As a way to get from here to there, bicycles have a lot to offer. Biking is good for your health. It’s good for the planet. It’s cheaper than driving or public transit. Getting people out of cars and onto bikes eases traffic congestion, too.
But, for a host of reasons, not everyone can bike for transportation. Electric bicycles will expand the number of people who can — by making cycling easier, a bit quicker and less sweaty (which matters if you are commuting to work.)
Outside of the US, electric bicycles are doing really well–much better than electric cars, it turns out. Can they make it America? That’s the topic of my story which has just been published on the excellent YaleEnviromment360 website.
Here’s how it begins:
Most Americans know about Tesla, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Leaf. But what about Evelo, the eZip Trailz, and the Faraday Porteur?
The first three are, of course, electric cars. They benefit from a lot of media attention and generous government subsidies, including a $7,500 tax credit for buyers in the United States. The latter are electric bicycles, and they attract neither.
Yet Americans bought as many electric bicycles as they did electric cars last year. About 53,000 electric bicycles were sold, according to Dave Hurst, an analyst with Navigant Research who tracks the industry. Electric car sales came in at 52,835.
Globally, electric bicycles outsell electric cars by a wide margin. An estimated 29.3 million e-bicycles were sold in 2012, with perhaps 90 percent of those selling in China, which has more electric bikes than cars on its roads. E-bicycles are popular in Europe, too, selling about 380,000 a year in Germany and 175,000 in the Netherlands in 2012. By comparison, about 120,000 electric caris were sold worldwide.
You can read the rest of the story here.
I hope electric bicycles find a market here. They should appeal to young people in bike-friendly cities and to aging baby boomers (like me!) I tested an e-bike from Evelo last week (here’s my account), and I’m hoping to check out some other models soon.
Last winter, I traveled to southeastern Montana (brr!) to report on a battle over a coal mine being proposed by Arch Coal, America’s second-biggest coal company, and a coal-carrying railroad that’s needed to transport the coal from the mine to coal-burning power plants, either in the U.S. or in Asia. The railroad, called the Tongue River Railroad, is owned by Arch Coal, by the BNSF Railway, which is a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and by the candy billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.
It’s a fascinating story, for a bunch of reasons. The coal mine and the railroad are interdependent; both will be built, or neither will be. They need the approval of state and federal regulators. And opposing them are an unlikely coalition of Montana cattle ranchers, members of the northern Cheyenne tribe, a small Amish farming community that recently moved to to the state in search of peace and quiet, and some very determined environmental activists from the Northern Plains Resource Council, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club.
My story was as just published in the May/June issue of by Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, under the headline, Warren Buffett’s Coal Problem. Like the Sierra Club, I think this coal mine is a bad idea–a very bad idea–and that’s one reason why I wanted to write the story.
Most stories I do have shades of grey. (No, not 50 Shades of Grey!) Is Walmart good for the planet, or not? Is nuclear power a viable climate solution? Will GMO foods have feed the world, or ruin agriculture? Should the government subsidies electric cars? All of these, in my mind, are complicated questions. As a longtime reporter for newspapers and magazines, I’m trained to see both sides. And I can understand and respect the arguments of people on opposite sides of them.
This coal mine is different. The world needs to burn less coal, not more, to deal with the threat of climate change. (Here’s why.)This coal will most likely be shipped to China, which is suffering from terrible air pollution. Ranchers who own land that’s needed by the railroad don’t want to sell it, but they may not have any choice; the railroad owners plan to use the state’s power of eminent domain to force the ranchers to sell, if the rail-line owners can’t negotiate deals with the ranchers. The way of life of the ranchers, some of whose families have tended the land for more than a century, and the Cheyenne, who have been their even longer, is threatened by a coal company and a railroad that will extract coal from the area for a couple of decades and then leave. I wanted to give the ranchers a chance to be heard in my story. “Why should we give up our property rights for a coal mine?” one rancher asked me. Good question.
