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The 2 best ways to hold companies to their climate commitments

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With the US presidential election weeks away, we have the tempting possibility of a viable political solution to the looming climate crisis. If elected, a Biden administration may deliver sweeping climate legislation. But there is no guarantee of what that might ultimately look like or when it will happen. And under the current administration, the Department of Energy has started referring to natural gas as “molecules of US freedom.” Not quite the prelude to a carbon tax, a policy Republicans have shown some support for.

So where is immediate, needle-moving action on climate change going to come from? We need corporations to step up.

Some appear to be doing so. For example, BP may finally be making good on its decades-old promise to move “Beyond Petroleum.” This August, it announced it would cut oil production by 40 percent in the next decade and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

It now joins hundreds of others in setting science-based targets for cutting emissions. A group of nearly 300 companies, ranging from automotive to apparel, have committed to reducing their emissions by 35 percent, a substantial goal given that these companies currently account for more emissions than France and Spain combined.

For their part, tech giants are seemingly in a sustainability arms race. Last year, Amazon pledged to buy 100,000 electric delivery vans as part of its effort to go carbon neutral by 2040. Not to be outdone, this summer Microsoft committed to go carbon negative by 2030 — and to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to offset all of its historical emissions. Microsoft is part of Transform to Net Zero, a group of private companies including Maersk, Unilever, and Starbucks committed to achieving net-zero global emissions no later than 2050.

This latest slate of climate commitments has elicited both cynicism and hope — hope that change at this scale can make a difference, but also cynicism about whether these commitments are real.

We’re two impact investors, and we think what’s too often missing from the conversation is that to make corporations sustainable, we must first make them accountable.

As we describe in our new book, Accountable: The Rise of Citizen Capitalism, this requires two things. First, accountability requires mandatory, standardized social and environmental metrics, built off the template of our mandatory, standardized financial reporting system. And second, it requires a more aggressive culture of engagement from citizens to hold corporations to account — in our capacities as consumers, employees, voters, and, yes, shareholders.

In all, 137 million Americans own stock, either directly or through an investment fund — that’s 15 million more people than voted in the last national election. We can use that position as shareholders to push companies to our long-term interests and our deeper values.

As impact investors, we’re often met with skepticism that private companies can be oriented around the public good. We helped launch Bain Capital’s impact investing fund, and now one of us leads Two Sigma Impact, a fund that invests in companies to generate good jobs. We’ve seen the power of building companies around a deeper purpose as the broader impact investing field has grown to $715 billion under management.

But we’ve also seen every hollow promise and dead-end trend in this movement. It doesn’t help when companies adopt a posture of social responsibility without actually becoming more responsible. In the fight to reform capitalism, we risk winning the battle of ideas and losing the war of substantive action.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a computer screen with the Facebook logo.
Depending on whom you ask, Facebook is either one of the most or least environmentally responsible companies.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

We need metrics to separate greenwashing from measurable progress

In 2018, Chevron announced it would invest $100 million that year in lowering emissions through its new Future Energy Fund. The same year, it invested $20 billion in traditional oil and gas. It’s hard to argue that you’re committed to change if you’re spending 99.5 percent of your budget doing the same old thing.

For those who put their faith in corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a panacea for our ailing society, we have the unfortunate reality: This kind of allocation of efforts is not uncommon. Superficial public commitments on issues like sustainability and diversity are much easier for companies than substantive action.

Corporations publicize every climate-conscious dollar they spend, with press releases, glossy reports, and expensive advertising. Eighty-six percent of S&P 500 companies now issue sustainability reports of some type, up from only 20 percent in 2011. They talk about the importance of the environment. They talk about focusing on all of their stakeholders: employees, customers, and communities. They talk about corporate citizenship and shared prosperity. They talk.

But the average company spends just 0.13 percent of its revenue on CSR. Corporations may dominate our world, but not through their CSR departments. CSR is often small and superficial, a Potemkin village constructed to appease capitalism’s critics. It is far easier for business leaders to sign on to lofty statements like the Business Roundtable’s on the purpose of a corporation or the Davos Manifesto than publicly commit to specific environmental or social targets.

