Are small farms in India the key to taking tea organic?

The Guardian US/UK | Feb. 5, 2015

EcoTeas organic tea plantation

Ramesh Babu’s EcoTeas organic tea plantation in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo credit: Ramesh Babu/EcoTeas

When fourth-generation tea planter Ramesh Babu decided to leave his family’s plantation in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu to start his own organic operation, people called him crazy.

“It was unheard of in our part of the country,” the 54-year-old said of his decision in 2006 to take on 10 acres surrounded by forest in the hill town of Kotagiri nearby. “Initially, when you stop using [chemical] fertilizer you have a big fall in your production, so that’s one major factor which keeps other tea growers from going organic.”

Though rewarding, establishing an organic tea plantation has been challenging, Babu admits. There weren’t any other organic tea planters nearby, so he had to learn everything from vegetable farmers before launching his EcoTeas estate. And because there aren’t many small tea factories in India, he had to design his own processing machinery – a costly undertaking that took seven years. Selling the tea leaves he and his family can’t process or hand-roll on their own was also tough, Babu says, as tea companies pay the same going rate for organic leaves as for conventionally produced leaves.

It’s a lonely road that has left the family-run operation in the red to this day, but it could be an important one. A Greenpeace India report – which has been challenged as “pseudo-scientific” by the tea industry – released in August found that more than 90 percent of the domestic packaged and produced tea contained pesticide residues (pdf).

Yet despite the roadblocks, organic tea production could be moving closer to the norm in a country that produces more tea than any other except China. In the past few months, the two largest tea companies in India – Tata Global Beverages and Hindustan Unilever, which together comprise over 50 percent of the domestic market – announced it would set up pilot studies with the government to test how their growers can phase out pesticide use.

In a statement, Hindustan Unilever said it plans to work with nonprofit agricultural advisor Cabi on the feasibility study and source all of its agricultural raw materials using sustainable crop practices by 2020. The company aims to launch the pilot in April, according to Greenpeace India campaigner Neha Saigal, but it’s not clear when Tata – the second largest tea company in the world (hit in recent years with reports that female workers had been trafficked into domestic slavery from a plantation in Assam) – plans to kick off its program, which also has a goal to achieve sustainable sourcing by 2020.

More details about the pilots aren’t clear, as the companies have remained tight-lipped. (Both declined to comment). But when the largest players in any industry take their first steps towards sustainability, it raises the question: could this pave the way for smaller producers to shift to organic cultivation too?

There’s a huge need to bring down barriers that make it harder for growers to go organic, according to Saigal, whose organization pushed for the pesticide-free commitment, and is now keeping an eye on the companies to implement the pilots. India’s regulations for pesticide use in tea aren’t straightforward or consistent from one jurisdiction to another, nor comprehensive, she says.

“Pesticide regulation in India is in shambles,” Saigal said. “What this shows is that you need a policy level change.”

“Growers aren’t aware of what they are using and what they aren’t using,” she added. “It’s the government’s job to make these small growers aware of what’s toxic and what’s not. It’s their job to create those support systems creating a knowledge base and having a system to transform that knowledge to use ecological alternatives.”

Greenpeace India is in talks with the Tea Board of India – the government-run body with the authority to crack down on these regulatory problems – about setting up a support system for small tea growers so they can move away from pesticides.

In September, the Tea Board (which did not respond to interview requests) issued the second version of its Plant Protection Code that listed the approximately three dozen pesticides approved for use in tea. Yet maximum residue levels had been set for just 10 of them, according to the document.

Government support is needed for organic tea production to thrive in India, Babu says.

“The government of India and the Tea Board have got to come up with a very supportive package for small tea growers,” he said. “This would mean giving subsidies to help small tea growers convert to organic.”

EcoTeas plantation, Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

In direct opposition to the monoculture standard, Babu has not removed the trees that have taken root throughout his EcoTeas plantation. Photo credit: Ramesh Babu/EcoTeas

Babu has his own plan to jumpstart a new generation of organic tea growers in India. He expects his factory to be fully up and running in the next few months, which he believes will improve his financial position, since he’ll be able to produce up to 30 times more tea. Once that happens, he wants to teach other growers how convert to organic growing so he can process their leaves in his factory and start an organic growers association that could foster mutual support and push for higher payments for their leaves.

