Mainstreaming Responsible Investing

We have arrived at a watershed moment in US history, when the principles and practices of sustainable, responsible, and impact investing are finally becoming mainstream. The biennial report on U.S. Sustainable, Responsible, and Impact Investing Trends 2018 (the Trends Report), published by US SIF Foundation, reveals a 38% increase over two years in the assets under professional management that integrate environmental and social corporate governance (ESG) criteria. This means that currently, one in every four dollars under professional management in this country, or $12 trillion, is invested using ethical or socially responsible criteria.

Twenty years ago, SRI assets tallied just over $600 billion. The new data shows that assets have increased 18-fold since 1995—an astounding annual growth rate of nearly 14%. The Trends Report contains self-reported data from 365 investment management firms and more than 1000 community development financial institutions and vehicles. The numbers illustrate significant growth in assets in SRI opportunities across all categories over the past two years:

  • 730 mutual funds, ETFs, and other registered companies (200 more than 2016);
  • 780 venture capital, private equity, real estate and hedge funds (350 more than in 2016); and,
  • 1000 community investing institutions and funds whose assets have expanded by more than 50 percent since 2016 (e.g., community credit union assets have doubled during this period).

The growing popularity of socially responsible investment (SRI) can largely be attributed to investor demand, according to the report, resulting from a change in retail investor priorities as well as the stated mission and social purpose of institutional investors. A recent Eaton Vance study of 1000 financial advisors showed that about 80% of investors now ask for sustainable and responsible investment options. The entry of several large mainstream investment firms (e.g., Blackrock, Oppenheimer) has further validated the SRI approach in the eyes of conventional investors, while online platforms offering ESG options and the proliferation of ESG ratings systems for funds have increased investor awareness of and interest in this approach.

Many environmental and social issues—from climate change and Indigenous land rights to gun violence and racial and gender discrimination—have spurred public campaigns to move money from objectionable to ethically tenable options, particular in light of the governing Republican opposition to measures and regulations that address these issues.

Climate change, for example, is currently the leading ESG issue for money managers. Many have established fossil-fuel-free investment policies and filed nearly 300 shareholder resolutions that ask companies to acknowledge and report on the business risks of climate change. Other shareholder engagements, which include more than 1000 dialogues with corporate managers and over 700 ESG-related resolutions in 2018 focus on political contributions disclosure, tobacco, gun and weapons manufacturing, human rights in conflict minerals countries, alcohol, corruption, and governance (including the rights of shareholders to nominate directors to corporate boards and place such candidates on proxy ballots, a policy now in practice with 65% of S&P 500 companies). Money managers also report that nearly $2 trillion of assets under management now have restrictions on investments in weapons, a nearly five-fold increase from 2016.

The executive summary of the Trends Report can be found at https://www.ussif.org/currentandpast

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In Support of the Climate Necessity Defense

One year ago, in January 2018, three citizens locked themselves to the front entrance of a downtown Wells Fargo bank branch in the city where I live and work, Duluth, MN. The protesters prevented business from being conducted at the branch for three hours. The reason for their actions were simple and well-articulated: they were protesting Wells Fargo Bank’s financing of Enbridge Corporation Line 3, an oil pipeline that runs 1,097 miles from the tar sands of Edmonton, Alberta, to the Enbridge oil storage facility that sits about a mile from the south shore of Lake Superior, just a few miles away from the site of the protest. Environmentalists have deep concerns about the climate impacts of the tar sands, as well as the threat the pipeline poses to local waterways and Indigenous land rights. The police eventually came to the branch to remove the locks and arrested the protesters. All three were charged with misdemeanor trespass, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice.

While these charges were not unusual for the actions taken, the protesters’ use of the climate necessity defense to justify their actions certainly was.

What is the Climate Necessity Defense?
In recent years, a growing number of activists have used the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience in direct action to protest major climate polluters and their financial backers. According to the Climate Disobedience Center, a group that provides legal, logistical, and spiritual support to climate activists who engage in civil disobedience across the United States:

Instead of seeking a plea agreement or trying to win an acquittal, defendants offering the climate necessity defense admit their criminal conduct but argue that it was necessary to avoid a greater harm. The basic idea behind the defense…is that the impacts of climate change are so serious that breaking the law is necessary to avert them.

