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Our Electric Vehicle: Nothing But Good Things to Say

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

With all the negative articles that have found their way into the press recently, I thought I should tell our readers about our very positive experience with our zero emission Nissan Leaf.

In a phrase, no problem.

I'm sure the money behind the recent attacks on EVs has come from the petroleum industry. Their climate change denying spin doctors are very effective in getting negative stories published, but these stories are deceptive and wrong.

Before we bought our Nissan Leaf, we were driving an old Mercedes TDI converted to burn veggie oil. That worked fine, but it was smelly, and the car was — well — old. With solar panels installed on our roof, we were just biding our time until reliable EVs came back on the market. It ended up a toss up between the Leaf and the Chevy Volt, but we went for the Leaf because we don't need the back-up gas engine. Neither my wife nor I dive more than 70 miles in a day, so the Leaf's range is perfect. For longer trips, we have a Jetta Sportwagen that gets 42 miles to the gallon on diesel. We use that for camping and ski trips.

Now here's the amazing part. With the California State and Federal tax credits, we were able to shave nearly a third off the purchase price — which was pretty low to begin with. Because we leased instead of bought, we didn't have to wait to apply the tax credit to our taxes. The home charging unit, which must be bought separately, was also paid for with a rebate from our utility company. That included the installation by a qualified electrician. We also received carpool lane stickers and FREE parking in the A-lot at LAX. Sweet!

The Leaf has plenty of power, plenty of room for our family of four, and plenty of trunk space. We live at the top of a very steep hill. This car has no problem accelerating up the hill, and it's easy as pie to plug in. If you can remember to plug in your cell phone, you can remember to plug in your EV. The car fully charges in a couple hours.

Now for that so-called range anxiety. It's totally BS. The Leaf constantly updates you on range. You can even tell it where you want to go, and it will tell you if you can get there. Ask your gas-guzzler to do that. If you should run low on juice, you have options: pull over and plug in the regular wall plug charger, or pull into a Nissan dealership for a quick charge, or Nissan will send a truck out to rescue you. The last situation simply doesn't happen very often — maybe less often than running out of gas and having to call AAA.

The extra cost of electricity has been negligible. We were given a special meter for the Leaf, which measures the cost of power at a lower rate. We are paying — maybe — $40 per month for electricity for the car tops. If we were driving a gas-powered car, we'd be paying around $200 per month. There are also a fair number of free charging stations around Los Angeles, and an entire network of charging stations is being built along the highway corridors. It's just gets better.

Sure, the electricity is coming partly from dirty coal-fired plants, but here in California were are building lots of wind turbine and solar collection plants, so the ratio of clean energy is going up while the cost of imported gasoline is also going up.

Take it from my wife and me. EVs are great. Best of all, I get to give a middle finger salute every time I pass a Mobile station.

p.s. No! Nissan did not pay me to write this, and I received no special deal from them.

Richard Seireeni is author of the book The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering

Today’s Most Visible Green Brands

Why Won't GOP Candidates Talk About China?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

In the run up to the Republican Convention, we've heard everything and nothing. We've heard Newt, Mitt and Ron go on about issues that have little if any impact on jobs and national security, but not a single word about the real reason we have massive and permanent unemployment. We've heard very little about the greatest national security threat facing our nation. That problem is unfair, unbalanced trade with the People's Republic of China.

In 2010, we imported 364 billion dollars in goods from China while we exported only 91 billion to them. That is nearly a 4 to 1 trade imbalance. This is according to U.S. Census data for 2010. Compare this to the 149 billion we imported from all of the OPEC countries (less the 54 billion we export to them) or the 319 billion we imported from all of the EU countries (less the 239 billion we export to them). Even unbalanced trade with Japan, that received a lot of attention in the 90s, represented 120 billion in imports verses 60 billion in exports to them. That's only a 2 to 1 trade imbalance — plus Japan is a democracy, a friend and a military ally, unlike China.

The U.S. has a chronic addiction to imports, but nothing comes close to our trade imbalance with China. Compared to what we trade with OPEC, Korea, Japan or the EU, this is unfair trade on steroids. So why is this a problem?

With capital and technology that came from the West, China has become the factory to the world in less than 20 years. The Chinese people have become admirable competitors, but their hybrid Totalitarian-Capitalist government is not our friend. They don't share our philosophies on human rights, labor rights, or geo-political issues, like containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions. In fact, China is a major importer of Iranian oil, in opposition to U.S.-sponsored trade restrictions, and has probably received access to our recently downed drone aircraft as a reward.

