We Can Reverse Climate Change (And We Must Start Now)
Nancy Hirshberg is founder and Chief Catalyst at the sustainability consulting firm Hirshberg Strategic, and co-founder of Climate Collaborative, an organization working to leverage the power of the natural products industry to reverse climate change. Nancy has worked at the intersection of food, business and the environment for over 25 years, notably leading the award-winning agricultural and sustainability initiatives at Stonyfield Farm during her tenure there. She has served as vice president of the Organic Trade Association and is currently director of the American Farmland Trust, as well as an advisor for Climate Access and Preserve.
“I think the role of business in our world has just completely changed, and that when you have an issue like climate change—the biggest threat to our world, to this generation—that businesses have to take a leading role in it,” says Nancy.
This is a woman who doesn’t just talk the talk about reversing climate change, she walks the walk, and has been for years. Nancy’s career has embodied this belief that businesses should be forefront in fixing this particular problem. She led Stonyfield Farm to be the first manufacturer to calculate their carbon footprint in the late ’90s, long before it became common practice among conscientious organizations.
Nancy explains that she left Stonyfield because she felt climate change was reaching a level of urgency that required her full energy and attention. “Unlike many other issues, we don’t have much time to turn this around. We have the ability, we have the solutions, we just don’t have the political will right now,” she says. The Climate Collaborative was created in direct response to this sentiment—Nancy and her fellow co-founders are determined to make progress, political will or not. “We’re trying to do things differently because what we have been doing hasn’t been working,” she says of Climate Collaborative’s efforts to unite the natural products industry to reverse climate change.
For such new organization (founded in only March 2017) Climate Collaborative’s work is going very well. “I really truly do believe—even in my darkest moments the past six or eight months—that we are at a tipping point of awareness and of action,” Nancy says.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Nancy Hirshberg, founder and chief catalyst at the sustainability consulting firm Hirshberg Strategic. Nancy is also a co-founder of an exciting new initiative called Climate Collaborative, and she is also the former vice president of natural resources at Stonyfield Farms. Nancy, so great to have you on the show today and to be talking about this very important topic.
NANCY HIRSHBERG: Thank you, Theresa. It’s great to be here.
TM: And you know, I’m going to have to ask if we can go back in time. I know Nancy because we worked together on various things while she was a vice president of natural resources at Stonyfield Farms. And you know, Stonyfield has had such a wonderful reputation for sustainability and agricultural initiatives. And Nancy, I know you had a huge part in it. I just wondered if you could share what were some of the things that really put Stonyfield on the map, that you worked on, with regards to sustainability and just this greater awareness of just why the environment is so important when we think about food.
NH: Well, let’s see. I started at Stonyfield in 1991. And at that time, to be a good environmental steward meant you followed environmental regulations. It was not a very evolved… So we began, I think the first thing we did, we were the first manufacturer in the world, to my knowledge, to do carbon offsets. We heard about AES doing them with rainforests and started that process, and that was in the early ’90s. We were the first manufacturer to do a carbon footprint back in the late ’90s.
And I think, for me personally, one of the most if not the most exciting thing that I was involved with at Stonyfield, which did involve Organic Valley farmers, was the number-one source of our greenhouse gas emissions was actually the cows themselves—enteric emissions, the burps from the cows. And we did an incredible pilot where we changed the feed that they were eating, just added flax to the diet, and it dramatically decreased the greenhouse gas emissions from the cows, and it increased the omega-3s in the milk andimproved the health of the animals. And it was so the win for everyone—the cows, the farmers, the environment. So that was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with, really.
TM: That was a very excellent project. And so this idea of enteric emissions—could you just talk a little bit about what is that, in case some of our listeners aren’t sure what that is.
NH: Sure. So first of all, when we do, say, when we do a carbon footprint, we’re looking for the climate impact from farm to fork or spoon—everywhere in the supply chain where we impact the climate. And in the case of Stonyfield, the biggest place where we had an impact was on the farm, at the farm level, and the cows themselves. And enteric emissions, just the natural process of the cows chewing their cud, digesting their food, and so forth, causes methane to be released. And methane is a very, very potent greenhouse gas, each molecule 25 times more impactful than a molecule of carbon dioxide.
