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Could Zipcar Actually Be Bad for the Environment?

Zipcar, the popular car sharing service, and others like it are often lauded for their environmental benefits. After all, if you can borrow a car when you need one, then maybe you won’t buy one. And if fewer people buy cars, that’s good for the environment, right?

It might be, but it depends. It depends on how car sharing affects driving behavior. Some studies have shown that just one quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with passenger vehicles are produced in the manufacturing process. Most of the emissions occur in the process of driving it. Even if Zipcar reduces vehicle ownership a bit, it might actually increase the amount of driving people do. After all, if you can borrow a car whenever you need to, you might drive more. If this is the case, the environmental impact of Zipcar could easily be negative.

I’ve not seen any really good research on what Zipcar’s impact has really been. Zipcar recently commissioned a survey in which it asked consumers about their attitudes about driving and the environment. For some reason, it completely missed the opportunity to ask the simple question: “With Zipcar, do you drive more or less than you did before?” The closest the survey came was a question worded this way:

To what extent have transportation apps (i.e. taxi apps, car rental reservations, public transportation info, car sharing, ride sharing, etc.) reduced your driving frequency?

That’s just too broad to reveal the impact of car sharing. An earlier study commissioned by Zipcar showed that 18 percent new Zipcar members sold their cars within a year of joining the service. That’s likely because most rarely used their cars to begin with: only 38 percent took five or more trips a month before they joined Zipcar. It did show that the already small number of frequent drivers dropped further, to 12 percent.

But these surveys don’t capture a potentially important effect of car sharing services: increasing demand for cars among non-car owners, because they are cheap and easy to borrow when needed.

It is quite possible that car sharing services like Zipcar actually increase driving, by making it easier for people who don’t own cars to drive one. Anecdotally, that seems to be the impact in New York City, at least among some people I know.

If you know of a proper study on the impact of car sharing on driving, please let me know. If you would like to commission one, I can get it done for you.

What do you think?

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Collapse of Venerable Law Firm Highlights Importance of Systems Thinking

I’m not your go-to person for an analysis of the legal profession or the economics of law firms. But the recent collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf, resonates with me because I hear in its story the consequences of operating without a systems perspective and or a sustainability mindset.

As the New York Times reported today, the firm filed for bankruptcy last night. “With historical roots stretching back a century, Dewey — the product of a 2007 merger between Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae — employed at its peak more than 2,500 people, including roughly 1,400 lawyers in 26 offices across the globe,” according to the Times. 

But the firm came apart because of a series of actions and policies that undermined its ability to sustain itself. 

Many observers say the root causes of Dewey’s fall are not unique. Several of the largest firms have adopted business strategies that Dewey embraced: unfettered growth, often through mergers; the aggressive poaching of lawyers from rivals by offering outsize pay packages; and a widening spread between the salaries of the firm’s top partners and its most junior ones.

 

These trends, they say, have destroyed the fabric of a law firm partnership, where a shared sense of purpose once created willingness to weather difficult times. Many large firms have discarded the traditional notions of partnership — loyalty, collegiality, a sense of equality — and instead transformed themselves into bottom-line, profit-maximizing businesses.

 

“Because the partnership lacks any shared cultural values or history, money becomes the core value holding the firm together,” said William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University who studies law firms. “Money is weak glue.”

Doesn’t it seem like the firm treated the values of partnership as externalities, when it might have placed those values at the center of its management approach? If it had, it might have found greater resilience in the face of the challenges that many law firms have experience over the last few years. 

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Intern Opportunity for Writers

We are starting a new initiative at Green Research that I think will be of interest to students, recent graduates and mid-career folks looking to make a place for themselves in the world of clean tech or sustainability.

We are recruiting interns (unpaid—sorry) with excellent writing skills and a professional interest in environmental sustainability or clean technology. Your task is to contribute one short piece of analytical writing per month to our blog. Each intern takes on a topic or industry that we mutually agree on, follows the business and technology news on that topic, and pulls together a thoughtful analysis on the news of the prior month that has important implications for business leaders, sustainability professionals or investors. Your piece will be published under your name on the Green Research blog and highlighted in our monthly e-mail newsletter.

We’ll provide you with a template to help you shape your thinking and writing and professional feedback and editing to help you refine your ideas into polished pieces. I think it’s a great way to deepen your knowledge of sustainability or clean tech and to gain exposure for your ideas.

My hope is that along the way, we will identify topics in your area that would benefit from a deeper treatment as a research study. If we do, we’ll give you the opportunity to participate the creation of a professional market research study.