While GOP candidates are preoccupied with Terrorism and Obamacare, the People's Liberation Army has been quietly developing a new advanced stealth fighter, Predator-style drones, the first in a planned fleet of blue water aircraft carriers, an advanced rocket and space program, and a growing nuclear arsenal. Those cheap consumer products have turned China into a super power one purchase at a time. Every time an American patriot buys a Made-in-China product at Walmart, he or she is investing in China's military expansion, which forces us to invest more in our military to counter the threat.

Unlike other imported products that carry foreign brand names like Sony, Volkswagen and Samsung, Chinese products are sold under cover of U.S. brand names like Apple, Gap, and Black and Decker. If you didn't read the label on your new toaster, you'd never know that you are helping the PRC send a rocket to the moon.

Supporters of free trade, whose views dominate in right-wing think tanks, will argue that unfettered trade floats all boats, but in our trade with China, their boat is rising much, much faster. Ours, in fact, is sinking.

Take Dayton, Ohio for instance. A friend of mine in the lumber business recently bid to reclaim wood from thousands of that city's closed factories. Those factories used to create tens of thousands of good Middle Class jobs. Most of those manufacturing jobs were lost to China, and they are never coming back. The irony is that the captains of American industry sent production to low-wage China so Americans could buy cheaper products at home. What happened is that Americans lost their jobs and their buying power so they resorted to mortgaging their homes to maintain their addictive and wasteful lifestyles. This drove the real estate bubble, which collapsed and took Middle Class assets down with it. Today's average American can't afford those cheap goods, or to send their kids to college, or to contribute to the taxes our country needs to reinvest in itself. The plan has backfired, but not in China where wealth has been growing despite the worldwide recession.

That giant debt bomb the Tea Party talks about? It was caused by corporate outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas while letting banks run wild with borrowed Chinese money. Add to this "design obsolescence" which made it acceptable to buy a Chinese-made product that broke two years later.

We can't blame corporate CEOs and Wall Street — the 1% — because they are simply making smart money decisions. It's cheaper to make things in China plus you don't have all those pesky OSHA and environmental rules to worry about. Despite the red ties and American flag lapel pins, American CEOs are not paid to be patriots. They are paid to protect investors who are increasingly Chinese. Even though China has this annoying habit of piracy and corporate spying, making things in China is good for the bottom line and good for those corporate stock options, but is it good for America?

When GE begins manufacturing advanced jet engines in China, China will inherit both the technology and the know-how to make them in the future. There is no doubt that the GE workforce in Illinois will shrink as more production moves to the PRC. Keep in mind that much of the technology in these engines was financed by U.S. taxpayers in the form of military R&D. This disturbing pattern is also found at Boeing where an increasing number of aircraft assemblies and parts are made in China. And where did all this sensitive technology transfer start? You can trace it back to the Motorola Iridium satellite project that put China's space program into hyper drive in the late 90s. The harsh reality is that American taxpayers are financing our competitors in China.

Most Americans are aware that China manipulates its currency, that it engages in dumping, that it steals corporate secrets, and that it has a poor reputation for protecting foreign intellectual property rights, but U.S. consumers buy China-made products nonetheless. The low price is irresistible. What most Americans don't realize is that we buy high-tech consumer goods from China while the few exports we ship to China are mostly grains, raw materials and scrap. It appears that we are the Third World country and China is among the First. China refuses to buy high-tech from us, preferring to foster and protect their own high-tech industries. If they can keep their Yuan at home, they'll do it. That includes worker vacations. Instead of leaking currency to places like Hawaii, China has created its own Hawaiian-style paradise on Hainan, in the South China Sea. American brand name products that are made in China are often re-labeled with Chinese brand names for domestic consumption thus avoiding U.S. imports.

OK, so you are now wringing your hands and saying, "What can we do? We like our cheap Chinese stuff, plus it's everywhere."

We can start by confronting presidential aspirants about unfair, unbalanced trade with China. We should demand that they be frank on this issue and stop asking us to believe that all it takes is relaxed business regulations to bring jobs back. We can ask our president to suggest that corporate America get their eggs out of one basket and spread imports around the world. (Are you listening Apple?) Corporate America should also consider the total cost of exporting jobs overseas. If you kill our Middle Class, who is going to buy your products? We can also demand that China buy more from us. If they expect us to be good customers for their products, they must reciprocate — or we move production to more sympathetic partners, like Korea or India. We must demand that our government more closely audit technology transfers and the deals that make this possible. Chinese have a right to build their economy, but we do not have an obligation to build China's military and worldwide political power.

Lastly, we should make it a New Year's resolution to check labels and buy American. Every purchase of an American-made product contributes to pulling an American off the unemployment rolls.

Richard Seireeni is the author of The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Green Brands

Follow Richard Seireeni on Twitter: www.twitter.com/seireeni

Whales: What Happens To Japan's Scientific Harvest?