But Hope Lee, a business analyst who specializes in the hot beverages market for intelligence research firm Euromonitor International, says that small tea growers in India and other developing markets – such as Argentina, the Middle East, China and Kenya – face other challenges beyond their borders.

“They find it hard to export their product to developed markets because they don’t meet strict standards in developed countries,” she said. “Some companies in developing countries don’t have money to hire these expensive services [to test for pesticide levels] and they don’t see the short-term profit from it if they pay a lot of money for testing.”

But it also depends on how serious the national government is in promoting their tea exporting business and how they set their standards, she added.

“So this issue comes to the question [of] if Unilever or Tata have the resources to solve this problem,” Lee said. “Big companies like Twinings or Unilever or Tata – they can influence the government and they have the resources to train their suppliers and make their tea grow in a more sustainable way, but they need the cooperation of the local government,” she said.

Fair-trade and certification programs are used as additional strategies to move industries towards more sustainable practices. Yet Daan de Vries, the markets director at UTZ Certified, an Amsterdam-based organization, says that certification alone is not enough.

“In some places there’s value but it’s not the way to go to change markets,” he said. “Consistently, you’ll see no more than maybe 5% of people who would want to change their buying behavior based on sustainability claims or labels.”

Tea 2030 is an initiative that appears to be taking on a more comprehensive approach. Organized by UK-based nonprofit Forum for the Future, industry heavyweights like Unilever, Tata and Twinings have joined with the Ethical Tea Partnership, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance to identify challenges facing the tea industry, such as competition for land, climate change, natural resource constraints and living wage issues. (Starbucks also joined late last year).

A report released by the initiative last year lays out these challenges, along with principles for a sustainable value chain, which the alliance would like to see in action by 2030.

“Of course the individual companies are pursuing their own sustainability [initiatives], such as Unilever and Tata on pesticides,” said Ann-Marie Brouder, Tea 2030’s coordinator. “But there are some problems too big for individual companies to tackle…. We believe that if we’re going to make change, it needs to be owned by the tea sector.”

In the meantime, Babu continues to quietly push forward, all the while tending his tea plants and the trees he’s allowed to intersperse among the crop in direct opposition to the monoculture plantation standard.

“It’s something that cannot be approached in terms of a business,” he said. “It’s a change of the mindset.”

View the original story here.

There’s no price tag on a clear mind

The Guardian US/UK | April 8, 2014

Person walking alone on train tracks

Photo by SubliminalFox courtesy of Creative Commons

At any given moment during the workweek, there’s a high possibility that employees at Silicon Valley tech companies are trying to disconnect from the very same products they have developed. Whether it’s via deep breathing, meditation or a quiet moment to reflect, companies like Google, Twitter and Medium encourage the use of mindfulness techniques as a way to trade digital clutter and stress for greater clarity and purpose.

But away from the spotlight, one of the sector’s oldest companies is quietly making plans to expand its program to a greater level than ever before. After two years of running an under-the-radar program at two locations in California and Oregon – initiated by a manager in its engineering department, no less – Intel is moving to make a nine-week mindfulness program available to its workforce of over 100,000 employees in 63 countries across the globe.

“There’s going to be a quantum leap,” said Lindsay Van Driel, the Hillsboro, Oregon-based manager who co-founded Awake@Intel with Portland leadership consultant Anakha Coman.

Using a train-the-trainer model, the program will be rolled out over the next six months to its first office locations. An employee is currently being trained in India, and others in China, Chile, Costa Rica and Ireland have expressed interest. Van Driel is adamant about making sure that Awake@Intel grows slowly so that the course is implemented in a way that stays true to its original intention.

“The right teachers [who will all be employees] will have to emerge as leaders before we can offer it there,” said Van Driel, who is also a certified meditation and yoga instructor. “It’s not something that anyone can teach. It has to be lived and embodied.” All sessions will be held with teachers and students in the same room.

Though Van Driel did consult with Chade-Meng Tan, the Google engineer who co-wrote the company’s Search Inside Yourself course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence with meditation teacher Mirabai Bush and San Francisco Zen Center priest Norman Fischer, she and Coman created a program that met the needs of a company mainly comprised of scientists and engineers, and one that cultivated the Intel values of innovation, candor, possibility thinking, risk taking and moving quickly and decisively. The curriculum was developed in three months.

