Wayfair Reminds Us Corporate Responsibility Doesn’t Always Come from the Top

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The controversy surrounding the e-commerce company Wayfair this week should remind us why thoughtful listening to employees absolutely matters.

During a business simulation – as part of a larger business program – we were faced with a situation where we, the management team, received something poorly written, slipped under the door that was ostensibly a note from one of our “workers” advising us that there was an issue on the production line. The test was to see if we would listen or ignore the input.

While I am pleased to say our team did respond – and averted a pitfall – there was a larger lesson there; to listen to one’s employees. Indeed, when it comes to corporate responsibility, often the line-level employees have a greater insight into the thoughts and opinions in the community and see for themselves that which may not be visible from a corporate (much less a corner) office.

In a real-world example, a company was putting together its lavish annual holiday party. They approached a well-known, well-respected, well-liked administrative assistant and asked her to be on the team planning the party. Company executives considered this project to be a great opportunity to demonstrate project management skills and be highly visible to the senior executives. Instead, her manager was shocked when she declined the assignment based on the principle that the company should instead be giving the large sum of money in question to help the less fortunate in the community at that time of year.

The moral point was heard, however, and the party was indeed scaled back with the balance of the budget donated to local organizations.

The two examples demonstrate that leadership does not have to come from the top down.

Less than 24 hours ago, I posted that simple thought connected to the walkout planned by a number of employees at Wayfair, in protest of the company’s perfectly legal contract providing products to facilities being used to detain children at the southern U.S. border. That post received a great deal of views and more comments than I expected. Some were responding to the political situation, but many weighed in on whether or not it is appropriate for employees to act in this manner. Some said yes; others encouraged the employer to fire them.

In the end, however, what I was pointing out was the trend in corporate responsibility that has led to changing societal (if not legal) expectations. Today many workers - especially those who are younger – are favoring workplaces that match their personal values. Not being content to earn by day and do good afterwards, they want purpose with their paychecks.

But now this trend has given rise to this new form of employee activism; not for higher wages, or better working conditions for themselves but rather to encourage - or demand - that their employer not profit off of things that they, the employees, do not find appropriate.

Companies that fall back on quoting Milton Friedman’s famous maxim that businesses have a responsibility only maximize profits as long as it “engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” would do well to read further in the same essay where he also stated:

“That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to their basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.”

It is that last part that people miss and, as times change, so do the expectations in society and what is considered “ethical custom.”

Image credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

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Highlights Magazine Talks Common Sense on Immigrant Rights

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As public awareness grows over the conditions migrant children in U.S. custody are enduring, leading companies have largely refrained from public comment. One notable exception is the publisher Highlights for Children, Inc. A look at the company’s response indicates how corporate citizens can take a strong stand on a matter of broad social concern without running into partisan politics.

Highlights speaks up for migrant children

Highlights posted a sharp, clearly worded statement about the border crisis on Twitter on Tuesday, using the hashtag #KeepFamiliesTogether (and this announcement, as of press time, has been trending on Twitter).

The statement, signed by Highlights CEO Kent Johnson, does not call out the Donald Trump administration by name over the president’s immigration policy.

Instead, Highlights focuses on the contrast between its mission and the conditions recently reported by visitors to one of the detention facilities.

Highlights begins by affirming that it is “a company that helps children become their best selves.” Notably, that includes encouraging children to “understand the importance of having moral courage.”

Highlights goes on to provide a common sense definition for moral courage:

“Moral courage means standing up for what we believe is right, honest, and ethical — even when it is hard.”

That sets Highlights up with a politically neutral platform. From there, denouncing the practice of separating immigrant children from their families is a simple matter of moral reasoning.

“This is not a political statement about immigration policy,” Highlights asserts. “This is a statement about human decency, plain and simple.”

Just as importantly, Highlights urges others to join the public conversation:

“We invite you — regardless of your political leanings — to join us in speaking out against family separation and to call for more humane treatment of immigrant children currently being held in detention facilities.”

Brand reputation and the border crisis

It remains to be seen if Highlights can succeed in avoiding a partisan backlash. At the very least, though, the company has accomplished one important goal. By using its voice to join the public conversation over a matter of broad public concern, the company has affirmed its corporate mission and preserved its brand reputation.

Taking a clear stand on the treatment of immigrants becomes all the more important as others begin to stake out the moral high ground.

One standout example is the online fabric arts company Ravelry. Last week, Ravelry banned users from expressing support for President Trump on their site, stating that “support for President Trump is undeniably support for white supremacy."

In another significant development this week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers are reportedly taking legal action against the Trump administration’s policy of forcing migrants to wait for their U.S. asylum hearings in Mexico.

Arguing in court that the policy puts lives at risk, the officers assert that the policy is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.”

When brands don’t take stands

In this context, the Highlights strategy presents a stark contrast to the situation of the furnishing company Wayfair.

Wayfair employees took action last week when they became aware that their company was selling hundreds of mattresses and bunk beds destined for a children’s detention facility. Last Friday, more than 500 employees signed an open letter criticizing the company’s decision to enable, support, or profit from the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

This week they followed up with a walkout demonstration at the company’s headquarters in Boston, placing Wayfair squarely in the spotlight of unfavorable media attention.