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Least anyone has any doubts, Japan's whale hunt is meant for the dinner table, not the microscope. I'm in Tokyo this week where a colleague pointed out a slick, high-end restaurant in the heart of busy Shibuya that specializes in whale meat. The marquee translates as "The Original Whale Meat Restaurant" and features many classic whale meat dishes including a fixed-price meal for 4,000 yen.

The Original Whale Meat Restaurant

Whale meat specialties on the menu

Japan, Australia and New Zealand are currently embroiled in a political spat over whaling in Antarctic waters, with the two southern nations demanding that Japan halt its 'scientific' whaling activities. Japan has tried to hide under the cover of a loophole in the international whaling agreement by harvesting hundreds of whales for so-called research. Greenpeace subsequently uncovered a wide-spread scheme to illegally sell whale meat by whaling crews in Japan.

Nevertheless, I don't have a problem with Japanese eating whale meat. They've been doing this for centuries, and it was white men from Europe and North America who brought whales to the edge of extinction in the 1800s - not Japanese. When Admiral Matthew Perry first visited Japan in 1852, one of his goals was to open an American whaling station in the Northwest Pacific. His threat to use violence to achieve his aims still haunts Japanese-Western relations.

Japanese net whaling circa 1700s

Traditional low-impact net whaling off the coast of Japan was a source of scarce protein in the 1800s.

The US whaling ship Morrison visits Japan.

In 1845, the American whaling ship Morrison visits Japan in hopes of opening modern, high-volume whaling stations there. Along with the Bible, they spread knowledge of the weapon of mass whale destruction, the harpoon, developed in Norway.

Westerners tend to look at their food through an uncorrected cultural lens. For instance, Japanese ranchers treat their cattle more humanely than we do on our mass feedlots. Japanese in general consume a lot less animal protein than we do in the West. And, when Japanese hunt whales, they use the entire animal, unlike 17th century Western whalers who were only after the oil and baleen. And when it comes to the extinctions of other animals, it is the West that bears a majority of blame.

That said, cattle are not endangered while many whale species are. We need a much better international agreement that allows for some whale harvesting by Finland, Iceland, Japan and Arctic tribes in the US and Canada while preserving the species — but let's not stop there. The seas are also being depleted of bluefin tuna, sea bass, cod, swordfish and sharks. We need to revisit the complex and grinding process of fisheries and marine mammal management on a global scale.

Addendum: Please see the NRDC's campaign to protest the sale of whale meat in the Japanese chain, Family Mart, operator of Famima!! stores in the US.

Toyota's Green Goodwill Will Save Its Reputation

Monday, February 8th, 2010

The world's media engines are in high gear as they go after Toyota for the current spate of accelerator and braking issues. That's to be expected when you are now the world's leading maker of automobiles with an almost mythic reputation for quality. You become a target.

However, I don't think Toyota is in as much trouble as the press would have us believe. The prospect of owning a vehicle that can't be controlled is a frightening prospect, but these problems have only affected a tiny minority of customers. Most Toyota owners haven't had these problems and continue to express confidence in the company.

This confidence that Toyota will get it right in the end is due, in large part, to goodwill — and Toyota enjoys two types of enduring goodwill.

The first is their commitment to quality and to the customer's ownership experience. No automaker delivers on this better than Toyota. I saw it in action as a consultant to their dealership education program about five years ago. Toyota had a fantastic reputation for quality even then, but the customer experience often fell apart in the independently-owned dealerships when folks went in to buy a car. They sometimes got the same sleazy treatment you get at any dealership. Toyota made a huge effort to eliminate that unpleasantness and replace it with one of respect and transparency. It was so successful that it resulted in a trend that was subsequently adopted by many competitors. The dealership purchase experience isn't perfect, but it is now much more in line with Toyota's overall reputation for quality and customer service.

Another source of goodwill wells from their pioneering efforts in fuel-economy and alternative fuel technology - the Prius being a particularly visible example. In my book, The Gort Cloud, I talk about how 'green goodwill' can help companies bounce back from the inevitable potholes in the road to growth. Factoring the future of the planet into their calculations of future profits has paid off for Toyota in immeasurable ways.

Toyota and its partners have a lot of work to do to repair cars and a reputation, but their consistent investment in goodwill will make that job easier. I have no doubt that all this will pass, and Toyota will be a better company for it.

 
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Big Little Green Idea

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

I believe we can make a very large impact on our environmental footprint by simply adopting some low cost, common sense changes to our lifestyle. Here's one of those ideas courtesy of my wife's pestering.

