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Taking a systems approach to sustainability

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Taking a systems approach to sustainability


These days we are all striving for connections. In families, between generations, in neighborhoods, and even among co-workers. We rely on it for learning, for trading, for economic growth, for innovation and for global change.

Audrey Choi is the Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Morgan Stanley.

If we didn’t know it before, we certainly realize it now: our connectedness—the ways we are knit together—holds both benefits and risks for our health, our economies, our communities, and our planet.

That’s the essence of sustainability, really. It’s not just an environmental issue but also a fundamental economic issue. And it’s not just a health issue but also a moral imperative. The size and complexity of the challenges we face require creative, systems-level thinking.

No one acting alone—no country, no sector, no scientist, no corporation—will effect meaningful change. Solving the world’s biggest sustainability challenges will require a new kind of innovation, one that leverages insights and expertise from across a broad spectrum of sectors and industries.

Tackling plastic waste

Take the plastic waste problem. Every year, $80 to $120 billion dollars of economic value is thrown away in the form of single-use plastic packaging.(i) Every minute the equivalent of a garbage truck’s worth of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean,(ii) and according to University of Georgia environmental engineering professor Jenna Jambeck, at the current rate, by 2030 it will be a football stadium’s worth of plastic waste being dumped into our oceans every day.(iii)

Stemming the tide of plastic waste will require innovation across the entire plastics value chain – from how it is formulated in the lab, designed into products, used by consumers, and ultimately collected, recycled, and disposed of.

Two years ago, Morgan Stanley launched its Plastic Waste Resolution,(iv) not because we produce or use a lot of plastic, but because as a global financial firm we are connected to the investors, the corporations, the governments, the innovators, and the nonprofits that can make a difference. If we all work together.

The resolution is very straightforward: as a firm, we committed to facilitating the prevention, reduction, and removal of 50 million metric tons of plastic waste from nature by 2030. As part of that, we’re underwriting the Debris Tracker app,(v) which supports citizen science by empowering individuals to collect and report data litter so scientists and researchers can better understand the causes of plastic waste in coastlines and waterways.

Our social compact

Of course, sustainability is bigger and broader than plastic pollution, and “environment” is just one leg of the environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) stool. The last year, in fact, has brought renewed attention to the full spectrum of sustainability, and again, innovation and partnership were key to the response.

A relatively new product, “social bonds” are now helping foundations and other nonprofits fund the critical work of renewing communities, battling racial injustice, and securing a more equal future for all people. Last year, for example, Morgan Stanley partnered with the Ford Foundation to underwrite a first of its kind $1 billion social bond,(vi) which allowed the foundation to increase grant making to nonprofits during the pandemic and ensure the continuity of organizations fighting for equality and supporting vulnerable communities. And later in the year we raised our own $1 billion with a social bond that allocated capital in equal amounts to the financing and refinancing of affordable housing projects for low- or moderate-income individuals and families across the US.(vii)

That broad understanding—that sustainability takes integrated, innovative approaches to achieve—sits at the core of Morgan Stanley’s Global Sustainable Finance Group. We started it more than a decade ago with the express purpose of partnering with teams across our businesses to implement sustainable solutions and integrate sustainability into our products and services. It is also why as a firm, in September, building on our announced goal to be carbon-neutral by 2022,(viii) we became the first major US bank to pledge to reach net-zero financed emissions by 2050.(ix)

What seemed like a novelty to some back then has become core to many investor portfolios and corporate risk statements. Sustainable investing accounts for $1 out of every $3 under professional management in the US,(x) and is now a more-than $30 trillion market globally.(xi) In a recent survey, a remarkable 85% of US individual investors express interest in sustainable investing strategies,(xii) and we think the investment, the innovation and the commitment will only grow.

Real efforts are underway at our firm and across many sectors to develop, launch, and scale real sustainability efforts that together will make a difference for us and future generations. That’s good news, because our most pressing complex ESG problems will not be solved in silos.


