Policy Priorities for a New Administration

In my role on the national policy committee of the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry’s trade association, USSIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, we had a wonderful legislative priority document prepared in October for the new President. Like many others, we expected to have the opportunity to build on the many successes of our advocacy with the Obama Administration on a variety of issues to protect the public from systemic abuse by the financial industry, encourage wider adoption of SRI by fiduciaries, and facilitate investment in the green economy. For responsible investors, the Obama years were very encouraging indeed, and we at USSIF had an ambitious agenda ready to share with the Clinton Transition Team to expand on these victories for investors and the public.

Naturally with the election result, everything has changed, and we now find ourselves in a radically different political climate that demands a defensive stance to protect recent laws and regulations from being dissolved. When it comes to issues of importance to sustainable and responsible investors, the Republicans in Congress, long opponents of most regulations—especially relating to business and investing—now have an ally in a President who shares their belief in small and minimally intrusive government. That’s why within the first months of this Administration we’re already seeing efforts to unravel the reforms to the financial system that were established during the Obama Administration. They’ve already removed the Dodd-Frank provision that required companies to disclose payments (i.e., bribes) to foreign governments to extract fossil fuels and minerals from often-oppressive governments.

The Republicans have their pitchforks raised in outrage over a broad array of regulatory protections, and the fight is now on to:

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Coming to Grips with Sudden Wealth

Did you ever know someone who was an environmental advocate, or your locavore activist friend, or a deeply religious soul—fill in the blank—who lived their lives with their values-flag writ large? Unless you know them very well, you might not be aware if they’ve had decisions to make about their money life that have challenged those core values. Spoiler alert: not all these stories have happy endings for these caring souls!

Kristine unexpectedly inherited a significant sum after someone she knew died and left her money (all names are pseudonyms). She is an aggressive activist leader, nationally known and engaged in growing the local community. She has steadfastly moved her money out of mainstream investments and into everything from CDFIs to municipal bonds to progressive alternative offerings. She wants decent returns, but prioritizes her core values as she works with her windfall. One of the new-economy heroes! In the beginning, though, it took some time and dedication to find a financial advisor that would “get” her values and support her non-traditional choices. After interviewing a few advisors and not finding the connect she wanted, a friend recommended her fee-only SRI advisor and Kristine finally found the ally she was looking for.

Shawn was a young environmental activist involved in stopping nuclear power plants in New England. As he grew his family, they used electricity as little as possible and added solar when that became financially feasible.

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Appreciating Appreciation

Recently I talked with a client who is considering buying a house in Sonoma County. As you might know, the housing market here in the Bay Area is variously described as “crazy,” “red hot,” “ridiculous,” and “divorced from reality.” A similar situation prevails in many cities and towns across the country. Should a smart home buyer take the leap now or wait and hope for prices to drop? How do you evaluate whether renting or buying is the best strategy?

The comment sections of innumerable personal finance blogs are strewn with the wreckage of the battle—no, the war—around this question. It’s nearly as hot as the debate over whether to pre-pay a mortgage or not (don’t get me started). As a math major, I like to look at the numbers myself, play with calculators, build my own spreadsheets. After hours of work on this my definitive answer is “it depends.” Seriously. It depends on a bunch of factors, but actually pivots on one big factor.

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Microcredit in Action: Panama

In January I had the privilege of visiting with one of the micro-credit lenders that Natural Investments clients help to fund. We had a trip planned to Panama, so I decided to take the opportunity to meet with PROCAJA, the on-the-ground lending agency that chooses recipients for small loans funded through Envest Microfinance which some of our clients are invested in.

I met the PROCAJA team in the small town of Ocu. The people at the branch were very gracious as they got us up to speed on how they are structured and the types of clients they serve. As with most Envest-funded programs, loans are generally under $1000 and are targeted to individuals who are starting or growing a small business.

Also in keeping with other micro-credit programs, they’re very successful in getting these loans repaid. Unlike many banks, they use a very hands-on approach. In addition to the standard visit with the person requesting the loan, to assess their current business and their plans, the recipients needs to get neighbors to vouch for them; this creates a natural community of support and accountability. After the loan is made, regular follow up visits track how things are going and identify ways to improve. All this ongoing support, including financial training if needed, leads to the failure rate being much lower then at most banks, which often provide no follow up or support.

After this overview at the branch of office we went to visit four people who are currently using microcredit loans to build nancial stability.

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Quakers and SRI: Some Historic Perspective

Quakers are often given credit for being pioneers in the formative era of Socially Responsible Investment. As I was reading an array of early SRI publications, it was easy to see that Quaker traditions and practices have played an important role in this movement’s history. While you may not have the same faith as the thinkers and authors quoted here, the lessons and insights are applicable regardless of your spiritual background or belief.