Clothes dryers use a lot of energy. A recent article in The New York Times suggested that "clothes dryers use at least 6 percent of all household electricity consumption." Dryers also reduce the life and quality of your clothes. All that lint? That is your clothes dissolving away. It's much better to hang them out to dry, but that is not always practical given weather and the suitability of yards for a clothesline. Some even complain that outdoor lines are an eyesore. An alternative is to hang your clothes on racks inside, but that can be messy and the clothes can take a while to dry completely.

At our old house, we have a built-in solution. Our washer and dryer are in a storage room along with the forced air heating unit and the hot water heater. Because the furnace and the hot water heater produce a lot of excess heat in the winter, my wife got the idea of hanging clothes in our storage room on racks. The outcome? It works like a charm. The clothes actually dry faster in there than they do during the summer on our outdoor clothesline. That got me thinking.

What if home designers added a 'dry room' to their plans - a place where the furnace, water heater (or tankless water heater) and washer/dryer could live together along with built-in lines or racks for drying? All that excess heat that is normally vented and wasted could be used to dry the family laundry, particularly in the winter when outdoor line drying is not always possible.

It's a simple idea, but an idea that could make a major impact if every architect and homebuilder integrated this into future home building designs.

 
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

Photo Essay: The Japanese Eco-Onsen

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

I came over to Japan this week for a quick trip to strategize with my partner and his team for this coming year's work. He booked an onsen retreat about three hours north of Tokyo way up in the mountains. An onsen is a natural hot springs resort. The surprise is that they picked one of about 40 organic and sustainable onsens, part of an allied group of small, 'secret' spas around Japan. The shodō script for The Committee to Protect the Hidden Hot Springs of Japan is written on the lantern in the picture below. (I'd tell you exactly where it is located, but then I'd have to kill you.)

The green movement has been growing steadily here in Japan for many years now. We can find organic groceries, organic farms and restaurants, and all the usual domestic and imported LOHAS-style household and personal care goods. Kyoto has become the Portland, Oregon or Burlington, Vermont of Japan. My friend and former colleague, Jens Jensen , has written several books on community organic gardening in Japan. He also works for the Danish embassy here. But this is the first that I've heard about an onsen attached to its own organic farm.

This particular place is located on an irregular, steep sided and narrow valley. It's heavily wooded with sheer cliffs, which explains where the influence for those classical Japanese scroll paintings comes from. Nevertheless, the beauty is in the fact that this resort is almost entirely self-sufficient. Except for electricity and some fuel oil for heating, everything comes from the farm - including livestock feed and building materials. It's also a balanced farm with mixed crops and farm animals. But instead of the European cows and pigs we find in the US, here its native wild bore, deer, ducks and brook trout. Sure, these animals are caged, but they eat a fairly normal diet. The deer feed on grasses. The chickens are housed outside and peck around for their meals. Even the trout are raised in ponds large enough to attract flies that compose much of their diet. Everything is prepared and cooked right here, including the Japanese onions the area is famous for.

It must be a very labor-intensive operation, but I was surprised to hear that just eight people work here full time. The gardens are tended by 'farm consultants' who come in from the local village and just work during the growing season. In the winter, the staff settle into a routine of serving the guests.

So, here's a little share by way of a photo essay. Enjoy.

Well, there actually is a river runs through it.

Little streams run everywhere, diverted from the river running along the property. The onsen's name means 'clear current'.

These carp are decorative, but are also dinner.

Of course, all the rock formations and gardens are manmade, but done long ago in a style that honors nature.

The rock archway leading to the men's onsen bath, called rotenburo.

Gives me ideas for our backyard. Hum?

Native plants were in bloom all around the edges of the forest.

The funky lobby. This isn't a slick tourist spot. It's a bit off the beaten track and is run like a farm, which gives it more charm than the more commercial onsen retreats.

There are four very large fish ponds on the property where they raise brook trout . . . also for dinner, also for breakfast.

We were told that Bambi and his pals are pets.

There was deer on the menu, but we were told that it was provided by local hunters.

The buildings are made mostly from local materials using local carpenters in the traditional Japanese style.

I was really fascinated with the construction details. No nails. No screws.

This is great. They use a tree trunk to hold up the roof during construction, and then chop it off when done.

The land is clean enough to support frogs.

All the food served here is grown or raised on the property. It's all organic.

Things grow like crazy in the summer, but it will all be covered in snow in about two months.

We asked them about pests. They make a concoction of ginger, shochu, vinegar, garlic and red peppers that is then diluted and sprayed on the plants.

The insects are repelled but not killed. They also alternate rows with garlic and pepper plants.

They keep a pen with wild bore . . . also dinner.

The shed way out back. Is this where the evil deed is done?

These lanes covered in crushed rock lead to the various fields and stock pens.