In the Duluth climate defense trial, local defense attorneys J.T. Haines and Jennifer McEwen called three expert witnesses in the case––Dr. Christina Gallup, a professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Duluth; Tara Houska, National Campaigns Director at Honor the Earth; and, myself, a financial adviser at Natural Investments. Dr. Gallup testified about the anticipated local impacts of climate change. “It is likely that the boreal forest, which is our forest that includes spruce, and aspen, and other northern trees––that those would retreat to Canada…the boreal forest will not be in Minnesota anymore. If we just do nothing, it’s very likely that what it will be replaced by is bushes and scrub.” Dr. Gallup concluded her testimony by emphasizing the urgency of the conclusions drawn by climate scientists in the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Houska testified about how the defendants’ actions were connected to Wells Fargo. “Enbridge has a huge credit facility with Wells Fargo,” she stated. “Enbridge is literally running off corporate credit, so its nine-to-five operations are funded by credit cards––and so targeting those financiers has become incredibly important.”

My testimony focused on the direct links between investors, Wells Fargo, Enbridge, and climate change. “Citizen campaigns have encouraged the public to divest their deposit accounts from Wells Fargo to the tune of almost $4 billion over the last couple years. That gets the attention of investors like me who are trying to make decisions about the long-term performance of a company. Increasingly, socially responsible mutual funds and investment firms are actively avoiding fossil fuel companies, as well as their financing partners, due to their association with climate-change risks, as well as reputational risk and Indigenous rights risks associated with these projects.”

The three defendants testified about other tactics they had taken previously to stop the pipeline. “I’ve done all sorts of the traditional routes,” said Bol. “I’ve even done leadership in a traditional two-party system—and yet it’s not stopping business as usual.”

The Verdict
In his order, Court Referee John Schulte ruled against the protestors, stating that they “failed to prove that there was ‘no legal alternative to breaking the law,’” even though protestor Ernesto Burbank testified that he had previously attempted to take action through legal means, including electoral politics.

“The Court agrees with the City of Duluth that there are simply too many degrees of separation in this case between the unlawful act and the harm to be prevented.”

Yet, what was most noteworthy about Shultz’s decision is that he both agreed with the climate science and supported the protestors’ tactics: “They should keep up the fight. There is a long tradition in this world of honorable and appropriate civil disobedience. This case is a perfect example.”

SRI Toolbox Is Expanding
As socially responsible investors, we care deeply about climate change, water quality, and indigenous rights, and we thoroughly research how corporate behavior impacts these areas. All of our investment strategies have significantly lower carbon exposure than conventional portfolios, and many completely exclude companies involved in fossil fuel exploration, extraction, production, refining, and distribution, as well as utilities that use fossil fuels for energy production. At the same time, we acknowledge that many of the corporations in our investment portfolios need improvement in this area, so we engage these companies in shareholder dialogue about improving their environmental, social, and corporate governance, policies, and procedures.

While testifying in local trials is not part of traditional SRI strategy, this trial provided a venue to advance the understanding that there are socially responsible investors around the country that are actively working to reduce the carbon footprint of their investment portfolios, expand the positive impact they are having in their local communities, and pressure corporations to do better.

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Caveat Emptor: What Are You Putting on Your Skin?

On Christmas, I opened a beautiful makeup gift set from an upscale department store, and my heart sank after reading the ingredients. I wouldn’t be able to use it. For years I had struggled with eczema; however, it wasn’t until reading an article about a form of eczema as a delayed allergic reaction to chemicals in the environment that I was able to get it under control. The real kicker was learning that when my dermatologists recommended moisturizing daily to manage my skin disorder, regular lotions (even hypoallergenic ones) actually perpetuated my symptoms instead of alleviating them. Once I switched everything, from my laundry detergent to my lipstick, to more natural options, the itchy rashes I suffered for seven years virtually disappeared.

Many Americans assume the U.S. has stringent product-safety regulations in place to protect them from potential injury. Yet, chemical safety standards in the U.S. are anything but rigorous. The motto caveat emptor (the idea that the buyer is responsible for confirming the quality of an item before purchase) is perhaps a better description of our system.

