This week, we're publishing several stories by our Justmeans staff writers about solutions to global water problems, leading up to World Water Day this Saturday. In these articles, innovative ideas are as abundant as our water supply is scarce. Gina-Marie Cheeseman describes how a MIT researcher is developing a monolayer film made from material extracted from vegetable oil to reduce evaporation in reservoirs.
From the Editor
The size of the problem is daunting: 1.2 billion people live where water is scarce, with another 500 million living in almost similar circumstances. Another 1.6 billion people live near groundwater, but lack the infrastructure to move it from rivers and aquifers. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity.
The Department of Energy is reporting some hard figures that help explain the recent boom in the clean tech industry: 1) the cost of solar panels has dropped 75 percent since 2008 2) the cost of LED lights has fallen 85 percent in the same time and 3) electric vehicles now cost 50 percent less than in 2010. Lower costs have been predicted since the beginning of the renewable power industry, as innovations move to mass manufacturing and as R & D experiments result in scalable production and larger sales.
“Rich world” firms have invested $3 trillion in emerging economies since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the opening up of China, and growth surges in Brazil and India in the 1990s. Lately, this mega-deal is not going well. Political instability, sinking currencies, weak commodity prices, and slowing growth have caused Investments by rich world firms with above-average exposure to emerging markets to lag 40 percent behind the U.S. stock market for the last three years. What to do?
The Food and Drug Administration regulates 25 cents of every dollar of the national gross domestic product. The agency oversees food safety, tobacco products, dietary supplements, prescription and over-the-counter medications, vaccines, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, cosmetics, and veterinary products. Another special area of focus has been added to its portfolio: increased oversight of high-risk “compounding pharmacies,” whose products killed dozens and sickened hundreds in Massachusetts in 2012. In the proposed 2015 budget for 2015, this agency gets a 1% increase, to $2.6 billion.
China has announced some good energy news: the country will install more solar power in 2014 than previously planned. The revised forecast by the Chinese Bureau of Energy now projects 12 GW of solar power will be added to the country’s grid throughout ten provinces. Here’s the catch: China’s toxic air pollution is becoming so severe, warn Chinese scientists, that the country is at risk of creating a “nuclear winter” effect, in which photosynthesis in plants slows down due to lack of sunlight, threatening the country’s food supply.
More companies are adding to their in-house economist staffs. The number of private-sector economists rose 57 percent in 2012 from 2009, to 8,680 from 5,510, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The reason is the need to review large amounts of information—Big Data—to better determine opportunities and risks. Increased volatility in global markets, the growing complexity of operations, and rapid, disruptive change driven by technology have created a huge, fast-moving, and fluid flow of information that needs to be evaluated for more accurate business projections.
The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board is releasing new accounting standards that include, for the first time, banks and other financial companies in their all-industry sectors scope. The new reporting asks for data on basic environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions and on more qualitative, reputational concerns, such as the number of complaints handled by compliance departments.
California has attracted special scrutiny since the Affordable Care Act’s rollout in October, due to its large uninsured population: about 15 percent of the national total. With six weeks to go in the open enrollment period, a recent checkup charts the state’s progress: 828,000 Californians have signed up through the online health care exchange, more than 20 percent of the 3.3 million who have enrolled nationwide. That’s 90 percent of the state’s target for the initial four-month period.
Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as proposed by President Obama, would increase income for about 15 percent of low-wage working Americans—about 16.5 million working Americans— and perhaps benefit an additional 8 million workers whose earnings are around that level. The raise would lift about 900,000 people above the poverty line. That’s according to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO also projects that the raise could cost 500,000 jobs, about 0.3 of the workforce, due to employers laying off low-wage workers or hiring fewer of them.
You could guess that millennials want to work for companies on the cutting edge of innovation, even without a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. However, the figure measured - 78 percent - is surprisingly high in this time of widespread millennial unemployment, low wages, and lower job expectations. Equally eye-opening are other figures that quantify this generation's CSR interests: 63 percent of those surveyed gave to charities and 43 percent either volunteered or joined a community organization, according to a Deloitte study.
Now that sustainability factors are increasingly integrated into overall business strategy, it’s a challenge to quantify progress on sustainability so that it can be better measured, and therefore, be better managed. To address this issue, Trucost, a firm that helps companies manage environmental risk and opportunity across operations, supply chains and investment portfolios, has developed The Natural Capital Leaders Index.
Energy efficiency cuts costs while renewable energy use makes products more attractive to consumers. That’s the mantra increasingly being adopted by many forward-thinking businesses. Now the Environmental Protection Agency has singled out three Fortune 500 companies as the top users of renewable energy as a key part of implementing this strategy. Intel Corporation sources 100 percent of its demand—over three trillion kWh—from renewable sources. Microsoft’s renewable energy use is 80 percent of its total, but that’s still nearly two trillion kWh of clean energy.
Brands have a complex job to sell their products and services these days. Not only do they have to figure out how to effectively distribute their messages through new, multiple media channels, but they have the existential challenge of crafting believable messages in an age of skepticism. When Havas Media, a marketing agency, conducted a worldwide survey to find out what 134,000 consumers in 23 countries thought of 700 brands, a majority reported that they would not care if 73 percent of them just vanished. In Europe and America, that figure rose to 92 percent.
Presidential bully pulpit “persuasion” re. basic economic issues was on full view last week. President Obama used executive action to raise the minimum wage of employees of future government contractors, a message to business to get on board with across-the-board minimum wage increases. And a group of CEOs, including those of Boeing, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Walgreen’s, Marriott International, and McDonald’s, met at the White House to hear out the President on the problem of the long term unemployed, Four million unemployed are estimated to be in this category.
Despite the ongoing political wrangling about the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are working to turn the new law into new business. Wellpoint, affiliated with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, reports the addition of 500,000 new customers through state and federal exchanges since they opened on October 1. That's over 15 percent of the three million who have acquired coverage through the marketplaces. The rollout has been costly: 2013 profits are down slightly from 2012, from $2.7 billion to $2.5 billion. And 2014 may accrue extra costs of $100 million.
Global clean energy investment in 2013 was $254 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Sound like a big number? Actually, that figure represents a decrease of 11 percent from 2012. Ceres, an organization that brings together investors, companies, and interest groups, has decided to view this sobering fact as an opportunity by starting a “Clean Trillion” campaign to raise $1 trillion a year for clearn energy investment for 36 years.
Sustainability is moving from a varied collection of diverse programs into an integrated, risk-based business management strategy for leadership companies in 2014. That’s the news in a new report by the National Association of Environmental Management on ideas that are shaping the future of environmental, health, and safety management. “Planning for a Sustainable Future” describes 12 key trends, derived from interviews with corporate leaders and sustainability experts.
The personal commitment of business decision makers is driving sustainability more than official corporate goals and objectives. That’s the finding of a recent study by the Shelton Group, “B2B Pulse.” Why is that important? Because another finding is that overall, business owners and CEOs are not sold on sustainability as a competitive advantage. Only eleven percent of companies have or are developing a sustainability scorecard to guide purchasing.
It’s early in the New Year, but it already looks like the revolution now in progress in U.S. health care will make 2014 the most consumer-friendly ever. The new systems now settling into place focus on the consumer, not the care provider, as they have in previous decades. The Affordable Care Act, new technology, and the other many changes throughout the market may be confusing, but all are aimed at giving consumers more choice and more control over decisions about their health.