Once Again, A Lost Generation

Precisely one century ago, Ernest Hemingway was living in Chicago and attempting to readjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of service as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army in World War I. F Scott Fitzgerald was drinking excessively and wooing his future wife Zelda while attempting to transition from an unsuccessful career in advertising to a lucrative one in writing novels and short stories. And the United States, as a nation, was struggling to recover from its loss of human life during the Spanish Flu pandemic, its failure to permanently “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I, and its inability to prevent the economic collapse of the 1920 Depression.

Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s subsequent tales illustrated the plight of The Lost Generation, the demographic cohort that came of age at a time when national leaders and the general public were asking serious questions about the sustainability of American society and its capitalist economy. Although the 1920s are now remembered as a time of prosperity, the decade also represented a time of escalating income inequality, debt-fueled business transactions, racial and religious bigotry, and political turmoil.

Today, much praise is bestowed on America’s Greatest Generation, the demographic group that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Much less attention is paid to the Lost Generation, though, the preceding generation that (according to Hemingway) believed that “if you have a success you have it for the wrong reasons. If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work.”

What caused such a pessimistic, fatalistic, and almost nihilistic perception of American business and society to be adopted by an entire generation? It could not have been a mere single catastrophic event; after all, many American generations experience such events. Perhaps, instead, it was the impact of a wide variety of catastrophic events that generated such cynicism, catastrophes that affected many different types of institutions that supported American society.

And what of today’s youthful generation? What of Gen Z, the demographic cohort that was born after 1996 and is now entering the work force? Their collective memories encompass the national security failure of 9/11, the military quagmire of the Middle Eastern wars, the economic collapse of the Great Recession, the radicalization of contemporary political movements, and the social and medical convulsions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, some citizens are calling for dramatic new investments in national programs, arguing that the failure to make such investments will result in severe economic losses. Others reply that massive increases in federal debt will be required to finance such investments, and that excessive spending will impose even more severe economic losses in the long term.

But neither side is factoring the risk of the emergence of a new Lost Generation into its Return On Investment analyses. If we believe that the potential cost of a climate collapse must be factored into analyses of proposed environmental sustainability investments, perhaps we should likewise conclude that the potential cost of producing another Lost Generation must be factored into analyses of proposed social sustainability investments.

After all, a century ago, the Spanish Flu pandemic helped to produce a group of “Lost” authors who shaped the generation that stumbled into the Great Depression. What will the Coronavirus pandemic do today?

Accounting for Coronavirus Risk

As Queen Elizabeth makes her emergency address to the British people from her safe zone in Windsor Castle, and as the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warns the American people of an impending “Pearl Harbor Moment,” is it reasonable to ask why governments and businesses were caught blindsided by the coronavirus catastrophe?

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect foresight in the face of such a menace. But why weren’t health care providers and other organizations prepared to respond promptly? Why the shortages of such basic items as face masks and nasal swabs? Where was the contingency plan to increase production of such essentials at a time of dire need?

If we review the reporting standards of the Global Reporting Institute (GRI), we can find disclosure requirements that address these readiness considerations. GRI Standard 204 on Procurement Practices, for instance, states that:

When reporting its management approach for procurement practices, the reporting organization can … describe actions taken to identify and adjust the organization’s procurement practices that cause or contribute to negative impacts in the supply chain … (these) can include stability or length of relationships with suppliers, lead times, ordering and payment routines, purchasing prices, changing or cancelling orders.”

Consider the many health care providers that rely on unstable Asian suppliers to provide face masks under terms that permit long lead times, uncertain ordering routines, and the imposition of extreme price increases when products are scarce. If they are required to disclose these procurement relationships under GRI Standard 204, we would be aware of the resulting social risk.

Likewise, GRI Standard 403 on Occupational Health and Safety states that:

The reporting organization shall report … whether the (occupational health and safety management) system has been implemented based on recognized risk management and/or management system standards / guidelines and, if so, a list of the standard guidelines.”

Consider the employees of our food and delivery companies who are now protesting that their employers are not providing satisfactory protections against the coronavirus. If the employers are required to disclose the standards and systems that they utilize to keep their employees healthy and safe, we would be aware of the extent of their preparedness (or lack thereof) in the face of pandemic threat.