Complicity in children’s detention is clearly inconsistent with Wayfair’s mission statement on charitable giving, which reads, “we believe that a secure home is not only a basic human need but also the foundation for well-being.” 

Neverthless, so far the company has refrained from criticizing the immigration policy. Instead, it asserted a bottom-line responsibility to do business with all legitimate customers, regardless of their activities or opinions.

Far from smoothing the waters, Wayfair’s response only served to keep the issue alive, and the employee group intends to keep the conversation going.

Finding the ethical center

Other high-profile companies, like Google and Amazon, are also facing employee protests over a failure to match their corporate responsibility words with actions.

They would do well to borrow a page from the Highlights book and take a close look at trends in public opinion.

In fact, they could start with Highlights. The company regularly surveys children about their concerns. Last fall it issued its 10th annual “State of the Kid” survey.

Overall, the survey indicates that “kids have a lot on their minds and they aren’t afraid to speak up.”

Highlights sums it up:

“The results, garnered on the heels of a number of significant events that saw kids standing up and speaking out like never before, are reflective of their demands for change, which made 2018 a critically important year for listening to children.”

As the immigration issue continues to dominate the public conversation, Wayfair and companies like it would be well served to listen to their employees, too.

Image credits: Highlights/Facebook

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50 Years After Stonewall, Pride Month Is Becoming Every Month

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Tomorrow marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village triggered a watershed moment for the gay liberation movement. The days-long backlash against ongoing police harassment is also the foundation of Pride Month, a time still important to our community to show and celebrate how far we’ve come. This time of year reminds me of a conversation I often have with my uncle: He’ll recite how great things were in the early post-war years, and I’ll just retort, “Yeah. For those who looked, lived and acted like you.”

To paraphrase a campaign from earlier this decade, it’s getting better.

No one would have imagined how life for the LGBTQ community has, for the most part, changed for the better a half-century later. Actually, what we’re witnessing now would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Not only is an out and gay man running for U.S. president, but he’s polling in the top-tier of two dozen candidates; senior leaders at more companies, including the CEO of Apple, are openly gay; corporate logos all over social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter are sporting rainbow colors; and companies are stepping over themselves showing they are in lockstep with Pride Month.

Yes, much of the Pride Month brouhaha goes too far, and it’s understandable why plenty of folks within the LGBTQ community view corporate involvement with a wary eye. Pride Listerine at the very least elicits an eye-roll, and Pride Doc Martens are about as bananas as it gets. But our community has come a long way since the only companies that would dole out advertising spend showcasing LGBTQ individuals were beer brands—and they often limited such marketing campaigns to the gay and lesbian press.

At one level, there’s been improvement: Go to a Pride parade, and you’ll see a carpet of T-shirts sporting corporate logos. Companies that admitted they weren’t always welcoming to LGBTQ employees are now insisting that their corporate cultures have changed, and now the fact a rainbow flag has been raised over a corporate headquarters merits a press release.

Improvement hardly means that the work is done, however. The news site LGBTQ Nation makes the point that many companies celebrating Pride are at the same time donating to politicians hostile to our community—and the list includes some of the most recognizable initials in the business world, including AT&T, UPS, GE and UBS. Many of these companies score perfectly on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index; but as writer Matt Keeley explains, it’s hard to say you’re embracing the LGBTQ community when you’re also donating to political leaders like Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who at one time claimed the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard was a “hoax.”

Finally, when we talk about LGBTQ inclusion, too many people are still left in the shadows. The community itself has its shortcomings, as Sarah Kim in Forbes insists that Pride Month isn’t always welcoming to those with disabilities. Too many LGBTQ citizens find they can marry legally thanks to the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision yet are afraid of being ostracized at work or even fired for not being straight. Discrimination against transgender workers is still occurring and falls under the radar too often. And queer people of color who feel Pride Month is just far too white, save some token representation in advertisements or on a stage, have a point.

When it comes to equality, for the most part, the business community is ahead of government; the challenge companies now face is to ensure such efforts are authentic, understanding, proactive, and not just about a brand’s reputation and marketing. Otherwise, Pride Month in the business world will devolve into the Earth Day of social justice—lots of hype, endless promotion, but then everything is forgotten the day after it’s over. It shouldn’t be that way.

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With the Mediterranean Diet, Israel Wants To Set the Standard for Global Health

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Image: Representatives of food companies, Israel's Ministry of Health, academia, and physicians discuss food and health issues at the annual international conference held by Maala.

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

Israel, with its long tradition of embracing the Mediterranean diet, has its sights set on being a model of health and nutrition for the rest of the world. The Ministry of Health in Israel is actively promoting the Mediterranean diet, calling on food manufacturers to follow suit and help consumers achieve a healthier lifestyle.

The country is already off to a good start. Dinner tables featuring hummus, tomato-cucumber salad and extra-virgin olive oil—all staples of the Mediterranean diet—no doubt helped propel Israel to the top spot on a recent ranking of countries with the lowest rate of diet-related deaths worldwide. 