They are famous for their onions in this area of Japan.

The buildings amble across the landscape leading to one discovery after another.

Thermal panels to help heat the onsen water, which is only luke warm at this place.

Chickens and ducks are raised on the property. It's caged all around to keep predatory critters out.

No dryer. Everything hung outside to dry.

Inside one of the original buildings with its first two-person ofuro soak.

Their one-person electric utility vehicle.

Breakfast. Everything is from the farm except for the rice, which is grown nearby.

There's No Health Care Crisis In Japan, So Why Is There One Here?

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I'm sitting in my Tokyo hotel room, studying the conflict over US health care reform from a comfortable distance. Here in Japan, they don't understand our problem. Here in Japan, there is no health care crisis - even with a rapidly aging population. No one goes bankrupt over medical bills. No one is denied medical services. If someone wants a special medical treatment, they can buy it here or in Switzerland or where ever. Yet they have a private system with no public option. What they do have is a strictly regulated medical insurance industry. While some shortages of specialized care exist and some rural hospitals are understaffed, they have a more robust primary care system than we have in the States, which means people see the doctor more often. More visits mean early detection and lower long-term treatment costs. The poor - and there are lots of unemployed people here - receive health care via government insurance subsidies - something like Medicaid. So while health care professionals earn a fraction of their counterparts in the US, they are a respected group and earn a good middle class living.

Here in this egalitarian middle class society, they have one of the healthiest populations among industrialized nations despite the fact that they smoke like chimneys. According to a recent post in The New York Times,

"Japan has about the lowest per capita health care costs among the advanced nations of the world, and its population is the healthiest. That is largely due to lifestyle factors, such as low rates of obesity and violence, but the widespread availability of high-quality health care is also important."

In Japan, adequate health care is a right that comes with being a member of this hard working society. Their government does not allow health care to become a major profit center for big businesses at the expense of public welfare.

With this in mind, I mentioned my particular situation to a Japanese colleague. I explained that I had a very mild heart attack about nine years ago. It was a wake-up call. I had gained a bit of weight, and my cholesterol was up slightly. Since then, I've been taking my meds and watching my diet. Today, the doctors can find no sign of artery disease, but no insurance company will give me coverage. Their adjusters simply right me off because of my 'pre-existing condition'. My friend wonders if that is legal. Sadly, it is completely legal, and then I quoted from an article by T.R. Reid for the Washington Post,

"American health insurance companies routinely reject applicants with a "preexisting condition" - precisely the people most likely to need the insurers' service. They employ armies of adjusters to deny claims. If a customer is hit by a truck and faces big medical bills, the insurer's "rescission department" digs through the records looking for grounds to cancel the policy, often while the victim is still in the hospital."

So, what is the solution to our national health care crisis? In my opinion, it begins with insurance and pharmaceutical industry regulation - like they do in Japan and in other countries. Of course, these industries are large and powerful. They exert a lot of influence in Washington DC and through their mouthpieces at News Corp and the WSJ. Nevertheless, we need to ask ourselves, "is this a nation 'of the people and for the people' or is this a nation that serves the interests of business at the expense of the people's business?" I don't believe the Founding Fathers ever imagined that business would grow so powerful that its voice would drown out that of the people. Maybe it's time to pass that constitutional amendment to kick business and other special interests out of government?

Follow Richard Seireeni on Twitter: www.twitter.com/seireeni

 
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Don't Talk About Green

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Don't talk about green.

And while we're at it, let's not talk about climate change, environmentalism or being socially responsible. Instead, let's talk about efficiency and reflecting the true cost of our lifestyle choices in our product prices. This is the surest way to move our society toward a sustainable future.

We are approaching the eye of the needle when smarter companies realize that we are running out of cheap resources and the cost of raw materials will only go higher. The recent run-up and subsequent decline in gasoline prices is indicative of a worldwide trend in higher raw material costs. Given increased population, increased demand from developing countries and a finite planet, this should come as no surprise to anyone — even climate change deniers.

At the same time, budget-starved governments are increasingly reluctant to subsidize the inefficiencies, waste and toxic byproducts of business, like carbon that will inevitably become a cost of production and will ultimately be reflected in higher consumer prices. In fact, wherever we see huge corporations, we are likely to see huge subsidies and deferred costs.

Why is it that government foots most of the bill to clean up rivers, estuaries and Superfund sites, problems caused by business? Why should government subsidize the oil industry — or the nuclear industry? Why doesn't the price of a nuclear-generated kilowatt-hour reflect the 100-plus years needed to decommission a plant, or to bury the spent fuel, or to properly insure lives and property in the event of accident? Why don't we see the health costs of burning coal reflected in that industry's energy prices? Why isn't the cost of recycling plastic bottles or pulling them out of the ocean built into the price of a Coke? Why should giant agribusiness receive farm subsidies designed for smaller family farms while evading the medical costs associated with modern eating habits they promote?

