ROE (Return on Environment) is the new ROI: how sustainability drives business success

By Tom Murray

Comparing the themes of Climate Week 2016 versus 2017 provides a telling picture of the state of climate affairs. “America Means Business: US Leadership in a post-Paris World” was last year’s focus, while this year is all about three words: “Innovation. Jobs. Prosperity.”

It has been a remarkable year for climate action – in the absence of federal oversight and leadership, we’ve seen a major shift towards city, state and business leaders becoming the standard-bearers for the environment and the economy. With the release of Fortune’s Change the World list, it is obvious that the bar for corporate leadership has been raised even further. Companies that previously stayed mute on environmental and social issues now speak out; not as an anomaly but as a defining factor of their business.

The expectations of today’s stakeholders – investors, employees, consumers, communities – demand a higher, more visionary level of sustainability leadership. Corporate leaders who put their money, and actions, where their mouth is on environmental and social issues are driving innovation, creating jobs, and gaining a new competitive edge for their businesses.

Recruiting top talent

According to a new Morgan Stanley report, millennials are three times more likely to seek out employment with a sustainably minded company.

Unilever (#21 on the Fortune list) CEO Paul Polman said that close to 1.8 million people now apply to work at the consumer giant company every year, many of whom are under 40. Why is that? “According to the data,” Polman reveals, approximately 60% “say it’s the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and the bigger purpose that we have as a business.”

The Sustainable Living Plan is Unilever’s blueprint for growing the business while reducing waste, water, and energy use, including an ambitious goal of halving the environmental footprint of making and using Unilever products. Unilever also rises to the top in setting clear, actionable sustainability goals.

Tom Murray, VP EDF+Business, EDF

Tom Murray, VP EDF+Business

Improving the environment – and sales growth

Retail giant Walmart has been on a journey toward sustainability since partnering with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) over 10 years ago. And its environmental efforts are paying off: ridding close to 90,000 consumer products of potentially harmful chemicals, reducing 36 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain in just six years, and now, making a bold commitment to eliminate a gigaton of emissions by 2030 – all of this with continued U.S. sales growth.

With climate change topping the list of global concerns for millennials, these planet-friendly business moves are just what Walmart needs to attract a new, younger demographic of customers.

But it’s not just Walmart that can benefit. As PBS NewsHour reported this weekend, large companies see payoffs in sustainability – including businesses like Mars Inc. and Smithfield Foods.

At the same time, new resources like the Corporate Carbon Policy Footprint hold companies accountable not just based on their own emissions, but also their public support of smart climate policy. That means consumers are better informed than ever to make purchasing decisions based on corporate climate leadership.

Investing for a healthy economy and environment

For long-term competitiveness, business investments cannot be made at the expense of the environment.  The new report from Morgan Stanley, “Sustainable Signals: New Data from the Individual Investor,” assesses the state of sustainable investing through attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors of individual investors. Their findings:

  • 71% of investors polled agreed that good social, environmental and governance practices can potentially lead to higher profitability and long-term investments
  • 75% of individual investors are interested in sustainable investing

Thriving business, thriving communities

Land O’Lakes, Inc. (a farmer-owned cooperative ranked #50 on Fortune’s list), is supporting its member-owners to grow crops more efficiently and is committed to influencing sustainability practices on 20 million acres of farmland by 2025. Its business unit, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™ delivers precision agriculture technologies, practices, services and conservation resources for farmers across North America – and works in collaboration with EDF.

This program focuses on educating agricultural retailers, farmers’ most trusted advisors, on practices that improve air, water and soil quality. The ag retailers then bring this knowledge to their customers, the farmer, who can benefit from improved efficiencies. Ag retailers benefit from staying competitive in a challenging market.

Embedding sustainability into business strategy

The Harvard Business Review article, Competing on Social Purpose, separates companies born with a social or environmental purpose – think Patagonia, TOMS, Seventh Generation – from those integrating purpose and strategy late in life. The majority of established brands fall into the latter category, despite consumers’ increasing expectations for companies to have a social purpose.

