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Meet EcoPlanet Bamboo: the Apple computer of timber

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US entrepreneur Troy Wiseman tells Alex Blackburne about his mission to make bamboo the natural world’s next disruptive technology – while making money, providing deforestation-free solutions and helping eradicate poverty. 

How does a boy from the US deep south end up being a pioneer in the global sustainable forestry industry? Ask Troy Wiseman that question and he sees it as a fairly linear progression.

The CEO and founder of EcoPlanet Bamboo – a firm leading the way in large-scale bamboo plantations – has always wanted to invest in things that make a difference. And what matters to him above all else? People.

When we started EcoPlanet Bamboo, I didn’t say I wanted to go save the trees; I wanted to go save the people. I wanted to create jobs so they had hope. It really wasn’t about creating a solution to deforestation of natural forest for me; it was about giving these poor people a job so their kids can have food in the table and go to school.”

An entrepreneur from an early age, at 17-year-old Wiseman left his humble home in the south-east US (“where Top Gear can’t go anymore”, he laughs, “those are my people”) and three years later he co-founded his own global clothing company. In the space of just over six years, he had turned it into a $120m company, with manufacturing in 19 countries. He sold his stake in 1992, leaving California for the midwest to start his next venture.

At 27, Wiseman founded and ran for 14 years the private equity-based financial services firm InvestLinc Group, as well as co-founding a foundation called World Orphans. The latter continues to help orphaned and abandoned children in developing world communities, primarily through funding infrastructure costs of homes in connection with the local community or church. To date, it has helped fund over 500 homes across 45 countries.

Meanwhile, by the time he was 40, he had joined the likes of Walt Disney, Orson Welles and four US presidents in being named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans, receiving the TOYA award in 2006.

EcoPlanet was born in 2010 during a visit to look at an investment in a bamboo project in Thailand, where the economics of bamboo showed clear evidence of its ability – if executed correctly – to be a true “triple bottom line” opportunity. It didn’t take long for him to realise that bamboo represented an opportunity to not only make money, but create positive social and environmental impact. It instantly became his ‘timber’ of choice.

After assessing the potential to start commercial bamboo plantations in a number of countries, EcoPlanet Bamboo settled on Central America – in particular, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the western hemisphere with over 50% of the population living on less than $2 a day, and where Wiseman had a long history of working. It is also home to vast swathes of degraded land caused by of deforestation. Wiseman knew this location also provided attractive business advantages because it was very close to the US market, which not only reduced his carbon footprint but gave him a significant logistical and financial advantage over Asia-based industries.

Bamboo – a grass whose fibre has similar characteristics and uses to timber – could and should be planted on degraded land, so there is no conflict with land needed to produce food; it regenerates biodiversity and counteracts poverty through long-term job creation; it captures more carbon than any tree; it helps improve the water table; it prevents flooding; and it provides a sustainable alternative fibre, mitigating climate change through reducing deforestation.

EcoPlanet only grows bamboo that is native to and/or approved in the country it is operating in – and more specifically, it only grows specific tropical clumping bamboos. The misconception, Wiseman says, is that all bamboo is invasive and runs wild, out of control. This is true for many species, but with a clumping bamboo the 30-40 culms (or poles) stay contained within a 15 sq metre area – the size of a reasonable hotel room.

And the bamboo gods were clearly on Wiseman’s side, with the native Nicaraguan bamboo species, guadua aculeata, one of the best timber bamboo species in the world, flowering at the exact same time he was looking to enter the market. Tropical clumping bamboos tend to mass flower, and seed only every 60-100 years, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he couldn’t afford to overlook.

The problem was no one had ever done this commercially or on a large scale”, he explains on the seventh floor of London’s InterContinental Hotel. Most bamboo is cultivated and harvested by thousands of smallholders, with little quality control or regulation on standards.

So to do that, we knew that we had to set certain benchmarks from an environmental and social perspective. Don’t get me wrong – we’re a capitalist company, we’re about profit. We’re not ashamed about making money. But there is a right way to do it.