Before the first weekly session, each participant identifies what he or she is most interested in improving. During the first month, the class learns to quiet their minds. They set intentions and explore the components of emotional intelligence. For the last part of the course, participants are exposed to mindful listening, delve into Brené Brown’s ideas on the influence that vulnerability has on innovation, then discuss Otto Scharmer’s concept of collective mindfulness. Each week, participants share their experiences and insight utilizing what they’ve learned over the course of the past week – for example, talking about how they moved from compulsion to choice.

“People get more authentically related to each other – beyond competency levels and their roles. So real ideas are heard and received, and people are much more generative together. The corporate mask that people put on when they walk through the door comes down,” Coman said.

Evaluation results have been notable among the 1,500 employees who have participated in 19 sessions to date. On average, participants responding to pre- and post- self-evaluation questionnaires report a two-point decrease (on a 10-point scale) in experiencing stress and feeling overwhelmed, a three-point increase in overall happiness and wellbeing, and a two-point increase in having new ideas and insights, mental clarity, creativity, the ability to focus, the quality of relationships at work and the level of engagement in meetings, projects and collaboration efforts.

Since the program is voluntary, it seems that employees aspiring to be mindful would surely be derailed by colleagues. But there’s still value, according to Coman. If one person can maintain presence in a conflict it won’t escalate, and it can help others to stay calm, she said.

How did a top tech company make the decision to invest in such a large program without a clear numerical return on investment?

Van Driel said that she focused on presenting scientific studies showing the health benefits of meditation, as well as the effect of the program on workers’ ability to relate better to each other and improve team performance. The company has not determined the amount of money it will put into the program at this time.

“If we show people pages and pages of our feedback, there’s nothing that anyone can say that takes away the validity of that experience,” she said. “If I have an engineer that says ‘I can solve a technical problem in two less weeks [after applying what was learned during the class]’, you can monetize it anywhere.”

View the original story here.

IBM, SAP open big data platforms for citizen science

The Guardian US/UK | January 27, 2014

Ant in Amazon Rainforest

Ectatomma tuberculatum, an ant species that lives in the Amazon Rainforest

Sujeevan Ratnasingham is on a race to identify all living species on earth. With the tally anywhere between 10 million to 100 million – and one-third estimated to become extinct by the next century – it’s a Herculean task in the least.

But undiscovered species are just as likely to be found in one’s backyard as the Amazon rainforest. So it’s no surprise that in this age of crowdsourcing and citizen science, the bioinformatics expert and his colleagues at the International Barcode of Life (iBOL), a consortium of universities, natural history museums and research institutes, are asking people around the world to gather samples. Then, back in their labs, scientists can identify the species by sequencing a section of its DNA (a procedure known as barcoding).

With hundreds of millions of records to analyze – and even more data per record poised come in over the next year, iBOL decided to host its database on HANA, SAP’s enterprise platform that makes data available in a computer’s memory. The switch will allow researchers and citizen scientists to quickly analyze the huge volumes of data in the cloud.

By merging their records with other datasets such as weather, researchers can conduct predictive analyses that can reveal patterns between species and location. The results can provide clues into how outside forces – from invasive species to climate change – are affecting the environment, and suggest how to manage wild land and agricultural land more sustainably.

IBM, too, has been working on a platform to support crowdsourced citizen scientist data. Its research lab in São Paulo, Brazil, developed a portal and mobile app as a way to gain more knowledge about biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest. Users of all ages and educational backgrounds will be able to collect data points and identify species.

Sergio Borger, an IBM team lead in São Paulo, devised the crowdsourced approach when Brazil’s Ministry for Environment and Innovation approached the company in 2010. They were looking for a way to create a central repository for the rainforest data.

Borger and his team developed a platform and mobile app that allowed users to upload photos of a plant species and its components, enter its characteristics (such as color and size), compare it against a catalog photo and classify it. The classification results are juried by crowdsourced ratings.

Titled Missions, the platform will enable multiple users to collect data and monitor conditions on the same plant or tree over time through uniquely identifying characteristics such as the diameter of a tree trunk. Borger’s team is currently working through how to handle monitoring of more mobile species, such as frogs and insects.