Fortunately, resources like EDF’s three-part framework for corporate sustainability leadership can help companies get started by:

  1. Publicly committing to aggressive, science-based sustainability goals sends a clear market signal to your customers, shareholders and suppliers that you embrace a social purpose
  2. Collaborating across departments, industries, and the entire supply chain in order to deliver impact at scale
  3. Publicly support smart climate and environmental policy that will ensure long-term competitiveness by driving innovation, creating jobs, and improving efficiencies.

Whether you’re a leading global company that’s well on its way or a smaller company just beginning to embrace sustainability, business can and must lead the way toward a future where the economy, the planet, and people can prosper.

Follow Tom on Twitter, @tpmurray

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How community air monitoring projects provide a data-driven model for the future

By Irene Burga

Nicoyia Hurt, EDF Oil and Gas Health Policy Intern, contributed to this post

Downtown Los Angeles with misty morning smog.

This month marks the one year anniversary since the residents in Imperial County California did something pretty amazing.

After experiencing some of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state, the community got together to launch the IVAN air monitoring project– a community website that provides real time air quality data collected from 40 different pollution monitors across the county.

Frances Nicklen said the air monitors make a huge difference to her community.

“The placement of these 40 air monitors throughout the Imperial Valley will be very beneficial so that the people can make educated decisions to protect their health and that of their families,” she told the Comite Civico Del Valle. “We only have one valley, and we have to live here, and we need to make it a better place for all of our residents.”

As a result of the IVAN project, an entire community now has access to real-time pollution data that can identify the region’s largest sources of harmful emissions.

Even local air quality regulators are using it to help inform their policy decisions, demonstrating that community-led science projects can, and do, drive real change.

What’s next?

Several companies are now developing lower-cost air pollution monitors that can collect real-time air quality data 24-hours a day with more precision, and can detect a wider array of pollutants than ever – factors which can help propel better environmental controls. These technological advancements are incredibly encouraging, and – as is clear with the IVAN project – regulators, operators and community groups alike are taking advantage of this evolution in environmental technology.

Communities with poor air quality – like those in Los Angeles – appear to be on the verge of getting a new set of tools to help aid in pollution reduction.

Why Los Angeles?

In 2015, NASA used data from satellites and 14 separate ground-based pollution monitors to confirm high levels of methane (climate pollution) in the Los Angeles region. This reiterated the findings of other studies which found that previous estimates of air pollution have been too low, and oil and gas extraction may be releasing twice as much methane and other harmful pollutants than previously thought.

What these studies didn’t tell us however, is exactly which facilities the pollution is coming from, and how harmful these emissions are to communities living in this region.

That’s the gap new monitoring technology can help close.

Continuous air pollution monitors can provide real-time data about a vast array of pollutants at a much lower price than the traditional technologies. In turn, these monitors can alert local residents, governmental agencies and facility operators to problems about sites that may be emitting toxic gases.

Similarly, mobile technology (devices mounted to cars and airplanes) can collect regional information from a wide variety of sources, helping to pinpoint and aggregate information about problematic pollution. Together these technologies can locate problems at individual oil and gas sites, or uncover pollution patterns at the neighborhood level and identify hyper-localized hot spots.

New legislation demonstrates this information can and should be used to develop local air quality improvement plans. In short, better data can set the stage for new levels of engagement and influence change in a positive direction, and efforts are under way to make that happen.

There’s no denying that the oil and gas industry in California has supplied a huge amount of goods, services and money into the state’s economy. At the same time, it’s clear that leaks and poor environmental performance at oil and gas sites, especially where sites are located within a few feet of people’s homes and businesses, can drastically impact quality of life.

Fortunately, California’s technology boom has revolutionized the way we hail a ride or rent a home. If used appropriately, it can also help create a safer, cleaner environment.


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Modus operandi: How EPA toxics nominee Dourson carries out his work for the chemical industry

By Richard Denison

Richard Denison, a Lead Senior Scientist.

[Use this link to see all of our posts on Dourson.]

