Meet These Trailblazing Women at 3BL Forum

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Everyone has a voice. But at a time when there are limitless ways to share that voice, it’s how you choose to use it that absolutely matters.

That's why the speakers at this fall’s 3BL Forum Brands Taking Stands – What's Next stand out.

With just two months to go before the October 29-30 Forum, the 80-plus speakers are getting ready to share their voices as they offer world-class insight into the relevant and timely topics in sustainability, social impact and corporate responsibility today.

Among this year’s speakers, nearly 60 percent are trailblazing women ready to share their stories as they lead the way in their respective fields, including:

  • MGM National Harbor President and COO Melonie Johnson, who has a unique perspective on what it takes to get a seat at the leadership table.
  • Black & Veatch President and Chief Human Resources Officer Stephanie Hasenbos-Case, who will share what it means to be intentional about the workforce of the future.
  • CECP Managing Director Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, who will bring her perspective to the stage on what she is hearing from senior leaders around the country. 
  • Porter Novelli/Cone VP of Marketing/Research and Insights Whitney Dailey, who will call your attention to what is driving activism in our nation’s young people, as well what every company needs to know to engage, inspire and activate them.

Join these and other exceptional women at the Forum, at MGM National Harbor, just outside of Washington, D.C. Prepare for two days of fast-paced discussion aimed at answering some of the most simple yet impactful questions about today’s and tomorrow’s business landscape, such as “why,” “how,” “what’s next” and “where are we headed.”

“This year’s conference will feature some exceptional women on our main stage,” said Lynne Filderman, Executive Producer of the 3BL Forum. “In speaking with each of these women in the run-up to our high-octane event, I have heard firsthand their candid and authentic voices, whether focused on brand purpose, women’s leadership, intentionality of the future workforce, bridging corporate silos or insights into ‘what's next.’ You can be assured they will bring their experiences and unique perspectives to our two-day conversation.”

Now through Friday, September 6, receive 30 percent off registration rates for 3BL Forum when you enter the code LABORDAY2019. Join us as we explore how companies, with employees at the helm, are reinventing how they do business – whether it’s redefining their purpose, making social impact commitments or finding where to put a stake in the ground. 

Image credit of National Harbor, MD: Sharosh Rajasekher/Unsplash

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Wanted in the C-Suite: Chief Impact Officer

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I’m not one for spotting trends, but if I had to wager on the next big thing in corporate C-suite recruitment it would be for the Chief Impact Officer.

I’m still less one for coining phrases, but let’s call them “CImpO”, in order to differentiate from the various other CIO roles out there. (I’m not sure it will stick, though.)

Currently, scans of Google, LinkedIn and job sites reveal very few CImpO roles, and a “Chief Impact Officer” LinkedIn group with a membership of only three people.

I suspect that will change fast now, particularly in light of the new Statement of the Purpose of a Corporation from Business Roundtable – a CImpO will be a key guardian of stakeholder interests.

Here’s what I think, after time spent myself as a freelance CImpO, the brief might include:

  • To oversee the measurement, verification, management, reporting and improvement of the company’s social and environmental impact (its value delivered to stakeholders);
  • To advise the board on business model and operational risks arising from areas of impact underperformance and developments in the understanding of social and environmental impact;
  • To contribute to the strategic and operational development of the business by identifying and promoting innovation that mitigates impact risks and opens up new commercial opportunities;
  • To ensure that all stakeholder relationships (workers, suppliers, community and environment) are managed consistently with the company’s impact vision and values;
  • To report on and discuss at each board meeting progress against agreed key environmental, social and governance metrics;
  • To oversee the production and publication of an annual impact report which will be made public as soon as practicable after year end and filed as part of the company’s strategic report thereafter.

I suspect that sort of role is currently filled, if at all, by a Chief Sustainability Officer, Human Resources Director, Company Secretary and/or General Counsel or even CEO.

Here are some of the reasons I can imagine a dedicated role being necessary:

  • Sustainability is no longer enough – it’s not aspirational enough and implies maintenance of steady state, rather than growth and development. That’s not a bad starting point if what came before was deeply unsustainable, but it’s not going to feed a growing population or excite an investor. It also sounds too restricted to the environmental domain – important but only part of the equation. Furthermore, businesses are now alive to the fact that doing good in the world isn’t the sole preserve of the third sector. The B Corp community is full of examples of companies using the for-profit model to deliver, often, multiple impact returns alongside financial profits. This is a big job: these opportunities need to be coordinated strategically, at the right level, with the right investment and for the right reasons.

 

  • Impact is undoubtedly a board issue – unmanaged negative impacts, and the financial and brand risks they entail, will negatively affect shareholder and stakeholder value. Conversely, but in exactly the same way, the opportunities of innovating to create positive impact will create positive value. Impact has to form part of every strategic planning discussion, as well as having a meaningful place in governance systems, processes and structures.

 

  • Funders will expect it – looking at Larry Fink’s latest letter to CEOs on this topic as well as the rapid divestment by various funds in recent months from non-renewable energy stocks, the investors (and indeed banks) of the future will need to be persuaded that every company has robust social and environmental impact strategies in place. Over time, it may become a pre-requisite for access to capital, but it will not be straightforward to get right.