There are other GRI Standards that come close to addressing pandemic concerns, but that fall just short of the mark. GRI Standard 201 on Economic Performance, for instance, states that:

The reporting organization shall report … risks and opportunities posed by climate change that have the potential to generate substantive changes in operations, revenue, or expenditure, including a description of the risk … a description of the impact associated with the risk … the financial implications of the risk … the methods used to manage the risk … (and) the costs of actions taken to manage the risk.”

Although Standard 201 refers to climate change, it would represent an ideal disclosure requirement for pandemic preparedness if the GRI simply adds the words “and pandemics” to “climate change.”

It may be comforting to know that disclosure defining entities like the GRI have issued standards that address our readiness to fight the current pandemic. But we cannot reap the benefits of these disclosure requirements if organizations simply ignore their reporting responsibilities.

Embracing This Milestone 500th Blog Post As An Opportunity For Transformation

Do you recall the zeitgeist of our society in January 2009? The global economy was collapsing, a Second Great Depression was threatening, and the first African American President in the history of the United States swept into office on the rhythms of Yes We Can.

At that moment, I realized that a business educator and management consultant with complementary Academic Qualifications (AQ) and Professional Qualifications (PQ) might be able to find something interesting to editorialize about on a weekly basis. And thus I launched the blog AQPQ.org.

Now, roughly 500 weeks later, I’ve achieved this 500th milestone post. How am I celebrating?

By deciding that it’s time for transformation.

Why? Because the world itself has been transformed during the past decade. A global economy in utter ruin in 2009 is, by and large, in fairly robust shape today.

But what of the health of our society and natural environment? Sadly, they appear to be evolving in the opposite direction.

In the meantime, the structure of the internet has been transformed too. Consider, for instance, the world’s most popular web site platform WordPress. When I launched AQPQ in 2009, I selected it because of its singular focus on blog hosting.

But today, WordPress’ home page invites potential customers to “Build your beautiful site today. Everything you need for a website that works for you.” It barely mentions the word “blog.”

So I’ve decided to embrace this 500th post as an opportunity for transformation. I will conclude my utilization of the blog format to express my editorial views, and will shift my commentary to alternative publishing venues.

To be sure, I’ll continue to utilize this web site to describe my professional activities. Nevertheless, I’m ready to embrace an indisputable truth: a structure that provided a strong foundation for my editorial expression a decade ago may no longer represent an ideal venue for me today.

500 iterations of any endeavor is a good run. After 500 blog posts across a decade of global transformation, it’s the right time to embrace the future.

What Would Thomas Edison Say About GE’s Expulsion From The Dow?

In 1896, Dow Jones created an Industrial Average of the equity values of twelve corporations that dominated the American stock market. Thomas Edison’s company General Electric was one of those twelve firms.

The other eleven corporations are long gone from the Industrial Average. Some continue to operate as smaller entities. Others merged into larger firms. And others dissolved or were broken up by court order.

Only General Electric remained in the Industrial Average until, last week, S&P Dow Jones Indices decided to expel it. Apparently, GE can no longer be characterized as a dominant American corporation.

So what would Edison, the American entrepreneurial icon who founded GE, say about this downgrade? Ironically, he’d probably wonder how his firm managed to remain in the Industrial Average until now.

That’s because GE was founded by Edison by 1890 to serve as a holding company for a variety of his electricity-related business interests. A hodgepodge of lamps, motors, and other items were tossed together under the General Electric brand name.

Had Edison been alive today, he likely would’ve explained that he always expected his application product businesses to wax and wane over time. He’d then return to his New Jersey laboratory and roll up his sleeves, determined to invent the next generation of applications.

Edison understood that the capitalist process of destruction and innovation would ensure that no application product would be popular forever. He undoubtedly realized that, just as his electric lamps and motors replaced predecessor products that ran on kerosene and steam, his own inventions would eventually yield to more efficient and effective products.

In other words, Edison would’ve likely put aside the existing application products of General Electric, and would’ve turned his attention to the solar panels and wind turbines of the future. And, while doing so, he would’ve relished the opportunity to build a better company than today’s GE.

Why You Should Care About Your Mobile Phone’s Location Tracker

Are you reading this blog post on your mobile telephone? If you’re doing so, you can now feel a little more secure about carrying it with you when you leave your home.