I’ve now examined dozens of papers and reports that EPA toxics nominee Michael Dourson and his firm, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), have published on chemicals over the past 15-20 years.  A remarkably consistent pattern of how Dourson conducts his paid work for the chemical and pesticide industries emerges from this examination.  I’ll use one example below to illustrate, but most or all of the steps I’ll describe have been followed over and over again.  

The example I’ll use relates to two herbicides, alachlor and acetochlor (collectively known as acetanilides), widely used in huge volumes especially in the Midwest.  The US Geological Survey reported that in 2015 about 2 million pounds of alachlor and more than 40 million pounds of acetochlor were used in agriculture annually. The USGS map images included here (click to enlarge) show where these substances are used, based on 2012 data.

Dourson’s work specifically addressed the degradation products of alachlor and acetochlor, which are frequently detected in ground and surface waters.  Except as otherwise noted below, the specifics I describe are recorded in documents posted on TERA’s webpage for this activity.

STEP 1:  The process typically starts with a company or industry that has a problem or a decision it wants to influence, e.g.:  a chemical has been spilled or is showing up in air or water monitoring; a facility permit is being reviewed; a government agency is doing a risk review of a chemical or updating a standard.  In this case, Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto, makers of the acetanilides, were facing growing scrutiny as the herbicides’ degradation products were being routinely detected in ground and surface water samples and regulators in states like Minnesota were reviewing applicable water standards.

STEP 2:  The affected company or industry group contracts with TERA to convene an “expert” panel or workshop or conduct a peer review of a government or industry assessment, research plan or other document.  TERA is hired to convene and manage the panel or peer review.  In this case, Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto hired TERA to run a workshop involving an “expert” panel that TERA was also to select.

STEP 3:  TERA appoints its own founder and President, Michael Dourson, to the panel, almost always as Chair of the panel.  This is a highly questionable practice:  While the selection of panels and peer reviewers is sometimes contracted out to “third parties,” the procedures used are designed to keep the entity identifying experts and managing panels and associated meetings at arm’s length from the experts themselves.  TERA makes no such effort:  In the acetanilides case, as in the great majority of other TERA cases, employees of Dourson’s own company appointed him (their boss) to chair the “expert” panel.

STEP 4:  TERA clears Dourson of any conflict of interest in his participation on the panel.  That is, employees of Dourson’s own company are the sole determiners as to whether or not their boss has a conflict of interest in the matter at hand.  Highly irregular, to say the least, an approach that presents its own conflicts of interest.  In the acetanilides case, TERA cleared Dourson to serve on the panel even though TERA had recently contracted with both Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto to “provide technical review on projects.”  This is not an isolated incident:  In numerous other cases, TERA or Dourson himself had recently worked for the very same company or industry group paying TERA to convene a panel or conduct a review in which Dourson participated, typically as Chair.

STEP 5:  Based on the workshop or review, Dourson and his colleagues write a paper for publication, sometimes involving other workshop or panel participants.  In the acetanilides case, the first 5 of the 9 authors on the paper (including Dourson) were TERA employees.

STEP 6:  The paper is typically published in the industry’s go-to journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.  I have blogged earlier about the large fraction of Dourson’s papers – well over half – published in this one journal, which has a longstanding reputation of being the go-to journal for both tobacco and chemical industry-friendly paper publishing.  The journal has been the subject of numerous exposés over the past 15 years regarding its close ties to the chemical and tobacco industries.  True to form, in this case, Dourson’s paper was published in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.  It recommended water quality standards for acetanilide degradation products many times less protective than those in place in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Not all of these steps have occurred with every chemical.  Dourson’s work on the likely carcinogen 1,4,-dioxane, for example, paid for by PPG Industries, doesn’t appear to have relied on an intervening workshop or “expert” panel for cover, and instead went straight to publication of a paper, once again in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.  Not surprisingly, here too he argued for a far less health-protective standard, in this case about 1000-fold weaker than EPA’s level indicating an increased cancer risk.  It’s worth noting that state agencies in Michigan and New Jersey reviewed Dourson’s work on this chemical and found it sorely lacking on scientific grounds.

It is not only Dourson’s deep conflicts of interest that lead us to oppose his nomination, but also his questionable science and incessant claims of independence, when in fact his whole step-by-step enterprise has been set up to bend the science in support of the interests of his corporate clients.

