Reporting on the Business of Doing Better with Leon Kaye

July 29, 2021

Leon Kaye is the executive editor of TriplePundit.com, a sustainable news site that has focused on the economic case for responsible business for 15 years.

John Shegerian: This episode of the impact podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the Arc of capital from Venture Capital to private Equity, bridging gaps, and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. This actually is a very special edition because both myself and my guest Leon Kaye are in Fresno, California probably only three miles away from each other. Leon, welcome to the impact podcast. Before we get talking about all the important work you’re doing a TriplePundit, can you share with our listeners and our viewers a little bit on the Leon case backstory? How you even got here?

Leon Kaye: So in a past life that really wasn’t too long ago, I had the typical corporate job. I used to be in sales selling everything from financial data to consulting services. And then like a lot of people did over a decade ago, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-2009. I was part of a statistical layoff. The company for which I was working essentially said, “Our sales just completely stopped.” And they said, “All right, anybody here less than 18 months, you’re gone.” And this was the first job that I was hoping to build upon after I got my MBA over at USC. So I went through a period where I thought, “Okay, I’m at a point now, or maybe I just want to do exactly what I want to do.” And of course, this was in the early days of the Obama administration when everybody was talking about green jobs, and investments, and renewables. And so, like a lot of people out there, I decided I wanted to be part of this green jobs revolution, that was completely clueless on how to get there.

So I really just started all over. I was lucky enough where I had some little consulting gigs here and there to get in some income, but I was very interested in the sustainability space, always had been. A lot of this was instilled in me by my father when I was a kid. We were one of the few families that would actually go to the local community college and Silicon Valley that was biased to throw away our glass jars. My dad would actually save the glass jars and aluminum cans, things like that. So I always had this nascent interest in sustainability. I always felt it was important. So I started a blog that I was pretty good at updating for about nine years. I basically started the blog because I thought, well, I’m going to have to get discovered, exposed, seen somehow, so this seems the way to do it. And of course, this was when also social media was starting to get big.

Twitter had become mainstream along with Facebook and other platforms out there. So I developed quite a solid social media following, notably on Twitter. And one thing led to another. I started writing part-time for TriplePundit. I started writing for The Guardian, The UK, publication, which at the time, had a sustainable business portal. It’s since been shuttered now for several years. In addition, you start getting the gigs. One thing leads to another. I actually ended up in the Middle East working in Abu Dhabi for Masdar which is this huge sustainability, cleantech investment, and renewables investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government. So I worked there for a while. And in the meantime, I kept writing for TriplePundit. It was a good fit for me.

It was a good fit for them. It was actually, as they say in sales, it was lead generation because I just kept writing. Yet when you develop this body of knowledge you just know stuff. You don’t have to look it up you know it or you know where to find it quickly. So I developed a body of work. And then after TriplePundit was acquired by a larger company – 3BL Media – in 2017, I eventually became the executive editor. That’s the very [inaudible].

John: No, thank you. And as executive editor, do you have a pool of writers around the world writing on these topics that are of interest to TriplePundit or just a few? Or how does that really work?

Leon: We do. So we’re a very slim operation. It’s myself and a – I call her co-editor. She’s the senior editor and we essentially split the work of running the publication day-to-day. She manages a sponsored series arm of TriplePundit. It’s a reality for a lot of new sites, right? Internet advertising never paid out. So our revenue comes from the six-pack series that we saw the various companies and organizations were. They’re not advertorial. They have a say in the editorial direction but their co-branded with those companies. It was very similar to what I did with Guardian sustainable business. Then I run the site day-to-day figuring out which stories are going to run on our site. We rely on a pool of freelancers. We don’t have any staff writers.

So, we’re lucky enough that we have somebody who also has written for TriplePundit longer than me. She writes about cleantech and renewables. We have a fantastic writer who focuses on water and the water-energy nexus. We do have people overseas. We’ve got somebody who lives in Dubai. Actually, we have some people north of the border in Canada. Our tagline is: We make the business case for sustainability. I often have to tell this to comms, professionals, PR folks. I don’t describe this as an environmental publication. We’re a business publication, but we’re really interested in is the business case for sustainability. And it’s not just dollar-saved or dollars earned. It can also be brand or reputation, keeping your employees happy and content, and proud to work with the company. These things, I think we’ve seen, have become quite important over the past year.