While Israelis don’t have perfect diets—processed, fried and sugary foods are consumed widely there, too—the Ministry of Health is determined to improve the health of its citizens even further by making the Mediterranean diet part of its new nutritional guidelines. 

Still, convincing people to change their habits won’t be easy—and the food industry must step up to play a role. At the annual international conference held by Maala—Israel’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards-setting organization—representatives of food companies, the Ministry of Health, academia and physicians sat together to discuss solutions. These key stakeholders are still actively involved in charting the way forward to better health in Israel—and setting an example for the rest of the world.

Mediterranean diet—and sustainability—drive updated nutrition guidelines

“For the first time, we are looking at the whole picture of a healthy diet—the whole food, the whole meal, how it got on the plate, and how it is being consumed,” said Carmit Safra, a nutritionist with the Israeli Ministry of Health, told TriplePundit. “Now, the sustainability of food consumption is an integral part of our nutritional guidelines.”

The new guidelines reflect the health, economic, social and environmental aspects of food, Safra explained. The Mediterranean diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil, and low in red meat, sugar and processed foods—reflects each of these components, she told us. 

Labels encourage healthier choices

The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest and most well-studied diets in the world. Studies have shown it can prevent cardiovascular disease, improve memory and cognition in older adults, ward off specific types of cancer and protect against type 2 diabetes.

With all of that going for it, the Israeli government wants to ensure that the diet is the primary one for its citizens. To that end, it is shining a light on the danger of processed foods—especially so-called “ultra-processed foods,” which are made with limited unprocessed ingredients and consist mainly of sugars, oils, fat, salt and additives.

Recognizing that what people see at the store can influence their purchasing decisions, the Ministry is looking to design the grocery experience “in a way that will help people make the healthy choice,” Safra said. Starting in 2020, the government will require food products to bear a red label if they are too high in sodium, saturated fat or sugar, while healthier foods will be stamped with a green label.

Calling for food industry innovation

The coming regulations “already have manufacturers reformulating products with less sodium and sugar, because they don’t want a red label,” Safra said—and this is exactly the kind of response the Ministry hoped to see. “We see it as our role to help guide the market in the right direction,” she told us. “The industry can’t ignore this.” Furthermore, consumers are increasingly demanding this change from food companies, she added. 

Tivall brand responds to consumer preferences

Osem, a major Israeli food manufacturer that Nestlé acquired three years ago, is one company responding to these trends. Osem’s Tivall brand focuses on prepared, plant-based food products that are “nutritious, made from high-quality raw materials and with no preservatives due to our fast-freeze technology,” said Adi Kabir Kohali, CEO of Tivall. 

Founded in 1985 on a kibbutz, Tivall launched with a focus to offer meat alternatives that would appeal to vegetarians and omnivores alike. As in many other countries, the vegetarian and vegan population has grown in Israel. And at nearly 4 percent, Israel now has the highest per-capita vegan population in the world (8 percent vegetarian), the Times of Israel reports.   

“When Tivall started, the vegetarian population wasn’t as large as it is now,” Kohali recalled. Even with plant-based food products on the rise, Tivall estimates that sales to vegans and vegetarians represent only around 30 percent of its overall revenue. “We have a wide range of products which are not meat analog but vegetable-based, such as falafel, corn schnitzel and patties,” Kohali explained. “The Mediterranean diet offers a wide variety of vegetable-based products, and this is part of the Israeli diet.”

Many of Tivall’s products are fortified with protein, iron and B12, “in order to support our consumers that want to decrease their meat consumption but still want to keep a balanced diet,” Kohali told us. 

Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Tivall. In the early 2000s, the company received criticism for a lack of nutritional value in its products— which at the time were made mostly from soy—leading to a decline in public trust. 

“In the last few years, many changes have been made in the products to support consumer needs” and align with Nestle’s standards for health and nutrition, Kohali said. “This also impacted the trust level. Consumers see the ‘new Tivall’ as healthier and tastier.”

Healthier food is here to stay

Companies across Israel’s food sector are embracing this type of change. And industry sees the pull toward healthier food as a long-term shift, rather than a passing trend, said Galia Sagy, executive director of the Food Industries Union at the Manufacturers Association of Israel.

“Food manufactures in Israel are working to reduce sugar and sodium levels, as well as improving the fats that are used in food production,” Sagy told TriplePundit. “Food companies have and still are investing vast amounts of time and money in both improving existing products and developing new, innovative and healthy food products.”

The focus on health “brings many opportunities for innovation,” she said. For example, through the Food Industries Union, several Israeli companies recently committed to advertise food more responsibly to children. Namely, these food companies have pledged not to target children under 12 when advertising products marked with the

Ministry of Health’s red label. The Israeli Marketing Association and the country’s Chamber of Commerce have since signed on to the commitment, Sagy told us, indicating it may soon be the standard nationwide. 