(i) MacArthur, D. E., D. Waughray, and M. R. Stuchtey. “The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics.” World Economic Forum. 2016, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

(ii) Pennington, James. “Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans. This has to stop.” World Economic Forum. 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/every-minute-one-garbage-truck-of-plastic-is-dumped-into-our-oceans/

(iii) Parker, Laura. “Plastic pollution is a huge problem—and it’s not too late to fix it,” National Geographic, October 6, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it

(iv) https://www.morganstanley.com/Themes/plastic-pollution-resolution

(v) https://www.nationalgeographic.org/education/programs/debris-tracker/

(vi) https://www.fordfoundation.org/the-latest/news/ford-foundation-takes-historic-unprecedented-action-to-increase-grantmaking-for-nonprofits-by-1-billion-with-proceeds-of-offering-of-social-bonds-in-response-to-covid-19/

(vii) https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201021005884/en/Morgan-Stanley-Continues-Commitment-to-Sustainable-Investing-with-Social-Bond-to-Support-Affordable-Housing

(viii) https://www.morganstanley.com/articles/carbon-neutral-by-2022

(ix) https://www.morganstanley.com/press-releases/morgan-stanley-announces-commitment-to-reach-net-zero-financed-e

(x) Nason, Deborah. “’Sustainable investing’ is surging, accounting for 33% of total U.S. assets under management,” December 21, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/21/sustainable-investing-accounts-for-33percent-of-total-us-assets-under-management.html

(xi) Chasan, Emily, “Global Sustainable Investments Rise 34 Percent to $30.7 Trillion,” Bloomberg, April 1, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-01/global-sustainable-investments-rise-34-percent-to-30-7-trillion

(xii) https://www.morganstanley.com/pub/content/dam/msdotcom/infographics/sustainable-investing/Sustainable_Signals_Individual_Investor_White_Paper_Final.pdf

DISCLOSURES – required

This material was published on April 6, 2021. All information in this material has been prepared by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC and/or Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, Members SIPC (collectively “Morgan Stanley”) for informational purposes only and is not a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any security or other financial instrument or to participate in any trading strategy. This material was not prepared by the Morgan Stanley Research Department and is not a Research Report as defined under FINRA regulations. This material does not provide individually tailored investment advice. It has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. Morgan Stanley recommends that recipients should determine, in consultation with their own investment, legal, tax, regulatory and accounting advisors, the economic risks and merits, as well as the legal, tax, regulatory and accounting characteristics and consequences, of any transaction or strategy referenced in any materials. The appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives.  Morgan Stanley, its affiliates and Morgan Stanley Financial Advisors do not provide tax, accounting or legal advice. Individuals should consult their tax advisor for matters involving taxation and tax planning and their attorney for matters involving legal matters.

This material contains forward-looking statements and there can be no guarantee that they will come to pass.  You are cautioned not to place undue reliance on forward-looking statements, which speak only as of the date on which they are made. We undertake no obligation to update publicly or revise any forward-looking statements to reflect the impact of circumstances or events that arise after the dates they are made, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise except as required by applicable law. You should, however, consult further disclosures we may make in future filings of our annual reports on Form 10-K, quarterly reports on Form 10-Q and current reports on Form 8-K and any amendments thereto or in future press releases or other public statements.

Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. Information contained herein is based on data from multiple sources and Morgan Stanley makes no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of data from sources outside of Morgan Stanley. References to third parties contained herein should not be considered a solicitation on behalf of or an endorsement of those entities by Morgan Stanley.

Please note that there is currently no legal, regulatory or similar definition of what constitutes a “social” bond or as to what precise attributes are required for a particular issuance to be defined as “social.” Without limiting any of the statements contained herein, Morgan Stanley makes no representation or warranty as to whether a bond constitutes a social bond, unless otherwise specified by Morgan Stanley, or whether a bond conforms to investor expectations or objectives for investing in social bonds. For information on characteristics of a specific social bond, use of proceeds, a description of applicable projects and/or any other relevant information about the bond, please reference the offering documents for the bond.


The returns on a portfolio consisting primarily of Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) aware investments may be lower or higher than a portfolio that is more diversified or where decisions are based solely on investment considerations. Because ESG criteria exclude some investments, investors may not be able to take advantage of the same opportunities or market trends as investors that do not use such criteria.

Information contained in the material is based on data from multiple sources and Morgan Stanley makes no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of data from sources outside of  Morgan Stanley. References to third parties contained herein should not be considered a solicitation on behalf of or an endorsement of those entities by Morgan Stanley. Morgan Stanley is not responsible for the information contained on any third party web site or your use of or inability to use such site, nor do we guarantee its accuracy or completeness. The terms, conditions, and privacy policy of any third party web site may be different from those applicable to your use of any Morgan Stanley web site. The opinions expressed by the author of an article written by a third party are solely his/her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Morgan Stanley. Professional designations mentioned in the articles may or may not be approved for use at Morgan Stanley. The information and data provided by any third party web site or publication is as of the date of the article when it was written and is subject to change without notice.

© 2021 Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC.  Members SIPC.  CRC 3514255 4/2021

This content was produced by Morgan Stanley. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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