Hard to believe? Although the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 was intended to regulate chemicals that pose a risk to the environment or human health, approximately 62,000 chemicals already in existence were grandfathered in without testing for use in consumer products. Four decades later, the Environmental Protection Agency’s TSCA inventory list includes an additional 23,000 chemicals, but the regulation only invites chemical manufacturers to voluntarily submit data and risk assessments if the company believes the chemical poses a threat. The burden of proof for toxicity or carcinogenic risk lies with the EPA, which has managed to adequately study little more than 250 chemicals and ban only five.

The Investor Environmental Health Network and As You Sow Foundation are leading shareholder advocacy organizations that engage corporations on their chemical safety policies. They ask firms to examine chemical safety procedures and find safer alternatives. In recent years, a new coalition has emerged: The Chemical Footprint Project gives companies a new benchmarking tool for improving their chemical management practice. The footprint is determined through a framework that evaluates company strategy, chemical inventory, goals for safer alternatives, and public disclosure practices beyond legal requirements. The framework gives investment analysts better quality information to understand a company’s risk profile and performance against peers. As of today, “CFP Signatories with $2.8 trillion in assets under management and over $700 billion in purchasing power are asking their stakeholders: Where are you on your chemicals management journey?”.

While government legislation regarding chemical safety in consumer products remains incredibly lax, investors have begun to evaluate the financial impact for companies that do not conduct proper chemical testing. Johnson & Johnson has taken heat recently regarding asbestos in baby powder, but it’s not the company’s first instance of corporate chicanery. The company has been criticized by investors before for reformulating products with safer alternatives for the European market, which has stricter safety standards, but leaving the more dangerous formulation in place for the U.S. market.

By placing profit over people, Johnson & Johnson has not only endangered the firm’s brand reputation and public trust, it also created the potential for costly legal ramifications. Although such short-sighted thinking is not a good bet from an investment standpoint, Johnson & Johnson is not alone in its disregard for such risks; Avon, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive are among other major brands that have scrambled to remove harmful chemicals from their products only after a consumer outcry.

Congress did pass a chemical reform bill in 2016, forty years after the TSCA was approved. Although it was called ‘toothless’ by several advocacy groups, the bill did introduce some changes that were better than the status quo, including the review of “confidential business claims” of product components; the requirement for science-based decisions, founded on the weight of evidence; and the collection of fees on new and existing chemicals filed for the TSCA inventory list that are directed to the EPA. Much of the legislation, however, depends on the EPA to implement and enforce the rules. Unfortunately, the current leadership at the EPA has delayed implementation of the new rules for so long that a federal judge recently intervened, calling the delay “arbitrary and capricious.”

With nearly all of 85,000 chemicals on retail shelves without adequate vetting for health and environmental safety, the actual impact that poor regulation has had on human development is immeasurable. The fight for greater chemical safety continues within the nation’s capital, and progress will likely be stymied until new leadership arrives. In the meantime, consumers, academics, and investors alike should warn corporations: caveat venditor (Let the seller beware.). Studies have shown a marked increase in consumer demand for chemical safety assurances, and corporations have noted higher sales growth for green goods, as more Americans become aware of chemical dangers in their purchases. Pike Research projects the North American market for “green chemistry” to expand sevenfold, from approximately $3 billion to $100 billion by 2020. If the federal government continues to shirk its duties, the public will vote with their dollars at the checkout line.

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Doughnuts Anyone?

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): who isn’t used to hearing about the ups and downs of this metric, commonly understood as the most important indicator of economic health? This statistic—the monetary value of finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders over a specific period—and the pursuit of its growth is embedded at the center of mainstream economic theory. But the question of whether GDP is still a meaningful metric in a world of persistent income inequality, intractable environmental challenges, and human exploitation is at the heart of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Despite the title, this book offers a thoughtful, practical advice that any concerned citizen can use.

Raworth proposes a new economic model that removes GDP from its pedestal and focuses on social justice and our planet’s carrying capacity: the doughnut. In this model, the doughnut’s inner ring acts as a “social foundation,” including basic amenities such as clean water and sufficient food, to which every human should have access. The outer ring of the doughnut is the “ecological ceiling” representing planetary boundaries concerned with climate change, biodiversity, and other areas in which human activity is burdening the Earth’s systems. Between these two boundaries is the doughnut’s substance, the “safe and just space for humanity.” Raworth asserts that the goal of 21st-century economics should be to bring all of humanity into this space, instead of the endless growth GDP.