Having said that, Warren Buffett’s role here, as well as his broader impact on energy and climate change, is more complex. Buffett, as my story in Sierra notes, has backed solar and wind power through Berkshire’s Mid American Energy Holdings, a big utility company. Matter of fact, the last time I reported about Warren Buffett was for a 2009 FORTUNE cover story called Warren Buffett Takes Charge, about his investment in the Chinese electric car and solar energy company BYD. What’s more, as a common carrier, the BNSF Railway has an obligation to carry coal on its lines.
So what’s the problem? A couple of things, in my view. First, there’s no obligation for Buffett and BNSF to build the Tongue River Railroad, a 42-mile rail line that would link Arch’s Otter Creek coal tracts to the BNSF’s main lines. You could argue that Berkshire should build the line because it will be profitable and increase shareholder value, but we rightly expect CEOs and, especially Buffett, to hold themselves to a higher standard.
Unlike his good friend Bill Gates, Buffett has been virtually silent on the issue of climate change (while speaking out on other public policy issues, like taxation.) Worst of all, BNSF has lobbied on the wrong side of the issue–opposing regulation of coal through industry groups like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and pushing for coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest. The railroad touts itself as environmentally friendly but its chairman, Matthew Rose, has ducked questions about climate. At the very least, Buffett and his company need to be held accountable for being powerful friends of coal.
Like many people, I’m a fan of Warren Buffett. I like his modesty and lack of pretense. I admire his generosity. But his support for coal puts a stain on his reputation, in my view. I invite you to read my story and let me know what you think, on the Sierra site or in the comments below.
This is the third in a series of stories about Walmart’s supplier sustainability index. An overview is here, and a story about flour, bread and agriculture is here. Today’s topic: plastic toys and PVC.
Walmart wants to improve the sustainability of plastic toys. The giant retailer isn’t playing around.
The company wants to improve the safety of workers who make the toys. It wants to make sure that manufacturers are taking steps to use fewer so-called “chemicals of concern” in toys. It would like suppliers to deal with any issues raised when kids outgrow Barbie or GI Joe and throw them away. If paper or wood goes into toy packaging, Walmart wants to know whether it is “sourced in accordance with a credible certification system that addresses ecosystem impacts and biodiversity.”
Some critics think Walmart is taking this too far. That’s what this story is about.
Walmart’s supplier sustainability index, which is being rolled out to thousands of suppliers, is the biggest environmental initiative in the company’s history. It will likely do enormous good–requiring companies that make consumer products to examine their environmental impacts in ways they have never done before. But the index also raises questions about how the world’s largest retailer (2012 revenues: $469 billion) is exercising its market power.
Consider, as an example, PVC, or polyvinyl chloride plastic, commonly known as vinyl. It’s a widely-used plastic, and it shows up in toys, including such iconic plastic toys as Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Mattel’s Barbie. It can be made soft or rigid, it’s rugged, moldable, low-cost and excellent at holding color.
What, if anything, is wrong with PVCs? That depends on who you ask.
Greenpeace has campaigned for a decade against PVCs. It says:
This commonplace plastic is one of the most toxic substances saturating our planet and its inhabitants. PVC contaminates humans and the environment throughout its lifecycle: during its production, use, and disposal.
The Vinyl Institute, an industry group, strongly disagrees. ”Vinyl’s been use safely since the 1950s, including in medical products that have been approved by the FDA, pipes that are used to deliver drinking water and consumer products that are approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission,” says Allen Blakey, vice president of industry and government affairs. Whether the issue is manufacturing or disposal, the environmental and health issues raised about PVCs are manageable, he said.
And Walmart? Here things get fuzzy. Walmart’s supplier sustainability index, which is based on “hotspots” identified by The Sustainability Consortium, encourages toymakers to manage their use of PVCs. [Here is a PDF of questions that The Sustainability Consortium has raised about plastic toys. Note that the first is about PVCs.] It’s safe to assume that suppliers that respond that “we are actively eliminating PVC from our products” will score higher than those who do not.
