Archive for the ‘Business & Economics’ Category

Public radio examines consumerism

Kudos to Marketplace and American Public Media for its public radio series “Consumed: Is Our Consumer Society Sustainable?” Marketplace has long been reporting business news and trends. But you don’t often see mainstream business programs or publications willing to question the very foundation of our economy: the selling and buying of consumer goods. I welcome Marketplace adding validity to those, mainly on the social and economic fringe, who’ve been saying for years that our consumer culture is unsustainable. Hopefully, the series will inspire its listeners in business and elsewhere to more deeply consider the question at the heart of its reporting. It even has an accompanying game to play to find out whether you are living a sustainable life. I haven’t played it yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m among the guilty parties.

Monday, November 12th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Consumerism, Sustainability | No Comments »

How about consumer confidence to buy less?

Good news! Consumer confidence drops in October.

Where’s the good news there, you ask? Doesn’t this portend a slowing economy, perhaps a recession? After all, our economy lives and dies on consumer spending. If we consumers aren’t optimistic about the future, we’re going to reel in our spending. And that will bring businesses to their knees and cost us our jobs.

Or at least that’s what we have been led to believe for years and years.

No, I don’t yet see the good news in the fall in consumer confidence. But I do look forward to the day when consumers are actually confident enough to spend less — not more. I mean, look at what we’re being told by those guiding our economy: We are to be afraid, very afraid, when surveys tell us that collectively we may spend less in the months ahead. We have learned to use that fear of spending less as a motivation to spend more so we protect our economy, jobs and way of life.

Americans are conditioned to believe it’s consume or bust. But I’m pretty sure we have things turned upside down here. We’re in an age of rapidly disappearing natural resources, a warming atmosphere and exploding consumer economies in China, India and elsewhere. Never has it been more evident that too much consumption — not too little — is the thing we ought to be concerned about most.

In other words, strong consumer confidence, as it’s defined today, is as much a negative social and environmental indicator as a positive economic indicator. If we could somehow find ourselves in an economy built on limited consumption of material goods, we would track our collective confidence in buying less. Meaning, we are optimistic that if we save our money or spend it on non-material stuff, the economy will prosper, and so will we.

I recognize I’m dreaming here. But look where our existing American Dream has taken us.


‘Business as usual’ in Corporate America

This week’s cover story of BusinessWeek, “Little Green Lies,” tells the tale of a corporate sustainability director who dares to tell it like is. Let’s see if this admirable character, Auden Schendler, now manages to keep his job at Aspen Skiing Co. He gives voice to the statement BW reporter Ben Elgin really wants to make: “Much corporate environmentalism boils down to misleading statements and hype.”

While that is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, Elgin has done his homework to prove his point. The greenwashing of Big Business is rampant, just as many of us suspected. In an accompanying podcast to the article, Elgin said he interviewed a couple dozen corporate sustainability types and read a bunch of sustainability reports issued by large businesses and other public carbon emission disclosures by these companies. His conclusion? “When you really sift through it, it’s a lot of business as usual.” Again, no real surprise, but it’s good to see a reporter with such a prominent business publication assemble the facts to prove what many of us believe to be true.

What Schendler told Elgin and Elgin corroborated in his research was:

“Companies continue to assess most green initiatives with the same return-on-investment analysis they would with any other capital project. And while some environmental advances pay for themselves in time, returns often aren’t as swift or large as competing uses for corporate cash. That leads to green projects quietly withering on the vine.”

Elgin reports Schendler now believes “companies won’t make serious progress without regulation of carbon emissions.” Elgin might also add that his BusinessWeek boss John Byrne, who interviewed him for the accompanying podcast on his reporting of the story, is also representative of the problem. Toward the end of the recording, there was this exchange between the two:

Byrne: “I tell you, when I buy a bottle of wine on the basis of green farming, I’ll need my head examined. And when I buy a car that reduces carbon emissions but costs me a lot more money than another car, I’ll need my head examined, too.”
Elgin: “No Prius in your garage?”
Byrne: “No! Because those are just not economical.”
Elgin: “They are pricey.”
Byrne: “And not only are they pricey and not only do you not get the payback on them, but more importantly how much waste, how much toxic chemicals are going to be released into the environment because you are replacing those damn fuel cells, and maybe you are going to someone who’s not going to properly dispose of them.”

This is the executive editor of BusinessWeek speaking. And yes, he did say fuel cells (not batteries) in reference to hybrid cars. Like the corporate executives Elgin interviewed for his piece, Byrne is telling the world he’ll go green when the payback (ROI) is right. It’s a small wonder Elgin’s piece made the cover of the magazine.