New climate targets like BP’s make news not just because they are important and specific, but also because they have been historically rare. Many companies still fail to disclose their emissions, and despite the progress noted above, few have set reduction targets. Measurement of environmental, social, or governance (ESG) performance is notoriously unreliable. Companies self-report without external verification. Nearly all decide for themselves the style, format, and content of their reporting rather than following a common framework.

Look up the five largest companies in the world by revenue, and every list will be the same. Look up the most socially responsible, and there’s no agreement. In 2018, only one company made it into the top five of both Barron’s 100 Most Sustainable Companies and Newsweek’s Top 10 Green Companies.

If we look at a company’s credit rating, there is an almost perfect correlation between how different ratings agencies evaluate them. But between a company’s various ESG ratings, the correlation may be zero. Depending on whom you ask, Facebook is either one of the most or least environmentally responsible companies, and Wells Fargo is either one of the best or worst governed.

This makes holding companies to their commitments difficult and benchmarking across companies almost impossible. It also impairs our ability to connect environmental or social performance to financial performance, a critical need if we are to convert more corporations to this approach.

Compare this Wild West of ESG reporting with the staid and standardized world of financial accounting. In the United States, all public companies comply with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which are set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board as overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission and audited by private accounting firms such as Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. It’s an alphabet soup of accountability, but for the most part, it works. Though each company is unique, all financial statements are reported according to the same standards and thus can be reliably compared against one another

We need mandatory, standardized, audited ESG metrics for large public companies. This is an area where government and industry can work together to create more accountability, as they already do on financial reporting.

There are hopeful moves in this direction elsewhere: The European Union is currently considering a set of common standards, while many of the emerging standards bodies in the ESG world like the Sustainability Accounting Standards Bureau and the Global Reporting Institute recently committed to work together to create comprehensive reporting metrics. The World Economic Forum also followed up the Davos Manifesto with its recommendation for a common set of metrics.

These sorts of clear standards are key for keeping companies on track. Last year, Irving Oil, which operates Canada’s largest oil refinery, abdicated its climate targets, silently removing commitments from its website. As part of Irving’s backtracking, the company changed the metrics by which it would be judged, choosing instead a muddier system that would allow it to claim progress despite higher emissions.

This is the risk with voluntary commitments: They’re voluntary. Nothing stops corporations setting voluntary targets from voluntarily resetting them. What if the next CEO of BP is less committed to clean energy? To hold corporations accountable, we need mandatory, independent metrics by which to judge them.

An American flag hangs in front of NRG Energy's Joliet Station power plant on May 7, 2015 in Joliet, Illinois.
NRG Energy’s Joliet Station power plant in Joliet, Illinois, shown in 2015.
Getty Images

All investors can and should demand “stakeholder capitalism”

But better metrics will only get us so far. Who, exactly, will be holding these corporations to account? While some corporate leaders say they are more focused on society and the environment, there is one stakeholder group they cannot ignore: shareholders.

In a capitalist society, the capitalist is king. Unless investors and shareholders support these transformations, they will ultimately be perpetually superficial or only temporarily substantive.

Take the case of NRG, one of the largest power producers in the US. NRG suffers from sustainability whiplash. The public company sells electricity across the country, and under its former CEO David Crane, NRG began to transform. In a 2014 letter to shareholders about climate change, Crane wrote, “The day is coming when our children sit us down in our dotage, look us straight in the eye … and whisper to us, ‘You knew … and you didn’t do anything about it. Why?’”

And so NRG announced it would cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050 — real commitments that would lead to substantive change.

But in 2017, Crane found himself deposed when the activist hedge fund Elliott Management forced him out. Elliott named new members to the board of directors, including a former Texas energy regulator who had called climate change a hoax. Two years later, NRG announced it was once again accelerating its carbon emissions goals. Today, the sustainability section of its website is bannered with the feel-good slogan, “Becoming a voice and an example of change.” They’ve got that right.

After he lost his job, Crane reflected that there’s all this “happy talk coming out of the senior ranks of major pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and university endowments about investing their money in a climate positive way,” but when it came time to make hard choices, he found only “money managers who are, at best, climate-indifferent.”

Elliott was able to force change at NRG because it owned part of the company. That’s how ownership works in a capitalist economy. But Elliott didn’t own the whole company. The fund owned only 6.9 percent of the shares. Even with its partner — the private investor Bluescape Energy Partners — it could speak for only 9.4 percent of the ownership.