Stakeholder engagement is essential

Still, it remains challenging to get industry and academia to collaborate effectively around health and nutrition, Sagy noted. “Cross-sectoral collaboration is essential in promoting a healthier lifestyle, including government, civil society, food industry, academia, regulators [and] startup companies,” she said. “The issue of food and health is of national interest and requires a nationwide movement.”

Image credit: Netanel Tobias

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Tech Companies Lead the Way in Hiring People with Autism: What Can We Learn From Them?

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

An estimated 500,000 teens on the autism spectrum will age out of school-based services and enter the U.S. job market over the next decade, reports the nonprofit Autism Speaks. But another study—conducted by Identifor, a game-based career assessment tool designed to help people with autism uncover their underlying strengths—found that 84 percent to 93 percent of this group will be either unemployed or underemployed.

Meanwhile, a number of industries are having trouble filling vacant positions due to a lack of skilled workers. For example, KPMG recently surveyed more than 3,000 technology leaders, and 65 percent of them said that hiring challenges are hurting the tech sector.

As such, more companies are beginning to pay attention to neurodiversity and the benefits of creating inclusive cultures that support everyone. For those unfamiliar with the term, neurodiversity refers to recognizing neurological differences such as autism, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia in the same way we recognize other differences like race, gender or sexual orientation.

A history of neurodiversity in tech

As we’ve covered before in this series, matching untapped labor pools—such as people with neurological differences—with existing talent gaps presents a promising opportunity. Embracing neurodiversity could be especially lucrative in industries like tech, as many people with neurological differences such as autism possess special skills including pattern recognition, memory and mathematics.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that tech companies like SAP and DXC Technology are leading the way when it comes to hiring neurodiverse talent. And their case studies offer insight for companies looking to do the same.

SAP’s Autism at Work program launched in 2013. When the company started intentionally recruiting people on the spectrum, it quickly discovered talent that was previously overlooked.

“SAP quickly came across many candidates who held advanced degrees and even patents, but [had] little to no job history,” Tatiana Arthur, a human capital management solutions consultant with SAP SuccessFactors, wrote on the company’s blog. “Our experience confirmed research showing that talent is often missed because of over-reliance on the interview process or lack of flexibility by the companies.”

DXC Technology—which started its own neurodiversity initiative, the Dandelion Program, in 2014—further confirmed SAP's findings. In response, the company partnered with La Trobe University to develop better screening processes for incoming employees on the autism spectrum, which it applied to face-to-face interviews.

The efforts paid off, as one Dandelion Program participant detailed in a recent report: “The interview for the program was an observation and analysis of our capabilities in problem-solving while we worked on a robotics project, and I was able to demonstrate my thoroughness and thinking through action rather than only words.”

Through its journey, DXC realized that programs like Dandelion are not just about providing jobs—they’re about giving individuals the tools, skills and work experience necessary to build a career. As Michael Fieldhouse, DXC Dandelion Program executive, told TriplePundit earlier in this series: “We wanted to create a program that allowed neurodiverse people to have careers, not just a job.” That means creating space for people to develop themselves, he said, “and the organization has to be prepared and willing to support that development.”

The benefits of neurodiversity—in the tech sector and beyond

Innovation in the workplace: Companies must innovate and adapt in order to survive. To do that, they need diverse voices at the table—and that certainly includes neurodiverse people. When it comes to neurodiversity hiring, "The big incentive that we have seen is that a lot of the time, these individuals think very differently,” said Dr. Lawrence Fung, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project. “In this way, they really increase the level of innovation in companies.”

Utilizing the entire workforce: Not only is creating space for neurodiverse talent good for business, but it’s also good for the economy. Dr. Fung, who also founded the Special Interest Group for Neurodiversity at Stanford, reminds us that it's important to consider how much autism is costing society overall while also considering the benefits companies can gain from hiring people on the spectrum.

"By equipping people with autism and other neurodiverse capabilities with the resources and opportunities to support themselves and their families through meaningful work, the business community could help to reduce the amount that we as a country are spending, while also increasing the productivity of society,” Dr. Fung explained.

Providing for meaningful work: Hiring neurodiverse talent creates an opportunity for meaningful employment for a segment of our population that is too often forgotten. Steve Keisman, senior vice president at Identifor, believes that a purpose-filled life is key for those with different abilities. "I work with many families” who care for children with different abilities, Keisman told us. When he asks what they need, “meaningful employment is always top of the list,” he explained.

Practical ways to embrace neurodiversity in your organization

If you're interested in bringing the neurodiversity conversation to your company, case studies from early adopters like DXC and SAP can help chart the way forward.

First and most importantly, you must create a support system for those with different abilities. “What we’ve learned in our work with DXC and others who are employing people with autism is that success is about the environment and the person’s fit, making sure the person with autism is supported in the workplace, so that any issues that come up can be addressed quickly and on the spot,” Cheryl Dissanayake, founding director of La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, told us earlier in our series. Both DXC and SAP involve employee volunteers from multiple departments in their neurodiversity programs, fostering understanding and relationships among teams of all backgrounds.