Conservatives and some pro-business groups howl when any change to promote green business practices gets floated, but why should elected officials support corporate socialism when they won't support civic socialism? Why should taxpayers support dinosaur industries when those subsidies could be used to seed new, more efficient and healthier ones? Why should a kilowatt-hour of clean wind energy cost more than one that comes from dirty coal, when the difference is hidden in deferred cost and subsidies?

Environmentalism and climate change is a convenient whipping boy for those intent on protecting vested interests. However, if the subject is changed to address efficiency and the elimination of subsidies to inefficient businesses, we have a new dialog based on price.

In this environment, companies that rapidly move toward more efficient models (call it greening if you like) will survive. Those that don't won't.

Richard Seireeni is president of The Brand Architect Group, Los Angeles, a strategic brand consultancy with affiliated offices in Tokyo and Shanghai. Richard Seireeni is the author of The Gort Cloud, a new book that describes the invisible network that is powering today's most successful green brands, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

This article was originally published on GreenBiz.com.

Sustainable Africa

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I'm flying back from Nairobi. I had the privilege of making a presentation to a group of African sustainable business leaders. There was a passion in this small, but engaged meeting, a passion that makes one think of a positive future, rather than obsessing about AIDS, poverty, war and corruption, which are the overwhelming images we in the West associate with Africa. Bono and Bob Geldof, despite their inspiring good works, tend to perpetuate this impression that Africa is a basket case, an opinion that Melissa Davis expresses in her article, "Is Africa Misbranded?" and that economist William Easterly opines in the Los Angeles Times, "What Bono Doesn't Say About Africa". The people who attended this meeting hosted by The Environmental Press were thinking about a different basket, a breadbasket of opportunity that can sustainably and efficiently lift the lives of ordinary Africans.

There was no disagreement among attendees that Africa needs, even requires a sustainable future. The extraction industries have run wild here with no regulation that cannot be bought or bent to their will. The issue of Blood Diamonds was brought to the world's attention, but oil, mineral and timber extraction continues to fuel tribal conflicts that lead to the unraveling of communities and environmental destruction on a massive scale. The raw materials used to make your cell phone? They are fueling a ten-year war in East Africa. The piracy off the coast of Somalia? Its root cause is exploitation of Indian Ocean fisheries and toxic dumping. Clearly, the current system of resource extraction must shift to a more ecological and sustainable one.

Africa also needs better infrastructure, affordable sources of power and confident trading partners. Africa needs sustainable economic growth, but there is much disagreement on how sustainability should be achieved.

There are powerful forces at work in Africa driven by resource-hungry nations like China, the US and those of the EU. This is further encouraged by the World Bank that defines progress by the number of dams, highways and bridges it funds. Modern high-output agriculture with its dependence on water, fertilizer and GMO seed stock is also defined as progress, but never mind the downstream pollution and shrinking lakes. Improved sanitation and vaccines have contributed to increased health, but also increased population; and, all of this puts a heavy burden on Africa's ability to grow in a sound and sustainable way.

Progress also means profit. Large-scale progress produces vast amounts of cash that flows through the hands of multinationals and government officials with little trickle down to the average African. So, it's no surprise that one view of sustainability is driven by these forces. In these circles, sustainable solutions are discussed on a grand scale, like harnessing the vast wind and geothermal resources of East Africa or tapping the enormous water reserves in Congo. Large-scale carbon trading schemes are also part of the mix. These plans, some of which are needed, are huge and require huge, mostly foreign investment. The problem is that foreign investors and foreign aid programs often promise more than they deliver, leaving these projects chronically short of funds. When corners are cut, the environment suffers.

But there is another view. It is an opinion that the most progress can be made by direct assistance to the poorest and most populous Africans through micro-financing and clever inventions. It's simple things like the high-efficiency Berkeley Darfur Stove that reduces long journeys into the bush to collect firewood that in turn reduces deforestation, or the Q Drum that makes it easier to transport water in rural areas, or Professor Wangari Maathai's program to pay women and rural farmers to plant and maintain watershed trees.

One of these amazingly simple ideas enables sons and daughters who move to the city to transfer money to their parents who remain in rural communities. This is a homegrown Kenyan idea that is enormously successful and provides money to Africa's poorest citizens.

