Q&A: Eric Roston, Bloomberg’s sustainability editor

A new section tracks businesses’ response to the global “resource crunch”

At the end of November, Bloomberg News launched a Sustainability section “to uncover what businesses are doing, or what they need to be doing, to thrive as global competition intensifies for strategic resources.” Under the direction of editor Eric Roston (@eroston) and deputy editor Tom Randall (@tsrandall), the page features stories about energy, policy, natural resources, health & population, and corporate sustainability from Bloomberg reporters around the world. CJR’s Curtis Brainard spoke with Roston (bio) by phone.

Why did Bloomberg create this section?

The main thing that Bloomberg does, through the Bloomberg Professional service, is connect investors with data. And over the course of the last five or ten years, we’ve seen—particularly from the institutional investing community—a desire for data that fall under the categories of environment, social, and corporate governance; this is data not traditionally included in corporate reporting.

A large number of S&P 500 companies have started to have this little button up at the top of their homepages called ‘Sustainability.’ This reflects a deep strategy that companies are taking on that involves looking at measures in environment, social, and corporate governance and identifying new risks and new opportunities that they see emerging. We’re trying to serve this trend.

By tracking and evaluating what’s happening in that area?

Yes. For a long time, it was a space that people didn’t know what to do with, in part because the word ‘sustainability’ has many different definitions. But in the last couple of years there has been a lot of rigor, creativity, and seriousness assembled at companies and big investment houses. They are trying to really understand what sustainability is and how to keep track of it. I put up a post this morning about how sustainability is the Moneyball of the global economy. It’s in that phase where they’re looking for new kinds of stats to evaluate environment, social, and corporate governance.

Do you have a working definition of what sustainability means at Bloomberg News?

In two words, it would be “deep strategy.” Companies are looking very deeply into their supply chains, looking at the companies they’re doing businesses with, the countries in which they’re doing business, and trying to figure out where they are open to risks they hadn’t seen before. A longer answer would include asking the question, “What do I have to do to keep my business going indefinitely when there’s intensifying competition around the world for strategic resources?”

Who’s your target audience and why?

The target audience is the global population of smart, successful, savvy news
readers. It’s an audience that has questions about the term “sustainability” and understands that the world is changing pretty quickly.

One thing you encounter, particularly on the energy-environment-climate stage, is expectations and predictions about the future, and one thing that excites me about this project is that we can talk about the future in terms of what happened in markets yesterday. The strength that we have here is the ability to talk about the resource crunch with great specificity, and draw out what’s happening in markets and how markets are responding or behaving in this context.

Bloomberg sells a data-analysis product that helps clients measure progress toward sustainability goals they set for themselves. Does that present a potential conflict of interest for the news department, insofar as the company offers a service related to the performance you seek to evaluate?

Bloomberg the company undertook this supply chain and sustainability initiative years ago, and we’re completely editorially independent. I don’t report to anyone in that chain … We’re all journalists here. I’ve worked at a bunch of different places and I don’t have an approach here that’s any different from what it would be if I were at another place, or if I were freelancing. It’s a profession, so we’re inoculated from those things and have an extremely low tolerance for those conflicts. The reason you’re asking this question is because it’s the first thing we’re concerned about [as journalists] and the first thing we should ask about in an interview.

Can you objectively cover the sustainability initiatives of companies that use Bloomberg’s services?

I don’t feel any commercial pressure. I don’t even know where it would come from. A big challenge right now is just to get everybody in the conversation on the same page about how to define the word sustainability. Given Bloomberg’s scale, the first opportunity we have is to bring some uniformity to the discussion. I think about that a lot. Then I think about stories, and as I think about stories, I don’t have the slightest idea of what Bloomberg-the-company’s relationships are.

Do you check to see whether a company you’re writing about is a client of Bloomberg?

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.

Drawing the circle around water is harder. Another thing to keep in mind is that the peak oil story is right now. The other stories—peak food and water—are really about trying to understand what things will look like in 2050.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,