Next, redesign your human resources process so that your recruiters know how to work with candidates with different abilities. “One of our big challenges was getting HR engaged,” said Fieldhouse of DXC. Along with changing up the interview process, the company also did away with job descriptions for open positions, replacing them with “narratives which are stories about the job function,” Fieldhouse said.

Redesigning HR processes to be more inclusive—while training HR professionals on how to recruit and interview neurodiverse candidates—opens the door for talent you may have otherwise missed.

Lastly, it's important to collaborate. Both DXC and SAP engage academic partners in their neurodiversity programs, creating space for knowledge-sharing between universities and the private sector. And Dr. Fung and his colleagues make it a point to invite other organizations who are working on similar programs to their meetings. By sharing resources and identifying synergy, we can truly move the conversation forward. With that in mind, click here to read the rest of our series and glean insights from other experts in this space.

Image credit: Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash

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Wayfair Employees' Protest Over Treatment of Migrant Children Picks Up Where Tech Workers Left Off

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During the Donald Trump administration, tech companies and their employees have been quick to protest the president’s policies on immigration. So far, those outcries have resulted in little concrete action. Now, employees at the Boston-based furnishing company Wayfair have brought renewed attention to the issue of migrant rights, especially when it comes to children.

Corporate leadership can be helpful, but not all corporations are helping

Corporate leaders have been changing the conversation on key issues of broad social concern, like immigrant rights, gun control and the climate crisis. They are both responding to and shaping the public consensus. That includes addressing the concerns of their own employees.

In some cases, employee concerns play a direct role in shaping corporate policy.

Levi Strauss & Co, for example, stepped up its long running support for common sense gun safety after a customer accidentally shot himself in a store. The incident prompted a firm response from CEO Chip Bergh, who cited concerns for employee safety along with the security of all customers.

Accenture provides another type of example. While respectful of host countries in its global operations, Accenture backs up its diversity policy with support for LGBTQ employees who are visible and active in their communities.   

Some companies are harder to convince than others. For example, Amazon employees are demanding that their employer act more aggressively on climate change, with limited success. Employees at Google are also protesting their company on several issues, including censorship and sexual harassment, though they don’t seem to have gained much traction so far.

Wayfair employees pick up where tech workers left off

One of the first examples of employee activism in the tech sector occurred in the runup to the 2016 presidential election, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to respond to employee concerns over board of directors member Peter Thiel’s position on immigration and his support for the Trump campaign.

So far, those concerns have not resulted in any material response from the company, and Thiel is still on the Facebook board.

However, this week’s action by Wayfair’s employees may embolden Facebook and other tech workers to take a stronger stand.

On Tuesday, CNBC reported that Wayfair employees were organizing a walkout protest at the company’s headquarters in Boston, aimed at drawing attention to the treatment of migrant children at border facilities and elsewhere. They have also taken their cause to social media with the Twitter account @WayfairWalkout.

An open letter circulating among employees at the company had already gathered more than 500 signatures as of Tuesday, CNBC reported. The letter places responsibility for the “detention and mistreatment of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in our country” squarely on the shoulders of contractors as well as the U.S. government.

As stated in the letter, the purpose of the walkout is to help ensure that “Wayfair has no part in enabling, supporting, or profiting from this practice.”

Words matter: Holding companies to account for the treatment of migrant children

Plans for the walkout were set in motion after reports surfaced that Wayfair had sold hundreds of mattresses and bunk beds for use at a “detention camp” holding migrant children in Texas.

As CNBC and other media outlets reported, Wayfair responded by asserting its responsibility to employees, investors and customers by filling all orders, regardless of the “opinions or actions of the groups or individuals who purchase from us.”

That position undercuts the company’s own statements relating to the welfare of children.

Wayfair's public statement on charitable giving reads, “We believe that a secure home is not only a basic human need but also the foundation for well-being.” Wayfair also emphasizes that “our mission is to make home a reality for more of the many people in need of safe shelter and basic household items that help make a home.”

Taking a stronger stand on customer relations would be a risky move for companies like Wayfair, but as the immigration crisis continues to unfold, companies are beginning to take that risk.

For inspiration, Wayfair can look to Ravelry, another Boston-based company that has taken a strong stand on migrant rights and human dignity.

Image credits: Wayfair; RAICES/Facebook

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Scaling Up the Upcycled Food Movement

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We are all aware of our national and global food waste epidemic. Within the United States alone, according to ReFED, Americans waste 63 million tons of food, which costs consumers, farmers and manufacturers $218 billion, or 1.5 percent of the total GDP. Meanwhile, as many as 1 in 7 Americans is vulnerable to food insecurity. Amidst this bleak reality, an entrepreneurial movement is afoot to reduce food waste and its greenhouse gas emissions from the production and disposal of food. 

Diverting food waste through selling upcycled food products

These entrepreneurs are creating and selling food products, described as upcycled food, which are made from edible byproducts, unwanted food scraps or tarnished vegetables. Not only are these products loaded with taste and nutrition, but they can also remove a chunk out of the total amount of food headed to the landfill. These products also create new revenue streams for farmers, suppliers and restaurants, while creating unique stories that can help differentiate their products in order to appeal to consumers.

