Since 2009 he’s served as the Chairman of the Board on the Nature Conservancy’s China program and says, “Our challenge is to help more people to make healthy money, “sustainable money,” money that is not only good for themselves but also good for the society.”
So what’s behind Jack Ma’s environmental conscience? With vast wealth comes the ability to take a longer term view of the world:
“Most companies, when they’re doing good, they enjoy today’s wonderful life. They don’t worry about five years later—but I worry about five years later,” says Jack Ma. “I think one thing’s for sure — China’s environment will get better in 10 or 20 years. Business people like myself are beginning to pay attention to social issues including the environment and taking action and really treating this issue very seriously. And we’re doing it not for P.R. reasons, but because we know it is important. We know it is serious and that if we don’t take action, it will hurt ourselves, our children and our families.”
McDowall: Our guest is Business Matters regular, Alison van Diggelen. Among her many talents, Alison is an acclaimed interviewer and is host of the Fresh Dialogues series, which you can find online, and which features experts on green technology, sustainable enterprise, celebrities and inspirational women… Alison, good afternoon to you in the Golden State. Can we talk for a minute about Alibaba? What do you make of this chap Jack Ma?
van Diggelen: Well I’m quite impressed by Jack Ma.
Of course, I’m always looking for the environmental, green angle as you mentioned earlier Mike. And he’s probably made enough money for a small country to live on, so he’s really turning his attention to the environment. He’s actually a major player in putting the attention on China’s environment. Its really bad: air pollution, water pollution. So I understand he’s putting 0.3% of the revenues from Alibaba into environmental causes, which I say: three cheers to that! (Reuters reports Alibaba’s revenues were $2.4Bn in the last quarter).
McDowall: Point three percent? Mind you, the revenues are enormous.
van Diggelen: Yes, absolutely. That’s probably a good tranche of money there.
McDowall: So he’s obviously someone we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the future. He appears to be keen to raise his profile internationally. He’s obviously very well known in China and you know, ringing the bell on Wall Street…Yahoo was a big investor. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this guy.
van Diggelen: I think a lot of people…the froth and the excitement…part of the reason for that is that it’s an opportunity for global investors to buy into China’s growth and as everyone knows that is just poised to keep growing. I think only half of the Chinese population is online, so there’s a lot of growth potential there.
McDowall: Sure. We’ll keep watching….
Keep listening to our conversation as we discuss: The Scottish referendum, Larry Ellison’s retirement and why the Ig Nobel Prizes will make you laugh, then make you think.
You can listen to other Fresh Dialogues BBC Conversations here where we discuss: the future of driverless cars, Apple’s green credentials, Tesla’s new gigafactory and many more topics.
Yesterday, I was invited to join the live BBC World Service show, Business Matters to discuss Apple’s green manifesto and its rivalry with Samsung. I was interviewed by the BBC’s talented Manuela Saragosa. Here’s a transcript of the highlights. Listen to the full interview here (green discussion starts at 26:00).
Saragosa: It was Earth Day on Tuesday… there’s been no dimming of the lights here at the BBC…but technology giant, Apple has been laying out its green manifesto to mark Earth Day. The company’s CEO Tim Cook put out a video, announcing a new scheme that allows any product made by Apple to be returned to the company for recycling.
Our guest, Alison van Diggelen is in California’s Silicon Valley. Alison, green business issues are your thing, what do you make of Apple’s manifesto? Is there substance to it do you think?
van Diggelen: I think there is substance to it. The reason they put out this video is: Greenpeace has been snapping at Apple’s heels for quite some time. I did a story a couple of years ago (for NPR’s KQED Radio) when they were looking at data centers. Greenpeace came up with their own quasi Apple ad (cunningly called iCoal), showing that every time you download something or send a photo on your iPhone, you’re putting more smog into the atmosphere. It was very clever and got Apple’s attention, and now they’re really moving ahead (According to a recent EPA report – Apple is now in the top 10 clean energy users nationally and uses 92% clean energy). One of their major data centers (in North Carolina) where they do Apple iCloud, has 100% green power: clean energy, using solar and fuel cells.
In the video, they’re doing a little chest thumping, saying “Look at us – here’s what we’re doing!” And of course, launching it on the week of Earth Day was a very clever move, a strategic move…
I do think Apple deserves to be lauded. It could do more, but I think shining a light on what it’s doing so far is good.