So the way we approached it at Stonyfield, looking at our carbon footprint, is where do we have the biggest impact? Where is the biggest opportunity? And when we first got this, back in the late ’90s, we were like, oh, okay—number one is cows. Well, we don’t have a clue what to do with the cows, so we’re going to work on everything else. We worked on packaging and transportation and our facilities and so forth—and then spent the next ten years trying to figure out what the heck do we do with the cows. And that’s when we learned about this wonderful program to change the feed. And that’s what enteric emissions are.
TM: And wasn’t there part of the study showed that flax, it also increased the omegas and that, in fact, the omegas and the lower enteric, while I don’t think we had enough studies to prove it conclusively, but it looked like there was a very close correlation between high-omega healthy-fatty-acid milk and lower enteric. There’s still going to be enteric emissions, but they were lower.
NH: Yes, absolutely. So when I started the project, it was because of the environmental benefits—enteric emissions—and I knew nothing about the nutritional aspect. And we started baselining the milk, so we tested organic milk from Organic Valley farms, who were supplying us; we tested conventional milk. And just before we did anything to it, the organic milk had more than twice the omega-3s of the conventional, and it had a much, much better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Those should be a roughly one-to-one ratio.
Then, when we started the project and started feeding high omega-3s… And so cows are getting omega-3s from the grass when they’re on grass, but in the winter months, at least in Wisconsin and New Hampshire, where we’re from, in the winter months they aren’t getting the fresh grass. And so we supplemented at that point with the flax, and that increased the omega-3s in the milk and had a correlation with a decrease in enteric emissions as well.
So it was really interesting, when we went to the farmers to ask if they’d participate in the pilot, a lot of the old-timers said, “Oh, you know, when I was a kid, we used to feed flax when we wanted the cow to have a shiny fur, and they got the best breath from it,” and so forth. So intuitively, I think, a lot of the old-timers knew that this was better for the cows, better for the environment as well.
TM: Well, you know what I think is just wonderful about it, and that’s why it’s such a pleasure to be interviewing you, is that you have always, and through Stonyfield especially, felt that business has a very important role in doing this kind of research and being, what would you say, conscientious in trying to contribute to solutions. What made you think that we should have that connection between business and doing good?
NH: Well, that was why Stonyfield was created. I mean, it truly came… Stonyfield began as an organic farming school, taught biodynamic farming, and started making yogurt to raise money for the school, realized that the yogurt could be a vehicle for education but also for figuring out, can you have a business that doesn’t destroy the planet and makes money and is profitable? So that was the core, and I was very, just fortunate to work at Stonyfield. But I think that over the past 25 years or 30 years since then, I think the role of business in our world has just completely changed, and that when you have an issue like climate change, the biggest threat to our world, this generation, that businesses have to take a leading role in it, whether it’s advocating for policy or reducing emissions or whatever. We’re not going to be able to make the change without businesses supporting it.
TM: And I know that that’s something that you feel quite strongly, even passionate about, and it’s led you to work for a number of very excellent brands: Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Califa Farms, Beyond Meat, Danone, Seventh Generation. What kind of initiatives are you helping these businesses be aware of and perhaps even be involved in, and how can they contribute to change?
NH: Well, about four years ago I decided it was time for me to leave Stonyfield because I really wanted to focus on climate. At the time, at Stonyfield, I was in charge of both our agriculture and organic and our sustainability efforts, and working on super exciting issues in organic and non-GMO and so forth, as well as climate. But I just felt the imperative of climate, and I just felt I had to leave so I could focus on that. And so I started working for companies, in most cases helping them with their climate efforts and improving their climate practices, building their strategic planning around climate, and so forth. So you’re right, I have—I just feel so fortunate to have worked for some incredible companies doing really exciting, cutting-edge work.
So it’s everything from packaging efforts, developing their overall climate strategy, reporting. I did a really neat project—Ben & Jerry’s is doing just some incredible cutting-edge work with their farmers on sustainability, reducing the impact, improving the lives of the farm workers and the farmers, the community as well. So just a whole range of things, but really trying to keep focused on climate.
TM: Well, you know, when you talk about some of the work that you’ve done, and you said, “I’m focusing on climate,” but then you also just brought up this idea of the social impact, even the social justice impact. How do you see that connection between the climate and some of the social issues?