A 2017 Drexel Lab food study shows that consumers favor the modifier “upcycled” to the point at which their willingness to pay increases when they see 'upcycled' on a product’s packaging. Why? Consumers view products labeled as upcycled as more likely to provide more value related to health benefits than both organic and conventional products. 

Smart logistics is essential when scaling an upcycled food company

To divert what could be as much as 1.3 billion tons of food waste globally per year, the upcycled entrepreneurial movement needs to scale up and do so quickly.

Companies such as Toast Ale—a United Kingdom-born brewer that creates beer out of day-old bread—and The Real Dill—a Colorado company that says its most popular product is made from its reused cucumber solution—acknowledge the challenges involved in scaling up any upcycled food product. The challenges include smart reverse logistics as well as having willing suppliers and partners with an understanding of the long-term financial and environmental benefits.

Right now, Toast Ale is working to strengthen the reliability and consistency of its operations in the U.S. There are many players in Toast’s U.S. supply chain, which at times can lead to quality control issues, such as missed deliveries due to the flux of retailers’ delivery schedules. There is also the chance that unwanted loaves of bread don't meet Toast Ale's sourcing criteria, which detail that the bread Toast Ale receives should be sliced and surplus.

Collaboration is key to scaling up the upcycled food movement

However, the complexity of scaling Toast’s supply chain offers an opportunity to persuade more bread producers to rethink their linear supply chains. Errors in logistics have led to conversations with bakeries that weren’t sure how to waste less and soon become the most eager of Toast’s suppliers.

“Scaling the upcycled [food] movement is collaborative,” Janet Viader, head of sales and operations for Toast Ale, told TriplePundit. “There are constant discussions about whether pick-up [of the toast heels] is our labor or their labor. It is still a work in process to find the systems.”   

Collaboration is also a key ingredient in the success of The Real Dill’s Bloody Mary Mix. After the founders’ experiment of upcycling the cucumber solution from their pickling process proved successful, The Real Dill developed relationships with various businesses in order to grow a product that furthers its zero-waste mission. 

“If a company’s interested in eliminating food waste, look outside your door to find that one person or organization that is already doing this,” suggested Lindsey Hornstein, The Real Dill’s marketing manager.

What other steps are needed to scale the upcycled food movement? 

The Real Dill and Toast Ale are not the only companies tackling food waste through upcycling food for profit. Barnana, a company that creates banana chips out of fruit deemed unfit for the grocery shelves; Renewal Mill, which makes a high-protein flour out of tofu byproducts; and Coffee Cherry Company, another flour company that makes its products out of discarded coffee fruit, are only a few examples of companies that grasp business opportunities from the abundance of wasted food. And baby carrots? They are often chopped up from carrots that consumers would not buy—and could otherwise end up in landfills.

More tactics such as creating an upcycled food coalition and expanding the resources available to willing entrepreneurs to address supply chain challenges can also help grow the upcycled food movement. What other steps can companies take to bring the upcycled food movement to scale?

Image credit: Toast Ale/Facebook

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Water Storage Investments Crucial to Confront Water Scarcity

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If governments and the private sector are going to work together in order to hedge their bets against future droughts, water storage is one place to start.

Water scarcity is one of this century’s greatest challenges as it determines whether the world can adapt to both climate change and a rising population. One region that stands out is one of the more vital breadbaskets in the U.S. Long, drawn-out periods of drought have long affected the San Joaquin Valley and its economic capital, Fresno. Struggles with drought are among the challenges this city of half a million has been facing.

Not that any sort of adversity is new to Fresno. The state’s fifth-largest city, also the 33rd largest in the U.S., hasn’t commanded much respect over the years. The city has long been endlessly mocked, including with a 1980s CBS miniseries starring Carol Burnett that poked fun at the raisin capital of the world. Rampant development, which can be seen in the strip malls and McMansion developments that have expanded the city’s reach at the expense of its historic downtown core, doesn’t do much to boost the city’s image.

Plus, with all that development, one would never guess that the city only receives a tad more than a foot of rainfall annually—homes, office complexes and shopping centers are green only because reminders of water conservation are generally given lip service here. To the visitor, sidewalk watering comes across as a favorite pastime.

But there are some things Fresno is getting right as the region grapples with water scarcity—including water storage. Drive around the city, and you’ll swing by what look like fenced-off ponds. Comprising a groundwater recharge program that has been around since the 1970s, these basins have been successful at trapping winter rains and allowing them to seep back into groundwater supplies. Only one of these recharge stations, located near the city’s airport, operates year-round; the rest are on lands leased by the local irrigation district to capture rainwater. When considering this year’s generous amount of rainfall, these recharge stations are also crucial to prevent flooding, as the city’s soil, which alternates between sandy loam and hardpan, can often transform the city’s streets into Venice-like canals after what seems like a trickle of rain.