John: Leon, for our listeners and viewers out there who want to find Leon and his colleagues and his great organization. Go to www.triplepundit.com. P-U-N-D-I-T.com. Although you’re a business sustainability publication, you do cover topics that are social and political, and the importance of leaders taking a stand, business leaders taking a stand on these issues of our times. Why is that important nowadays for businesses actually taking a leadership position on these important topics?

Leon: I don’t know if I would describe it as important as much I would say the reality these days is that companies don’t really have a choice. Everything’s out there. Everybody has a cell phone that can take video, right? But what’s interesting is that there’s research out there. We always hear about the snafus happening on social media where somebody films something. It could be how workers are being treated at a factory. It could be how animals are being treated at a food processing plant. It could be a racist incident. That there’s actually research out there saying that most of these so-called social media events, social media disasters are actually preventable. So everything is out there.

And I would say fundamentally, we’re seeing businesses respond to this reality because I’m seeing lots of data out there that are suggesting that consumers want their brands that they were loyal to – they want companies – to take a stand on these issues. And in fact, they are less inclined to buy products or services from a company that goes silent, that doesn’t take a stand. So for every executive that would say, “Well, you know what? If we do this we’re going to lose customers,” the counterargument is that, “Well, the reality is you’re probably going to gain some and it will quite balance out, I don’t know.”

But we’ve seen companies that have been in front of this for a while, like Patagonia for example, and they’re still doing well. And I just think that there’s no going back to how it used to be. And I think what we’ve also found is that when companies just can’t play both sides or they just can’t say, “We’re staying out of politics.” Because all you’ve got to do and I’ve done this when PR reps have pitched me stories about their clients. It’s so easy to find out who our accompanies have been donating to. So the politics have always been there. It’s just that everything is now out in the open. So again, to wrap up, is it important for companies to take a stand on these social and political issues? Personally, I say yes but I don’t even think my opinion matters because that is the reality companies are facing now. And I just think that barn door’s open, it’s not going to be shut anytime soon.

John: And covering these, since you’re a business publication, as you said. You’re covering more than sustainability. You’re covering inclusivity, diversity, and all the other important topics of our time that go into making a more sustainable corporation or organization.

Leon: Right. Well, I think one painful lesson of this pandemic is that all of these issues are intertwined, none of them are standalone. None of them are in a silo. It’s pretty clear that the pandemic can be traced back to just close contact with animals, right? Because we just keep growing, we keep creating more sprawl and we’re living in places that perhaps maybe we shouldn’t live, right? So the pandemic has reared its ugly head on the social side. Look what’s happening to a lot of these essential workers, health care workers on the front lines. Many of whom happen to be people of color, right?

So they’re often suffering at a macro level, the most. At the same time, what we’re finding now is we’re going to have a huge waste issue on our hands. Because of the fear of the virus, which I found a lot of it personally the science behind it is dodgy, we have been going through single-use plastics like mad. We’ve believed this at TriplePundit for a while. You can’t talk about the environmental impacts without the social impacts. Because what we’re finding with the environmental movement, which for decades was a largely white and upper middle class one, has been overlooking the impacts that communities of color have had to suffer through. We see it here in the Central Valley, right?

Any time you do a search for the most polluted cities or the cities with the worst air quality, I’m telling you depending on the source, anywhere from five to eight of them are here in the Central Valley, right? So everything’s intertwined. One issue simply affects the other. So I got to tell you, I think when I had my aha moment was years ago. The first-ever media trip I did was to Ben and Jerry’s headquarters in Vermont. I thought they’re going for fair trade. They wanted everybody to see why they did this. And it was either Ben, it was either Jerry. I can’t remember which one it was. I’d have to look up because it’s out there documented. But he was called on for – I don’t know what it was. They were calling him around. There were a lot of very super, very “green.” I would almost venture to say a stereotypical word, but treehugger types there, and they were calling him out on all kinds of business practices.