When we remember that many of the concerns we are trying to address through our investments are global issues (climate change, deforestation, gender equity and LGBT rights, supply chain/human rights, etc.), it becomes even more important to broaden our understanding. While Quakers come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, universalism is a commonly held belief among Friends, as Quakers are often called. There is diversity among Quakers, and an openness and curiosity about others is central. As Tom Head wrote in Envisioning a Moral Economy, “To study well the other faith traditions through which all humankind knows and experiences the sacred is especially important in our era of globalization.” (Footnote 1)

Quakers are one of the three historic Peace Churches, believing there is “that of God” in all people. This has inspired a strong history, still continuing today, of social justice advocacy on pressing topics of the day, from slavery to women’s rights, prison reform, and armament issues. As early as 1688, Quaker meetings in the United States were corresponding and discussing the ethical issue of profiting from the slave trade, and in 1758 the Philadelphia yearly meeting unanimously issued a proclamation forbidding its members from participating in the slave trade.

Could you imagine a church/mosque/temple in 2017 forbidding its members to profit from the fossil fuel industry? Or forbidding its members from investing in and working with predatory or discriminatory financial institutions?

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Globally, Sustainable Investment Strategies Winning Popular Vote

On March 27, 2017, the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance (GSIA) released its biennial Global Sustainable Investment Review 2016, showing that global sustainable investment assets reached $22.89 trillion at the start of 2016, a 25% increase from 2014.

Socially responsible investment (SRI) continues to grow as a favored set of investment strategies:

  • Europe accounts for 53% of these assets, the United States at 38%.
  • In nearly every market represented in the report, sustainable investing has grown in both absolute and relative terms since the beginning of 2014.
  • Environmental, social, and governance performance and/or criteria integration is being applied to $10.37 trillion in assets.
  • Growing global concern over climate change has resulted in rising interest in green finance, including climate-aligned bonds.
  • Fiduciary duty and client demand are key growth drivers for sustainable investing.

While institutional investors hold the largest percentage of SRI assets, with pension funds often comprising the largest percentage of institutional SRI assets, interest by individual and family investors is growing. The relative proportion of individual and family SRI investments in Canada, Europe, and the United States increased from 13% in 2014 to 26% at the start of 2016. Over a third of SRI assets in the United States were owned by individuals and families.

To download the full report click here.

About Global Sustainable Investment Review

Now in its third edition, the biennial Global Sustainable Investment Review is the only report presenting results from Europe, the United States, Canada, Asia, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The report draws on in-depth regional and national reports from GSIA members—Eurosif, Responsible Investment Association Australasia, RIA Canada, and US SIF—as well as data and insights from the Principles for Responsible Investment, JSIF (Japan), LatinSIF, and the African Investing for Impact Barometer. Together, these resources provide data points, insights, analysis, and examples of the shape of sustainable investing worldwide.

About Global Sustainable Investment Alliance

The Global Sustainable Investment Alliance (GSIA) is a collaboration of membership-based sustainable investment organizations around the world. It includes US SIF, UK SIF, Eurosif, RIA Canada, VBDO (Netherlands), and the Responsible Investment Association Australasia (RIAA). The GSIA’s mission is to deepen and expand the practice of sustainable, responsible, and impact investing through intentional international collaboration. Our vision is a world where sustainable investment is integrated into financial systems and the investment chain and where all regions of the world have coverage by vigorous membership based institutions that represent and advance the sustainable investment community. www.gsi-alliance.org

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Natural Investments’ 2016 Social Impact Report

Our commitment to positive change is reflected in our advocacy, how we operate the company, and the 1% of gross revenue that we donate to worthwhile local and national charitable organizations. Our commitment to evolving corporate behavior revolves around our shareholder advocacy efforts, while our passion for protecting citizens from harm is embodied in our public policy efforts with regulators and Congress. This report includes examples of our work in 2016.

Download the NI 2016 Social Impact Report (PDF)

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Good Cop, Bad Cop and Shareholder Engagement

Did you know that “good cop/bad cop” situations can be found in the social investing world? “Good cops” are those that listen, cultivate understanding, and develop relationships in order to resolve a situation. “Bad cops” work to resolve the same situation through confrontation and pressure. They aren’t bad in the conventional use of the word; they just aren’t necessarily nice. They draw harder lines. Good cops and bad cops can both get the job done. And when working toward the same goal, they make a powerful impact.

In social investing, both approaches are useful in pursing the goals of shareholder engagement. The good cop meets corporate officers at the table where policy decisions are made. The bad cop may instead call for divestment or separation from offending corporations. Both are educating, leading, and moving us toward an economy that is sustainable and just.

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Post-Election Resilience

After the election, I left the country. Many people had a similar instinct, but no, my doing so wasn’t out of disgust over the election results. It was planned long before, in response to an invitation to speak in Deauville, France at the annual global Womens Forum for the Economy and Society (also known as “Davos for women”). This was quite an affair: 1200 powerful political, business, media, and NGO women from around the world all focused on economic development and improving the status of women. The theme this year was “The Sharing Economy,” which as you know is an Evolutionary investment strategy in The Resilient Investor, so I fit right in despite being one of the only men in attendance.

The timing was good for my presence at the event—resilience is resonating well with people, not just because of global instability, but also because the current political situation, in particular Brexit and the American presidential election. There was even a “What America’s Choice Means for Women” panel at the event that featured Star Jones of The View and Leah Daughtry, the chair of the Democratic National Convention Committee, discussing the battles on the horizon.

So what does resilience mean in this political environment?

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