Does the Lingo of Sustainability Make You Scream in Terror?

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Photographer: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I was reminded recently by film critic and Twitter celebrity Roger Ebert that the genius of Alfred Hitchcock extended from drama, suspense and black humor all the way to sustainability.

The word is used by so many people these days, to mean so many different things, that just defining it is like juggling scrambled eggs. That’s more or less the consistency of corporate sustainability rhetoric, too. Real-life example: “Our strong values of togetherness and enthusiasm, a constant desire for renewal and our commitment to make our goals a reality will support us in taking the many steps, both large and small.”

Investors reading this sort of thing might well wish for a murder of crows to swoop down and peck out their eyes.

Instead, why not let the rhetoric of sustainability flow over you, like a refreshing shower at the Bates Motel, and remember one thing: Sustainability, the trendoid, probably matters more to them than to you. But make sure to sit back and take in the 70-mm Dolby Surround Sound picture.

Hitchcock had legendary instincts for focusing on what mattered. His heroes and villains are always after something, but who cares what? He called it the MacGuffin -- the plot device that drives his characters. The audience remains ambivalent about the MacGuffin itself  -- uranium in wine bottles (Notorious), a secret microfilm (North by Northwest) or the dim memory of an amnesiac (Spellbound). The great director explained it this way, to fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut:

So the "MacGuffin" is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn't matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin since it's beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatever.

All that corporate sustainability rhetoric? The MacGuffin.

To paraphrase Hitchcock, “sustainability” is the term companies use to cover all that sort of thing: cutting carbon emissions or water use, eliminating waste, and so on. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it shows that top management understands and can respond to the global middle-class boom, resource competition and climate change.

Look at it as Hitchcock might:

Crazed birds descend by the thousands on a small town where an automaker is the main employer. The National Guard evacuates the town, plunging the automaker into a labor shortage. Executives call in the Audubon Society and other environmental NGOs to hold a series of workshops, where they study birding and avian habitats. Grown men and women don feathered costumes and live with the birds until they understand why they have become crazed. A green architect is hired to build grassy ecosystems to factory roofs, to which the birds flock. Having their own home, they leave the citizens in peace. Their guano becomes a vital phosphorous source for fertilizer to help grow advanced biofuels for the cars.

Or:

The chief executive officer of a global retailer falls under the spell of a mysterious wealthy environmentalist who has become the company’s major shareholder. The CEO creates a 39-step green challenge for the company that must be completed within seven years, or the environmentalist will liquidate the retailer. The CEO vanishes, presumed murdered. The mishegoss -- that is, the challenge -- of leading all 1.2 million employees through the 39 steps falls to one middle manager, who discovers the CEO living in West Antarctica, subsisting on snow and blubber from sea lions, and exposes the cabal to the SEC.

Don’t understand the cabal? See MacGuffin, above.

Don’t understand sustainability? See MacGuffin, above.

Companies are challenging themselves to hit many goals that fall under the S-rubric. As Bloomberg.com’s sustainability editor, I take a keen interest in these efforts. Depending on your role and perspective, you may, too. 

But if you’re an investor, you just want to see how the action unfolds overall. Nobody, ever, is going to buy or sell a stock based on whether a company has built a green headquarters or whether it analyzes how its non-investing “stakeholders” perceive its brand. How clearly executives see a company’s risks and opportunities – that’s another kettle of fish. Sustainably aerated, of course, with solar lighting.

In the end, sustainability is just a contemporary twist on good old-fashioned corporate governance. And investors care less about corporate-governance initiatives than about how well a company is run.

So the next time you find yourself in an unsustainable thicket of sustainability rhetoric, give a thought to the MacGuffin -– and to the word’s origin. As Hitch explains it:

You may be wondering where the term originated. It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?"

And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin."

The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?"

"Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands."

The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin."

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Analyses and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business. 

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