 

In the investor community, impact has been moving out of its bubble and into the mainstream for 12 months or more. The Business Roundtable statement makes it clear that the corporate community is following close behind.

Getting impact right is a topic of increasing relevance to all businesses and those who don’t think it applies to them could, before too long, be in for a nasty shock.

Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

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Nation’s Illiteracy Woes Won’t Be Solved by Government Alone

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This article series is sponsored by JetBlue and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Labor Day weekend is right around the corner. Most kids are already back in school. And once again, teachers are battling the effects of the dreaded summer slide—a term used to describe the tendency for students to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year.

One study using data from over half a million students in grades 2 through 9 found that students, on average, lost between 25 and 30 percent of their school-year learning over the summer. 

Studies also show that the loss is far greater for lower-income students than middle-class students. One reason for the gap is the lack of access to educational resources over the summer months. Academic researchers refer to this as the “faucet theory.” According to the theory, the “resource faucet” is on for all students during the school year, but over the summer, the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

According to Susan Neuman, professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University’s Steinhardt School, many low-income students live in “book deserts.” In research she conducted in a low-income community in Washington, D.C., for example, Neuman found that, given the low access to books in the neighborhood, 830 children would have to share one book in order to read.  

“Book deserts seriously constrain young children’s opportunity to learn and have an unfortunate consequence in their school readiness,” Neuman says. 

Houston, we have a problem . . . a big one

The summer slide is just the tip of the iceberg. We are facing a literacy crisis in the United States. 

According to recent research, more than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years or drop out, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research

Other studies confirm the widening literacy gap, which authors say will lead to the perpetuation of poverty and a resultant expanding unskilled workforce in the coming years. 

This challenge is too big for any one sector 

The U.S. Department of Education is scrambling to address the growing crisis, but it is just too big. Increasingly, businesses are realizing the immensity of the challenge in their communities and the potential impact it could have on their own sustainability. They also realize that their employees and customers are looking to them to do something. 

“There is an expectation today that companies will respond and help,” says Icema Gibbs, director of corporate social responsibility for JetBlue Airways and architect of the company’s award-winning Soar with Reading program. “It’s incumbent upon companies to help. Everyone has to get involved to move the needle on social change.” 

Through its Soar with Reading program, JetBlue has been tackling the issue of book availability in underserved communities since 2015. Using a creative approach, the program provides free children’s books through vending machines in a different city every summer.  

For selection in the program, a city must be one where JetBlue flies and where a book desert exists. To date, JetBlue has brought Soar with Reading to Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland, Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale and, this year, New York City.

Once a new city is selected, Gibbs’ corporate responsibility team works with local community leaders, educators and community organizations to identify neighborhoods that would benefit most from the program and high-traffic areas where kids and families visit often, such as community centers. 

Vending machines are set up from July through September and restocked every two weeks with new titles that feature a wide array of age-appropriate books that also reflect the distinct languages and cultures of the community.

“We work long and hard to ensure we select books that represent the neighborhoods we go into,” Gibbs explains. For example, when Soar with Reading took up residence in San Francisco, Gibbs and her team ensured there were books available in Mandarin. 

JetBlue’s vending machines include historical, biographical, and narrative books designed to attract young audiences and keep them reading. 

reading with children helps fight illiteracy

(Image: Award-winning children’s author David Ezra Stein hosted a special story time at the Queens Public Library in July to celebrate the launch of Soar with Reading's 2019 season.) 

Kids and parents line up for new books 

“We know people rely so much on their phones and tablets, even in low-income neighborhoods,” Gibbs says. “But what is consistent across all socioeconomic platforms we’ve measured is that kids like to feel the book they are reading, and they like to build their own home library.”

JetBlue is able to track the ZIP codes of people who use the machines, and the company found that some families travel from miles away. Gibbs says some even place the dates on their calendar of when a new cycle of books will arrive.

She gives the example of a grandmother in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC who brought her granddaughter to the vending machine whenever there was a new shipment. She became known as the “book lady” because she would bring books back for all the other children in her housing complex. 

At the Soar with Reading launch event this past July in Brooklyn, actress Aisha Hinds was talking with some young girls, Gibbs recalls. “One of the girls said to Aisha, ‘These books are big! How are we supposed to read them?’ Aisha told them that she wanted them to form a book club and to make sure they all were reading together.

“This little girl’s eye lit up and she said, ‘That is exactly what we will do.’” Gibbs says, with a satisfied laugh, that the girl and her friends went through every age-appropriate title in the vending machine that summer and kept up their book club after the program ended. 

Chance for JetBlue employees to give back 

Soar with Reading also offers JetBlue crewmembers from across the country a chance to get involved in their local communities. They can volunteer their time at vending machines to help kids select books, or, if there is no vending machine in their city, they can order titles to be included in the vending machines through JetBlue and host book readings at local schools, libraries or even at their own airport.  

Closing the gap 

To date, JetBlue and its community partners have donated and distributed more than $3.5 million worth of books through the Soar with Reading program, and they don’t plan to stop anytime soon given that their research shows the program is having an impact.

“Studies have shown that owning 25 books or more has a sizable effect on achievement, with each additional increment of books, such as 10 or more, improving achievement,” says Neuman, who is also a member of the Soar with Reading Advisory Board. “This program allows children to own books and combat the knowledge loss that so often accompanies summer.”