Saragosa: But it’s come a hugely long way. I know that in 2006, Greenpeace published its first guide to green electronics and at that point it rated Apple among the worst companies (it ranked 11 out of 14 companies). I suppose things have changed quite a lot since then.
van Diggelen: Yes. I think Greenpeace deserves credit for doing what it can to put the pressure on. This report it released went through all the major tech companies: Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter (Amazon), saying: “Here’s what they’re doing folks!” Companies that you think of as pretty green and green advocates like Google, they’re not doing enough. They could do more.
The interesting thing with Tim Cook that your listeners will definitely be interested in is that at a recent shareholders’ meeting, someone stood up and said: “We don’t like what you’re doing with all those clean energy data centers. Couldn’t you be using your funds to make better products…do other things?”
Saragosa: But is that a widely held view?
van Diggelen: This is the interesting thing: Tim Cook struck back at them. He said: “We believe that we must make the world a better place.” He stood up and said this to the shareholders…”If you don’t agree with it, sell your shares! Which was quite gutsy of him I thought. Since then Richard Branson (CEO Virgin Atlantic etc) has said the same (He recently wrote, “Businesses should never be entirely focused on the bottom line…I would urge climate deniers to get out of our way!“) So I think it’s great to see high profile CEO’s like Tim Cook and Richard Branson are doing that, and saying: Hey! We need to think about the environment, we need to think about our impact on the environment. I’m cheered by that.
Listen to more of our discussion re Apple vs Samsung battle, copycats, tech recycling, and safe disposal of electronic goods.
We also explored attitudes to the environment and clean energy in Asia with David Kuo of the Motley Fool in Singapore; and discussed the devastating levels of pollution in China’s major cities.
van Diggelen: I recently spoke with Andrew Chung, who’s a Chinese American venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. He’s doing a lot of work in China and he was telling me about one of the (green) companies he’s investing in. The impetus in China is huge: they’re having to do it because the pollution is so intense, people are dying from the pollution.
One of these companies that’s completely addressing that is LanzaTech. They’re capturing the carbon monoxide pollution from steelmakers outside Shanghai and using it to create valuable fuel and chemicals, rather than ‘just’ capturing it. It’s a really interesting solution: a win win. A win for the environment, but it’s also a money maker and great for the steelmakers. So that’s the kind of play that’s going on in China.
It’s been a stellar year at Fresh Dialogues. Here are our top ten green interviews: from Tesla’s Elon Musk to Google’s Rick Needham. Most are exclusive Fresh Dialogues interviews, but some were special assignments for NPR’s KQED, The Computer History Museum, The Commonwealth Club and The Churchill Club (2013).
1.Elon Musk on burning oil, climate change and electric vehicles
“It’s the world’s dumbest experiment. We’re playing Russian roulette and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise… We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what.” Tesla CEO, Elon Musk. Read more/ see video
“I want to see a standard that could bring this country back to international prominence in terms of leaning in to a low carbon green growth strategy, so that we can dramatically change the way we produce and consume energy and lead the world.”Gavin Newsom, Lt. Governor of California. Read more/ see video
7. Steven Chu on climate change deniers
“I’d put them in the same category as people who said, in the 60′s and 70′s, that you haven’t proved to me that smoking causes cancer. This is a real issue. We have to do something about it!” Former Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Read more/see video
8. GM’s Pam Fletcher on electric vehicle adoption
“We need a lot of customers excited about great products. I want to keep people focused on all the good things that moving to electrified transportation can do for customers and for the country.” GM’s Chief of Electrified Vehicles, Pam Fletcher. Read more/ see video
9. Laurie Yoler on why Tesla is succeeding, despite the odds
“You know you’re on to something good when everyone you talk to is a naysayer. It takes a huge amount of courage and tenacity to continue going forth.” Qualcomm executive and founding board member of Tesla Motors, Laurie Yoler. Read more/see video at 11:20
10. Rick Needham on self driving cars, car sharing and Google’s electric car fleet
“It’s not just the car that’s underutilized; it’s the infrastructure, the roads…There’s an enormous opportunity…on the environmental side, on the human safety side, on utilization of infrastructure side.” Google’s Rick Needham. Read more/see video
It’s well known that green roofs are good for the environment, but did you know they can have major impact on your productivity and energy costs? Paul Kephart has been building green (or living) roofs for over twenty years, from Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. We met at one of his Silicon Valley projects, the Stanford Medical Center, and he explained how green roofs not only save in heating/cooling costs, but can increase worker productivity and even speed up patient recovery rates. He predicts that green roofs will go mainstream in the near future, especially in California where companies like Facebook are embracing the concept. Check out Facebook’s new Frank Gehry campus design featuring a rooftop park. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
What is a green (or living) roof?