And one of the founders of the company said if I had a choice to live in a – and I’m paraphrasing him – in a dirty polluted world, where everybody had equal opportunity, and everybody was treated fairly as opposed to a clean and sustainable world, where there’s still a lot of unfairness going on. I’m going to choose to live in the dirty world. Obviously, we don’t really face that choice. But his point was made. And I bring that point up a lot of times. A lot of the time is that, look, being clean, being environmental, driving zero-emissions cars is important, but none of this is going to work if all people, of all backgrounds, of all incomes, are able to participate in this circular low-carbon zero-carbon economy.

John: Speaking of the circular economy. Circular economy and ESG have become hot buzzwords, hot acronyms of recent times. Sustainability is something that’s been around longer. How, nowadays, Leon, do you define sustainability and describe it to your readers?

Leon: That’s a really good question. If you ask me that question last week and if you ask me that question next week, you might hear very different answers. But I would describe sustainability as really balancing the two most important issues out there. And in one pillar you have environmental and then one you have the social. And if you knock one pillar down, both are going to fall. So it’s really about a world where everybody– This is a very high-level definition but in a “sustainable world” everybody has an opportunity to participate in the economy. And everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, clean, less toxic environment if that makes sense. And again it goes back to – you just can’t have one without the other, in my opinion.

John: It makes total sense. Leon, since you’re a journalist and you’ve been doing this quite some time. And not only just here, obviously for TriplePundit, but you’ve also traveled the world and lived in all different places and had been exposed to a lot. I’m 58 years old now. What I’m seeing is this polarization of recent times. Let’s just say the last four or five years of certain platforms that we watch on television and brand seem to be totally to the right, totally to the left. And the feeling of independence seems to have been eviscerated. Where does independent journalism come into play in what you do? And as you said, journalism has been sort of quasi-democratized. Anyway, everyone with a cell phone is really a journalist anyway if they could take a video or take a picture. But where do we now fall and where are we going to go? And where is the importance of independent journalism instead of this polarized journalism that we’ve all sort of gotten used to the last four, five years, right?

Leon: Well, I view the internet and social media the way I think a lot of people probably viewed maybe radio in the 1930s and ’40s when it was getting big, and the same with television in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a great tool in many ways. It can also get us down a slippery slope towards that polarization that we are talking about now. So on one hand, yes, anybody can be a journalist. Now anybody can post something on social media. I mean, in some ways, it’s amazing, right? Not everybody is even a good writer. That’s not a knock, that is reality. It’s a skill, right? And sometimes you can own it, perfect it. But not all of us are born with it. So you don’t even have to write five hundred or a thousand words now. You could post that video, say what’s going on, and that’s it. And in some ways, that’s really good because that’s how a lot of us that were clueless out there really became aware of the reality that Black Americans face day after day in their interactions with the community and even the police. At the same time, however, as much as it’s democratized to plan your word, in many ways, it’s been centralized which is not a good thing. I mean, small-town journalism is dying. It’s just a few companies. At home, most of these newspapers, the internet model of advertising 20 years ago, we realized was a disaster.

And sadly with a lot of newspapers such as the local one here. I think by the time they realized, “Okay we got to put up a paywall,” it’s too late. I hope it survives. It’s been a solid paper for decades but I don’t know what’s gonna happen to the Fresno Bee and the subscriptions for prints which used to always be super cheap. Nobody thought about it. I mean, I’ve heard what they can cost and they’re expensive. So they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. So we try to be as independent as possible but we have our realities as well. We’re part of a larger company. And actually even before we were acquired by 3BL Media, our voice had always been not one about ranting and raving but just really trying to amplify the progress that’s going on in the business community. It’s easy to effusively praise a company for doing x, y, z on the sustainability front. It’s far easier, of course, to tear them to shreds and pick apart their arguments and say, “No, actually you fail.” But I’ve always argued that doesn’t do any good because it’s about progress.

So, at the same time as independent journalism goes, one trend I’m seeing, and we might see more people doing this, there are independent journalists out there. So, for example, one that I subscribed to is Judd Lugem, he’s based somewhere on the East Coast. He has brought to light a lot of the hypocrisy going on with companies where a lot of companies said, after January 6th, we’re not going to contribute political contributions and certainly not any to this edition of the caucus and then a month later or so it turns out they backtracked and a lot of the reporting that Judd Lugem is often on his own has been picked up by big media outlets. MSNBC, CNN, the major networks. So his model is that he relies on monthly and annual subscriptions which really aren’t doing much but I think he has a solid following.

