No. There are a number of companies that provide data on sustainability metrics. So, to the extent that other people are citing Bloomberg data, I’m conscious of disclosing that they’re citing data that the people that pay me produce. But it’s no different than any other place I’ve been where we’ve had to make disclosures based on who the corporate parent is.
In terms of content, you do a good job letting your readers know what companies are up to—what kinds of actions they’re taking to minimize risks related to sustainability. But I haven’t seen a lot of reports that address companies’ faults versus their successes. There haven’t been many articles that point out what companies aren’t doing.
Here’s some context. Bloomberg journalists produce something on the order of 5,000 stories a day, and there is a subset of those stories that are on topics or about companies that are in our wheelhouse. So, for most stories, we are basically just curating what goes on the page and making decisions about how best to tell the sustainability story based on the prodigious output of Bloomberg News everyday.
Aside from that, sustainability is also a fairly new topic. One thing that’s interesting is that these [business] sustainability programs are only about five years old. For the academics, NGOs, and people studying them, there are not even enough years of data yet to be able to say, in aggregate, whether sustainability works for everybody or just for the companies it’s working for. There is a learning curve for every company that is very quickly becoming involved in sustainability and, actually, a lot of our reporting is about companies experiencing their own curves.
There’s been a curve for Bloomberg, too. The site is only two months old and we’re just getting into the critical questions that are central to the whole sustainability enterprise.
But you do intend to ground-truth some of these claims about corporate sustainability?
Yes. That’s central to our mission. And what’s particularly interesting about covering sustainability is the whole issue of “greenwashing.”
If you’ve ever thumbed through a company’s sustainability report, you know that these are highly researched, public documents. The core of sustainability, and the reason that the institutional investors are all clamoring for more kinds of data, is that they want greater transparency. So the central tension in reporting on this stuff is that you have this movement that is created to produce more transparency met by highly evolved communications divisions.
So how do you know what’s really going on and what’s just managed transparency? That’s one of the central things to always keep in mind as we dig into this enterprise. There’s even greater need for a critical eye because, although it’s all about transparency, the communication is highly managed.
Do you think these sustainability initiatives actually represent a fundamental shift in business practices, then?
Yeah. It’s much more widespread than it’s given credit for. And there are some very real physical things, material things that are driving this at its core.
Perhaps the easiest one to get your head around is this trend is population growth. There’s this OECD report from 2010—and there’ve been others—which estimates that by 2030 there could be 3 billion more middle-class consumers in the world. There are an estimated 1.8 billion today, so that’s 4.9 billion in 2030. That’s an enormous amount of stuff. Where is everyone going to get their stuff? Who is going to make it? And where are they going to put it when they’re done with it?
I think that’s probably the main driver, this resource crunch. Depending on what industry you’re in, there are regulatory threats. There are threats related to climate change. There are political threats. Social threats. And the sustainability enterprise is geared toward figuring out which of these megatrends are lurking behind the corner, so that companies and consumers can be ready for them.
You just published a special report, “Peak Everything,” in which I noticed an odd difference in tone between the article about peak oil and the ones about peak food and peak water. The oil report was very optimistic and seemed to suggest that we shouldn’t worry because we have plenty of unconventional sources, from deep-water to shale. The other two reports were much more pessimistic. Why?
Part of the answer relates to how wide a circle are you drawing around these resources. I don’t want to get into peak oil here, but you can draw a circle around conventional oil. You can draw a circle around one well. You can draw a circle around all of the hydrocarbons in the solar system and include Saturn’s moon Titan. And depending on where you draw the circle, that’s where you get the answer.