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Facebook and voters see the benefit of clean energy in Ohio

By Dick Munson

Last month, Facebook announced its new $750 million data center will be located in New Albany, Ohio, just north of Columbus.

Why did the social media giant choose this particular spot? Apparently, Facebook likes clean energy, stating, “The availability of renewable energy sources, including wind, solar and hydro, was critical to the decision.”

And Facebook isn’t clean energy’s only fan in Ohio. A new poll from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) shows that voters in the Buckeye State overwhelmingly support developing more clean energy – like efficiency, solar, and wind – over more traditional resources, like coal and natural gas. And perhaps surprisingly, even voters in coal country are on board, saying policies that promote renewable energy will benefit the state’s economy.

Encouraging results

Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, the nation’s largest Republican polling firm, the TNC poll reveals strong statewide support for increasing the use of efficiency and renewable energy. When asked whether “as a state, Ohio should put more emphasis, less, emphasis, or about the same emphasis as it does now on producing domestic energy from each of the following sources,” voters vastly preferred the clean electricity options. The chart below displays the responses.


In Southeast Ohio, where coal customarily played a role in local economies, three-quarters of voters would like to see more efficiency and over half would like more of the state’s electricity to come from wind and solar. Moreover, over a quarter of Southeast Ohio voters prefer less emphasis placed on coal. And four-in-five voters in this region would like their elected officials to support policies that promote renewable energy.

Where policy differs

Clearly, Ohio voters recognize the economic benefits – like jobs and investment – that clean energy brings. According to TNC, “Poll respondents agree that state policies promoting renewable energy development in Ohio sends a clear message to investors that we are open for business.”

Voters across Ohio want their lives to run on more clean energy and less coal.

Yet, some state leaders want to halt the growth of renewables and energy efficiency. Last year, Ohio’s legislature tried to pass a bill that would have weakened the state’s clean energy standards and blocked investment. Fortunately, Governor John Kasich stepped in and vetoed the bill, vowing to protect jobs and the economy. Specifically, he was thinking of large tech firms – like Amazon and Google – who value operating on clean electricity. Facebook’s decision to locate its new renewable-powered data center in Ohio shows that Kasich was spot on.

Despite last year’s defeat, state lawmakers introduced legislation in early 2017 to weaken the clean energy standards – again. The bill passed the House and may be taken up in the Senate in the fall.

Voters across Ohio want their lives to run on more clean energy and less coal, and recognize this move will enhance the state’s economy. And by transitioning to low-carbon efficiency, wind, and solar, Ohioans will breathe cleaner air and live longer, healthier lives. We hope state legislators will follow Gov. Kasich’s lead and reject efforts to block clean energy growth. Why not give Ohioans what they want?

Photo credit: Karsten Wurth

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Biogas cookstoves can help nearby forests grow, new study finds

By Richie Ahuja

By Meghna Agarwala, Post-doctoral Research Scientist of Columbia University, and Richie Ahuja, EDF Regional Director of Asia

Degraded forest in Karnataka, India

Clean-burning cookstoves powered by biogas help surrounding forests grow and regenerate, according to a new study by Columbia University scientists.

The study in India finds that forest biomass and regeneration increased significantly after 10 years of introducing biogas stoves; because the stoves run off the gas produced by decomposing cow manure, they eliminate the need for cutting down trees and lopping them for firewood.

This new finding suggests that biogas stoves, in addition to their role in improving indoor air quality, impacting household nutrition, and reducing carbon emissions, may help India reach its climate goals around improving forest cover and increasing carbon sequestration.

Cookstoves in India

About 41% households in India are dependent on fuelwood as their source of cooking, according to the 2011 Census of India survey. However, burning fuelwood for cooking increases indoor air pollution, exacerbates health issues, contributes to climate change, and destroys wildlife habitat.

Since the 1980s, aid organizations and governments have been installing biogas stoves in some regions in India to reduce the impacts from indoor air pollution and reduce carbon emissions, but these have largely failed due to poor post-installation support.