2009-05-07-MPESA.jpg

The idea is called M-PESA, a Safaricom system that uses mobile phones to transfer money instantly via SMS. No bank account is required. In Africa, they never had the luxury of a wired telephone system, so mobile wireless leaped ahead. Even poor country villages have wireless service and many rural people have cell-phones. A Kenyan cooked up the idea of M-PESA, and it makes a lot of things possible - including a sustainable future for Africans. Poor people in rural areas can buy high-efficiency stoves with M-PESA or receive deposits for chickens and vegetables sold to city markets. They can also receive money from children who leave the village to find employment in the city. Funds deposited to phones can be turned into cash at village shops.

Building on this and similar platforms is the ingenious idea of a San Diego businessman, David Palella, to provide direct payment to rural people who offset their carbon production with high-efficiency stoves.

"The cell-phone-based Carbon Micro Credit system employs SMS (simple message service) and unique identifiers to allow millions of families in the Developing World to claim on a bi-weekly or monthly basis the carbon offsets they produce by using more efficient cooking methods such as a modern charcoal stove or solar cooker, instead of an inefficient open-pit fire burning biomass. As a result, each family is able to monetize directly its own contribution to mitigating global warming, while also reducing nationwide rates of deforestation and desertification."

The concept is promoted by David's non-profit, Carbon Manna.

In addition to Carbon Manna, there are a number of other organizations working toward a model of African sustainability including the Partnership For African Environmental Sustainability, Conserve Africa, Fair Trade In Tourism South Africa, All Africa, and the Kenya Organic Agricultural Network. The Green Living Project is currently documenting sustainable projects throughout Africa. For those who have read my book, you will see the beginning of an African gort cloud in this list.

So, how can David Palella's idea and that of thousands of other business leaders transform the world's view of Africa? The key is sustainability. Sustainability is a brand driver that has the power to change the conversation from 'basket case' to 'land of opportunity'. Just as sustainability has been used to change the nation brand of New Zealand and the city brands of Curitiba, Brazil and Portland, Oregon, sustainability can completely change our impressions of Africa. An African brand driven by sustainability can reassure investors and produce lucrative markets for organic food, eco-friendly textiles and properly managed natural resources. An African brand driven by sustainability can establish new rules for participation in African growth, one that extends its rewards to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. A commitment to sustainability can demonstrate that all Africans - the stakeholders in the African brand - have a vision for a future that provides economic growth and environmental protection.

Many nation-branding experts have been pondering how to change the West's negative impression of the African brand. I think the solution is sustainability.

 

Richard Seireeni is president of The Brand Architect Group, Los Angeles (www.brandarchitect.com), a strategic brand consultancy with affiliated offices in Tokyo and Shanghai. Richard Seireeni is the author of a new book on the marketing experiences of over two-dozen US green companies published by Chelsea Green Publishing. The book is titled The Gort Cloud (www.TheGortCloud.com) and describes the invisible network that is powering today’s most successful green brands.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Is Japan Catching The Green Wave?

Monday, April 13th, 2009

I'm in Tokyo this week having given a presentation on my newly published book, The Gort Cloud. As presentation's title is "Building Brands For The Age of Sustainability", I decided to do a quick audit to see if Japanese business is catching the green wave.

The first indication is on TV. NHK, the national broadcaster here, has been hosting a series of shows on the environment under the theme NHK Eco 2009. Eco, by the way, is the catchall word for things green, natural, organic, environmental or sustainable over here. NHK has been pushing this theme because Japan is currently in the "First Promise Period" of the Kyoto Protocol during which the nation has committed to reducing emissions to 6 percent lower than they were in 1990. Many economic planners also believe that sustainable technology presents one of the few opportunities for Japan's business and manufacturing future, a point NHK makes clear in their interviews.

However, when I visit the local grocery store, I'm amazed to see that clerks are still individually wrapping things that are already in packaging. When I get back to my room, I end up with more bags and boxes than product. Happily, I noticed that the local Muji store and the McDonalds have signs by the cash register begging customers to forgive them for not triple wrapping purchases. This appears to be part of the Team Minus 6 percent government program to reduce CO2 emissions by 1 kg per person per day.

I noticed that Panasonic had a large display at the fashionable Tokyo Midtown shopping center showcasing its Eco Ideas initiative. They are demonstrating super energy efficient household appliances that contribute to an ambitious plan to produce an Eco Ideas House that uses "advanced technologies for saving, creating, and storing energy, and utilizes natural elements of wind, light, water and heat… with virtually zero CO2 emissions…". I had an opportunity to visit one of their model homes today, and it is impressive. They are prefabricated in a factory and assembled on site complete with solar panels, electrical systems, appliances and even high efficiency lighting all manufactured by Panasonic.

On a similar note, there is the newly launched "Fukuoka Hydrogen Town" project that is using two model communities to demonstrate state-of-the-art hydrogen fuel cell technology to generate both electricity and hot water for individual residences. "This system can cover about 60 percent of the power consumption and about 80 percent of the hot water supply of typical households," according to Japan for Sustainability. The number of companies involved in these CGC or cogeneration projects reads like a who's who of Japanese business.