Some may say that Soar with Reading is just one program in one city each year. But what if other companies also stepped forward to support similar programs in the cities where they operate?

As Neuman told Forbes last year, “Changes like this in the environment can strongly influence changes in behavior, and along with generous and powerful policy solutions, we can begin to close the achievement gap for low-income children."

Image credits: Nicole Honeywill/Unsplash and JetBlue

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China’s Uyghur Camps Put Global Brands’ Supply Chains at Risk

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A new report from the Citizen Power Initiatives for China highlights the growing use of forced labor in the cotton and garment industry in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China. This region is responsible for 84 percent of China’s cotton production (including the cotton field shown above) and therein has deep interconnections to global supply chains. The report’s authors say they found evidence of forced labor being used during cultivation at cotton farms; the harvesting and processing of cotton; and during garment production throughout the vast region.

This is just the latest worrying news from the region. What is happening in Xinjiang, homeland of the mostly Muslim Turkic Uyghur people, is considered by some to be the worst human rights crisis of the century. The most recent wave of repression can be tied the riots that broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July of 2009. Around 200 people died, and the Chinese government soon ordered thousands of troops to be stationed there in order to militarize the region.

Since then, the human rights situation has become even worse. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has given regional leaders the freedom to take whatever measures they wanted to suppress Uyghur dissent, with a seemingly unlimited flow of financial resources. The result is today’s dark reality – an Orwellian tech surveillance state and now a massive network of concentration camps that hold somewhere between 500,000 and 3 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities – the vast majority of whom were never tried in any court and committed no crime.

“The situation in Xinjiang and China’s treatment of its Uyghur Minority is beyond abhorrent,” said Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in a November 2018 public statement. “[We should] not turn a blind eye as a million Muslims are unjustly imprisoned and forced into labor camps by an autocratic regime.”

Unfortunately, Menendez has been one of the few voices in Washington D.C. speaking up for Uyghurs. Despite the mounting evidence, the international response has been lacking for many reasons. One is that China has near-total control of information flows between Xinjiang and abroad, due partly to the Great Firewall but also its ability to rapidly censor content on Chinese social media apps such as WeChat or Weibo. The country is also the largest trade partner with most of the world’s nations, and it uses those relationships to buy influence. In the past, China has also withheld trade to hurt countries who upset it politically, such as South Korea.

Reporting in the region has also become increasingly difficult. Journalists have reported intimidation, coercion, and pervasive surveillance when in Xinjiang. The few who have been able to file reports, such as Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan, who revealed conditions in the frightening 21st century police state, or French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who first exposed China’s crimes in 2015, found themselves evicted or denied visas.

“We should demand answers to the severity of human rights violations in Xinjiang.” said Michael Caster, a human rights advocate, researcher, and civil society consultant, in a public statement. “This includes greater freedom of access for independent journalists but also ultimately an international independent fact-finding mission to the region.”

These camps have turned into a cheap source of labor for Chinese authorities and companies. In fact, this is not the first report that tied multinational brands to forced labor in China. Last year, an investigation by the Associated Press found that United States sportswear could be traced to internment camps. Badger Sportswear, a North Carolina-based company that produces popular university-branded clothing, was implicated; to its credit, Badger immediately ceased sourcing from suspect Chinese sources. Then, last month, Cotton On and Target were found to have some of their apparel products linked to forced labor.

“The presence of forced labor, particularly prison labor, at many steps of the cotton supply chain means that potentially all cotton/textile/apparel products from Xinjiang are produced with forced labor, and some of these products have entered into international commerce, including the U.S. and European markets,” said Citizen Power Initiatives' researchers in a press statement.

This likely extends beyond the garment industry. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, based in Washington, D.C., says it has found evidence that Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors, Heinz, Campbell Soup, Oracle and Thermo Fisher all have supply chains that link to Xinjiang. As a result, these companies are at high risk of either using forced labor, or they are empowering the state-sanctioned abuse of ethnic Uyghurs.

There is a strong likelihood that if your company sources apparel, cotton, or other materials from Xinjiang, China, it might be tainted by forced labor. Companies need to more proactive as they evaluate their ties to the region, and therefore should develop plans to source products from elsewhere. Considering that the state is likely behind these massive atrocities, the cost of doing business with China may be too large for any company determined to conduct business ethically and responsibly.

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Apple Leads on Amazon Fires: Was That So Difficult?

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A spike in intentionally set fires in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil has provoked an international response from government leaders due to the devastating impact these fires could have on the world’s climate – and now, the corporate community has also begun to speak up. That’s significant because of the somewhat fraught political landscape surrounding the Amazon fires: Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, is widely viewed as a close ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, who continues to deny that global warming is rooted in human activity.

Tim Cook pledges Apple action on the Amazon fires

Apple CEO Tim Cook was among the first, if not the first, leading executive to pledge funds to help fight the Amazon fires.

Though Bolsonaro has been accused of enabling the unusual number of intentionally set fires in the Amazon, Cook did not address the politics underlying the emergency. In fact, he avoided focusing attention on Brazil altogether — an accurate take, considering that Brazil encompasses most, but not all, of the Amazon.

Instead, he focused on preserving biodiversity, stating on his personal Twitter account earlier this week that it is “devastating to see the fires and destruction ravaging the Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s most important ecosystems,” and that “Apple will be donating to help preserve its biodiversity and restore the Amazon’s indispensable forest across Latin America.”