Van Jones speaks, Thomas Friedman listens

You know you’re somebody when you’re featured in a column by Thomas Friedman in the NY Times. Not that Van Jones needs any affirmation that he’s somebody. Today Friedman brings Van Jones to the attention of his thousands of influential readers worldwide. And what an incredible platform for Jones to spread his vitally important message.

In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to hear Jones speak twice. I’ve never heard a more compelling speaker. Both times he was addressing audiences of almost all white progressives and environmentalists. His powerful request to us as people helping to build the next new economy is this: As you’re hopping on that train to the land of the lush green economy, ask yourself, “who are you taking with you — and who are you leaving behind.”

If Van Jones has any say in the matter, and believe me he does, the African-American community will not get left behind this time. He also knows that it’s going to take great effort on his part and among African Americans to ensure the new economy is not just green, but inclusive. The first step is getting this message out to as many people of power and influence in green political and economic circles as he possibly can. That’s why Friedman’s column strikes me as a watershed moment in Jones’ crusade. Friedman speaks to power and influence across America. I fervently hope they’re listening.

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Sustainability | No Comments »

Lattes, scones and what really matters

I know him only as Mohammad. Today I learned his last name when much to my surprise I read a brief editorial that featured him and his cafe. Most weekday mornings for nearly six years I stopped in at Mohammad’s corner juice bar for a latte and one of his irresistible scones or muffins. It would usually be a brief stop, because like Mohammad I had my own business and needed to get to my office just a few blocks away and get started on my day. But many times over the years I would linger to chat between the orders of his many other loyal customers. We talked business at first. Eventually we got to know about each other’s families. He met my mom before she became too physically unstable to visit. He still asks about her today. My wife drops by regularly, too. And now Mohammad has met my in-laws from out of town. Several years ago, I started seeing Mohammad’s young son at the cash register on Saturday mornings or weekdays when he didn’t have school. I can’t help but think of myself, years ago, when my dad would bring me to his store. I liked operating the cash machine, too.

Like my dad once did, Mohammad runs a family business. I don’t know that family businesses are endangered species, but for the last 30 years or more they have inexorably given way to corporate chains and franchises. And as they have, we citizens of communities keep losing faces and places that bind us together. Like me with the editorial writer at the Oregonian. I’ve never met him, but I know now we share something important in our lives. Taking direct aim at the mermaid joint directly across the Park Block, he writes:

Mohammad would never ask you if you stupidly forgot to order something from his pastry case. He figures if you want a scone, you’ll order one. But he has been known to slip one into a sack and just hand it to a good customer once in a while. That’s class. It shows why his tip jar is usually brimming, and why he’ll probably be able to take his kids back to Disneyland or somewhere else fun next summer, too.

Mohammad has also shared his story with me of taking his kids to Disneyland this summer. I was happy for him because I know he almost never takes a break from his business. I suspect you know people just like him near your workplace or home. If not, look a little harder. Your life will be richer for it.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Food and Drink, Oregon | No Comments »

Tesco in the US: Good neighbor or Trojan Horse?

Wal-Mart may one day have some competition for the most despised retailer in America. Tesco, the Wal-Mart of Britain, will be making its entry into the US market in November, starting with 500 outlets in Southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The Hometown Advantage monthly bulletin today cites a study of what to expect from Tesco in the US.

The company appears to have learned from Wal-Mart’s image problems in the US and is taking a different approach. Tesco’s US strategy makes it look like a paragon of social responsibility. It is locating many stores in “food deserts” that other grocers have abandoned because the areas may be poor or unsafe while also branding itself as local, sustainable and good community citizens. Its stores will be known as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, instead of Tesco. Time will tell whether there is real substance to its image making, or whether its strategy is simply a Trojan Horse to get into the US with little opposition and then revert to business as usual. Already, groups are calling its bluff. And one LA academic told Reuters:

“If it’s really all that it has been advertised as … then they will be successful. If it turns out that it is just really impressive marketing that covers up a business that is not much different from its competitors … then the American public will figure it out in a while.”

Mainstream business media are watching to see how much market share Tesco will grab from other large chains like Safeway and Wal-Mart. Aside from watchdogs like The Hometown Advantage, I don’t see anyone asking what Tesco’s US arrival portends for independent locally owned grocers. We can assume the first 500 stores are in the southwest are just the start, and they will be coming to a strip mall near us all soon. Oh joy.

Friday, September 28th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Food and Drink | No Comments »