We also don’t believe that you have to give up return to ‘do good’. People say, ‘I can only make 5% because I’m saving the world’, but we say they’re just bad executers and not working hard enough.”

EcoPlanet recruited a native workforce. Wiseman recalls how most of these workers, when it came to their first payday, didn’t know how to write their name. As a way around this, they coloured their thumbs with blue ink from a Bic pen and took thumbprints until the employees had learnt to write. Now, each plantation has a school, a clinic and access to clean water.

Investing an initial $10m into the first plantations proved the commitment, the mission and the vision. But what has really proved EcoPlanet Bamboo’s business model is a success is the three consecutive years of profits; the creating over 500 jobs for some of the poorest communities in Central America and Africa; the sequestering of 1.5m tons of carbon; the restoring of thousands of acres of degraded land into fully functional and biodiverse ecosystems; and its multi-dimensional sustainability, as verified by third-party independent certification schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) and the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).

Many global leaders also feel the same, with EcoPlanet Bamboo invited to present at Forest Day at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) annual conference in 2012 and a year later at the United Nations Forum on Forestry. More recently, the firm featured as a double-page spread in the official publication of the G7 Summit held in Brussels. EcoPlanet Bamboo was also the first carbon offset project to receive political risk insurance – because of its involvement in the sometimes politically unstable countries – with the World Bank giving it risk backing worth $27m.

The firm’s values and commitment to ‘do well by doing good’ meant Wiseman’s workforce no longer feared about not being able to feed their children; their fear was now that they could one day lose that if something dreadful happened. So EcoPlanet committed to buying each and every employee a $5,000 life insurance policy – so if the unspeakable did happen, their families would still not lose that hope.

Wiseman says such decisions come naturally – they are no-brainers: “It’s about balancing your head and heart. Your head says, ‘How can I make money?’ and your heart says, ‘How can I help people and make the world a better place?’ I wanted to prove with EcoPlanet that you don’t have to choose between making strong financial returns or creating maximum social and environmental impacts.”

But where does philosophy this come from?

It comes from being a poor kid going to school with track shoes from K-Mart instead of Nike. It comes from having Kentucky Fried Chicken or marbles as your birthday present. It comes from knowing there are people out there that were born into a certain path of life and that what they need is hope. If you can give them hope, what they do with that hope is up to them.”

Bamboo’s potential is clearly underreported. Traditionally bamboo is used in niche products and markets. Wiseman aims to change this paradigm and push bamboo as a fibre into mainstream manufacturing channels. That’s why he predicts that EcoPlanet could actually shake up the timber industry in the same way that Apple shook up computing. John Couch, an early executive vice-president at Apple, hired directly by Steve Jobs, sat on the board at Wiseman’s clothing company and was a long-time mentor.

Our goal is, and always has been, to be the Apple computer of the timber industry”, Wiseman says.

When Apple started, they had to go against ‘Big Blue’ IBM – the god of computers. They had a mission, they had a vision, they cared about their people, they cared about doing something different, they cared about quality, they cared about margins, they cared about creating solutions for their customers, and they weren’t scared of Big Blue.”

But the similarities between the two brands do not stop there: “Apple weren’t trying to replace every PC on everybody’s desktop, any more then we are trying to replace all timber products with an alternative sustainable fibre – bamboo. But they did know what was important to the next generation consumer.

Apple did what EcoPlanet Bamboo is doing which is take a very well-established industry and create better products through innovation, creativity and collaboration of like-minded people. It was largely through Steve Jobs’s all-out stubbornness and determination to stay true to his mission, and the needs of the conscious consumer, fighting a battle against well-established giant companies and the political pressure brought by their well-funded lobbying groups that allowed Apple to create a disruptive PC and many other disruptive technologies that have helped make the world a better and easier place to live.”

Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal, is bringing similar fight to the automotive industry, with his pioneering and disruptive electric car firm Tesla Motors.