With this statement, Cook deployed a strategy similar to that employed by other companies that have pushed back against harmful or unethical government policies here in the U.S., by focusing attention on areas of strong social consensus rather than criticizing individuals in power.

The value of corporate giving

As of this writing, the media spotlight has not been shining on other global companies pledging to help fight the Amazon fires. Nevertheless, nonprofit organizations are already laying the groundwork for additional corporate action.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest environmental project, Earth Alliance, is a case in point. The organization launched on July 2 with co-founder and social justice advocate Laurene Powell Jobs with a focus on supporting and preserving biodiversity. As the widow of Apple’s iconic founder Steve Jobs, she may have inspired Tim Cook to take up a vanguard position on the Amazon wildfires, but her potential for influence through Earth Alliance goes well beyond a single company.

Earth Alliance is a powerful next step for the existing Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, in partnership with Jobs’s Emerson Collective and Global Wildlife Conservation. In addition to his work with Jobs, DiCaprio sits on the boards of several environmental organizations that partner with leading global companies, including World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Earth Alliance has already set a high bar by pledging $5 million toward the effort to fight Amazon wildfires.

In comparison, the G7 countries have collectively pledged $20 million. Britain and Canada have also separately pledged $12 million and $11 million, respectively.

A call to action for leading partners

Whether or not they seek media attention, other leading companies have also been drawn into the Amazon fires though their affiliation with the Rainforest Alliance.

Rainforest Alliance works with global companies on eliminating forest destruction in their supply chains through the Accountability Framework Initiative among other activities.

The organization has taken a slightly more confrontational approach toward the Amazon fires, though it refrains from criticizing Bolsonaro directly. Its website features this call to action:

“Following a staggering increase in fires this year, with flames and smoke captured on both NASA and NOAA satellites from space, it's clear the world must stand together to stop ongoing threats to the Amazon, which is vital to the world’s climate stability.”

Rainforest Alliance also states that “we are mobilizing our broad network of partners to fight the ongoing destruction of this precious ecosystem.”

That network currently includes leading corporations like P&G and L’Oreal, along with thousands of other companies that are currently participating in the organization’s certification process.

When a climate crisis becomes a bottom-line crisis, too

Though few multinational CEOs have followed Tim Cook’s lead so far, the Amazon fires may well end up demonstrating that corporations are primed and ready to act on global climate threats, whether through direct donations or affiliation with nonprofits and trade organizations.

The window for action is beginning to close, however. The European Union, for one, is already threatening trade sanctions unless Bolsonaro acts aggressively to stem the fires. The Brazilian president’s refusal to accept any funding from the G7 nations puts even more pressure on the private sector to step up.

With the global economy already sliding toward recession, CEOs cannot afford to ignore the threat of another trade war – nor can their companies afford the larger risks as the world teeters from surging climate change risks to a full-blown climate crisis.

Be sure to join us this fall at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What’s Next, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., on October 29-30, 2019. One theme we’ll explore is how companies, with employees at the helm, are reinventing how they do business – whether it’s redefining their purpose, making social impact commitments or finding where to put a stake in the ground. Receive a 25 percent discount using this code PUNDIT2019AUGUST when you register here during the month of August, 2019.

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The Wayfair Effect Meets a Brick Wall at Palantir

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Employees at the home furnishings company Wayfair raised the bar on employee activism when they staged a walkout in downtown Boston earlier this summer. That poses a challenge for workers at other companies, who have relied on petitions and open letters to lobby for change. A case in point is the big data firm Palantir.

Palantir in hot water over ICE contracts

Palantir is not a household name on the order of Wayfair and other consumer brands. However, since its founding in 2003 the company has established a solid record within the law enforcement and national security communities.

Palantir initially made its reputation by deploying data mining and analytic software to thwart drug cartels, terrorists, and bank fraud. More recently, though, the company’s reported involvement in racial profiling by domestic law enforcement has made it the target of privacy and civil liberties advocates.

The tipping point for Palantir employees is the company’s operational role in supporting the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, including mass deportations and its notorious family separation policy, through contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The Washington Post and Business Insider, among others, have reported that Palantir employees confronted CEO Alex Karp during an internal meeting to protest the ICE contract. Palantir employees have also circulated at least two petitions arguing against the company’s business with ICE.

The most recent petition, reportedly signed by more than 60 employees earlier this month, asks Palantir to assign the profits from its ICE contracts to charity.

Why Palantir probably won’t budge

The idea of a charitable giving solution seems like a dose of weakly brewed tea considering the human suffering at stake, but it may have been inspired by the partial success of the Wayfair walkout.

Plans for the walkout took shape after top executives brushed off an employee petition that expressed concern over the mistreatment of children in an immigrant detention center, for which the company had a contract to supply $200,000 worth of mattresses. The letter asked Wayfair to donate the profits to the immigrant legal services organization RAICES.

After the walkout, it seems that Wayfair executives took the request to heart. In an apparent compromise, the company pledged a $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross.

The donation exceeded the reported $86,000 in profits from the mattress contract, though the employee group has pointed out that donating to the Red Cross is not nearly as impactful as funding for RAICES would have been.