NH: Well, it’s fascinating for me, coming from the organic world, where we’ve been working on standards for decades, and it’s pretty advanced—I’d say sort of a, even young adulthood in terms of the development, whereas so many of these things, like social justice issues in agriculture, are just really much more towards the starting line. And I would say, when it comes to climate, there’s a whole lot of room for improvement in terms of climate justice. I think it’s really far behind. The challenge with climate is that there’s such an enormous imperative and so much that needs to happen, it can feel overwhelming to people. And we all have to work together—the social justice community, the climate justice community, the environmental communities, the religious communities, and so forth. So I think people often are in their little siloes and they don’t cross. And frankly, myself included.
TM: I’m thinking about our current administration, and some of the things that are happening right now. And it’s worrisome because it seems like there are lots of people in our current administration that, if they believe in climate change, they’re acting as if it doesn’t exist. What are you thinking about that? And can you kind of like expand on why that should be of a concern?
NH: Well, I think it’s been really challenging the past six months, and frankly, very depressing for a lot of people who care deeply about climate. And before the administration came into office, if you asked the question, “Do you think we can reduce global warming?” only 48 percent of Americans said yes. So already it feels overwhelming and huge to people. Then if we asked, “Do you think we will successfully reduce global warming?” only 5 percent of Americans said yes. And if you don’t believe you can or you will, we’re not going to. And so it just leads to, it’s this negative feedback loop. So that’s what we have to change.
And I think what’s happened—you saw it when President Trump pulled out of the Paris Treaty—is an amazing statistic that we put on the Climate Collaborative Facebook page, a chart that shows Google searches for “climate change.” And it has back when the Paris Treaty was signed, and all sorts of key milestones. And then it has when President Trump pulled out of the Paris Treaty, and it was like five times more conversation around climate change than ever before. So, while it was devastating and terrible, I do think it caused people who never before cared or voiced concern about climate to really step up.
And so people now are more concerned than ever. So businesses that have never spoken up before are saying, “No, no, no, this is ridiculous. We need to act.” So the bottom line is, whether the administration moves forward or not with it, I think it’s pretty clear it’s going to hurt them in the future, in future elections, and also the business community and the public in general has been activated because of it.
TM: You know, you mentioned, when we were talking before the interview began, that there is some new news out about what’s going to happen in the next three years with climate. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
NH: It really was speaking to the imperative. And that’s why, frankly, I got so discouraged when the election happened and climate deniers came into office, because unlike many other issues, we don’t have much time to turn this around. And we have the ability, we have the solution, we just don’t have the political will right now. And so a group this week, actually—in fact, I think it was this week or last week—Christiana Figueres, who heads the UN work on climate, and colleagues set out a six-point plan for turning the tide on CO2 by 2020.
And the reason that’s so important, and I’m going to read from this article, is, although “In the past three years, global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have levelled after rising for decades. This is a sign that policies and investments in climate mitigation are starting to pay off.” But then it says, “According to an April report (prepared by Carbon Tracker in London, [and some other groups, including Yale]), should emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature goals set in Paris [will] become almost unattainable.” So we need to start turning this around right now. We’re on the right path—we need to ramp it up, not move in the other direction, which is the desire of the Trump Administration.
So businesses have just stepped up. When we started approaching companies for, when we were developing the Climate Collaborative, the enthusiasm was unbelievable. People are saying, “Yes, tell me what to do. What is it that we need to do to get engaged?”
TM: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Nancy Hirshberg, who is co-founder of Climate Collaborative, which we’re going to hear about very soon, as well as working with many businesses on the climate, and many food businesses on the climate.
Nancy, you were just talking about this idea of carbon emissions, they’re over 400, and warnings coming out that we just cannot go more than that. I just got a copy of this wonderful book, Drawdown, by Paul Hawken, in which there are like 100 ways. I’m sure you’re familiar with that book because I know Paul has worked with you on the Climate Collaborative, which we’re going to talk about soon. But what do you think—can we, the public, and businesses, despite the current political climate, be able to kind of take ahold of emissions and make sure they don’t go any higher, and even try and reverse them?
NH: You know, since the whole climate issue came to the fore, the original Al Gore film and so forth, a lot of the messaging was doom and gloom, and melting glaciers, and starving polar bears, and really horrible images. And it doesn’t really make us feel empowered to turn this around. And what we should be arguing about is not whether or not climate change is happening, or how fast it’s happening, but we should be arguing about the solutions and implementing the solutions. They are around us.
