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Weekend edition—ESG can’t be ignored, the first NFT article, colorism by numbers

The top stories of the week included a groundbreaking SEC speech about environmental, social, and governance issues.

Bárbara Abbês for Quartz
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Good morning Quartz readers!

Earlier this week, the acting chair of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Allison Lee, gave a barnburner of a speech. The Donald Trump appointee laid out a sweeping agenda promising to make ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues central to the SEC’s mission, and potentially part of almost every financial transaction.

“That supposed distinction—between what’s ‘good’ and what’s profitable, between what’s sustainable environmentally and what’s sustainable economically, between acting in pursuit of the public interest and acting to maximize the bottom line—is increasingly diminished,” Lee told the audience at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. “[There’s] no historical precedent for the magnitude of the shift in investor focus that we’ve witnessed over the last decade.”

If Lee’s vision succeeds—the SEC now opens a 90-day comment period—get ready for standardized reporting and mandatory climate disclosures, more risk reporting by private companies, detailed political spending disclosures related to ESG commitments, and a coordinated effort within the US government and internationally to integrate these initiatives into the world’s financial systems. It would mark a sharp acceleration of trends and a major break from the past: The SEC’s 2010 guidelines (pdf) on climate disclosure were loosely, if ever, followed.

Recasting ESG issues as a “core risk” to investors sets the stage to force companies to track, account, and disclose them. But of course, the private sector is already there. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, put Wall Street on notice last year, saying it plans to base all of its investment decisions on ESG criteria. “Climate risk is investment risk,” BlackRock chief Larry Fink wrote in his letter to CEOs. With more than half of all recent shareholder proposals focused on environmental and social issues, executives can’t escape it.

There are now two essential tracks: the central banks and the corporate sector. Both are moving relatively quickly in the same direction, toward a day when standardized ESG reporting will become mandatory and private-sector pressure will make ESG screens, especially climate change, part of every major investor’s financial calculus.

“This is no longer a shouting match between divestment campaigners and banks that don’t want to do anything,” says Ilmi Granoff, director of sustainable finance at the ClimateWorks Foundation. “It’s now the federal regulator conducting serious oversight of a serious set of risks.” —Michael J. Coren

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Five things from Quartz we especially liked

Buy this article. How do non-fungible tokens actually work, and what will people pay for them? Samanth Subramanian wanted to know, so he and Things editor David Yanofsky wrote an article about how one goes about creating an NFT—and then put it up for sale. You won’t find a clearer explanation of the process, or a better deal for a piece of journalism history. —Heather Landy, executive editor

Colorism by numbers. Last summer, as people around the world protested the killing of George Floyd, companies spoke out against racism, put up black squares of solidarity on Instagram, and promised to make progress on diversity and inclusion. But what happened after that? Amanda Shendruk and Marc Bain analyzed the skin tones in 27,000 Instagram posts from 34 fashion and beauty brands to see how their marketing has changed. The data reveal an industry that still has a long way to go. —Katherine Bell, editor in chief

Daydreaming, flatulence, and chapped lips. Those are just three of the reactions a very small number of people have attributed to the AstraZeneca vaccine, as Annalisa Merelli reports in this fun piece illustrating the illogical assumptions made about the shot. Several European countries halted their administration of the vaccine after reports of blood clots, though the number of those who self-reported that response (1 in 167,000) essentially matches the prevalence of blood clots in the population. The drug company is diligently tracking all the bizarre “symptoms” experienced by Europeans anyway—the full list is guaranteed to make you chuckle. —Lila MacLellan, Quartz at Work senior reporter

Vaccination with a view. Here’s one way to make use of our spaces for today: Architectural landmarks are being situated as vaccine-friendly sites. Based in London, Annabelle Timsit takes us through getting vaccinated under the gothic arches of Westminster Abbey, where every British monarch since 1066 has been crowned. The collection of photos—a contrast to those of empty landmarks a year ago—seems to illustrate how things are looking up around the world. —Michelle Cheng, Quartz at Work reporter

No slam dunk. How do popular products become popular? Sometimes it’s luck or serendipity, but more often it’s diligent work by marketers. Marc Bain walks us through Nike’s painstaking process to elevate its Dunk sneaker from also-ran to the hottest shoe of 2021. Along the way, he explores how companies manipulate product scarcity to stoke consumer demand. —Oliver Staley, business and culture editor


One membership thing that made us 🤐

Before the pandemic, alcohol was a central part of how many people socialized with their coworkers. But the research is clear that alcohol negatively impacts productivity and company performance. Here are a few ways experts suggest companies support the abstainers and those who are just seeking to cut back, during the pandemic and beyond.