There’s another reason why water storage is critical in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley—or anywhere, for that matter: The valley is sinking. Countless years of drought also pushed farmers to invest in the harvesting of groundwater. If you were smart enough to launch a well-drilling business this century, most likely you’ve done quite well financially. But as a result, the region’s aquifers are becoming depleted, causing many areas to sink a few inches a year—or, in some areas, as much as two inches a month. If these aquifers collapse, say goodbye to the region’s crops that are coveted worldwide—including stone fruit, pistachios, pomegranates and almonds (shown above, blossoming during spring).

These water storage facilities stand out for another reason: Studies, including this one from Stanford University, have suggested that they are often cheaper to build and maintain than reservoirs and, of course, desalination plants. Another study by University of Texas researchers concluded over 60 percent of water resulting from river flooding in the Lone Star state could have been stored—which not only would have reduced damage from disasters like Hurricane Harvey but would have been on hand when Texas suffers another drought.

With all the talk over infrastructure investment in the U.S., one type of private sector-government cooperation needed is more investment in water storage. As proven across Fresno, these water storage sites are cost-effective, can become a seamless part of a city’s landscape—and even open up recreational opportunities. In the case of this one Fresno city park, private donations allowed this water storage facility to serve as a park – offering a template of how engineering and construction companies can work with government in order to boost their community engagement chops.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

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If governments and the private sector are going to work together in order to hedge their bets against future droughts, water storage is one place to start
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Could Libra Become a Chaotic Good in Financial Services?

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Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian aid nonprofit, recently announced its partnership with various organizations on the development of the digital currency Libra.

Libra has generated countless headlines since June 19, when Facebook formally announced its plans for an early 2020 launch of this cryptocurrency. One doesn’t need too scrutinizing of an eye to see the motives behind Libra. On one hand, backers of this currency say Libra could help boost financial inclusion worldwide. On the other, if Libra succeeds, transactions occurring across Facebook’s various platforms—Whatsapp, Instagram and Messenger—could cement the company’s presence in billions of people’s daily lives. We’ll delve into the potential effects of Libra on some of the poorest people in the world and discuss whether or not this currency could work.

A step forward for financial inclusion

Mercy Corps has a compelling track record with its worldwide humanitarian aid projects, and has partnered with leading companies including Cisco. The NGO has a long history of leveraging its expertise on the challenges faced by the world’s poorest communities, so working on the development of Libra appears to be a natural fit for this Portland, Oregon-based organization.

Citizens long overlooked by financial firms could have the opportunity to become more integrated in the global economy if Libra can succeed on the financial inclusion front. To that end, Mercy Corps has identified five areas in which Libra would redefine the global economy.

Low volatility: People susceptible to periods of high deflation or inflation in their home country’s currency could have the option of resorting to Libra as a more stable currency. Libra is currently backed by assets from partners within the Libra Association, including Uber, Lyft, Spotify and Mastercard. The currency’s value will be pegged to the value of these assets—of course, one risk is that some of these companies, including Lyft and Uber, have yet to make a profit. Assuming this structure will yield a more stable cryptocurrency than other digital currencies, Libra has an opportunity to be the default currency for people living in economies where the current currency of choice is vulnerable to devaluation or volatility.

Lower transaction costs: Today, money sent abroad is often subjected to fees up to 7 percent, or a total of $50 billion annually charged to citizens who send remittances. One vision for Libra is that it will be able to improve the finances of more citizens by lowering the costs to remit money and convert currencies. It’s tempting to liken Libra to Bitcoin, which has attracted attention for high transaction fees that compensate the parties that help facilitate transactions. Libra’s backers say that it can reduce such costs with its structure as a peer-to-peer platform, similar to PayPal and its suite of mobile payment services.  

User identification: In communities where birth certificates aren’t necessarily issued, citizens without traditional means of identifying themselves are frequently cut off from financial services. Libra’s blockchain structure provides a solution by identifying users based on their past transactions. All transactions will be recorded in the blockchain as a cryptically secured public ledger, which could then be used for identification and lending decisions at financial firms.

Open platform: Any developer can build on Libra by coding in the blockchain-friendly language “Move.”  Mercy Corps views this as an open opportunity for outside players to introduce new ways of extending financial inclusion.

Efficiency and transparency: If Libra can achieve its goals of becoming a global stable currency, this platform could transform how monetary aid is sent around the world. Mercy Corps sees the potential for efficient and transparent transactions, and more participation in the global financial system, through speedy blockchain technology. 

Libra: More than meets the eye?

Libra has the potential to address the shortfalls of traditional currencies and payment systems by expanding financial inclusion. There’s more to this picture, though. The biggest question floating around is one to do with regulation: Who will keep an eye on this global cryptocurrency, and how?

Two main concerns in regulation are competition and privacy. While new entrants typically increase competition, the same cannot be said for big tech companies entering financial services. Facebook and other global digital platforms can leverage their wide user base as customers for their products, establishing their presence as a formidable competitor.

As for privacy, one critical standpoint on Libra speculates on Facebook’s spotty reputation on protecting user data. The company says it plans to develop Calibra, a digital wallet designed to process Libra transactions through its own standalone app and Facebook’s other apps. Facebook claims that transaction data stored in Calibra will not be used for targeted advertising on its social platforms, but politicians in the U.S. and Europe have their doubts based on the company’s history. The big question is: Can we trust Facebook—or any company—to have a stake in the financial lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people?