He does not accept any advertising and he uses a platform. I don’t know which platform it is, but there’s another journalist out there – Emily Atkin, excuse me – he focuses more on climate change. Judd Legumes has popular info, you should be able to Google that and find it quickly. Emily Atkins is simply called HEATED. H-E-A-T-E-D, heated as in hot. So that is really independent journalism now. Because sadly, as a profession, it’s hard to make a living as a journalist. It’s a stepping stone often for a lot of people before they go on to careers in public relations and comms, I did that. I’ve been on both sides actually. I worked on the PR Comm side and actually stepped back into the editorial side, which you don’t see a lot. So if you want to support independent journalism and investigative reporting, see who your local newspaper is owned by and maybe it’s worth paying that subscription.

There are still very good big-name newspapers out there. So for example I subscribe to The Washington Post. I know they’re owned by Amazon or technically Jeff Bezos. But if you look at the Washington Post day after day, they cover Amazon and most of the coverage is not favorable or criticizes or simply brings to light what they’re doing. I mean when people say, “Oh, that’s negative journalism,” my response is, “It’s not negative, we’re just telling you what’s happening out there. Amazon workers are not allowed to take bathroom breaks? That’s not being made up. That’s pretty clear. That’s what they’re saying. That’s not negative reporting. That’s reporting what’s the fact. If you react negatively that’s on you, not the reporter. So there are some good publications out there and I just love the Washington Post work, and they cover everything. So it’s that balance of just, unfortunately, most of us gravitate to the news we want to read and the opinions which we agree. I don’t know when or if we can ever get away from that but in the meantime, there are independent journalists and there’s good journalism still going on out there.

John: For our listeners and viewers. We’ve got Leon Kaye with us today. He’s the executive editor of TriplePundit, you can find Leon and all of his great at TriplePundit, P-U-N-D-I-T, .com, triplepundit.com. Leon, with the sustainability revolution now finally taking hold in America for the real first time comparatively speaking to the cultural DNA that exists in Europe with regards to sustainable behavior, circular economy behavior. And even smaller Asian countries, such as South Korea or Japan, have been way ahead of us. Is your readership picking up year over year because more young generation people are really into this? Is that a trend that you’re seeing as well?

Leon: I mean, our readership is definitely going up. I think it’s just because quite frankly we do good news and we have a strategy that we focus on quality, not quantity. Like a lot of publications, we used to do seven, eight, or nine stories a day. I think I wrote half of them when I was a writer. But, no, we used to accept a lot of guest posting. And quite frankly, the strategy was just: Let’s give everybody a voice. In the meantime, we’ll get those web hits. I decided really the most manageable way to do this. So I’m not or my co-editor up to midnight every night, editing stories. I suggest just have a few, I keep a tight iron grip on the stories we run. And we do about three a day or fifteen a week. I’d rather have good quality than just have to be all over the place.

As for the demographics, I can’t really tell you with these new protocols [inaudible] out. It’s hard to get that info. But I mean, when I do a scan, a lot of the sustainability conversation is still occurring on Twitter. I realized that a lot of folks under 40, probably feel that’s old school. But a lot of the sustainability voices, they banter back and forth on Twitter and based on what I see with the little heads and icons and logos that I see discussing, liking, objecting to or what-have-you retweeting. I think we speak to more audiences. I would describe the composite sketch of a TriplePundit reader as somebody who’s either vested in or interested in sustainability space. Could be executives. I know we have a lot of high-level Executives that read us. And not just Chief sustainability officers, folks in marketing or EHS. We have a lot of students, people that want to have a crack at this career once they graduate from school or college as well.

John: Leon, I’m going to give you the last word. Where are we? I mean, finally climate change. Obviously, people like you or me were on to it long ago and realize it but there are still climate deniers out there. But now that most people realize this is a real thing and that we need to really make big changes to fix the environmental problems that we have in this world, especially around carbon emissions. Besides the ones that we talked about earlier in terms of inclusivity and diversity, how do you feel today where we’re sitting? As we get through this pandemic, science seems to be winning, I think. I don’t know. Where do you feel today? Are you hopeful about where we’re going as a society and as a world in terms of the environment? You’re in the middle of it, you get to see a lot. You get to read a lot and you get to learn a lot because of who you are and where you are at TriplePundit. Where do you think we are right now in this journey?

