JACK BRILL, the founder of Natural Investments and a pioneering thought leader of the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry, passed away recently at the age of 89. As one of the earliest SRI advisors in the 1980s, Jack was a passionate advocate known for his generous heart and tireless work to advance an approach to investing that was radical in his early career. He wrote one of the first books on the field, Investing from the Heart (Crown, 1992), which was the basis for the Heart Rating, the first and most rigorous rating system of SRI mutual funds. From 1993 to 2000, Jack helped SRI achieve mainstream recognition through his competitive investment exercise in a quarterly NY Times series.
This article is from our archives as part of the 100th issue special, celebrating twenty-five years of quarterly newsletters.
A reflection on how our founders came to “natural investing” over thirty years ago, planting the seeds for today’s vibrant Natural Investments group, which includes twenty advisors all across the U.S. helping clients manage a half billion dollars in regenerative and conscious capital.
Photo: Jack Brill, founder of Natural Investments, with his son and partner Hal Brill.
“Yes, this is Mr. Brill, rep number 638, with an order to sell 4,000 shares of Exxon at market.” I completed the trade for my client and stepped out of my office with a satisfied smile. I had just helped a conscientious investor divest herself from a company whose environmental transgressions offended her. And look where I was! The Wall Street clerk taking my order must have pictured me in a stuffy brokerage suite with ticker tapes flashing. But in 1992 I had taken refuge in a relic travel trailer parked on a friend’s high desert acreage outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along the south side I built an arching sunroom with straw-bale walls. A 500-foot extension cord and phone line snaked through the pinyon and juniper trees, linking me and my laptop to the world. I wore Guatemalan shorts to work, not a pinstriped suit.
This article is from our archives as a part of our 100th issue special, celebrating twenty-five years of quarterly newsletters.
References to divestment as an advocacy tool appear throughout this anniversary issue, but the South Africa divestment movement of the 1980s is credited with being the first successful campaign by socially-conscious investors to help catalyze major political change—in this case, the end of apartheid.
For us, the biggest headline of last year was “Apartheid Dies!” The biggest success story for SRI unfolded, as the African National Congress called for lifting sanctions against South Africa. Apartheid is about to be buried, and the people of South Africa are on the difficult road toward democracy.
In 1982, the Calvert Social Investment Fund became the first mutual fund to avoid investing in companies doing business in South Africa. The movement grew throughout the 1980s and added important financial clout to the struggle to end apartheid. SRI investors can take satisfaction from playing this critical role.
Excerpted and adapted from The Resilient Investor by Hal Brill, Michael Kramer, and Christopher Peck
The world in which we live is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. There’s an unfathomable intertwining of relationships that underlie the global economy and the physical world, making predictions virtually impossible. As financial advisors, it hasn’t been easy for us to overcome our desire for certainty about where the world is heading. But once we acknowledged that the world may not be sitting on the most solid of foundations, and that our clients hold a range of views about our possible futures, it became essential to explore strategies that speak to both emerging innovations and local resilience.
Even a few years ago, such a multifaceted approach would have been impractical, as there were few opportunities to invest in alternative strategies. Today, we are energized by the explosion of socially responsible investing (SRI) options
How Becoming Personally Resilient Helps Create a Resilient World
For those with even a cursory interest in economics, there is likely a familiar ring to the idea that pursuit of personal interests yields societal benefits. This is, of course, the message of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market.” Unfortunately, it has become all too evident that a civilization based solely on competition and maximizing self-interest does not always create the desired benefits or distribute them equitably. In fact, it can frequently cause great harm to people and nature.
Nonetheless, as we have developed our new resilient investing framework, we’ve come to appreciate the nugget of truth in Smith’s teachings. What he lacked—or at least what is lacking in the way he is interpreted today—is a big enough perspective on what is meant by the pursuit of individual interests. By expanding the definition of what self-interest really means, the essence of Smith’s teachings may take on newfound relevance in a world searching for answers to complex challenges.
Here’s why: In our experience, when investors broaden their goals so that they focus not solely on their financial assets but their personal and tangible ones as well, as we outline in our resilient investing system, they tend to utilize strategies that enhance the health of the community and the environment. Conversely, investments that harm the fabric of society fall out of favor because by their very nature they make us less resilient. A deteriorating global environment and extreme levels of inequality are detrimental to everyone, and many investors understand the folly of profiting financially while furthering such negative trends.
We have coined the term Invisible Heart to reflect this larger view of self-interest. It does not ignore the financial realm but recognizes that a hand left to its own devices can be used for healing or can cause harm. A hand needs a heart to guide it. We are all connected in more ways than we can fathom; as more people recognize this, the ancient and universal wisdom of the Golden Rule—to not harm others—becomes a foundational principle that guides our decisions.
By Hal Brill and Allison Elliott
Looking out the bus window heading into Havana, we could tell that this was a different kind of place. There were no billboards, save for a few extolling the virtues of this proud and isolated country’s communist ideals. No strip malls or giant stores. For 54 years, the island has been an experiment in alternatives to capitalism. Allison and I had come to Cuba for the 11th International Permaculture Conference in Havana and we were looking forward to seeing the experiment up close.
The Cuban experiment made a radical shift in 1989 when the Soviet sugar daddy collapsed, which cut off the subsidies it had enjoyed as a cold war puppet. Largely due to political pressure from Cuban-Americans in Florida, a strict trade embargo by the United States remained in place—and is still in effect today. Unable to afford the fuel, fertilizers and pesticides that had made industrial agriculture possible, Cuba was forced to go organic almost overnight. The dramatic decline in crop production between 1990 and 1994 was known as “the Special Period,” during which the average Cuban lost 20 pounds!
When it was recognized that industrial farming was no longer possible, the peasants were granted more control of over the land. With the help of the country’s agronomists, plant breeders, soil scientists, and hydrologists (Cuba has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists), farmers adopted a system known as Agro-ecology. Agro-ecology is a method that mimics natural systems to increase soil fertility and deal with pests. The techniques will be familiar to many of our readers: nitrogen-fixing beans replace the use of inorganic fertilizer; flowers are used to attract beneficial insects to manage pests; weeds are crowded out with more intensive planting. Cuba has largely recovered from those harsh times; it now only needs to import 16% of its food, whereas in the Soviet heyday it imported 70%. So although U.S. policies have caused severe economic hardships, one can’t help but be impressed with how the nation has pulled together.