And so it’s really important that we focus on what we can do, and we can do now, and there is so much. And not only that, it’s going to lead to a quality of life and a future that is much better. When you stop and envision a future when we’ve addressed climate change, you’re going to have cities that are silent, they’re quiet, because there’s no more combustion engines. You’re going to have homes that are more comfortable because they’re nice and energy-efficient and tight. You’re going to have better transportation modes that make your life much easier, much more mass transit. All these things that not only address this huge crisis that we’re facing and this challenge, but also improve the quality of life for all people.
TM: Well, that’s very hopeful. Thank you for that, because it is a little bit of a topic that kind of can make you depressed. We started out by talking about how cows can put less methane into the air, but the Climate Collaborative is an exciting idea that was your brainchild, Nancy, and I’d love for you to talk a little bit about it. How did you come about thinking about the Climate Collaborative and then decide to act on it and see what you could do?
NH: Well, I just have to correct you, that it’s the product of four amazing women who I’ve had the great opportunity to work with. So what happened was, a couple of years ago I was at Net Impact, which is a college sustainability program, and I was on a panel with Lara Dickinson, who is the head of OSC2 (“OSC squared”), which is a Bay Area–based group working with CEOs on sustainability; and Jessica Rolph, who was the COO at the time and co-founder of Happy Family. And they were asking me about having left Stonyfield and what I’m doing next, and I told them about I really need to focus on climate. And they said, “Oh my gosh, we were just talking a couple weeks ago. We said we need to do something. We need to organize the natural products industry.” And at that time, it was right around the Paris Treaty meetings, and they said, “Why does the natural products industry not have any visibility and presence there? What are we doing? We need to ramp up our activities.”
So we started working together, brainstorming ideas. We immediately said—the other sustainability leader in the industry is the Sustainable Food Trade Association, so we brought in Katherine DiMatteo. So the four of us worked together and developed what is now the Climate Collaborative.
March of that year we went to the Natural Products Expo, and we had a small, invite-only meeting of top CEOs and chief sustainability officers, and presented this idea of organizing the industry, being a catalyst in the industry to say, “Listen, this matters to our consumers, it matters to our supply chains. We need to ramp up activity.” And we got an enthusiastic thumbs-up. You were there, Theresa—thank you for your thumbs-up. You were one of the chief cheerleaders. And interestingly, the chief cheerleaders there were you and Robin from National Cooperative Grocers, and all women. And we immediately got to work, and by fall we had a plan. That was almost a year ago, so…and started fundraising. And the companies that immediately stepped up and said, “We have to do this” were National Co-op Grocers, Organic Valley, and Dr. Bronner’s, as well as Happy Family.
So from then on, immediately, as soon as we started talking to companies, people said, “This is it. You’re right. The industry has led on animal welfare, on organic, on antibiotic-free, on so many things, and now we need to focus on climate change.” And it’s just been an incredible ride the last eight months. So we officially launched in March of this year, March of 2017, at Natural Products Expo. And I should mention, from the very first day, even before these initial conversations, New Hope and Carlotta Mast at New Hope was integral, saying that for New Hope Network, this was… The nexus(?) of food and climate is a key issue, and that they wanted to be a part, so they’ve been an incredible partner since we started.
TM: So, Nancy, how many members do we have now?
NH: Well, you know, it’s interesting the way we’ve structured it. We didn’t want it to be “members.” I’ll tell you how it works. We ask companies to make a commitment to climate action in one of nine areas. So we identified nine areas where you can make a commitment to climate action, and those include integrating carbon farming into your supply chain, or increasing energy efficiency, or decreasing food waste, removing deforestation from your supply chain, engagement in climate policy, reducing the climate impact of packaging, committing to renewable power, and the last two are reducing short-lived climate pollutants, like the methane that we were talking about earlier, and reducing the climate impacts of transportation.
So we ask people to make a commitment to one or more of those, and we have, I think, eight companies who have committed to all nine of those. And then they go about taking action. We provide webinars and resources on our website, and so forth, to help them create networks for companies to meet with each other. And then each year they report back to us on how they’re doing with progress. It’s really trying to be a catalyst, to help companies to raise the profile, to make it something that is a must-do, not a nice-to-do.
I think back to ten years ago, when there was no non-GMO label, and very quickly it became something that, in the natural products industry, or natural foods industry, people had to have. You weren’t going to be on the shelf if you weren’t organic or non-GMO. And so we’re really trying to have climate be the same thing. You need to be engaged in climate action, actively engaged, if you’re going to be on the shelf in the natural products industry.