Leon: I think we’re very far from completing it and I’ll tell you why. I think the reality is if you see the data out there what we would have to do, we’d have to make some pretty hard choices as to society. And I think a lot of us know we have to do it but we don’t want to be told to do it. And two things give me pause on one hand. The right is using any opportunity to slam the Biden Administration for their supposed radical agenda. But if you even read about a conversation John Kerry recently had, he gave an interview. He said– I don’t know, the term exactly. Climates for the Biden Administration. And he is supposedly very passionate, but he even admitted that these projections on getting towards a net-zero or [inaudible], whatever term you want to use, a lot of it is relying on technologies that have not been invented yet. That’s pretty old, and in my opinion, is not a very scientific claim.

Another reason why I don’t want to be a climate, Debbie Downer. But it’s pretty clear we have to make some big changes and another huge bit of news that came out earlier today is that the International Energy Agency, the IEA – this was an organization that was founded in the 1970s as a reaction to the oil shocks that occurred as a result of wars in the Middle East and it will embargo as a result of the US and its Middle East policies. The IEA was fundamentally tasked with making sure there was a safe, stable, secure supply of energy across the world so we won’t have to go through these energy shocks.

You could say arguably that it did its job. I’m old enough to remember the gas lines at least in the late ’70s. I was really little. And we haven’t really had anything like that occasionally work except for things like hurricanes or what happened in the Southeast last week with that hack at that one terminal and pipeline. But the IEA today has essentially told the world to stop building coal plants and shutter the ones that you have now. So the fact that this agency that fundamentally has its origins are in the fossil fuel sector, I mean it’s not really an industry group, it’s more of an intergovernmental agency. I think those are things that we really need a [inaudible]. I remember all these debates in the mid-2000s, all these 2020 goals. Look how fast 2020 has come. And now folks are talking about 2025 or 2030.

And sometimes I challenge some of these comms professionals that say, “Oh, we’ve got these great 2030 goals.” And sometimes I say, “You know, a lot of people are saying 2030 might be too late. We don’t know.” And I really do think we need a level investment even in, again, many years ago. Years ago, The Economist, which is a very free-market-oriented publication talking about the economists that’s based in Britain weekly. They’re a very free market. It’s very liberal on social issues. But very, very I would say, conservative overall on economic issues. But even The Economist said the way we should approach climate change is how it should be explained as like an insurance policy. I mean, think about your family budget. What percentage of that is spent on insurance, right? To protect your home, protect your car, protect your life. All right. We spend a decent amount on insurance. The Economist well over a decade ago said we should probably spend about 1% on global GDP which might sound like a lot to some people, but that would also create jobs. So again, this ties back to what I keep saying, everything is interrelated. I mean these investments would also generate jobs. They generate new industries, companies. Maybe they would generate these new technologies that we have no idea about that John Kerry mentioned.

So I don’t even want to say I’m a cautious optimist. I think we really need to start moving on this and making these changes.

John: We need to up our game.

Leon: Yes. Yeah. And this should have been done yesterday. Many yesterdays.

John: Leon, thank you again for joining us today. It’s really nice that this is the first time ever I’ve done an interview and in fourteen years with another wonderful like-minded person. Both of us are in Fresno. This is a rarity for me, but it’s really been a pleasure. I’ve been a big fan of yours and TriplePundit. For our listeners and our viewers out there, please follow Leon and TriplePundit and their great work, it’s really important work, at www.triplepundit.com, triplepundit.com. Leon, you’re making an impact, you’re making the world a better place. And thank you for joining us today on the impact podcast.

Leon: Well, I don’t know about all that effusive praise. But I do thank you for having me and I’m glad we had this conversation. And again, John mentioned my website, if you want to see what I’m up to you can find me on a search engine, there are only two Leon Kayes. If you get the Barrister in London, you got the wrong guy. So it should be easy to find me.

John: This edition of the impact podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users, and communities, to develop solar energy projects with strong, local support. For more information on how trajectory is leading the Solar Revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.