Nevertheless, Wayfair’s gesture appears to have had its desired effect. Calls for a boycott of the company drifted out of the media spotlight shortly after the walkout.

The charitable giving solution, though, hardly seems likely for Palantir.

That’s partly due to the scale of Palantir’s work with ICE. Its current contract dwarfs Wayfair’s mattresses, and on August 20 news surfaced that Palantir has entered into a new contract with ICE.

According to documents posted online by the General Services Administration and spotted by Mother Jones, the first year of the contract reportedly starts in September 2019 and is worth $16 million. With the potential for renewal options over the next two years, the total could come to about $49 million.

Corporate culture and Palantir

Given the scale of the ICE contract, it’s no surprise that Palantir has so far refused to accommodate the concerns of its employees.

Aside from the money involved, Palantir employees also face the additional challenge of the company’s corporate culture.

While much of the media attention has focused on the contradiction between CEO Alex Karp’s self-described socialism and Palantir’s business model, there is a superseding dynamic at work.

Palantir’s work with ICE may conflict with the worldview of its CEO, but it is almost perfectly aligned with that of its co-founder and investor, Peter Thiel, who has also served on the company’s board of directors.

Thiel has become a person of media interest in his unique role as Silicon Valley’s most visibly public, and instrumental, supporter of Donald Trump’s successful 2016 campaign. Regardless of the racist rhetoric, the choice to support the Trump campaign was of a piece with Thiel’s considerable financial support for the candidacy of Ron Paul, and his support for the anti-immigrant organization Numbers, USA.

In addition to financial contributions to the Trump campaign, Thiel stood as a California delegate for Trump during the primary cycle, delivered a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention and placed op-eds at key junctures during the campaign He also quashed a potentially influential media critic by funding a successful lawsuit against the news organization Gawker Media, which was spearheaded by Trump attorney Charles Harder.

Despite the 2017 “Muslim ban” that marked the beginning of Trump’s term in office, Thiel has remained in an advisory capacity to the administration, and was among the very first to donate to Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

Preparing for re-election

In the latest illustration of his behind-the-scenes role in formulating White House policy, on August 2 Thiel placed an op-ed in the New York Times excoriating Google for its work in China and all but accusing it of treason. The President followed up with a series of tweets on August 6, in which he supported and amplified Thiel’s article, and pledged that the White House will “take a look” at his accusations against Google.

In the context of corporate culture, Thiel’s op-ed also aimed at a company that is rooted in purposeful dissent, so much so that Google employees are already taking preemptive action by publicly pledging not to work on a potential contract with Customs and Border Patrol.

That kind of employee action would most likely not be tolerated at Palantir, especially not in the runup to the 2020 election cycle. As noted by Tech Crunch and others, Thiel and the President appear to be building a case against Google in advance of Election Day, by questioning the company’s loyalty to the U.S. and accusing it of election tampering, while positioning Palantir as a “patriotic” company.

With stakes that high, Palantir is unlikely to waver in its support for the Trump administration’s policies. Perhaps the only recourse for employees who are uncomfortable with the company’s policy on ICE contracts is to walk out, never to return.

Be sure to join us this fall at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What’s Next, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., on October 29-30, 2019. One theme we’ll explore is how companies, with employees at the helm, are reinventing themselves – whether it’s redefining their purpose, making social impact commitments or finding where to put a stake in the ground. Receive a 25 percent discount using this code PUNDIT2019AUGUST when you register here during the month of August, 2019.

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Context-Based Targets Bring a Scientific Approach to Water Management

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This article series is sponsored by AEG and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

In 2015, when the United Nations issued the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it called on business, government and civil society to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” But societal and environmental factors—from industrialization to climate change—may make accomplishing this goal increasingly difficult, recent research shows. 

Seventeen countries, home to a quarter of the global population, now face “extremely high” water stress, withdrawing more than 80 percent of their available water supplies each year, according to an August report from the World Resources Institute (WRI). Another 44 countries withdraw around 40 percent of their annual supplies, putting them in the “high” stress category. 

"Our populations and economies are growing and demanding more water, but our supply is threatened by climate change, by water waste, and by pollution," Betsy Otto, director of the WRI's Global Water Program, said in a call with reporters earlier this month, as reported by Business Insider. "Water stress, which occurs when demands rival annual supply, is a manifestation of those issues."

Companies are struggling to manage their water goals

Though the water target—known as SDG 6 or Goal 6—is just one of 17 social, environmental and economic goals that make up the SDGs, it arguably underpins every other objective on the list. We can’t live, grow food, create energy or do business without water—and as more data about water stress issues emerge, the water target is becoming top-of-mind for stakeholders pursuing the SDGs. 

In the private sector, more companies are disclosing their water risk and setting reduction targets, but research indicates they still struggle to translate those ambitions at the local level: In a 2019 survey of 86 companies with revenues of at least $1 billion, 74 percent say water is an increasing priority, but nearly half (44 percent) “have no plan in place” to achieve their water goals. 

Given the data we’re seeing about water stress—made starkly clear by crises such as the massive shortfall that left residents in Cape Town, South Africa, standing in line for water last year—these findings are distressing, to say the least. But researchers are developing new water management approaches they say can help companies chart the way forward. 

New Mexico water risk(Image: New Mexico's Rio Salado Riverbed stands dry in February 2015. The Southwestern U.S. state is one of several facing "extremely high" water risk, according to recent research from WRI.) 

