Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County Board Chair and former chair of the Minnesota DFL Party, is the owner of GreenMark, a leading environmental marketing agency. GreenMark, the originator of the Minnesota Twins/Pentair Rain Water Recycle partnership, is currently finalizing the state's largest solar energy installation while delivering sustainable results on behalf of leading brands, nonprofits, public agencies and the public.

The State Fair and the Economy

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 25, 2014 - 2:39 PM

Ok, a little full disclosure: I am a vendor at the Minnesota State Fair. I have been for my entire adult life.

I own two food stands--Real S’Mores and World’s Greatest French Fries.

Neither is an exaggeration.

I know from experience the Great Minnesota Get Together is a microcosm of the national economy.

Even though the Fair is a highly regulated marketplace, food vendors must still practice the fundamental principle of business—selling a quality product at a reasonable price--along with strict observance of the 3 immutable laws of real estate—location, location, location.

The Wild West days of petty graft and nepotism that could occasionally be found when the Fair had trouble finding enough exhibitors and vendors, has been gone for decades. Today, the operations of the Fair are professional and squeaky clean.

The State Fair shifted deftly with the national economy of the 1940’s and 50’s, morphing from a “Food Production” exposition to a “Food Consumption” spectacle. Like the state’s diversification from farming to manufacturing, mining, tourism and technology, the Fair graduated from feeds, fertilizers and farm implements, to a free-for-all for foodies.

The ludicrous diversity of ingenious food products, which today features 300 offerings appealing to every pallet, reflects the changing face of the America outside the Fair’s gates.

At one point the event had 30 Foot Long Hot Dog stands and 35 Pronto Pup outlets dotting the landscape. Today, the Fairgrounds are loaded with premium quality fare and the former ubiquitous presence of low-grade products commands but a trifle of today's food dollar.

The prices reflect the economy, too. They’ve gone way up, but so has the cost of goods and labor, along with avaricious rental rates captured by the Fair itself, in many cases a third or more of a food stand’s net profits.

I grew up watching the rich get obscenely richer in America. In my professional lifetime I’ve witnessed top executive salaries go from a couple hundred thousand to tens of millions for the same job.

It has happened at the Fair, too.

What used to be an upper tier of 30 or 40 businesses that exceeded $100,000 in sales, has catapulted into a Gates/Buffet-category of mega-food elites, which gross from $600,000 to $2.4 million in 12 days.

A few others have sales ranging from $350, 000 to $600,000, while a healthy bourgeois class has more pedestrian expectations of retail establishments that are open all of 150 hours per year.

Many, if not most, of the Fair’s food stands turn modest profits, sufficient to afford a nice vacation and maybe a snowmobile, but not retirement in paradise.

The work lives of Minnesota State Fair business owners aligns with the evolving economy, which by some estimates, projects that nearly half of all workers will soon be working on their own as consultants, small business owners and entrepreneurs.

And why not?

Major corporations are getting along fine without hiring at the same levels as during the pre-crash years, even though thousands of them are sitting on boatloads of cash. With the elimination of employer-provided pensions, dwindling respect for seniority and anemic employee health benefits, workers will pretty much be on their own anyway.

On this point it is the national economy that will more closely reflect the State Fair’s.

Tomorrow’s professionals will be more like the early State Fair entrepreneurs who invented distinctly Minnesota products like Tom Thumb donuts, Cheese Curds and Pronto Pups, and let the market determine their fate.

They will more often be flying without a net, making their way through the unknowns of an economy with a workforce as rootless as the Midway carnies that will pull up stakes in a few days and wander off to the next venue.

Coca Cola in the Third World

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 17, 2014 - 8:45 PM

Coke has gone green.

To Clarify: Coca Cola is one of many multi-nationals that has incorporated sustainability into its business model because it makes commercial sense.

This is especially true for firms like Coke that are pouring resources into stabilizing communities, cleaning up the environment and improving working conditions in third world and developing countries, as a business strategy.

For Coke, it’s about the water.

Clean, affordable, available water is so integral to their business and brand that Coke has joined up with its African bottlers and the U.S.--Africa Leaders Summit to announce another $5 billion investment in that nation, a total of over $17 billion for the decade ending in 2020.

Not all of that money is going to sustainable objectives, of course, but a lot of it is. Some of that money will fortify operations across the company’s supply chain-- manufacturing and cooling lines, production and distribution.