Results from study

Published in Global Ecology and Conservation, the new study compared forest biomass and regeneration in the areas around villages using biogas or wood for fuel in the Indian state of Karnataka.

The study shows that people dependent on fuelwood for cooking reduce their fuelwood use when provided with a viable alternative, the biogas stove. Switching to biogas allowed the surrounding forests to recover.

The findings have great significance for India, which committed in its national climate commitments under the Paris Agreement to increasing its forest cover to enhance carbon sequestration. India is also working on delivering clean cooking systems for people through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) and biogas programs around the country.

Forest regrowth is, of course, contingent on many other factors besides how much fuelwood is taken from forests. For example, in some locations, forest may not regrow despite biogas stove use, as the ecosystem may have already been damaged so much that it needs active restoration. Also, since biogas technology is dependent on ownership of cattle, this scheme does not work for people who are too poor to own cattle, or in areas where there isn’t enough rainfall for people to own cattle.

This study can help policymakers understand how clean cooking programs can support India’s – and other governments’ – targets of improving forest cover and carbon sequestration.

If conditions are right, and if done at scale and implemented in a way that promotes long-term change, shifting households from burning fuelwood to cleaner technologies can help forests grow and can help countries such as India achieve their climate goals.

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New EPA model enables comparison of various sources of childhood exposure to lead

By Tom Neltner

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Dr. Ananya Roy is Health Scientist

This week, Environmental Health Perspectives published an important article by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that sheds important light on the various sources of children’s lead exposure. Led by Valerie Zaltarian, the article shares an innovative multimedia model to quantify and compare relative contributions of lead from air, soil/dust, water and food to children’s blood lead level. The model couples existing SHEDS and IEUBK models to predict blood lead levels using information on concentrations of lead in different sources, intake and gut absorption. The predicted blood lead levels compared well with observed levels in the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey population. Given the variety of independent sources of lead exposure, the model provides a critical tool that public health professionals can use to set priorities and evaluate the impact of various potential standards for all children and not just those with the greatest exposure.

This peer-reviewed article builds on a draft report EPA released in January 2017 evaluating different approaches to setting a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water. The report has provided a wealth of insight into a complicated topic. Earlier this year, we used it to show that formula-fed infants get most of their lead exposure from water and toddlers from food, while the main source of lead for the highest exposed children is soil and dust. In our February blog, we provided our assessment of a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water and explained how public health professionals could use it to evaluate homes. The information was also critical to identifying lead in food as an overlooked, but meaningful, source of children’s exposure to lead.

The new article reaffirms the analysis in the January 2017 EPA report and highlights that evaluating source contribution to blood lead in isolation versus aggregating across all sources can lead to very different answers and priorities. A health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water could vary from 0 to 46 ppb depending on age and whether all other sources of lead are considered. For example, a health-based benchmark for infants (birth to six months old) would be 4 ppb or 13 ppb depending on whether or not you consider all sources of exposure.

Further, the model shows how the relative contribution of different sources of lead vary by age and reveals that the priority intervention for most toddlers (12 to 24 months old) would be different than for most infants. Chart A ranks infants from birth to six months of age from least to greatest exposure and groups them in deciles; each of the ten bars represent about 200,000 children. For these infants, water and soil/dust are the dominant sources of exposure. However, EPA scientists note that the exposure to lead in soil/dust is likely overestimated because, lacking other data, they assumed these infants were exposed to soil and dust at rates similar to 1 year olds. From our experience, a birth- to six-month-old infant is not yet crawling on the floor or having the same hand-to-mouth practices as a 12 to 24 month-old toddler.

Chart B does the same with toddlers from 12 to 24 months old. Each of the ten bars represents about 400,000 children. The analysis shows that food (including beverages other than tap water) is the major source for all but the 20% of children with the greatest exposure; for the most exposed children, soil and dust dominates. However, the researchers noted that the estimate for food is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study, with many non-detectable results. They showed that their method to assign values to the non-detect levels gave a reasonable estimate.