Why? Because the four major cell phone networks have decided to stop selling customer location data to third parties. They made this choice in response to the inappropriate corporate behavior of LocationSmart, a data aggregator.

How did LocationSmart mishandle location data? Unfortunately, the four carriers didn’t release detailed information regarding its actions. Nevertheless, LocationSmart’s web site highlights its sale of geofencing services.

A geofence is a virtual sensory field that surrounds a geographic location. When someone approaches the field, his mobile phone “pings” its location to the cellular network without notifying its owner. The data can be instantly communicated to a business that occupies the location, or packaged and then sold to third parties.

A relatively benign service might involve the text messaging of a price discount offer to a mobile phone in order to entice its owner to enter a store within the geofence. A potentially malignant service, though, might involve the compilation and sale of detailed personal profiles of cell phone owners.

The malignancy of a profiling service need not be intentional on the part of the data aggregator. Consider, for instance, the plight of an individual who frequently visits a grocer or restaurant that has recently opened in a building that also houses a cigar shop. A health insurer that purchases the data may (erroneously) flag the individual as a cigar smoker. The individual may never become aware of the sale of his location data, or of his health insurance classification.

The recent decision of the four cell phone networks removes one path to such an outcome. But if individuals continue to download and install applications without reading the fine print in their Terms and Conditions, they may provide data aggregators with new paths to the same undesirable outcome.

Can We Rely On Coca-Cola’s Water Use Disclosures?

Have you read the recent investigative news story regarding Coca-Cola’s water use? Apparently, the firm has been reporting data in an incomplete (and potentially misleading) manner.

The news story focused on the company’s claim that “For every drop (of water) we use, we give one back.” Why the concern? Because, even though clean water has become a scarce and precious resource around the world, Coca-Cola utilizes massive amounts of the liquid to produce its eponymous product.

The company claims that its water conservation efforts fully replace the volume of liquid that it draws out of the natural environment. But the investigative reporter revealed that the company “… does not count water in its supply chain — including the water-guzzling sugar crop — in its ‘every drop’ math.”

The reporter also noted that a company researcher once revealed that he was pressured to “ … adopt a ‘net green’ accounting method that would have lowered the water footprint of its agricultural supply chain.”

Huh? A “net green” accounting method? Any Certified Public Accountant or Chartered Accountant can confirm that no such method is defined by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or International Accounting Standards. Coca-Cola concocted it to serve its needs.

Interestingly, the investigative reporter failed to note that Coca-Cola arranges for the Big Four global accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP (EY) to attest to the accuracy of its Water Replenish and Water Use Ratio metrics. The statistic is one of seven sustainability measurements that are assessed by the external accountants.

Sadly, industry critics will likely refer to this situation as an illustration that “corporate sustainability reporting (is) a great waste of time.” But even though it’s possible to regard the Coca-Cola brouhaha as an exemplar of misleading reporting practices, it’s important to keep in mind that — as a result of the company’s disclosures — its water use practices can now be scrutinized by external parties who care deeply about the environment.

Forget Pitching, Hitting, and Fielding! The New York Mets’ Most Glaring Area Of Weakness May Be Statistics

It’s difficult to believe that Major League Baseball’s New York Mets won 11 of their first 12 games this season. Earlier today, the Chicago Cubs completed a four game sweep of the club, continuing a stretch in which the Mets have lost 29 of 45 games.

During this woeful period, fans have witnessed displays of poor pitching, hitting, and fielding skills. And to make matters worse, earlier this week, they witnessed a managerial display of poor statistical skills.

At a critical moment in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Mets Manager Mickey Callaway removed an effective pitcher and replaced him with an ineffective one. The change enabled the Brewers to score four runs and convert a two run New York lead into a two run Milwaukee surplus.

So why did Callaway bring in Jerry Blevins to replace Robert Gsellman? Given that Blevins has struggled all season, while Gsellman has delivered periods of clutch pitching? Callaway explained:

The seven times [the Brewers batter] faced Gsellman he got three hits. He’s never gotten a hit (0-for-2 with a walk) off Blevins. The overall numbers suggest Blevins has a much greater chance to get the hitter out and you have to go with those. It is part of managing the game today.