Here’s a sample of topics and industries I’d love to have folks working on:

Topics Industries
  • Biofuels
  • Corporate sustainability management
  • Ecosystem services
  • Energy efficiency
  • Energy storage (batteries, etc.)
  • Employee engagement
  • Green marketing
  • Recycling
  • Solar
  • Sustainability reporting & communications
  • Waste management
  • Water management
  • Wind
  • Automotive
  • Beverages
  • Consumer goods / Retail
  • Financial services (banking, insurance)
  • Food
  • Healthcare (hospitals, pharmaceuticals)
  • Higher education
  • Hospitality
  • Municipalities
  • Real estate

If you’re interested or want more info, please drop me a line!

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Branding Green Research

As my consulting practice has grown, I’ve decided to invest in developing the Green Research brand as the umbrella under which to work. Next step: creating a logo for Green Research.

Crowd Sourcing the Design Work

I decided to crowd source the logo design on crowdSPRING, an online community of designers. I was inspired to take this approach by Charlene Li, technology strategist and founder of consultancy Altimeter Group, who used this approach for Altimeter’s logo. (Charlene and I were nearly colleagues; she left Forrester Research to found Altimeter shortly before Forrester purchased my company, Jupiter Research.)

I recently posted a creative brief on crowdSPRING and quickly attracted many dozens of attractive designs from designers competing for my business. Now I have about a week to choose the winning design and, like Charlene, I would like to invite my readers to weigh in on what logo they think most effectively conveys Green Research brand attributes.

Feel free to browse the current options and vote for your favorites. There’s about a week left, so if you are interested, don’t delay. For more background, read on.

The Creative Brief

Here’s a summary of the creative brief I provided:

Green Research is a business advisory, strategy and market research consultancy. Industry focus areas include clean technology markets, alternative energy, corporate sustainability, Internet and information technology. The principal (me) is a seasoned executive with broad business experience across many industries and functions.

The mission of my research and advisory work is to provide clients with -insight- that guides action that produces positive, sustainable results. The results that interest me are not merely classic business goals like increasing market share, selling more toothpaste, or up-selling customers. To me, those are only interesting results if they can be accomplished without undue harm to people or the environment. And they are really interesting results if they embody sustainable business practices that spread prosperity.

Key brand attributes I would like the logo to convey:  current, tech-savvy, intelligent, analytical, quantitative, professional, solution-oriented.

No Leaves or Solar Panels

While I specialize in projects in those “green” areas, my work is not limited to those areas. A common denominator of my work is that my clients are technology intensive businesses. Over time this has included not only energy tech/clean tech but information tech, Internet and even medical technology. Consequently, I want a design that is compatible with and suggestive of the “green” area, but not exclusively so. Clients in the green space or with green aspirations should be able to relate to the connotation of environmental/clean tech/sustainability. But clients who are general business or technology companies should not be burdened by an association that does not apply to them. So: no trees, leaves, wind turbines, solar panels or other green clichés.

Vote Now

So I’d love it if you’d like to browse the candidate logos and cast your votes for the ones you prefer. There’s about a week left, so vote today!

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Biofuels Will be Huge–Or Tiny: WorldWatch

Still trying to get a grip on biofuels. I came across this assessment of their potential from WorldWatch:

In the most optimistic scenarios, bioenergy could provide for more than two times the current global energy demand, without competing with food production, forest protection efforts, and biodiversity. In the least favorable scenarios, however, bioenergy could supply only a fraction of current energy use by 2050, perhaps even less than it provides today.

There you have it.

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Policy Innovation Lags Clean Tech Innovation

Last time I wrote that environmental challenges are so great that it is difficult to see how we will meet them. However,  I wrote,

The march of technological progress, which has transformed so many areas of business and life, will accelerate our environmental progress too, as long as we’re pointing in the right direction, as long as we are aligned with the vector of progress and can therefore harness that progress.

There’s no question that to meet our environmental goals while continuing to improve standards of living there will need to be advances in a range of energy and clean technologies.  But technology is not the only area were we need to innovate. A big chunk of what needs to be done can be achieved with current technology. It just requires innovation on the policy front.

I just reread a study issued by the McKinsey Global institute. The paper, “The Case for Investing in Energy Productivity,” was published a year ago. Using detailed economic and financial models, it makes the case that the technology available today is sufficient to halve the growth in energy demand through 202o. What’s more, if deployed in the manner suggested in the paper, it could deliver up to half the abatement of greenhouse gases required to stabilize global temperatures.

The global investment in energy productivity envisioned by the study would deliver an internal rate of return of 17 percent. The technology required already exists. It includes relatively mundane items such as combined heat and power generation, optimization of electric mothers, increased use of recycled paper, liquid membrane separation and many others.