The “seven ways” referenced in the title are broad conceptual shifts that Raworth proposes as a guide for transitioning to the socially and environmentally just doughnut model. The book’s greatest strength is the expansive and holistic vision encompassed in these recommended transformations. Relying heavily on systems-thinking methods, these shifts relocate the economy within the context of the social and environmental systems that propel and maintain it. Raworth does an exceptional job of recognizing the many players in a dynamic, complex economy (including unpaid laborers, usually women, who enable waged labor), and also assigning them concrete, realistic roles to play in the transition to the doughnut economy. For instance, the state is given a re-imagined role of catalyzing cross-sector investment in renewable energy sources; the market is made subject to stronger regulation to reduce social inequities.

What’s not as clear is the theory of change Raworth that assumes will enable these monumental changes to be accomplished. The political and social muscle needed to replace GDP with a fairer and more inclusive economic model would necessarily be massive and centralized. While Raworth celebrates the reach and accessibility of the digital commons, it is difficult to see how the emergence of isolated, uncoordinated actions facilitated by online communities will gather enough momentum to create lasting change with a global impact. Further explanation of the mechanisms needed drive the planetary-scale change Raworth proposes would strengthen her case.

To that end, investing and the financial sector play an important role in Raworth’s framework; she offers a vision of “finance in service to life,” or regenerative finance, that looks beyond the sole aim of generating value for shareholders. A key focus of regenerative finance is curbing practices that are speculative and short term, replacing them with strategies that build multiple kinds of long-term value—“human, social, ecological, cultural, and physical” —in addition to a fair return. These include separating customer deposits from speculative activities, imposing a global financial transactions tax, and increasing investor support of community-minded banks and credit unions.

Doughnut Economics is a bold and inspiring book that isn’t afraid to tackle head-on the biggest challenges facing our planet and our society. Kudos to Raworth for outlining the scope of the change needed and providing some practical starting points for creating these global transformations.

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
320 pages. Chelsea Green Publishing; Reprint edition

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Bloomers and Doomers, Two Groups Driving Local Investment

Excerpted and adapted from
The Resilient Investor.


In Local Dollars, Local Sense, a thorough survey of the local investment movement, Michael Shuman makes a compelling case that small businesses comprise about half the GDP of the United States, but most investors are completely missing out. Overinvesting in Wall Street and under investing in Main Street (and other Close to Home Strategies) is a diversification problem that this book, and especially this Strategy, intends to help you overcome. As we mentioned earlier, while this type of financial investment has been difficult at best for most of us, there are encouraging developments underway.

While everyone is involved with at least some, and usually many, “close to home” activities, there are two groups for whom this has become the main focus of their resilient investing practice. The first works to enliven local economies, primarily because of the positive effects that enhanced community resilience would offer under any future scenario, and secondarily as a hedge against systemic economic shocks. They bank local, buy local, and invest in local businesses. Transition Towns, and many other local and regional initiatives are engaged in such proactive “going local” efforts. Others draw investments close to home to prepare for systemic breakdown, with an emphasis on personal and family survival, and in some cases, to strengthen regional resilience. Their goal is to increase their odds of surviving “the end of the world as we know it.” Some are “preppers,” caching food, water, and ammunition on the edge of civilization, while others are deep ecologists who believe we’ve passed irreversible ecological tipping points, and that their energy is best used in personal and regional preparedness.

We might playfully label folks from these two perspectives “bloomers” and “doomers.” For the bloomers, with the intention of building community resilience, the paramount goals are diverse local ownership, sustainability, and helping “dollars stay in the local economy to improve quality of life for all.” Doomers, who aim to ride out “the big reset” through personal resilience, see self-sufficiency and protection against threats as primary; some also stress moral integrity and charity. Both perspectives put a premium on good soil, heirloom skills, personal health, and freedom from dependency. Close-to-home investors include both of these camps and more, including those who take small actions as modest hedges against the possibility of systemic shocks and to fosters cherished human values. As long-standing community activists, we’re motivated more by the desire to be proactive, but we also resonate with the wisdom of “be prepared.”

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What’s Up on Wall Street: Winter 2019

The final quarter of 2018 hit with a dramatic downturn for the stock market, while bond investments generally performed well. Large U.S. company stocks were down 13.5% over the quarter and down 4.4% for 2018. Small company stocks were down 20.2% this quarter and 11% on the year. Bonds were 1.6% higher for the quarter, though they were flat for the year.