Borger used the knowledge gained in IBM’s first experiment with gathering crowdsourced data as leverage for the new platform. Developed in partnership with California’s state water agency, the Creekwatch app enables citizens to help the government monitor drought conditions in local watersheds via uploading photos and evaluating water levels, flow rate and amount of trash present.

The company has also developed Accessible Way, an app allowing citizens to report accessibility problems in the urban environment.

The beginning of a new trend?

Could the forays by IBM and SAP signal a larger trend of IT companies opening up their platforms to crowdsourced citizen science projects?

Since the excitement and interest in big data dawned a few years ago, startup Kaggle has helped companies, organizations and researchers gain insight from their data by holding crowdsourced predictive analysis contests, while Crowdflower, another startup, has provided the service of generating the “crowd” itself. Although both Microsoft and Google have engaged in data-related conservation projects, large IT companies have mostly shied away from crowdsourced citizen science, for what could be a seemingly obvious reason, one scientist says.

“Citizen science is not the most lucrative [venture],” said Dawn Wright, academic oceanographer and chief scientist for Esri, the Redlands, California-based company behind the GIS (geographic information system) mapping platform ArcGIS.

Yet despite this disincentive, Wright says she’s seen an increased interest from industry over the past two years, despite its rise in the academic community in the past five.

Benefits to business

But while devoting resources to citizen science projects can be viewed as part of a company’s goodwill efforts, are there other business benefits to be gained?

After all, independent efforts by local groups are already underway. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Nerds for Nature has organized several ‘bioblitz’ events where volunteers document biodiversity using the iNaturalist smartphone app. They’re also working with a small biotech company and hackerspaces to perform DNA barcoding independently.

SAP says it’s not trying to sell HANA for those wanting to analyze iBOL’s biodiversity database. For these users, access will be given to the data platform at no cost.

“This is not an effort to sell our products,” said SAP’s David Jonker, head of big data marketing. “We’re passionate about using our technology for good in this world and applying it to citizen science.”

Still, Mike Gualtieri, an IT industry analyst for Forrester Research, says that there are reasons why large IT companies might be interested in making their products available for free to a non-enterprise audience.

Gualtieri says that the rise of Hadoop – an open source system enabling storage, processing and quick analysis of big data – has disrupted these companies’ core products such as databases, data analytics and data warehousing.

Although Hadoop will not necessarily replace the larger vendors’ technology, Gualtieri says they will have to work with Hadoop.

“They see a threat, so they figure they better get it out there and let people use it,” he said. “By making them available, they’re building awareness among the average user.”

As a result, Gualtieri expects to see more of these large IT companies use their platforms for more crowdsourced citizen scientist data analysis projects in the future.

Commercial applications

In five to 10 years, SAP says the public will have the ability to identify species on the spot, thanks to a DNA barcoding mobile app it’s working on with the International Barcode of Life. While the technology is being developed in part for the citizen science biodiversity project, Jonker says that the technology can be used in a commercial context.

There does appear to be a demand for it, if recent food mislabeling scandals – from horsemeat masquerading as beef, to fox meat sold as donkey meat, and mislabeled fish are any indication. Shopkeepers would be able to verify products by identifying a sample on the spot via DNA barcoding.

SAP is already in talks to commercialize the product with a few partners. In the meantime, the company will release an app enabling anyone to contribute samples to the International Barcode of Life project through uploading a photo (with location metadata) and mailing in a sample for analysis. The app is scheduled for launch in late March.

View the original story here.

Photo of Ectatomma tuberculatum, an ant species that lives in the Amazon Rainforest, by Alex Wild via Wikimedia Commons

Can tech startups change the way we eat?

The Guardian US/UK | October 31, 2013

Good Eggs site produce

Good Eggs offers a range of produce from local producers that can be ordered online.

These days, even the most casual observers can’t go long without hearing about yet another potentially disruptive business model hoping to redefine an industry.

But when that industry is food, it’s worth paying extra attention. Food, after all, affects everyone. And as the appetite for local food grows stronger than ever, a new crop of tech startups are moving to circumvent the industrial food system in favor of small, regional producers.

Innovative? Certainly. Disruptive? Maybe.

Founders from two promising examples, Good Eggs and Freight Farms, spoke at the Net Impact conference in Silicon Valley last week.