And isn’t there is risk when Walmart takes on a role ordinarily left to government regulator who, at least in theory, are accountable to the public?
Michelle Harvey of the Environmental Defense Fund, who works closely with Walmart, says the sustainability index is important precisely because it can push industries to go beyond what they are required by law to do.
“If a retailer has the capacity to move a category in a way that’s better for consumers, for workers, for the planet, I don’t see that as being problematic,” she said. “That’s why we’re in Bentonville.”
The trouble is, Walmart doesn’t have to hold hearings or invite public comment before laying out its goals.
The Vinyl Institute’s Blakey says: “We were never asked to engage or provide data into the process.”
Even now, it’s hard to know what, exactly, troubles Walmart about PVCs. By email, Kevin Dooley, who is a professor of supply chain management at Arizona State and academic director of research at The Sustainability Consortium, told me:
In investigating the life cycle of plastic toys, TSC found several publications in the literature that document the increased incidence of cancer for workers in PVC manufacturing. Our stakeholders noted that many of the studies were relatively old, which is true, and that modern production facilities have equipment and processes that reduce or eliminate these risks, so TSC’s improvement opportunity for this issue focuses on the Environmental Health & Safety systems that the PVC manufacturer has in place.
If the focus is health and safety in manufacturing, though, it’s not clear why suppliers would be asked whether they are “actively eliminating PVCs.”
To see what the world’s big toymakers think about this, I reached out to Mattel, LEGO and Hasbro. Mattel declined to be interviewed, and sent me this statement about PVC:
As one of the most highly-tested plastics in the world, PVC meets international standards for safety and health. It is an extremely versatile material that is durable, safe and easy to clean. It is also more resistant to stress marks from impacts and flexation compared to other alternative plastics. Our evaluations to date of alternative plastics have not identified a material that is able meet all of Mattel’s quality, safety, aesthetic, supply chain and cost requirements, while at the same time exhibiting improved environmental attributes.
So Mattel is sticking with PVCs.
For its part, LEGO says the company has worked for decades to eliminate PVCs, as well as phthalates–another controversial chemical, often added to plastics to make them more flexible–from its toys. “As a result,” a spokesman said by email, “the LEGO Group’s toys do not contain these substances today.”
Hasbro, meanwhile, is somewhere in the middle. Kathrin Belliveau, Hasbro’s vice president of corporate responsibility, told me by phone that PVCs pose a challenge for toymakers. Hasbro promised in 2011 to eliminate PVC from “all new core toy and game packaging beginning in 2013″ (as I reported here) but it isn’t ready to get PVC out of the toys themselves.
“That one is definitely more difficult,” Belliveau told me. “We are looking at alternate materials.”
What Hasbro cannot do, she said, is compromise on the quality and appeal of its toys. “We don’t think many kids want a doll….with a seam that runs down the middle of its head,” she said.
Among the big toymakers, Hasbro appears to best-positioned to benefit from the Walmart index. Belliveau says she has been told–and Walmart insiders confirmed to me–that Hasbro is one of the top-ranked toymakers, outperforming big and small rivals. Lego is not far behind, and Mattel trails them both. All three are well ahead of a pack of laggards that includes Slinky and Crayola, insiders say, along with a long list of b-to-b suppliers whose names would be unknown outside the industry.
It’s these non-brand-name companies that will get a wake-up call on sustainability, while better known firms like Mattel and LEGO will be rewarded, it seems.
“We’re excited about the index,” Hasbro’s Belliveau told me, in part because “it’s a great way to benchmark our programs and progress.”
Walmart isn’t making the company rankings public.
That’s understandable, but the company should be clear and forthright about the science that guides the rankings and the index. When it comes to PVCs, the big retailer still has some explaining to do.