The fourth quarter setback for stocks was abrupt and vexing. Large company stocks had recently risen 10.5% by the end of the third quarter. But by the year’s end, they were down 4.4% in a sharp reversal. Analysts have been reminding investors for years that a notable sell-off could arrive unexpectedly as the rising market endured longer and longer.

Back in September, economists were not worried about a fourth-quarter stock market slide. On the contrary, the Fed was contemplating at least 3 rate hikes in 2019 to temper rapid economic growth, and all systems were “go” in terms of economic forecasts. So, what happened?

Clouds gathered quickly amid signs of slowing global economic growth and the effects of the mounting trade war with China. Tensions resulting from the Trump administration’s confrontation with China have nurtured uncertainty among U.S. based multinational companies. Investors worry that a trade war will temper the outlook for multinationals, US farm exports, and even their domestic suppliers.

At quarter-end, the Fed announced an interest rate increase—the fourth for 2018—and at the same time, it announced a lowering of its 2019 growth projections for the U.S. economy. The Fed enacts rate increases when it believes the economy is growing and the rate of growth needs to be moderated order to sustain it. The markets didn’t like the double-whammy of higher rates (which tap the brakes on the economy) and lowered growth projections (forecasting a slowing economy). The result: the worst December stock market since the Great Depression. The president’s style of lurching from one crisis to the next served only to antagonize the situation and stoke concerns.

The rise in domestic stocks through September was supported by perceived benefits of the November 2017 Republican tax cuts. At Natural Investments, our investment committee doubted that the cuts—which primarily benefit corporations and the wealthy—would help the real, non-financial economy and most Americans. Reduced corporate taxes generated increased corporate profitability and propelled stocks higher through September. However, instead of investing in new production and hiring new employees, corporations invested much of this windfall into “share buy backs,” in which corporations buy their own shares to remove them from the market. Such buy backs create demand and reduce supply for company stock, thereby inflating stock prices and artificially increasing company per-share earnings—a metric Wall Street watches closely.

The tax cuts produced a “sugar high” of sorts for the stock market, which, if you’ve spent much time around children, you’ll know wears off quickly. Similarly, the stock market has now lost all gains, and then some, since the tax cuts were passed by congress and signed by the president in November 2017. Further, since taxes were cut but spending was not, economists are forecasting record federal budget deficits for 2019 and beyond.

While the stock market and government shutdown have ushered 2018 out on a gloomy note, the prevailing mood among many stock analysts is that of cautious optimism for the new year. Even though the political environment is likely to remain as contentious and exhausting as it has been for the last two years, most economic fundamentals remain positive, and stocks may bounce back in 2019. That being said, the stock market can act as a “leading indicator” foretelling economic slowdowns and even recessions. Another recession remains a possibility for 2019 even if more economic forecasts point to 2020 as the likelier scenario, which would be bad news for a sitting president.

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Harnessing Privilege for Justice

I have learned firsthand from my participation in social justice  movements that privileged people in isolation cannot end wealth inequality or the close the racial wealth divide. As a wealthy white person in this country, however, that wasn’t what I was taught. When I was a student at Princeton University, I was told that poverty and climate change were problems that we, as intelligent individuals, could solve with technical innovation and social entrepreneurship. What I learned outside the classroom is that poor people are the experts on poverty; black activists are the experts on anti-black racism; and any attempt to solve a social problem must be shaped and guided by those who are most impacted.

When I first met Tiffany Brown in 2013, she was working with Resource Generation, an organization that organizes wealthy young people to become leaders in the movement for a more equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.

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Divestment as a Moral Imperative

Few stories dominated headlines this summer like the unfolding of the family separation debacle happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. As civil and political unrest worsened in some Latin American countries, the border saw a dramatic increase of families seeking asylum. Over the spring and early summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) forcibly separated more than 3,000 children from their parents, per the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, and imprisoned them in detention centers across the country; in combination with the surge in unaccompanied children crossing the border, the number of children in U.S. detention centers has now ballooned to more than 13,000.

News reports revealed images of solitary children, huddled under thin aluminum blankets and wailing in the cages of detention centers run by two private companies: GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (referred to as “CoreCivic”); both manage private prisons as well as ICE detention centers. Immigrant children held in facilities run by these two companies have complained about

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