Farm-to-doorstep food, ordered online

Good Eggs, based in California, launched earlier this year after two years of research and testing to find unfilled needs in the food system. Co-founder Rob Spiro, an ex-Google employee, hung out with farmers, spent time on their ranches and tagged along on shoppers’ food-buying trips.

“There’s more demand than there is supply for local food … it’s very rare that you find a dynamic like that,” Spiro said at the Net Impact conference. The highly perishable nature of food, he added, causes the imbalance. Good Eggs’ solution is an online farmers’ market, complete with delivery. With more than 150 profiles of regional producers to pore through, San Francisco Bay Area residents can shop for food the way one might approach online dating.

First, find the type of product you’re interested in, whether it’s seasonal fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats and seafood, baked goods or snacks. Then, see if the accompanying description and photos appeal to you. When you find something that meets your requirements, you can arrange to pick it up at a regional location or schedule a home delivery.

Good Eggs will aggregate orders from multiple vendors; delivery costs $3.99 per order. The idea is that shoppers have a better chance of finding what they want without having to visit multiple farmers’ markets while producers will only harvest what’s been ordered for the week, reducing food waste.

Aside from the Bay Area, Good Eggs is piloting test programs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New Orleans and plans to expand to hundreds of cities, Spiro said. He aims to take market share away from traditional grocers, including Walmart and Target, as well as from Amazon. “We would love to take them on,” he said.

But Good Eggs will have its work cut out to make sure it signs on enough producers to meet customer demand and vice versa. If it can’t meet most of shoppers’ grocery needs, they may not be willing to switch from bigger chains. The company also will need to keep a tight rein on quality control and – given the many different producers – make it easy for customers to choose between different products without being able to see, touch or smell them in advance.

In New Orleans, its fastest-growing market, the company already has signed on producers that weren’t previously selling at farmers’ markets, Spiro says. “We’ve got Vietnamese fishermen selling on the New Orleans [Good Eggs] market now that have not been hooked into the farmers’ markets or the local food scene,” he said.

Farm in a crate: year-round hydroponics

Two friends in Boston, Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman, were frustrated by the inefficiencies of growing plants in rooftop greenhouses. So they designed a hydroponics farm in a shipping crate that can be installed anywhere with electricity and water hookups.

That led to the founding of Freight Farms in 2010, then the raising of nearly $31,000 via Kickstarter for the company’s first unit in 2011.

The idea is a portable farm that users can use to grow local, fresh produce year round – instead of relying on food trucked or flown in from warmer climates. “Our main goal is to allow people to create small and medium-sized food businesses that can supply fresh and local foods to any environment,” McNamara, Freight Farms’ CEO, said at the Net Impact conference.

By doing that, the company hopes to ultimately change the way food is grown and distributed on a large scale. “The food system is linear, which creates inequality, access issues, price issues and spoilage,” McNamara said. “The system is ripe for disruption – and tech is a way to do that.”

Inside Freight Farms’ 40-foot-long shipping crates, users can grow their selection of more than 3,600 plants, including leafy greens, herbs and mushrooms. The system is climate-controlled, lit by LED lights and electronically monitored. Freight farmers can view the conditions in their farms via their smartphone and customize alerts, for instance, when the temperature or humidity exceeds a certain level.

The freight farms have the potential to be installed in a range of locations, such as underutilized land at schools or recreation centers, side lots or vacant lots. And, in order to use land more efficiently, the crates can be stacked four high and eight deep.

One developer in Massachusetts plans to install freight farms on three acres of an abandoned strip mall – farming a few crates himself and renting the rest to others – instead of putting in new stores. The system is designed to be accessible to those with little farming experience, McNamara claims. Inexperienced farmers have achieved crop yields of 60%, while experts have yielded 95%, he said. And the company also networks its farms so that users can support each other and share farming strategies and techniques.

Freight Farms has received a lot of interest from regional food distributors who haven’t been able to meet the demand for fresh local produce after the local growing season ends, McNamara said. “It’s cheaper for them to buy from a freight farm versus putting another truck on the road,” he added.

One distributor in Minnesota was so happy with the basil grown by a freight farmer that he offered $1.75 more per pound than the price he was initially willing to pay, he said.