What’s science got to do with it? 

When it comes to addressing climate change, a growing number of companies are looking to science to frame their approach. More than 600 companies are taking science-based climate action, and 232 have climate goals approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi). As the name implies, science-based targets center around what researchers deem necessary to effectively tackle climate change, rather than what company leadership thinks they can accomplish—bringing ambition levels higher and pushing companies to innovate. 

Researchers are increasingly calling for a similar approach for water. “Managing [the] supply-demand imbalance is the new normal for business,” Rylan Dobson, water stewardship consultant for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Alexis Morgan, WWF global water stewardship lead, wrote in a recent post on Medium. “Accordingly, the underlying question when setting water targets becomes not ‘what performance efficiencies could we realistically achieve’ but ‘what level of water performance do we need to achieve’ to ensure that a business takes meaningful responsibility for ensuring that its impacts remain within the capacity of our planet.”

To that end, a group of environmental organizations—including WWF, WRI, The Nature Conservancy and CDP—are developing what they call context-based water targets: a new approach for setting corporate targets that address the needs of a given watershed or catchment area. 

From local to global: Context-based water targets and watershed-wide collaboration bolsters stewardship 

“The reasoning behind [the groups’] call for ‘context-based targets’ is that water issues are primarily local—each basin has unique challenges that need to be considered when managing water resources,” Morgan Gillespy, CDP’s head of water, wrote on the organization’s blog. “Corporate targets, therefore, should address these site-specific concerns, and include input from local stakeholders.” 

This context-based approach to water goal-setting was recently piloted in communities such as the Santa Ana River Watershed in Southern California, where participating companies like Hilton and PepsiCo collaborated with watershed partners to align on key challenges. 

Pilots such as this one have led to a renewed push for a formalized framework around context-based targets. But this type of watershed-wide collaboration is not exactly new: Water advocates have long called for more partnerships at the watershed level, arguing that even if first-movers drastically reduce their water use, a basin will remain at risk unless all major users come on board. 

The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), for example, has brought corporate, government and civil society partners together around water issues for over a decade. Along with driving collaboration between companies—and other partners in their watersheds—the group maintains the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard, a globally-applicable framework for major water users, which is driven by context-based factors. 

“The reason the Standard was conceived in the first place was to strengthen corporate engagement beyond the fence-line, within the context of an entire catchment area or watershed,” AWS CEO Adrian Sym told TriplePundit. “The Standard is rooted in context.”

The AWS Standard is driven by feedback from its more than 120 members—including major corporates like Nestlé and Apple—and remains responsive to emerging challenges in at-risk watersheds. The second version of the Standard—which specifically ties it to the SDGs—was released in March following a two-year review period among AWS members, with more iterations to come on a regular basis. 

Managing water use in complex supply chains 

context-based water targets in the sports industry

(Image: Sectors with complex global supply chains, such as the sports and entertainment industry, face stiff challenges when it comes to managing water use. Fortunately, first-movers like global company AEG are showing the way, with water conservation upgrades to venues such as the Staples Center in Los Angeles.) 

Even with standards on the books, major global companies still face stiff challenges in understanding water use across their complex supply chains and taking steps to mitigate it. Fortunately, a number of early-movers are leading the way. 

Apple, for example, has been working on its internal clean water program for more than five years and extended it to 116 suppliers, resulting in 7.6 billion gallons of water saved, in 2018. Even further, the company recently extended the AWS Standard to suppliers in China facing high water risk, moving toward a “more comprehensive and, importantly, catchment- or watershed-based approach,” Sym said. 

In the sports and entertainment sector, global company AEG uses the WRI’s Aqueduct tool to identify sites in areas facing water risk—allowing the company to focus conservation and stewardship efforts where they are most needed. Sites that are in “high” or “extremely high” water risk areas are subject to AEG’s 2020 Environmental Goal for water conservation, which is to reduce potable water use at such sites by 4.4 percent per year—amounting to a 20 percent reduction over five years, a goal adapted from city ordinances in high-risk watersheds, according to the company. 

“Our experience has shown, time and again, that the more you use water stewardship, the more you embed it in your business practices, the more transparent you are about your water use, the more value you can realize through doing more of that and deepening your engagement,” Sym said. “Companies quickly realize a lot of value they didn’t fully understand before they started their water stewardship journeys.” 

The bottom line 

While water management will undoubtedly remain challenging for global companies and other major water users, one thing is clear: The shift toward a scientific approach that addresses the needs of each watershed—and supports the global push for accessible water under the SDGs—is here to stay. 

“Setting water targets according to scientific thresholds will become the new normal of corporate water targets out of necessity,” wrote Dobson and Morgan of WWF. “They are not a short-lived trend.”

Image credits: Willem-Jan Huisman/Unsplash, mrjn Photography/Unsplash, mwwile/Flickr, and AEG

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Why Companies Must Take Responsibility for the Amazon Fires

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A man-made crisis is raging across one of the most important and biodiverse regions of the planet. The Amazon is burning, and due to the fact that tropical rainforests never burn naturally, the blame falls entirely on us—or, more precisely, on our demand for commodities that require land. Until global companies rethink how they manage their supply chains in Brazil, we can expect more Amazon fires in the future.

