Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turning the Tide on Ocean Plastics: Role of the Circular Economy

Photo Source:
Like many, I read with dismay the recent reports from the western Caribbean that described the presence of a floating mass of discarded plastic waste - a new plastic island. While smaller than the gigantic Pacific Ocean "plastic islands" (the most recently discovered patch in the South Pacific is estimated to be on the scale of 1 Million square miles) this Caribbean trash heap threatened to inundate the shores of the Honduran island of Roatan, that measures 3 miles wide and 12 miles long. This mass of material, apparently washed out to sea by a Guatemalan river, contained an assortment of plastic items, from shoes and slippers to utensils and food containers, to even a television. This kind of contamination is not rare, as seen in the National Geographic video below.

These scenes came to mind in my recent travels elsewhere in the Caribbean. While attending an event in a rural village, I searched in vain for a place to recycle a plastic drink bottle and was told that there was no collection of recyclable materials in this community, and precious little even in the capital city. I stared at the pile of cases of beverages stocked up for the event and could only wonder how many would make their way to the ocean to join the "island" off Honduras, or another just like it. Plastic recycling has never met its global potential with only 9-14% of used plastics making its way back into the value stream. One recent challenge is that low oil prices push down the demand for recycled plastics, as it can be cheaper to produce new resins than to recycle waste material.

This man-made issue poses a threat to many forms of marine life and to our own health. While not biodegradable, many plastics weaken under prolonged exposure to sunlight and eventually break down into small particles called microplastics, which can enter the food stream. According to some estimates, the vast majority of seabirds have ingested microplastics and there is no telling how much contamination is in the seafood that makes its way to our plates (for more details, see Forbes article And the trajectory is not positive. According to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen McArthur Foundation, by 2050 plastics production is expected to triple from 2014 levels, while consuming up to 20% of global oil production ( By that time, it is expected that there will be as much plastic in our oceans as fish, by weight.

So, what needs to be done to address this critical situation? How do we reverse the tide of plastics ending up in our global waters? The World Economic Forum /Ellen McArthur Foundation report describes how principles of the Circular Economy can address this growing crisis, outlining three key imperatives:
  1. Creation of an effective "after-use" plastics economy
  2. Drastic reduction of "leakage" of plastics into natural systems (including oceans) and
  3. Innovation in virgin plastics production to decouple it from fossil fuel usage.
Photo Source:

There are many avenues for us as individuals to impact leakage into natural systems, from our consumption patterns and choices to our recycling habits. The scientific community is engaged in ongoing development of plastics from non-traditional sources. The idea of a new plastics economy is one that could create new opportunities for innovative companies. Beyond technical innovations, the report outlines 4 additional levers that could enable value capture in the roughly $100 Billion materials market. The five levers are:

  1. Mechanism for dialog
  2. Global plastics protocol
  3. Development of secondary markets
  4. Technological innovation and
  5. Development of enabling policies

The time is now for us take rethinking of plastics use and reuse to a new level... our oceans depend on it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Linking Individual Passion with Organizational Purpose @ Net Impact 2017

During the last weekend in October, Atlanta, GA was home to the 25th annual Net Impact Conference. The 2017 edition of this global gathering of students and professionals focused on a theme with great currency of late: finding your "Path to Purpose." The two-and-a-half day program featured riveting keynotes interspersed among panel discussions and workshops that inspired, informed and educated. Available for the choosing were a variety of sessions that delved into individual purpose and those that focused on organizational purpose. But the conference offered much more than that.

As an organization, Net Impact "mobilizes new generations to use their skills and careers to drive transformational social and environmental change" (see Formed as a group of passionate US-based MBA students, just over 25 years ago, the NI reach has extended beyond the graduate level, beyond business and even beyond the nation's borders, with 339 registered chapters in 20 countries across the globe. As a faculty member and adviser to the Rollins MBA chapter, this conference is a fixture on my calendar as a great means to engage with young leaders and top corporations around social and environmental imperatives. 

Here are a few of the experiences that stand out for me from the NI17 conference, captured in images:

Boot Camp: From Design Thinking to Design Doing
Pact's Head of Innovation and Design led us on a brief adventure out into the Downtown Atlanta community, to engage in experiential learning and better understand what it means to design with empathy for end-users needs.
Purpose Across Sectors
Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer at PwC, and other top executives explained to us why purpose matters to them and how it's influencing the way they are transforming their companies and industries. Also featured were Seth Goldman, Co-founder of Honest Tea, Aaron Hurst, CEO of Imperative, Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green and Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar & Company.
Purpose in Action
Paul Hawken broke down findings from his book "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming", including the unexpected impact of empowering girls and women, as a major tool in the fight to limit the effects of climate change.
Creating Purpose-Driven Brands
Dave Stangis, VP of Campbell Soup and co-author of "The Executive's Guide to 21st Century Corporate Citizenship", Carol Cone and others discussed how companies can distill their corporate values into a purpose and embed that purpose throughout the company.
Academia and Purpose-Driven Education 
Stuart Hart, Kirsten Craft and Jason Jay discussed re-imagined frameworks that can shape the next generation of purposeful leaders.
Collaboration and the Circular Economy
Leaders from Walmart, Rubicon and other companies discussed the critical role of cross-sector collaboration in moving beyond the "take, make, waste" mindset and towards closed-loop material systems.
Paths to Purpose
Aya Hijazi shared her experiences of being jailed as a dissident in Egypt, along with Kerry Kennedy of the JFK Human Rights organization that helped to free her. Kathryn Finney of digitalundivided shared her story of coming into, and living out of, her own purpose.
See you in Phoenix, AZ, for Net Impact 2018: October 25-27