Where were the other 90.6 percent of shareholders? Where were all the shareholders who cared about climate change, about the long-term viability of carbon power, about the need to transform our electrical grid? Why didn’t they speak up, supporting Crane and forcing Elliott to back off?

Without the support of these other shareholders, NRG’s transformation could not last.

As investors, we’ve seen how corporate leaders are pulled in opposite directions. Boards and shareholders want companies to hit their quarterly profit targets, while customers and other stakeholders want more sustainability and social responsibility.

Against these conflicting demands, the rational response from business leaders is hypocrisy: Say different things to different audiences and then continue to serve the priorities of shareholders — those bringing the money — above all. This enables companies to pacify reformers without sacrificing investors. It’s easier to fake good works than good returns.

But here too we are beginning to see hopeful progress. Climate Action 100+ is a group of investors representing over $47 trillion in assets and committing to use their power to push companies toward better disclosure and management of climate risk. Chris Hohn, who runs a $30 billion hedge fund in the United Kingdom, has publicly committed to voting against directors who don’t improve pollution disclosures and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They join other shareholder activists like Ceres, As You Sow, and the Interfaith Council for Corporate Responsibility.

These organizations recognize that focusing on sustainability is not just the right thing to do, it’s also actually in the best interests of most shareholders. Many critics of capitalism frame the problem as shareholders benefiting at the expense of stakeholders, but that misunderstands the interest of a vast majority of shareholders.

Of the 137 million Americans who own stock, the median shareholder is 51 years old with $65,000 in a retirement account. The median shareholder won’t withdraw that money for decades. If they’re invested in index funds, they likely hold thousands of stocks worldwide. Their economic interests — let alone their moral or political ones — aren’t best served by maximizing quarterly earnings at specific companies today. They’re best served through policies and practices that ensure the long-term, sustainable development of the global economy in a safe and stable climate.

With more and more investors joining the fight, there is greater potential for corporations to take the historically radical change required to make meaningful progress and greater potential to hold them accountable even when such progress is no longer in the best short-term interests of corporate managers.

Restoring trust with accountability

Nearly two-thirds of people worldwide want CEOs to lead on change rather than to wait for government. At the same time, two-thirds of people don’t trust most of the brands they use. Four out of five don’t trust business leaders to tell the truth or make ethical decisions. No wonder recent climate targets have been met with equal parts cynicism and hope.

This distrust doesn’t exist with smaller businesses. Three out of four people have very little or no confidence in big business, but the opposite is true for small companies: Three out of four people trust them. This is partly because externalities don’t exist in the same way for small, local companies. If a local company pollutes the river or fires its workers, it’s their river they’ve polluted and their neighbors they’ve let go.

It’s also because there’s greater accountability at the local level where, measured or not, local stakeholders have a better sense of each company’s impacts.

We’re also seeing more small businesses embrace explicit social and environmental goals through the B Corp certification process. This process allows stakeholder-minded companies to opt in to a rigorous set of standards. Certification is still voluntary, but it approximates the sort of accountability that mandatory metrics would provide. In our experience, adherence to these standards makes for better companies overall — both socially and commercially. There are currently more than 2,500 B Corps in over 50 countries, most of them very small.

To make meaningful progress toward sustainability, we must restore the trust that smaller companies have and larger corporations have lost. And to do that, we need better accountability — from mandatory metrics and engaged stakeholders, shareholders included.

Just because corporations are stepping up doesn’t mean the rest of us should be stepping down. It is up to us to hold them accountable through the laws we choose to pass, the jobs we take, the products we choose to buy, and the demands we make on them as investors. To the threadbare question of, “Can companies do well by doing good?” we have our answer: It’s up to us — as voters, consumers, employees, and savers — to decide.

Are these climate commitments harbingers of a new era of capitalism? Or just the latest collection of hollow promises? Only time will tell. But with an uncertain political future in a country suffering from heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes exacerbated by climate change from coast to coast, time is running out for corporations to do what must be done.

Michael O’Leary and Warren Valdmanis are the co-authors of Accountable: The Rise of Citizen Capitalism. They were on the founding team of Bain Capital’s impact investing fund. Valdmanis is now a partner with Two Sigma Impact. The opinions expressed are their own and do not reflect the views or opinions of their employers.


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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Open Sourced logo

Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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