So companies have been amazing. I was talking with Katherine DiMatteo, who really started OTA, basically, and has been very involved in SFTA for years. And she said, after we had the launch at Expo West, she said, “I just don’t understand why this has been so successful.” And I think it’s because people are desperate for something to do. They don’t know what to do. It feels so large and so overwhelming.
TM: So, you know, I started out by saying, “How many members?” I should have asked how many companies, individual companies do you have involved in the nine different areas that people can take action, businesses can take action?
NH: Well, I think this week we hit, since March, 80 companies have signed on—we were at 77 last week, I think we have 80 now. And about, they’ve made a total of 300 commitments, so committed to action in 300 different ways, in each of those areas.
TM: Wow, that’s after three months? Pretty good!
NH: I know! Our year-one goal is 100, so hopefully by Expo East we’ll have hit our goal of 100, and hopefully the momentum will continue and it will be exponential. I will say we started with food—it was very strategic and intentional—but our goal longer-term is to branch out into natural products. So already we’ve been in conversations with groups like Seventh Generation and so forth. Dr. Bronner’s, which isn’t a food product, was one of the first to the table as well. So it is about natural products.
We started with food because, as you pointed out with Paul Hawken’s book, what Paul says is that we all think of climate change and we think of the oil companies and coal and fossil fuels, but really the supply chain—just like we were talking about with the enteric emissions—is where most of the impact, or climate impact, comes from, whether it’s energies or enteric emissions. So food is the single biggest opportunity in terms of both reduction and in terms of the carbon sequestration opportunity through agriculture. So improving the soil, sequestering carbon in the soils, in trees, in plant matter, et cetera.
TM: Nancy, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the kind of work that you’ve done. I’m so glad that you pointed out that it’s Lara Dickinson, Jess Rolph, and Katherine DiMatteo, and yourself. It makes me want to ask and/or point out, do women have, do you think, maybe a special call in trying to help with these solutions around food and climate?
NH: It’s a really good question. I think women have a different approach than men do, and I think that ties into why we have been so successful in this launch, in that this is not about the Climate Collaborative or about any of us. It’s about driving action and a focus on that. And I think women are more equipped to focus on what will bring us together, how we can collaborate together, and sort of take the ego piece out of it as much as can be done. I know when Lara was talking with Paul Hawken and mentioned that it was all women, he said, “Ah, of course!” So I think the key is that we’re trying to do things differently because what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working and it hasn’t been reaching people.
I really, truly do believe, even in my darkest moments the past six or eight months, that we are at a tipping point of awareness and of action. And there’s some super exciting, positive solutions happening around us. We just have to all scale it up.
When I was preparing for Climate Day at Expo West, I was talking with one of the potential speakers, and he was talking about climate denial and talking about in our industry the climate deniers. And I said, “No, I don’t think in our industry we really have climate deniers. They believe deeply in climate change—they just don’t know what to do.” And he said, “Nancy, those are climate deniers. If I told you I have cancer, my doctor told me I have cancer, and I’ve decided I’m not going to do anything about it because I just don’t, you know, I can’t deal with it, you would say ‘You’re a denier.’” And he said it’s the same thing with climate. If you know that this is one of the worst things, challenges, crises facing our world and you’re not taking action, you are a climate denier.
And I thought that was incredibly powerful to think of it that way. It’s not enough to care. We need to take action. And that’s really what the Collaborative is about.
TM: Well, that is a very good perspective, and I can’t say that I disagree with that very much, because it’s a very good point. So thank you so much for all of the work that you’re doing there. And I guess, I think, you know, that even though we have a lot of what might be “climate deniers” in our current administration, it sounds to me that this is the opportunity now for business to step up, and that we’re seeing that. Businesses are saying, “Okay, we’re going to do something about it.” So you’re doing it, and it looks like a lot of other businesses are going to join you. I hope that at some point in time we go from 80 to 580. And I just want to thank you for all the work that you’re doing, and thank you for just being out there, getting it done.
NH: Well, thank you, Theresa. And thank you for getting the word out. And again, companies can go to climatecollaborative.com. It’s super simple—we’ve made it as easy as possible. And there’s a lot of resources there to help companies on their journey.
TM: It’s an excellent website for everyone.
NH: Thank you.