Image credit: Niels Steeman/Unsplash

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Mercy Corps recently announced it's all in with the cryptocurrency Libra - can this digital currency help expand financial inclusion worldwide?
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Grocers Green Up Produce Aisles by Nixing Single-Use Plastic Bags

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With many grocery stores already leveraging the “low hanging fruit” by eliminating single-use plastic grocery bags, some are now moving further up the fruit (and vegetable) “tree” in their plastic reduction efforts.

This month, Aldi U.K. became the latest supermarket chain to announce that it will remove plastic packaging from its fresh vegetable lines in 230 stores in the North East and South East of England. This follows the success of a six-week trial in Scotland. If the expanded pilot proves successful, Aldi says it will roll out the plastic-free produce lines to all stores before the end of the year, which it predicts will avoid the use of more than 100 tons of plastic annually.

Other European retailers get on board

A study by Coleman Parkes Research of 7,000 shoppers across Europe found that that 92 percent would prefer to buy a plastic-free unit of their favorite product than one in plastic, with more than one-third having already begun boycotting certain brands over packaging sustainability concerns. This rises to more than one-half (56 percent) among millennials.

A similar survey of 5,000 consumers found that 80 percent of them would endorse a supermarket’s move to go plastic-free, while 91 percent would be more likely to encourage friends and family to shop there.

Retailers are taking note. The Dutch grocery chain Ahold Delhaize is piloting an initiative in Belgium to reduce “unnecessary” packaging on organic fruits and vegetables using a new process called "natural branding" that applies a label directly to the peel of fruits and vegetables using a laser.  The company says the process won’t affect the taste, smell or shelf life of the produce and will reduce waste by 13 tons per year.

Sainsbury’s -- the third largest chain of supermarkets in the United Kingdom – has committed to eliminate “problematic or unnecessary” single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models by 2025. It recently eliminated plastic bags holding cauliflowers, tomatoes and avocados, and has pledged to eliminate plastic bags from organic bananas and cabbage by the end of the year. Together, the store says, this will eliminate 181 tons of plastic waste.

The Welsh supermarket chain Iceland piloted a similar effort earlier this year in Liverpool where it gauged customer acceptance to purchase loose produce or produce in  plastic-free packaging alternatives, such as recyclable paper pulp boxes (or “punnets,” as they are known by U.K. shoppers) for soft fruits and cotton nets for onions.

To encourage shoppers to opt for loose produce, Iceland reduced the prices of all loose product lines verses their pre-packaged equivalents. If the pilot is successful, the company plans to roll out the program nationwide. No word yet on the results, but Iceland’s leadership is encouraging.

“The retail industry can no longer ignore the plastics tidal wave which is coming our way," Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker said in an interview with the U.K. sustainability news site Edie. “The onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change.”

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is also experimenting with loose fruit and vegetables completely free of plastic packaging and has removed “best before” date labels from fresh fruit and vegetables as part of the trial. M&S will track changes in the store’s plastic and food waste outputs and carry out consumer surveys to gauge public attitudes toward produce without plastic packaging or “best-before” dates. This data will help the company develop a new approach to waste, which, it says, will be implemented across its 1,000-plus stores. This, it says, could save 580 tons of plastic waste over two years.

“We know our customers want to play their part in cutting out plastic, while as a business our goal is to become zero-waste by 2025,” said Louise Nicholls, Head of Food Sustainability, for M&S.

It's bananas in South East Asia

Asian grocers are also nixing single-use plastic bags, using Mother Nature’s own packaging. Earlier this year, some supermarkets in Asia started using banana leaves instead of plastic to package produce. The practice started with Rimping Supermarket in Thailand and spread to Lotte Market, Saigon Co.Op. and Big C grocers in Vietnam.

“When I see vegetables wrapped in those beautiful banana leaves I’m willing to buy larger quantities,” said a Vietnamese customer named Hoa to the news site NextShark while shopping at Lotte Mart in Ho Chi Minh City. “I think this initiative will help locals be more aware of protecting the environment.”

It’s a smart move -- not only to respond to customer demand, but also because Thailand and Vietnam rank amongst the highest in the world for the amount of single-use plastic waste dumped into the ocean, according to Ocean Conservancy.

In the U.S., Trader Joe’s begins to step up

There are fewer examples of removing plastic packaging from the produce aisle in the United States, but hopefully this will change as more and more examples spring up across the globe.

One company that is taking positive steps is California-based Trader Joe’s. The company, which prides itself on its environmental sustainability in its 488 U.S. stores, says it has replaced plastic produce bags with biodegradable and compostable produce bags. And it has pledged to further reduce the number of items sold in plastic packages in its produce section, including apple, pear and potato bags.

One would expect (and hope) to see similar moves in other U.S. grocery chains, notably Whole Foods, Wegmans and Kroger, in the months ahead.

Image credit: William Felker/Unsplash

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