But there is also a broad social investment taking place—infusions of capital for new jobs with training for local residents, improving safe water access for communities, developing sustainable sourcing practices, making investments in women’s economic empowerment and suffusing local communities with a greater sense of well-being. Significantly, the company also signed a letter of intent to launch Source Africa—more consistent and sustainable local product sourcing in partnership with the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and Grow Africa.

One might suspect that companies like Coke are becoming political bleeding hearts.

Don’t bank on it.

They are just trying to protect their sprawling enterprises. These firms are figuring out that constructive, organic investment in developing markets is more cost-effective than the old way of muscling their way into available markets through malleable politicians, a fist full of dollars and lofty, empty promises.

Many view the world’s 35,000 multinational companies as having the social conscience of piranhas in a feeding frenzy, with business practices just as pernicious. They have inflicted great damage on developing nations by stripping away indiginous resources and leaving generations of waste and poverty.

The poorest of the poor nations are perpetually vulnerable to exploitation of industries in the agriculture, international mining, global banking, utility and international tourism sectors.

Too many of these behemoths continue to view third world or developing country investments as easy prey for natural resource exploitation and they attack it with impunity-- and casual indifference toward the local economies. These are short-term romances that always end badly for the romanced.

So it's fair that big companies, like Nestle and Coke, are suspect on critical issues, from the privatization of public water supplies to their past behavior of commandeering local water resources for their own purposes when there isn’t enough water to satiate local economies.


But Coke's sizable investments in sustainable practices and community building is an economic expression of new business thinking, if not a new world order. More than anything, it will encourage others to follow suit with strategies that nurture host countries and resources they possess. 

In the case of Coke we will see whether their latest, substantial investments are fleeting social commitments of convenience, or whether this change is, like the claims of their signature product, the real thing.

Climate change and Public Relations

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 11, 2014 - 5:36 PM

The "public relations" industry helps many of the world’s top brands respectfully communicate their positions, products and points-of-view. With deep skills in market positioning, media relations and branding, public relations experts are powerful agents to help clients deliver clear, unambiguous information to groups that matter to them.

I have a lot of experience in this industry and know most public relations professionals honestly put a clients best foot forward with clutter-free clarity in a gauzy, garbled world.

"PR" is a behemoth in the service sector, generating around $5 billion a year in fees to bend, shape, position and advance public attitudes about key issues of our time.

That is why I was interested in the recent survey hosted by the publication The Guardian, along with the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog of climate deniers’ disinformation campaigns, in their survey of the world's 25 largest public relations firms and their attitudes about climate change.

The survey is designed in part to help determine whether top communications agencies would go beyond informational “spin” and actually propagate disinformation as professional deniers of Climate Change.

Only 10 of the 25 largest agencies responded to the survey, including Shandwick, Burson Marsteller, Ogilvy Public Relations and a few brave others. 

That is a troubling signal that the PR industry knows climate deniers have a lot of money to spend and that they would consider helping them spend it.

Agencies won’t alienate prospective clients by answering questions that cast doubt on their loyalty to their clients. And besides, the industry knows everyone deserves his or her day in court.

The danger is that a small number of communications experts are spin-doctors that would intentionally confuse the public with half-truths, deflections or calculated stonewalling of the facts in the name of their clients (and their own ) avarice or power.

But professional message makers are smart people. Most are perfectly aware that the United Nation’s latest report states the scientific debate about human-caused climate change is effectively over; that, in its 5th iteration, there is at least a 95% certainty of accuracy of the research.

Public relations firms need to be wary of the so-called research being cooked up by the industrial brands that stand to lose when the public has the real facts on climate. The “denier” industry is small but packs a wallop with outsized budgets at its fingertips, for use as an obfuscator of facts, a reviser of history and rejector of scientific conclusions.

The way large communications firms choose to manage established truths on climate against the shallow claims of large carbon emitters will have long-term implications for communications ethics. Denial of vetted climate science is fast becoming the industrial equivalent to Big Tobacco denials of cancer-causing agents in their products.

Communications firms of integrity don't want to be tarred by such a brush.

PUC has a big vote on solar this week

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 4, 2014 - 9:57 PM

This is a big week for the development of solar energy in Minnesota. That’s because the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is set August 7th to peg the magic number that Xcel Energy and some other state utilities must pay for solar energy developed under the new Community Solar Garden law.