In addition to the speaking engagement, I'm also here to work with a Japanese vertical apparel maker. My client is known for their dedication to environmental stewardship, which leads me to the example of Teijin, the best-known maker of sustainably sourced textiles. Teijin recently announced the addition of the 100th participant to their closed-loop polyester reclamation program called Eco Circle. Teijin receives used polyester clothes from its partners, like Patagonia, to make new polyester at the molecular level. The original source of Teijin's polyester is plastic bottles so it is both sustainably sourced and reclaimed. GreenBiz.com wrote that Teijin will be supplying some of their blended polyester fabric to Sears to make eco-friendly men's suits.

Of course, word of GM's impending bankruptcy has everyone debating the future of cars over here. Will hybrids, with sagging sales, win out against EVs or hydrogen-powered vehicles? Who will come up with the most desired battery: the Koreans, the Japanese or the Chinese? And then there is news from Treehugger that Mitsubishi will be ramping up production of their i MiEV compact electric city car. The vehicle is available in Europe and Japan, but not yet in the U.S. In a case of assault and batteries, AutoblogGreen reports the i MiEV is being used in the Kanagawa Prefecture as a stealth police car. Like most EVs, the i MiEV uses lithium ion technology, like in laptops. Meanwhile Japanese and American automakers have been working to establish battery standards that could give them an edge over other countries in the quest to corner the auto battery market, according to Greentech Media.

Evidence of other changes in Japanese transportation can be seen in the number of hybrid buses and delivery trucks that are already on the road. The Japanese postal service has announced plans to move toward fuel-efficient vehicles, and I even saw a three-wheel motorcycle taxi today.

Japan has been the world's largest producer of solar cells and modules for some time. The big players are Sharp, Kyocera, Sanyo and Misubishi. The largest buyer, however, has been Germany. This may be changing as the Japanese government applies more pressure to use renewable energy. I'm seeing evidence all over: A solar powered rail station just opened in Osaka prefecture. Daido Steel is planning to install a sun-tracking solar system that will focus energy onto highly efficient power cells. While Kyushu University is planning solar collectors that will float on the ocean like water lilies. Yes, there is a lot going on.

It's beautiful this time of year in Japan. We're at the height of Sakura, the annual budding of the cherry blossoms. It's a time when Japanese are especially conscious of nature, and nowhere is nature more revered than in Kyoto, a city that has become a center for environmental action and a source for local, handmade and organic products. It's a bit like Burlington, Vermont or Portland, Oregon in that sense. The center of this ancient town is full of little craft shops and restaurants touting something they call, Slow Eco. Crafts, slow food, regional style – these are all things embedded in Japanese culture, so it's nice to see how these traditions are connecting to global environmental awareness.

To wrap this up with some finality, I can report that Tri-Wall K.K., a Japanese maker of packaging materials, has come up with an eco-friendly coffin, called, as you might guess, "Ecoffin". "The main material of the product is triple-layer board, while the fabric for the inner and outer packaging is 100-percent-rayon or 100-percent-cotton, which is a natural material. Furthermore, natural adhesives are used. In addition, the company plants 10 trees for each coffin used. For one funeral, about 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted, but this tree planting offsets these CO2 emissions."

I should point out that my book, The Gort Cloud, reveals how the green community is powering the development of new green brands and products in America. Is there a similar network at work here in Japan? The answer is yes. There are a number of green news organizations, government agencies, advocacy groups and green lifestyle promoters that contribute to a kind of Japanese gort cloud. Japan For Sustainability is one of my favorites with lots of short, up-to-date news items. Alterna is another green news source as is Sotokoto. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment is the ultimate source for all national environmental programs. Greenz.jp is a bit like Treehugger, while JapanGreen.tv channels information including videos to viewer's computer screens. A group called the Japan Environment Association sponsors a Green Purchasing Network, promoting eco-friendly goods and services. My Japanese partner and myself through our company, The Brand Architect Group, are also at work promoting green brand and marketing programs in Japan.

There is little doubt: Japan is building brands for the age of sustainability. They may have been a little late getting started, like the U.S., but Japanese business has heeded the call and is ramping up.

Richard Seireeni is president of The Brand Architect Group, Los Angeles, a strategic brand consultancy with affiliated offices in Tokyo and Shanghai. Richard Seireeni is the author of The Gort Cloud, a book that chronicles the marketing experiences of over two-dozen US green companies and describes the invisible network that is powering today's most successful green brands.

This article was originally posted on GreenBiz.com.