Saturday, October 21, 2017

"Brands Taking Stands" at COMMIT!Forum 2017

Collage of images from COMMIT!Forum 2017

What do Goodyear, Smithfield Foods, JetBlue and Bank of America have in common? And what can we learn from them?

For two days in mid-October, some 200+ leaders, including several CEOs and heads of corporate social responsibility, gathered together outside Washington, DC to examine how major corporate brands are taking critical stands on social issues. I was a first-time participant in the 2017 COMMIT!Forum, hosted by 3BL Media, which recently acquired CR Magazine and the Corporate Responsibility Association. But, this event was about much more than public relations. This was a CSR practitioner forum, a chance for companies to share best practices and discuss common challenges.

Senior executives from household brands such as GM, Goodyear, Campbell Soup, BofA, JetBlue, and Smithfield Foods, and B2C brands like Mosaic, Leidos, KPMG, AIAG, TerraCycle and NRG, took to the stage in brief keynotes or panel discussions. Even recent startups were represented, by Bevi, a tech-enabled beverage machine provider. Also featured were top consultants, strategists, associations and service providers in the CSR space (like ACCP and BCCCC), sharing emerging trends and recent data. Major keynotes were delivered by the CEOs of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and Cornerstone Capital. It was great to see the variety in challenges and opportunities these companies have chosen to embrace.

Here are a few examples: Leidos, a global IT and engineering firm, has teamed with the state of Maryland in response to the nation's growing opioid addiction epidemic, sparked by the determination of a single employee and the commitment of an enlightened CEO. Mosaic, a leading fertilizer company with mining and production operations, is tackling watershed contamination (a product end-of-life issue) by developing and incentivizing best practices among users at the end of the value chain. Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor and hog producer, unveiled at COMMIT!Forum their new initiative, Smithfield Renewables. In addition to establishing significant environmental impact targets, the company will begin producing methane, from the biodigestion of hog manure, for the generation of electricity; enough to power over 50,000 homes for a year.

Another rich feature on the agenda were the 10 round table discussions on topics such as Materiality Assessment, Sustainable Supply Chains, Integrating the SDGs into Sustainability Strategies, Purpose and Corporate Responsibility and the Neuroscience of Civic Engagement. In these 45-minute sessions, practitioners compared tactics and experiences across varying sectors and levels of maturity of their CSR efforts.

Also of note was the discussion of the auto industry's push towards sustainable supply. Senior leaders from GM, Goodyear and the World Wildlife Fund, representing interests along the tire value chain, sat down to discuss the sourcing of sustainable natural rubber for tires. This past May, GM initiated an effort among suppliers, NGOs and even competitors, that seeks to reduce deforestation of primary forests, while helping natural rubber producers create more value in their product through improved yield and quality. This industry alignment brings to mind the call from Jason Clay, also of the World Wildlife Fund, to "make sustainability a pre-competitive issue".

So overall, COMMIT!Forum 2017 presented an interesting snapshot of major corporations, as they seek to engage in positive ways with stakeholders in their local communities and around the globe. While there is a long way to go, it is encouraging to see these companies grappling with critical issues and taking a broader, long-term view of their responsibility and potential impact.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Welcome! Let's SustainOv8!

I have often been asked, "what is the best part of being a professor"? I keep coming back to my original, spontaneous response: "I get paid to be a full-time student!" This is true in my teaching, as well as in my consulting and other endeavors. I see my role as learning, digesting and then sharing what I have learned with others, in ways they can immediately apply. Now the sharing is, by definition, a collaborative effort. I believe the learning and digesting should be collaborative also, and iterative as well. In this spirit, this blog has been created.

SustainOv8 is a verb, formed as a mashup of "Sustainable" & "Innovate". This blog is dedicated to the sharing and discussion of new ideas, new processes, new applications that support a more sustainable way of doing business; one that thrives in harmony with the ecological and social environment around us. Its topics will range among the areas of Corporate Social Responsibility, Conscious Capitalism, Global Sustainable Development and the like. My hope is to explore (share, discuss and debate) these innovations, these "Fresh Ideas for a Thriving World".