It’s all very complicated but it boils down to this: The new CSG law, which allows any “member” or “subscriber” to buy solar electricity from nearby "hosts" to power their own homes or businesses, can work only if the state PUC sets a price that makes projects viable.

In the world of renewable energy finance, some utilities and business groups want the price to be set low. Solar advocates and supporters want the price to be higher.

Now it's up to the PUC to decide.

As a “green” small business owner with a robust solar presence in this market, I stand with advocates and many consumers--deliver a "price of solar" that propels the industry forward.

The multiple benefits of community solar gardens justify it. As community assets, solar gardens will encourage a dramatic influx of small, locally developed distributed solar installations that will have a positive impact on the environment, the economy and, over time, the cost of energy to consumers.

Utilities, the nuclear industry (the most subsidized industry in history) and the fossil fuel industries (oil, coal and gas) have enjoyed billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies over the years—far more than the wind, biomass or solar industries will ever get--or need. Its time to balance the scales, even if only a little.

With the new CSG law in effect, the hour is getting late for solar projects to commence this construction season. Failure of the PUC to honor legislative intent will silence the industry just when it is beginning to roar.

The PUC is obligated to act in the public interest. Doing its part to aggressively facilitate the fledgling but promising solar energy industry in our state honors that commitment.

Not just now but for future generations.

The Right is Winning the War of Words

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: July 30, 2014 - 12:28 PM

I’ve been stymied for years about finding the most accurate label to affix to the far, far Right, which dominates what used to be the Republican Party.

I don’t like calling their Party “Republican”, as my experience was that Republicans always carved out a role, albeit limited, for a positive government presence in American life. 

That Republican Party doesn’t exist anymore.

The term “Conservative” doesn’t work, either, as "conservative" is defined as cautious about change and adherent to traditional values. The ultra-Right is unrestrained, audacious and contemptuous of rules. The combined term, “Conservative Republican”, still understates the reality.

Some describe Right-wingers as “Libertarian”, but mostly they aren’t. Not when it comes to wasting tax dollars to overregulate people on public health or assistance, or determining who can live in America, or arbitrating those allowed to get married.

It is harder to recognize the existential distinction between Republicans and Democrats—that the Left favors labor over capital and the Right favors capital over labor. I grew up believing that both views are valid and that both blend elements of the other into their ideology. It was a matter of degree.

But not today.

The Far-Right resembles little the traditional Republican Party. Many of their policies undermine some of the holy canons of business. A strong public infrastructure to move goods and people, well funded public schools to feed a quality work force and fair and competitive business rules of engagement have been targets of the Right, not the Left.

The Right has effectively advanced the cynically inaccurate description of Liberals and Progressives that is plied with endless repetition and gusto-“Socialists”!

I wish there were a proper epithet to brand the 20% or so of Americans who are to the right of Right.

“Neo-Fascist” partly describes the ultra-Rights hyper-nationalism, muscular foreign policy and heavy-handed domestic proclivities. But of course, that term is loaded. I wouldn’t use it.

“Ultraconservative” might not go far enough. “Reactionary”? Maybe.

Finding the “right” adjective is a conundrum for the Left.

They are famously disadvantaged in language currency, in part because they are not a monolithic structure. The delegates at Democratic conventions resemble a many-patterned quilt, the Republican conventions a 400 thread-count white sheet.

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice.

The Pro-Choice moniker in the abortion debate is similarly problematic. The term has lost its mojo as younger, less politically allied constituencies gravitate away from single-issue politics.

Planned Parenthood is struggling for economic relevancy in describing women’s services. Meanwhile, Anti-Choice forces luxuriate in the comfort of simple, unambiguous language—Pro-life. Who isn’t?

Militant Progressives might decide to begin describing the Prolife movement as “Government Forced Childbirth Under Penalty Of Law.” At least it’s honest. But how do Liberals squeeze that onto a bumper sticker?

The Right has it easy. The vanishing core of right-center moderation has been cleared to make way for a political monolith that has linguistic clarity, but is difficult for the other side to acceptably brand.

Pity the poor linguists and social and political scientists who have to contend with the continuing rightward drift of the old Grand Old Party. Pretty soon the Rightists will be so far to the right that the remaining Republican moderates will be under the Democratic banner where they belong.  

Then Democrats will have to work even harder to brand itself as the Party of everyone else except the…who?

The Republicans?

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