Sustainability Needs to Find Its 'Reality Distortion Field'

What would it take for proponents of sustainable capitalism to adopt the late Steve Jobs's obsession with making things that are "insanely great"? Set aside for a moment the glib answers, such as "a miracle" or “give away candy with your white papers.”

Apple changed the world because it suffocated stereotypes and expectations about what a computer could be. Somebody needs to suffocate stereotypes and expectations that sustainability advocates are p.r.-happy, regulation-loving do-gooder nerds.

The Global Reporting Initiative last week in Amsterdam released its fourth generation of guidelines ("G4") for how companies should disclose sustainability performance on everything from carbon emissions to labor practices. In short, it’s a prescription for how to tell investors about the new kinds of risks and opportunities emerging in a world shaped by global resource competition, the rising middle class in Asia, weather extremes and other 21st century trends.

The G4 guidelines are landmark and important, but not conceived to be intuitively, provocatively, insanely great. Most things in the world just aren't, and a wonky conference in Amsterdam is certainly among them.

Steve Jobs knew something about launching "G4s." Jobs left his faithful cheering, as he so often did, in July 2000 when he introduced the G4 Cube, which he called "the coolest computer ever," at MacWorld in New York. The computer — "revolutionary" Apple touted — was a beautiful eight-inch cube magically suspended in a transparent case. Per Jobs's career-long obsession, the electronics were as beautiful as the package, and as simple, too. Upgrading the memory was no sweat. "It's something an eight-year-old can do in about 15 seconds," Arthur D. Levinson, then chairman and chief executive officer of Genentech, said in an Apple promotional video . (Levinson today is chairman of both Genentech and Apple.)

No eight-year-old will understand the new G4 sustainability guidelines in 15 seconds. And far be it from me to offer an Apple-like solution to the problem of how companies' performance on environmental, social and governance issues can be married to traditional financial accounting for the benefit of investors — now a major goal of the sustainability enterprise.

A Jobs-inspired answer probably means offering financial market players something more attractive and exciting than new protocols and white papers.

James Gifford identified part of the key in Amsterdam. He is executive director of the Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative , a United Nations-supported network of institutional investors who have vowed to embed six principles into their analysis and decision-making. He suggested something simple enough, the need for "awareness-raising through thousands of conversations" with the ignorant and the skeptical about why investors would secure greater long-term value by preventing short-term gain from limiting future potential.

In short, sustainability needs a distributed "reality distortion field,” the Star Trek-derived phrase commonly used to describe Steve Jobs’s ability to bend reality to his will through charisma and audacity.

Jobs's G4 supercomputer failed in just the next year. But the forces that created it honed the iPods, iPhones and iPads that did go on to change the world. For what it's worth, the G4 Cube was landmark enough for the Museum of Modern Art to snag one for posterity.

The GRI's G4 will influence how companies tell investors what's going on. It’s not likely to bring about an Apple-scale revolution in corporate reporting and financial markets.

For that, the sustainability movement will need to undertake a large scale charm-and-audacity offensive, or, failing that, to give away candy with their white papers.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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