“A layer of soil and plant material that typically covers the top of a structure…We find these on residential, civic and commercial buildings throughout North America.”
“They cool the city by decreasing the ambient temperature around the building by as much as 60 degrees in the summer months; they also help us save on our energy costs by thermally regulating the building envelope and increasing energy efficiency and reducing the cool load by up to 20 degrees in the conditioned space…they provide habitat for migratory birds and insects: butterflies, humming birds…”
“We know in a hospital setting..when patients have access to green, they heal 35% faster. That’s one of the reasons why Lucille Packard Hospital incorporated this greening as part of the structure.”
How do they help during a storm like Hurricane Sandy?
“One of their main benefits is storm water management. It’s like a big sponge. When it rains, all that water is absorbed in that column of soil and it mitigates for these flash flood events…They become more resilient to these catastrophic events or more resilient long term to changes in climate or spikes in energy demand.”
What’s driving the use of green roofs in the private sector for companies like Facebook?
“What we’re trying to do is protect the structure, the building envelope, regulate its thermal performance which means a great life cycle analysis for those that are interested in that bottom line. That’s one of the key components, one of the primary drivers of this greening movement in North America and beyond It’s why this industry has grown 80% over the last five years. We’re seeing a return on investment. This landscape is a non-mowed California grassland..it takes very little input and water to provide a beautiful green space, fresh air, habitat. ”
“When people have access to a park or greenery or look out of their corporate offices on this kind of setting, that they’re more productive and have less absenteeism. That’s why you see corporate America, like Facebook saying let’s build this beautiful park on top of our structure. Corporate America begins to adopt a greening and sustainable standard as part of its architecture, it’s a great statement…and demonstrates that it’s possible…California is going to adopt these green measures and it’s going to take off.”
What’s in the future for green roofs?
“With political will and public education and this emphasis on financial return on energy savings, we can turn this around and green our cities.”
This Fresh Dialogues interview was recorded at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, December 20, 2012. Camera work and stills courtesy of Lina Broydo.
“We are a community of change agents,” said Sarandon. “Bringing about the world we want for our children.”
In a video tribute at the Bently Reserve, Will.i.am enthused about healthy design being a human right, and thanked Bill McDonough for inspiring him. “It’s my mission…to create products that after we use them have a new beginning,” said the popular singer songwriter, and quipped, pointing first at himself then at Bill McDonough: “Will.i.am…Bill.i.am.”
The newly crowned “Bill.i.am” came on stage to great applause and was obviously amused by his tributes. He announced his upcoming book, “The Upcycle” (a tome on upcycling to be released in 2013) and what he called “his baby,” a Bill Clinton inspired solution to homelessness in Haiti and beyond.
“What if we could design a house that could be built by children and their parents in a day without tools?” said McDonough, who is well known for his visionary zeal. He showed the audience a model of a simple one room home, made of ‘upcycled’ plastic no doubt. He dreams that these homes could be shipped in flatpacks to earthquake and storm damaged areas, wherever there is a need around the world.
“What if we could do (for building) what Muhammad Yunus did for banking?” said McDonough, alluding to the microfinance guru who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work alleviating poverty in Bangladesh.
Perhaps McDonough has a similar award in mind? He’s won many awards in the green design field (including three Presidential Awards for Sustainable Development and Design), and has taken some criticism, but one thing is for certain, he’s never been short on grand vision. Witness the 6-hour long Monticello Dialogues.
He may yet succeed in taking Cradle to Cradle mainstream and making the world a healthier and greener place. With allies like Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Will.i.am who can doubt him?
Click here to see highlights of Fresh Dialogues exclusive interview with Meryl Streep at the event.
The video was recorded at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute Gala, the Bently Reserve, San Francisco on Wednesday November 14, 2012.