Wiseman concludes, “There’s a new disruptive technology that has arrived and it’s called bamboo. We believe we are going to be the Apple of the timber industry by providing a sustainable alternative fibre to global companies who are listening to their next generation sustainably-minded consumers and honestly care.”

Troy Wiseman is an entrepreneur and philanthropist with nearly three decades of experience in socially-focused business and conscious capitalism.

Further reading:

FAO: forests vital in sustainable development and reducing poverty

An investment you can touch beats dealing with pure numbers

FAO: agricultural emissions have doubled in 50 years

Sustainable investment is about optimisation, not maximisation

Existing city infrastructure can be ‘reprogrammed’

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2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environmentally Sustainable Furniture for Dummies

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eco-friendly sustainable furniture choices
Shutterstock / By Rawpixel.com | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/rawpixel

We probably don’t think a great deal about our furniture choices. I know that I tend to just buy whatever looks pretty, seems functional and fits my budget. That usually means a trip to a few showrooms and big warehouse stores, like Ikea.

But we have a responsibility to the planet. We can do better. There are three major ways that our furniture can help the environment:

  1. Purchase used and/or recycled furniture and extends the lifecycle of precious materials.
  2. Source furniture that is free of environmentally unsustainable products.
  3. Choose furniture that doesn’t require electricity – opting for manual transitioning.

By investing in environmentally sustainable, high-qualify furniture, you’ll be able to pass down items from generation to generation. This will save your heirs on the cost of furnishing their own home, and help to protect the environment from wasteful fad furniture that only lasts a season or two.

Natural and Recycled Furniture Materials

If you absolutely love the look of wood furniture, search for environmentally sustainable products. For example, locally sourced wood or bamboo can easily be replenished without requiring excessive international harvesting of precious woods that harm the environment.

Sustainable wood products are only sourced from companies and locations that have the ability to quickly replace harvested wood – providing a responsible resource for generations of manufacturers and consumers.

Recycled furniture can either be a gently used item from someone else’s home, or a new piece of furniture that’s been used from reclaimed sources. You’ve probably seen examples of this at your local park – cities are increasingly using recycled materials to create benches and picnic tables.

But recycled materials don’t have to feel rough or rustic. Items made from recycled wood are readily available for order online or in-store. And believe it or not, electronic waste can be reclaimed and crafted into beautiful pieces of modern furniture.

The only limitation on recycled furniture design is the imagination of the creator. If you want to do it yourself, check out this DIY recycled furniture pinterest board!

Avoid Harsh Chemicals that Harm the Environment

Did you know that many cushions are made of highly-flammable polyurethane? Furniture manufacturers help keep our butts out of the hot seat by treating the materials in cushions with fire-retardant toxins. Unfortunately this padding breaks down overtime and the dust is both toxic to humans and the environment.

There are multiple lines of eco-friendly furniture that avoid the use of flammable polyurethane – often substituting with organic cotton. Just understand that you’re going to be in for a bit of sticker shock – eco-friendly furniture, when purchased new from major brands, gets pricey.

If you can’t afford the pricetag, I recommend finding used furniture from the same product line. There are a ton of websites dedicated to helping eco-friendly consumers find used organic, responsibly sourced products – and that includes furniture.

You’ll also want to stay away from faux leather. Furniture made from pleather and other leather substitutes are heavily treated with chemicals. That’s never a win.

Hypo-allergenic stuffing, combine with traditional leather might be a decent compromise if you have to have the leather look to tie a room together. But be conscious of the fact that tanning is not an environmentally friendly process, so try to limit these materials in your design.

In conclusion, it’s up to you how crazy you want to go. I think that as long as you stay with used furniture, you’re on the right track – even if it isn’t environmentally perfect, it’s at least a sunk cost for the environment – the damage has been done and you’re extending its useful life. But I think the most important takeaway here is buy quality items that you can pass down to your next generation – if that means spending more on higher quality new items that are sustainably sourced, so be it.

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