With a price tag of $60,000 per shipping crate – and a threefold increase in price if the farm is solar-powered – McNamara acknowledges that a freight farm is not affordable for everyone.

In the past few weeks, though, he says he’s been exploring the ideas of regional food distributor sponsorship for crate farms in low-income communities. The distributor would pay for the farm with stipulations that a certain percentage of the vegetables would be grown for their inventory.

Freight Farms has also been tweaking its user instructions to make them more visual and to simplify the process. The hope is that this could make the farms more accessible to a broader swath of people, including those with little education or without strong English skills.

“We want to have these changes buttoned up by the middle of next year,” McNamara said.

View the original story here.





Happiness: the next big business metric?

The Guardian US/UK | September 16, 2013

smiling face made from nature

A smiling face made from nature that was found along a hiking path. Photo credit: Frerk Meyer/Creative Commons

Whether it’s words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama, guidance from an empathetic career counselor or advice from a friend, we’re often told that it’s more important to be happy than anything else.

But for the more than 1 billion people around the world fighting hunger and poverty, happiness seems fairly irrelevant – a luxury for the middle and upper classes. Does happiness matter if daily needs are not met? Certainly the primary focus should be on taking care of the basics. Happiness is a bonus.

Most, it seems, would agree. But increasingly, the answer depends upon whom you ask. In certain academic and human development circles, the stock in happiness has been rising. So much, in fact, that in the last two years, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (run by UN Millennium Development goals guru and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs) has published the “World Happiness Report,” researchers’ attempts to measure happiness in 150 countries around the world.

That raises the question: As more thought leaders pay attention to happiness, should companies also consider happiness as one measure of their social impact?

“All businesses should care about happiness,” said Mark Williamson, founder and director of the London-based Action for Happiness Project, who joined Sachs in New York last week to release the latest report. “The happiness of a company’s people is vital to their business success.”

Companies with happier staff outperform their competitors, Williamson said, and a happier staff is sick less often, more engaged, more creative, more productive and better at working collaboratively.

Consumer-facing businesses also affect the wellbeing of their customers, production services and their supply chain, Williamson added, so responsible businesses should not be hawking products or services that they know will decrease wellbeing.

The happiness metric: more important than GDP?

Government will likely play a role in driving the happiness agenda, if it progresses. “There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their wellbeing,” said Sachs, one of the report’s co-editors.

Life satisfaction – a self-evaluation of how well a person’s life is going – is the cornerstone of what the report aims to measure. According to researchers, a person’s happiness, or wellbeing, can be traced back to GDP per capita (as a measure of one’s standard of living), but also to the extent of one’s social support, freedom, generosity, healthy life expectancy and perceptions of corruption.

In recent years, Williamson said, Sachs came to believe in wellbeing’s potential as the “ultimate beyond-GDP measure.” Sachs, a senior advisor on sustainable development to Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, is pushing to place wellbeing at the heart of the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development goals.

Does more happiness really mean more sustainability?

But is a goal to improve the life satisfaction of people around the world really a means to an end? How would this accelerate or enhance ongoing work to secure access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, a sustainable food supply and a stable source of education?

“Wellbeing is really the driver that underpins all the development goals,” Williamson said. “Whether we’re aiming to alleviate poverty, ensure maternal health, support gender equality, or promote sustainability, the reason that all these things matter ultimately comes down to their impact on human wellbeing.

“If we get them right, wellbeing goes up,” he said. “If we fail to deliver on them, wellbeing goes down.”

Mental health and productivity

Mother and daughter, Bhutan

Mother and daughter in Bhutan. Photo credit Christopher J. Flynn/Creative Commons

But even Bhutan, the world’s most famous proponent of happiness, is starting to cast doubt on its devotion to the measure. Its society struggles with a range of social concerns including poverty, education, unemployment, gender inequality and a perceived increase of corruption – and even, perhaps, mental illness.

Yet Williamson points to both ends of the scale in this year’s World Happiness Report as examples of wellbeing’s power. The happiest countries – Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden – all have reasonably high GDP, he said, but likely rank high on happiness because people in these countries tend to have higher levels of social support and more collaborative and supportive social systems than most other developed economies.

