What Fed Chair's First News Conference Means for Sustainability

What Fed Chair's First News Conference Means for Sustainability

Tomorrow the Federal Reserve will enter the age of transparency as Chairman Ben Bernanke holds a press conference directly following the release of the Federal Open Markets Committee's scheduled statement. Why does this matter?

For two reasons. One, it is another example of a buttoned-down establishment opening up, and is a model for companies. Secondly, one of his potential topics, food commodities, is critical to sustainability.

Don't expect anything earth shattering from Bernanke. He will provide some insight into what this month's monetary policy actually means. He may speak to the impact of the Middle East uprising on GDP or the global rise in commodity prices, and what that does or does not mean for U.S. inflation.

And like the average Fed statement, he may be somewhat vague. But he nonetheless is sticking his neck out for one reason: to provide reassurance. His calm tone and slightly erudite aloofness are intended to make sure that the markets don't actually do anything in response.

Executives should take note of this move. Some senior executives do not engage in public discourse regarding their companies' sustainability efforts because it is a really complex subject, they don't have much to say, or they are afraid of the questions. Welcome to Ben's world.

If the Fed's "CEO" can discuss topics live that can impact entire markets, other CEOs should feel more confident about bringing up the "S-Word" on quarterly analyst calls or at other venues. It allows them to set the tone, frame the discussion and learn from the questions, at the very least. Autodesk's Carl Bass, Unilever's Paul Polman and Timberland's Jeff Swartz are all great examples of CEOs who engage in this discussion to the benefit of their companies.

The second reason why Bernanke's press conference may be of interest to people in the sustainability profession is that global commodity prices may be on the agenda. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that their food price index reached its all-time high in February.

As you move down the world's socio-economic hierarchy, sustainability becomes increasingly about survival and the security of one's immediate environment. We quickly forget, amidst Twitter-mania, that the violent political unrest in Tunisia and Algeria started as modest food riots.

Last week in Kampala, Uganda, protesters rioted over increases in food and fuel prices. According to local papers and reported by the New York Times, five people have been killed by soldiers in response to the protests since the riots began. This story, tragically, is just beginning, and it impacts all companies, not just ones in the food and beverage sector.

The riots raise questions about sustainable development at the macro scale, a larger play in which corporate sustainability is often portrayed as a hero or a villain, depending on whom you speak with or about.

Not that Bernanke is going to get into all of this on Wednesday. He won't. But he is taking the hot seat nonetheless, answering questions, like many CEOs, that he never thought he would have to answer. How he responds is worth noting.

Image CC licensed by Wikimedia Commons user AgnosticPreachersKid.