The crisis is similar to what took place back in 2015 in Indonesia. That year, an extremely strong El Niño cycle sparked historically bad fires in Indonesia, which charred 2.5 million hectares of land, created as much daily carbon emissions as the United States, and sickened millions due to dangerous haze across Southeast Asia. Then, the focus turned to the role of the palm oil and paper pulp industry, which for years had drained wetlands and cut down tropical forests, thereby contributing to the conditions that led to the fires.

In Brazil, it’s not palm oil or paper pulp, but soy and cattle that are at the center of deforestation and illegal burning in the Amazon. But there is one similarity with Indonesia: Global supply chains connect consumers and businesses in the United States, Canada and Europe with the devastation that is taking place on the ground in Brazil. Since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in Brazil last year and declared the Amazon “open for business,” deforestation has risen rapidly.

“Now that the world is finally paying attention, it's important to also understand that governments and companies around the world are emboldening Bolsonaro's toxic policies when they enter trade agreements with his government or invest in agribusiness companies operating in the Amazon,” said Moira Birss, finance campaign director for the nonprofit Amazon Watch, in a press statement.

Amazon Watch has named BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, as a leading investor in Brazilian agribusiness. Other companies connected to illegal deforestation are Cargill, recently named the worst company in the world by the nonprofit Mighty Earth, as well as other agribusiness companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge.

There are undoubtedly more, but open information and supply chain monitoring is nearly non-existent in this area. There’s no effective transparency mechanism in the soy or cattle industries, meaning that it is difficult for outside observers to effectively trace if any product was grown in a recently cut-down forest. Even the Amazon Soy Moratorium, in which companies voluntarily agreed not to source soy from the Amazon, has been criticized as greenwashing.

“The fires in the Amazon are the result of complicated political, financial and social factors," said Henriette Walz, deforestation lead for the Rainforest Alliance, in a press statement. "We need continued collaborative effort from governments, companies and consumers to send a message.”

Indigenous people—whose land is being stolen and often burned illegally—are not standing for this anymore. A group has launched a call to boycott all companies that invade their land. While their initial focus will be on Brazilian companies directly doing illegal activities or setting fires, anyone along the entire supply chain could be fair game for a boycott. Quite simply stated, ignorance is no longer an option in 2019. The planet is literally burning, and any company that sources any products from tropical forests regions is partly to blame.

We understand the fires, and where they are burning, partly due to the massive improvement in satellite monitoring technology. Companies can—and should—know exactly where the soy, beef, palm oil, or paper pulp they use comes from, and end business relationships promptly with anyone doing any illegal activities.

While the fires might make one feel hopeless for the future of the planet, concerted action can make a difference. Remember Indonesia? It has made remarkable progress since 2015 and while fires are also burning there, it appears 2019 will end on a much better note than four years ago.

Brazil, too, could protect the Amazon, put an end to fires, and ensure the health of our planet well into the future. But with a climate denying, pro-development president at its head, it is clear that global pressure will be key – and that means holding any company, big or small, accountable for its role in enabling the destruction of the Amazon.

Image credit: NASA

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Rooftop Solar in Perspective: Walmart Takes Tesla to Task

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Every source of energy comes with risks and hazards. In the case of rooftop solar panels, the overall risks may be low compared to natural gas, heating oil and other electrical systems in a building. Nevertheless, such risks are a factor that needs to be addressed, as recently demonstrated by the cases of Walmart’s dealings with Tesla and the retailer's legacy SolarCity power generation systems.

How safe is rooftop solar?

Despite the media attention on Walmart and Tesla, global data demonstrate that rooftop solar fires are extremely rare. Rooftop solar technology, the standard practices and standards involved with these installations and finally, workforce training have all matured over the past decade.

A study of rooftop solar fires in Germany, for example, found that only 0.006 percent of all rooftop arrays installed in that country over a 20-year period had caught fire. Additionally, in more than half of those cases the solar system itself was not at fault.

Here in the U.S., the Department of Energy coordinates with fire fighters, SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association) and other industry stakeholders on protocols for responding to situations involving rooftop solar panels. A substantial body of training literature has been developed, as with many other potential hazards in buildings including gas lines, oil tanks and other flammable or hazardous materials stored on site.

A high-profile fight over rooftop solar panels

The safety of rooftop solar panels has contributed to their popularity, partly fueled by Walmart as well as Target, Amazon and many other leading U.S. companies.

These big solar purchasers have played a critical role in the growth of the U.S. solar industry. They have helped to accelerate economies of scale, support new financial tools, promote public awareness and build the solar workforce. All of this activity leads to lower costs for all solar buyers.

Tesla has also played an instrumental role in pushing the market for clean tech. Though better known for its eponymous Tesla line of electric vehicles and its highly visible CEO Elon Musk, in 2016 the company also invested heavily in rooftop solar through its acquisition of the leading developer SolarCity.

That vanguard status, though, attracts the media spotlight when things go wrong.

On August 20, Walmart attracted a flurry of media attention when it took Tesla to court over work performed by Tesla’s SolarCity arm on a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) contract involving approximately 244 Walmart stores.

According to a timeline published by Reuters, the contract covered work performed between 2010 and 2016.

Between 2017 and 2018, solar panels installed under the terms of that contract caught fire at seven Walmart stores. Joint inspections by the company and Tesla at other stores revealed potential fire hazards, including solar panel “hotspots,” at other locations.

