaños Valdivia on Unsplash
Twenty years ago, I was talking to a Big Pharma VP who was in charge of their medicine donation programs in Africa. He was lamenting that he couldn't quantify the value of his work. "Too bad," he said, "that it's impossible to measure the impact we create, on our business and on the world, by doing this."
I thought, is that really impossible? It wasn't; it took two months.
In the two decades since, we've been asked to measure a lot of "impossible" things, but we haven't yet found any that truly were impossible.
And that's good because lately we’ve had a number of executives ask us — hopefully but skeptically — if we can measure their company’s full impact. Not just the obvious things, such as the impact of the people they employ, but the true, global impact of all their activities. What is the impact of the products they sell? Of the example they set? Or the influence they have on other companies?
These are big questions, and it’s only natural to be skeptical about whether they can be answered. For one thing, these executives may not have seen it done successfully before, or might have seen attempts that missed important elements.
A company’s true impact is much deeper than its carbon emissions, its water use, its payroll, or its taxes paid. In fact, a huge chunk of the company’s impact is submerged, not visible on the surface at all. Generally it stays that way until the right questions are asked.
How about the company’s catalytic impact on others? How about when it makes something possible that was not possible before…what is the impact of that? Or, conversely, when it makes current practice obsolete?
Photo by Nick Gesell / Pixabay
There is in fact, a discipline to this, one we call Impacts Science.
Three principles underpin this work.
First, as we mentioned, the vast majority of a company's full impact is currently not quantified and over half its impact is usually submerged.
We’re not so cocky as to think we’ve made this into a mature science, certainly not yet! But we think it’s critical to be ambitious in this area. This is important stuff!
Lac d'Auzon-Temple (Réservoir Aube), France
Second is the critical area of catalytic impact. In our experience, most leaders intuitively recognize the importance of being a catalyst. Nike, for example, helped bring about the Higg Index and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, influencing their entire industry. And a recent paper found that one of the most important factors in overall industry adoption of sustainable practices was the adoption of sustainability practices by the industry leader.
However, even leaders struggle to measure the catalytic impact they have and, as noted above, they often believe that such measurement is — here’s that word again — impossible.
Finally, the technical aspects of impact measurement really are difficult but the non-technical are even more so. Impacts measurement must be credible, usable, dynamic, catalytic, and must avoid being naïve.
An example of the latter was the model that had found very high financial and sustainability benefits from the use of reusable surgical instruments. That seemed plausible until it was discovered that the impact model didn’t include any time spent sterilizing the instruments between surgeries or moving them from one room to another, and in the model no surgeries ended later than planned – naïve and unrealistic assumptions.
In all cases, the challenges involved go well beyond the technical. The primary credibility challenges, for example, are non-technical and instead center around the audiences for the results, what they will find credible, and how to communicate in a way that resonates with them.
Reusable surgical instruments did have a solid ROI, even under realistic conditions, which made the model’s use of unrealistic, credibility-destroying assumptions unnecessary and counterproductive.
Weather Station. Photo by Erich Westendarp / Pixabay
We will have more on submerged value in next month’s issue. For now the takeaway is: measuring the value of almost anything, though challenging, is possible using Impacts Science. A few basic principles, and the right questions, will raise submerged value to the surface, measure catalytic impact, and help overcome both technical and non-technical issues.
To Be Continued...
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