What is so striking about this analysis is that it suggests that there are no trade offs required to achieve the benefits of reduced energy demand and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, since doing so produces a return that is better than many capital investments.

To achieve this, though, would be no small feat. It requires not technology innovation but policy innovation. Innovative policies are needed to stimulate and fund worldwide investments in energy productivity that market forces and micro-economic decision making alone will not.

Is it just me or does there seem to be a consensus emerging that some of the most important challenges facing society (see also economic melt down, health care, social security, among others) require policy, rather than purely market, solutions? I welcome your comments.

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The Vector of Progress

My interest in clean tech stems from my love of the environment and my interest in the technology and personal and business practices that can help protect it. If you are just tuning in to the question of how to limit our harm to the environment, you will eventually be confronted with a couple of big questions.

How Do You Know You’re Doing Good?

Determining which of two actions is better for the environment can be harder than it looks. I’ve heard of studies showing that, for example, that the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine imported to the East Coast of the U.S. from France is higher than that of a bottle sent from California, despite the fact that California is closer.

A new book by sustainability guru Joel Makower has many examples of spurious environmental claims made by consumer product manufacturers, such as “photodegradable” Hefty plastic trash bags that deteriorate over time if exposed to sunlight and oxygen, which they never are in a landfill.

It is difficult for consumers to assess environmental claims. And it can be difficult for companies to undertake environmentally friendly initiatives when they run the risk of consumer backlash. (Makower relates the story of Levi’s, which was quietly experimenting with integration a small amount of organic cotton into its products. They wanted to keep it quiet lest they draw attention to the fact that they are big cotton users and industrial cultivation of cotton creates substantial environmental stresses.)

If you consider how difficult it is to do good for the environment (without causing unintended negative consequences), you might think it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try.

Will Any Action Be Enough to Make a Difference?

The challenges facing society in grappling with environmental ills are daunting. If you consider how much needs to be achieved in order to slow or reverse the trend toward devastating global warming, for example, you might think that it’s too late to have an impact and that the cost of trying is wasted money.

Makower cites a 2004 paper that enumerated a set of goals that its authors said would have to be achieved over the next 50 years in order to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and avert environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, the simultaneous achievement of those goals is so challenging as to make success seem just about impossible. They are:

  • Double the fuel economy of 2 billion cars worldwide from 30 to 60 miles per gallon (though there are only 850 million cars on the planet today)
  • Decrease car travel for 2 billion 30-mgp cars from 10,000 to 5,000 miles per year
  • Cut carbon emissions by 25 percent in buildings and appliances
  • Cut elecricity use in all homes, offices, and stores by 25 percent
  • Replace 1,400 large coal-fired power plants with gas-fired plants
  • Increase solar power 700-fold from current levels to displace coal-fired power plants
  • Increase wind power 80-fold from current levels to produce hydrogen for cars

Why Bother?

With these challenges, why should anyone bother doing anything to try to minimize his or her harm to the environment, especially when many environmentally sensitive choices seem to increase costs?

And even if you are persuaded to pay more to reduce your impact on the environment, how much more should you pay? The value of averting global catastrophe might be beyond measure. But how much of the cost to do so should my company bear? Why should I bear the cost of reducing carbon emissions today if the world will never in aggregate reduce enough to make any difference?

Pursuing Broader Benefits

The magnitude of the challenge and the uncertainty of the environmental payoff is is why advocates of pro-environmental strategies look for benefits greater than just environmental ones. Well-designed sustainability strategies pursue multiple returns on the investment in sustainability to increase the probability of a good payback for those investments. Such returns may include:

  • reducing costs
  • increasing quality
  • increasing efficiency
  • building good will with customers, partners and employees
  • greater efficiency
  • stimulating innovation, development of new technology, new markets

It’s definitely possible to achieve several of these objectives in tandem with environmental ones. Dell, whose sustainability reporting I recently looked at, is just one company that trumpets its success in doing so, touting reduced electricity use, packaging waste, and substantial cost savings along with reduced environmental footprint.

Aligning With the Vector of Progress

With such large environmental challenges, we may not be able to see perfectly how we’ll achieve our environmental goals. But it’s important that companies and individuals at least take teps in the right direction. The march of technological progress, which has transformed so many areas of business and life, will accelerate our environmental progress too, as long as we’re pointing in the right direction, as long as we are aligned with the vector of progress and can therefore harness that progress. It’s useful to consider Moore’s law–the phenomenon of relentless and rapid increase in the power of integrated circuits, that has has transformed science fiction into reality in a generation.

Consumers can do their part but business is where innovation happens at scale. Business need to take the lean in harnessing the vector of progress.

Business is where innovation and scale happen. Business has to lead.

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