By the spring of 2018, Tesla disconnected all of the rooftop solar systems — a prudent decision, considering the results of the inspections. In the court filing, Walmart states that Tesla ultimately provided it with 29 inspection reports covering 157 items requiring action.

Of the actionable items, 48 included issues with wiring, grounding and broken solar panels with hotspots, as reported by media outlets including Reuters.

In another twist involving new technology, Walmart attributes part of the installation shortcomings with Tesla's reliance on drones. According to Walmart, the drone inspections “lacked sufficient resolution to find panel ‘hotspots.’”

Walmart wants its day in court

There have been some additional twists and turns in the case, but the upshot is that Walmart was not satisfied with Tesla’s plans to remediate the situation.

That brings the state of affairs up to August 20, when Walmart filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court, accusing Tesla of a “cavalier” response to the fire hazards and charging that the company is “incapable of providing maintenance and inspection services sufficient to ensure the safety of Walmart’s customers, employees and property.”

CNBC has additional details related to alleged flaws in SolarCity’s business model, inherited by Tesla, that may have contributed to the installation problems. An August 21 column in the Los Angeles Times also calls attention to the ripple effect of the SolarCity acquisition on Tesla’s brand reputation.

Working out the rooftop solar panel problems

Apparently, the legal activity caught the attention of decision-makers at Tesla. As of this writing, the two companies have publicly pledged to work on the solar panel problems together, with the goal of reconnecting all of Walmart’s solar arrays after “all parties are certain that all concerns have been addressed.”

The statement also reaffirms a broader goal that the two companies have in common, concluding that “we look forward to pursuing our mutual goal of a sustainable energy future.”

Meanwhile, though, Walmart’s lawsuit is still on file and new troubles may be on the horizon. Last week, Amazon, another leading solar adopter, said that one of its SolarCity rooftop arrays caught fire last year.

Lessons learned: more data on rooftop solar panels needed

One good thing to emerge from this public fight is the need to collect national data on fires involving rooftop solar panels.

Though other countries like Germany keep close tabs on solar panel risks and hazards, here in the U.S. fires involving rooftop solar panels may be counted in other categories, including electrical systems and appliances.

Meanwhile, the fight between Walmart and Tesla is unlikely to stall the demand for rooftop solar across the U.S.

Despite a lack of action on the part of federal lawmakers, strong state-level renewable energy policies, corporate demand, and new cost-cutting tools will continue to propel the U.S. solar market while the two corporate behemoths settle their differences.

Image credit: Walmart/Flickr

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Why Water Could Cancel Your Burger Order Before Climate Change Does

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The latest IPCC report says one of the ways humans can help slow the march of climate change is by changing the way we eat, notably by reducing our consumption of meat. Beef production, in particular, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, globally, livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and of that, 65 percent come from beef production. The United States comes in fourth in beef consumption worldwide, so there is plenty of room for reduction. 

From an emissions standpoint, reducing beef consumption makes a lot of sense. But what does that mean for the ranchers producing that beef and the workers who process it? While ranchers in some countries responded to the findings with evidence of how they are addressing emissions, Texas ranchers have sung a different tune, pushing back on the findings. That matters because the U.S. is the largest beef producer in the world, and Texas has more cattle than any other state; 13 percent of American cattle live there. This also matters because, as a state, Texas has its head in the sand about climate change, even though its effects are already apparent. One major effect of climate change in Texas: Increasing water stress.

The challenge: Scoring ranchers' buy-in on climate change

Beef is a very water-intensive industry. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to product one pound of beef. Texas has always been a boom-and-bust state when it comes to water, but the last 10 years have been particularly tough. The multi-year drought that lasted from 2010 to 2015 was the second worst in state history, nipping at the heels of the drought of record in the 1950s. The drought was broken by three years of catastrophic flooding, culminating in the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Within a few months after the hurricane, the state was facing drought again. The cycles are getting shorter and more intense. The Lone Star State is yet again in the midst of drought, with some of the most intense spots in the prominent cattle ranching areas of west and north Texas.

2011 was the hottest, driest year of that multi-year drought, and it forced many multi-generational cattle ranchers to sell their cattle. The state saw major economic losses, including the closure of major processing plants by companies like Cargill, one of the top companies in the industry. It took an emotional toll as well as an economic one. And in 2018, ranchers were back in a similar spot, facing losses as the water ran dry.

The clock is ticking as the beef industry has little time to adapt

Ranchers have to rely on nature for their livelihood, and they have seen the changes in the climate. Coming to terms with what that means if the new normal is severely reduced water and food stocks could be a bitter pill to swallow. With external pressure to reduce meat consumption coupled with internal pressure of the rising costs, both economic and environmental, of raising cattle, the industry could reach a breaking point before much longer.

Some ranchers see an opportunity to be more innovative in exploring new water technologies, while some may opt to leave the business altogether if they continue to suffer losses year after year. It’s hard to imagine Texans, much less most Americans, giving up their brisket or burgers any time soon, but if the rains don’t come, hard decisions will have to be made by consumers and producers alike. The iconic Texas Longhorn may become a nostalgic symbol of the way life and the meat industry both used to be.

Image credit: Donald Giannatti/Unsplash

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