On the other hand, countries that experienced the greatest falls in happiness over the last year – Greece and Egypt – are countries whose residents have had to contend with massive upheavals to financial and political systems that influence their quality of life. And it’s no surprise that Syria – now in the spotlight for atrocities inflicted on citizens throughout its ongoing conflict – placed among the most unhappy countries worldwide.

Another reason to include wellbeing in the UN post-2015 Sustainable Development goals, Williamson said, is that its existing goals do not include mental health, something he considers to be the among most important determinants of wellbeing. According to the report, mental illness – which counts depression and anxiety among its forms – is among the main causes of unhappiness worldwide.

Unhappiest people get happier

Perhaps some of the greatest insights into the determinants of wellbeing can be gleaned from the region with countries ranked among the least happy worldwide. All are in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region where residents battle infectious disease, poverty and corruption.

Yet at the same time, Sub-Saharan Africa – along with Latin America – is counted in this year’s report as one of two areas where happiness levels are increasing the most. The reasons? Higher levels of social support, generosity and the freedom to make key life decisions, the report said.

“Social relationships matter much more for happiness than possessions,” Williamson said. “Every organization should recognize that human wellbeing is at the heart of success and progress – and that they can play a role in contributing to this by the way they treat their people, the products and services they offer and the impact they have in the community.”

Bringing happiness to mainstream business

Some organizations, like John Lewis, have always put employee wellbeing at the heart of their business models, Williamson said. But happiness is gaining ground: companies such as Southwest Airlines, BT, Semco, Marks & Spencer, Zappos, Innocent Drinks and NixonMcInnes are increasingly taking it seriously, he added.

Happiness hasn’t yet become a top priority for sustainability-minded companies, but Williamson expects the trend to persist. And if its popularity continues to rise among nonprofits, policymakers and thought leaders, we could soon see it become a common corporate social responsibility metric as well.

Should businesses consider happiness as part of their social impact? And what can businesses do to boost happiness? Please send us your thoughts by commenting below or by tweeting #GSBhappy.

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Can the apparel industry pin down worker safety?

The Guardian US/UK | September 10, 2013 | Original headline: Bangladesh factory collapse: can Gap and others pin down worker safety?

Rana Plaza factory building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers and injuring 2,500 more in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo credit: rijians via flickr/Creative Commons

Nearly five months after the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building that killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,500 in Bangladesh, the reverberations continue to impact the apparel industry.

The incident – and it lessons about supply-chain vulnerabilities – has boosted efforts to improve worker and building safety.

“[Bangladesh] is an inflection point for monitoring and auditing supply chains,” said Kindley Walsh Lawlor, vice president for corporate social responsibility at Gap, speaking at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco last week.

But companies remain divided on how best to do this in a country that’s one of the industry’s top suppliers.

Different approaches

Gap is part of an alliance of more than 15 companies – including Walmart, Kohl’s, Target and Macy’s – which has agreed to require factory inspections (and publicly release the results) in Bangladesh, develop common safety standards, provide loans to factory owners to improve safety, establish a worker hotline before the end of the year and establish “worker participation committees” selected by their peers.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has set a five-year timeline for the project.

Lawlor – who has focused on fire and building safety in Bangladesh since 2010, when a factory fire near Dhaka killed more than 25 people – says Gap is bringing in professional engineers to inspect supplier factories and also is following up with remediation.

“We’re seeing the suppliers through the process and making sure they make the changes,” she said.

But Gap’s approach has been controversial. The company and its partners have been criticized by labor rights groups for not including for a requirement to allow supplier workers – mostly women earning low wages – to organize unions.

Meanwhile, more than 70 other companies have signed a different accord, which does endorse the right of workers to organize as part of an overall strategy to improve factory safety in Bangladesh. H&M, Zara, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein were among the companies to sign the accord, which requires independent factory inspections and public release of the results. Unlike Gap’s initiative, this accord is legally binding.

Taking a systemic approach

Racheal Meiers, head of BSR‘s HERproject, a factory-worker education project in Bangladesh, India, China and a half dozen other countries, said the Bangladeshi government also must play its part in fixing the health and safety problems.

HERproject works with Gap, in addition to Marks and Spencer, HP and J.Crew.

“We have to take a systemic approach for progress to be made,” she said. “If Gap has a robust fire safety standard, there aren’t many people in the country who can do those international fire safety and building safety inspections.”