🤔 Understand what it means to quit drinking. Before an organization makes sober-friendly changes, its leaders should interrogate their own belief systems and biases around alcohol and its role in the workplace.

💁 Hire caterers who have followed the sober-curious trend. Though there are still industries in which companies build bars and “speakeasies” as employee amenities, heavy drinking at industry events is outdated.

🍽  Choose restaurants over pubs, or bars with excellent non-alcoholic drinks. People can bond over food, so choose an eatery when you’re looking for a local hangout for a team gathering. Or, just find a place with fantastic no-jitos.

✦  The new sobriety movement frames not drinking alcohol as a positive lifestyle choice that anyone might make. Grab a sparkling water to sip while you read our field guide on the joy of sobriety. Been abstaining from a Quartz membership? Try it for a week, on the house.


We’re obsessed with space debris

The roadblock to a trillion-dollar space economy. At orbital velocity, a piece of junk as small as a paint chip could damage or destroy an expensive satellite or threaten the lives of astronauts. Currently, NASA is aware of 100 million pieces of debris larger than a millimeter. What’s worse, researchers fear that proliferating debris could start a vicious cycle, which in the worst-case scenario could render orbits around Earth unusable, even preventing future rocket launches. Like with climate change, the entire world will need to band together to solve the space junk problem—or share in suffering the consequences. The Quartz Weekly Obsession takes down the trash.

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Five things from elsewhere that made us smarter

Sticking it to each other. One of the most essential medical items during the pandemic has been the humble, 6-inch nasal swab used in the testing process for respiratory viruses like Covid-19. Olivia Carville at Bloomberg Businessweek has the wild insider look at Puritan Medical Products, a small, family-owned business in Maine and one of two companies in the world that make them. A $250 million government contract might sound great, but it landed at Puritan while its two cousin owners had been fighting so long the business was in disarray. —Karen K. Ho, global economics and finance reporter

Hoop dreams. Princepal Singh is on a mission: Become the first Indian-born player on a National Basketball Association roster. Growing up in Punjab, he didn’t find the game until age 14. For the Ringer, Mirin Fader writes about how Singh has climbed a development ladder built by the NBA to drive the global popularity of the sport and lure talent to the US. Now, he is poised to be the face of Indian basketball in both nations. —Tim Fernholz, senior reporter

A glimpse into Amazon’s anti-union playbook. Amazon workers at an Alabama plant may soon become the company’s first union. Not that others haven’t tried, but the company has worked hard to quash any prior unionization efforts. The New York Times’ David Streitfeld pulls back the curtain for a rare look at just how Amazon quieted organizing workers. —Alex Ossola, deputy membership editor

No balance. Managing childcare and a job during a pandemic seems impossible because it is. It is impossible even outside of a pandemic. In Vox, Anna North writes about the unsustainable amount of work Americans are asked to do outside the home (without childcare support or enough leave), and about the answer to the needs of both workers and society: less work. —Annalisa Merelli, reporter

Slippery subject. Eels are not the most glamorous fish, but for sushi eaters, they may be the most delicious. Because of the huge demand for unagi, prices for eel have soared, making them worth more by weight than gold, and decimating wild populations. In this fascinating article in The Counter, author Karen Pinchen ventures into the shadowy, often illegal global eel trade, and introduces us to a Maine entrepreneur trying to build a sustainable eel-farming industry. —Oliver Staley, business and culture editor


Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, eel facts, and brackets to hi@qz.com. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was brought to you by Susan Howson.

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