A model is only as good as the data on which it is based, and better data may soon be available. In 2014, FDA began analyzing Total Diet Study samples for lead and other heavy metals using a more sensitive method that uses ICP-MS. With a lower limit of detection, we will know more precisely how much lead is in food. FDA has not publicly released the results using this new method. In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) plans to update its 2005 American Healthy Homes Survey with more current estimates of lead in soil and dust. With EPA’s support, HUD will also include water sampling in the survey.

Continuing the progress made in preventing children’s exposure to lead takes vigilance, sound policies, and robust science. EPA’s scientists provide us with critical new insights into the relative contribution of sources of children’s exposure to lead. The insights are essential as EPA makes its long-overdue updates to its Lead-Based Paint Hazard Standards and its Lead and Copper Rule as well as its effort to update the federal government’s 1999 federal strategy to eliminate lead poisoning. When the new data from FDA and HUD are available, EPA will need to update its analysis.

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Pilot program will use data to transform the efficiency of Chicago buildings

By Ellen Bell

Over the past few years, Chicago has established itself as a leader in energy-efficient buildings.

The city’s landmark energy benchmarking program, for which properties measure and report on their energy use, has already saved Chicago over $17 million, while supporting high-paying jobs and healthier air. Relatedly, for the second year in a row, Chicago had the highest percentage of buildings with LEED certification (the most widely-used green building rating system in the world).

Industry pioneers have worked hard to make each building’s equipment as efficient as possible. The next opportunity is to work with those innovators to determine, how do we get the teams that use the equipment to make more energy-efficient decisions every day?

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), in partnership with local utility ComEd and the Accelerate Group, is building on Chicago’s leadership to find a solution by launching the Smart Building Operations Pilot. An innovative program that uses real-time energy data to incentivize energy-efficient choices, the pilot aims to inform the day-to-day decisions of equipment operators at 10 large Chicago buildings.

How the pilot works

The world of energy-efficiency analytics is exciting right now. Smart meters and sub-meters, are measuring building energy use in detail and real time. Unheard of even five years ago, these new capabilities enable building managers and engineers to control energy-use with unprecedented precision.

Pilot program will use data to transform the efficiency of Chicago buildings
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The Smart Building Operations Pilot will leverage these developments to help buildings use energy more efficiently. We’ll find out whether the combination of information, interpretation, and motivation results in large building operators consistently making smarter energy choices:

  1. Information: The building will collect and display energy-use data in real time (or near‐real time), providing direct feedback to a building operator on the energy impact of their actions.
  2. Interpretation: The building will calculate an energy-use baseline, against which performance will be tracked every half hour, daily, and monthly. To raise awareness, building operators will receive alerts when energy use exceeds or is expected to exceed the baseline.
  3. Motivation: The program will provide an achievable and meaningful incentive to improve. ComEd will provide up to $5000 up-front to cover hard costs and $0.05 for each kilowatt hour saved compared to the building’s baseline.

This three-pronged approach will empower participants to know how their decisions are affecting energy use in real‐time and easily track those impacts, while providing financial rewards for hitting and exceeding targets.

Program takes off

The technology is in place (after getting a few kinks sorted out), and 10 Chicago buildings are beginning to receive their energy data in real time – with the baseline interpretations to help them understand it. These buildings include the historic Shedd Aquarium and 77 West Wacker, which previously worked with the EDF Climate Corps program to optimize energy use and save nearly $100,000.

Building operators are logging all activities that lead to energy savings. Eventually, these records will be reviewed to determine which behavioral energy conservation measures rise to the top as the most effective. From there, the data will be anonymized and used to create best practices for the next round of participants or even other buildings outside the program.

Eventually, these records will be reviewed to determine which behavioral energy conservation measures rise to the top as the most effective.

Improving building efficiency can help cut global CO2 emissions from buildings by 83 percent below business-as-usual by 2050, according to the World Resources Institute, and Chicago’s groundbreaking work can help us get there. Between the city’s benchmarking program and ComEd’s progressive energy efficiency programs, which have saved customers over $2.5 billion, Chicago is already cutting harmful pollution and saving businesses money through efficiency. EDF is excited to partner with the 10 properties in the Smart Building Operations Pilot to explore the next stage of energy management, and continue to support Chicago’s position as a green building leader.

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