But many of the factory owners in Bangladesh also have high influence in the government, she said.

“Even if factory owners do make changes – such as the two years it took to raise worker wages by between $6 to $7 a month – the impacts on workers’ lives are limited within the workplace itself,” she said. “Once the slum landlords found out that the workers got a raise, they increased the rent.”

For that reason, Meiers says, HERProject focuses on increasing the wellbeing of workers by educating the mostly female workforce on menstruation, infectious diseases, maternal health and HIV/AIDS. It teaches women how to make more nutritious food choices and how to access improved health care.

Education sessions are designed for a workplace setting and present factory owners with the business case for a healthy workforce. “The business case is important,” Lawlor said.

Boosting the business case

Aside from working with HERproject, Gap also runs a life skills education and technical training program – called Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) – for female garment workers.

“It’s proven these women [who participate in P.A.C.E.] have longer tenure and are being promoted more often,” Lawlor said. “They are making more money, can stay consistently in one location and factories are coming to us now. Management is starting to understand the workers aren’t replaceable.”

Michael Kobori, vice president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. – which has said it will not join the Bangladesh accord – said that getting suppliers to agree to sustainable production methods through market demand will be a motivating force for change.

“We can try to get suppliers to comply [with us] and struggle,” he said. “But they will respond to consistent business.”

Kobori shared a success story: Levi’s 501 WaterLess jeans, debuted a few years ago, cut the amount of water used in the production process by almost a third, on average, and were favorably received by consumers.

But the benefits expanded beyond conservation and sales.

“That connection [of the product] with the consumer was rewarding to suppliers,” he said. “This way worked much better – we harnessed the power of market and the consumer to drive sustainability.”

View the original story here.

Can impact investing cross from land to sea?

The Guardian US/UK | September 5, 2013 | Original headline: Can impact investing successfully cross from land to sea?

Impact investors have plunged headfirst into food and agriculture deals, but when it comes to ocean ventures, they’re just starting to learn how to swim.

Fishing pier

Fishing pier by timparkinson via flickr/Creative Commons

Impact investing in fisheries and oceans has been slow to emerge, compared to dairy, poultry and beef ventures — in part, it seems, because these companies can seem like a safer bet. The supply is fairly predictable, and there aren’t as many middlemen cutting into producer profits.

Yet it’s possible to apply the lessons learned from food and agriculture deals toward investing in fisheries and ocean-related businesses, which could lead to larger profits for fishing communities, restored fish stocks and improved marine health.

“We see tremendous opportunity because of issues and gaps in the marketplace,” said Taryn Goodman, director of impact investing at RSF Social Finance, during an ocean investing panel Wednesday at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco.

Know the differences

That said, investors also should realize there are differences between the ocean and agriculture sectors. Knowing those differences, panelists emphasized, can help craft a deal that meets both investors’ financial and impact requirements.

For one thing – as Goodman observed through a RSF Social Finance loan to Kuskokwim Seafoods, a Native Alaskan-run fishing company – the seafood supply chain is made up of a more concentrated monopoly of only a few companies and is disconnected from local food systems.

“The system is broken,” Goodman said. “Getting in to process fish is very difficult – you go head to head with the big guys.”

Though Kuskokwim made a deal agreeing to process everything it caught, Goodman said, “the deal went south. No money was made because you’re competing with others and not building out your supply chain.”

Seafood supply chains are filled with middlemen, explained Beau Seil, managing partner of Unitus Impact. “Fish can change hands 14 to 15 times before it gets to our plate in the US.”

Not being able to predict how much fish would be caught, Goodman said, also made it difficult to know the maximum processing capacity needed or how to get the greatest profit margin. The unpredictable length of the season, as well as Alaska-issued quotas, also threw her off.

Consumers as influencers

The public, Goodman noted, also influences how the seafood supply chain works.

“The majority of chefs, once you take the skin off, can’t identify what fish it is,” she said. “It’s lack of knowledge and awareness. It surprises me.”

Many restaurants don’t want to take a chance with smaller suppliers, who might not have what they need on any particular day, she said.

A lack of transparency creates another challenge. “Opaqueness in the space enables more poor behavior . . . you can create monopolies,” she said. “It’s like the underworld in there.”

See the original story here.