At first glance, it does seem reasonable to bring in a pitcher who has experienced success against a batter. But “0 for 2 with a walk” means that the pitcher had only faced the batter three times in his entire career!

That isn’t even close to a statistically meaningful number of past attempts. Callaway himself acknowledged the “small sample size” that he relied upon to make his decision.

In all fairness, there is no single numerical minimum of observations that must be considered when making a statistically valid decision. The minimum number varies by one’s willingness, in any particular situation, to tolerate risk and uncertainty.

And yet no mathematician would agree that a counter-intuitive baseball decision could be made on the basis of three prior outcomes. Thus, the Mets can now add Statistical Analysis to their List of Necessary Improvements.

Water Use Reporting At Coca-Cola

The Verge, one of the online platforms of Vox Media, published an investigative story last week about the sustainability accounting practices of Coca-Cola. It raised a number of questions about the manner in which the firm reports on its water use in the production of its signature product.

For instance, the article noted that:

Coca-Cola claims that for every drop the company uses, it gives one back. But “every drop” includes only what goes into the bottle. The company does not count water in its supply chain — including the water-guzzling sugar crop — in its “every drop” math.

During the first two weeks of June, we are utilizing our Save The Blue Frog web site and case to support an intensive accounting course at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. It is the capstone course for the graduate accounting program, entitled Strategic Management in a Global Business Environment.

Thus, for our course, the investigative story provides a well-timed example of the need to utilize standard industry metrics for the reporting of environmental, economic, and social outcomes. The capstone course is emphasizing the standards, frameworks, and metrics of the Global Reporting Initiative, the International Integrated Reporting Council, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, and the United Nations in its curriculum.

Many thanks to Barbara Sullivan-Watts, a Special Lecturer at Providence College who is teaching Environmental Biology at the institution, for bringing the Coca-Cola article to our attention.

Rockaway Beach Provides A Sad Example Of The Integrated Nature Of The Triple Bottom Line

Are you familiar with the Triple Bottom Line? First defined by John Elkington more than two decades ago, it refers to the principle that an organization should measure its social performance and environmental performance, and not solely its financial (or economic) performance. It is occasionally known as the Three P’s of performance, i.e. People, Planet, Profit.

But the principle can also be interpreted in a more complex manner. Each of these three performance factors impacts the others. Thus, the “bottom lines” of these factors should be reported in an integrated manner.

Last week, the City of New York sadly announced a community restriction that illustrates the integrated nature of the Triple Bottom Line. Due to the hurricanes and rising tides of climate change, severe sand erosion on the city’s southeastern peninsula has led to the closing of a prime strip of sandy beach in the Rockaways.

The decision occurred after local tourist businesses opened for the season. Residents, of course, have already begun to protest their government leaders’ decision.

In this situation, an environmental crisis has led to a social and economic catastrophe for a working neighborhood that relies on its primary community resource — i.e. its summer beach — for its survival.

The residents of the Rockaways will gladly attest to the integrative nature of the Triple Bottom Line. Hopefully, the municipal leaders of your own town will learn from the current travails of their New York City colleagues.

Sustainability and Integrated Reporting

Are you worried about the future of the Sustainability Movement? Fear not! Our accountants are endeavoring to save the planet.

It may be reasonable to feel a little dubious about that statement. Nevertheless, author Jane Gleeson-White has written a best-selling book entitled Six Capitals: The Revolution Capitalism Has to Have — or Can Accountants Save the Planet?

She does not definitively answer that question in her text. However, she does explain that our accountants have many impressive allies who aren’t ordinarily associated with their profession.

For instance, HRH Charles, The Prince of Wales, is playing a key leadership role through The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project. Gleeson-White credits the Prince for being a major impetus behind the global adoption of the Six Capitals model.

For the next two weeks, we will utilize our Save The Blue Frog web site and case to support an intensive accounting course at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. It is the capstone course for the graduate accounting program, entitled Strategic Management in a Global Business Environment.

As the final course that students complete before graduation, the curriculum emphasizes the need to analyze global business problems in an integrated manner, and to recommend solutions in a persuasive context. May we agree that there is no better topic for achieving these goals than Sustainability?

You are welcome to use this link to review our materials. As always, we continue to welcome your comments, suggestions, and feedback.