As the Natural Investments team prepares for our annual Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing, I find myself reflecting on how much has changed in just one year. Last year’s conference convened the day after the U.S. presidential election. Although we were all in utter shock at the outcome, the members of our SRI community quickly settled into the realization that our work as activists on issues of climate change and social justice would be critical, since it was clear that government policy would no longer be supporting our trajectory.
Sure enough, here we are today, with the Paris Climate Accord teetering on the orange ledge, with Obama’s Clean Power Plan gutted, the Standing Rock water keeper camp razed, and the fires, hurricanes, and floods of our worst nightmares. It’s depressing. But as Valarie Kaur, one of my favorite civil rights activists, suggests, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born?”
In November, several of our Natural Investments team attended the Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing in Colorado. In the wake of the Trump’s victory, many of us felt initially devastated and depressed but we quickly found ourselves galvanized and inspired by each other and the recognition that our work as social and environmental activists will be all the more important in the coming years. One of the most inspiring presentations at the conference was a talk given by the authors of The New Grand Strategy—a powerful economic and investment plan for America’s future that identifies sustainability as the organizing logic for the nation. Remarkably, this vision came out of the Pentagon and is expected to be an important influence on America’s future under the Trump administration and beyond.
The story of the New Grand Strategy began in 2008, when Admiral Eric Olson, the Commander of U.S. Special Operations, was frustrated that the military was engaged in seemingly endless wars. The U.S. first crafted a so-called Grand Strategy during World War II, with fascism being identified as the primary global threat; it was adapted later in response to the Russia and the rise of communism. Olson recognized that the old Grand Strategy was no longer working to America’s advantage and wanting to get U.S. soldiers “out from under the sound of the guns”, he directed Colonel Mark “Puck” Mckleby and Navy Captain Wayne Porter to develop a proposal or “narrative” for a fresh guiding strategy for US global operations.
Through their lens as military officers it was clear that national security is no longer simply about threats from other countries and maintaining our primacy over these threatening forces via force and power. They realized that the world actually operates more as an ecology in an open system, and that the “big wicked problem” of our times is the widespread lack of sustainability within that system.
In mid-September, I travelled to San Francisco to participate in the annual Social Capital Markets conference known as SoCap. In its ninth year, SoCap describes itself as the place “where the global community using business as a force for social change gathers to listen to each other, and to learn, and to get things done.” I last attended SoCap three years ago, and was pleased to see how much the event has grown and evolved in that span of time. There were over 2500 people in attendance, from 60 different countries. They represented impact investment funds, international community development organizations, regenerative agriculture projects, and social enterprises, all focused on addressing critical issues like global poverty alleviation, social justice, and climate change, and the conversations were inspiring. Important questions were asked, and moving calls to action were made.
As we’ve seen Impact Investing begin to move dramatically into the mainstream, I was heartened to hear SoCap bring to the fore the priority of ensuring that the social and environmental goals at the heart of Impact Investing don’t become overshadowed by the drive of the extractive economic model currently dominating our financial system. With a huge focus on inclusive strategies for investing, there was deep attention given to addressing racial and gender inequities within our capital system, and how to transition from an Extractive Economy to a Regenerative one.
I am pleased to have a few letters behind my name these days: CPWA®, which stands for Certified Private Wealth Advisor®. During 2015, I undertook the Investment Management Consultants Association’s (IMCA®) rigorous CPWA program and successfully passed the exam to earn the title. The Certified Private Wealth Advisor credential is an advanced certification created specifically for financial advisors who work with high-net-worth clients on the life cycle of wealth: accumulation, preservation, and distribution. Intended for current practitioners already working with high-net-worth clients, CPWA designees must have a full five years of work in the field under their belts.
From early on in my career, I’ve been pushed along by a handful of wonderful clients who presented me with the challenge and opportunity to master some of the more complex planning needs that can come along with wealth:
As Hawaii considers the ramifications of a contentious sale of its major utility companies to giant Florida-based utility company NextEra, Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) stands out as an alternative model of utility ownership, and is leading the way in expanding renewable energy production. In early September, I visited with Jim Kelly of the KIUC to learn more about the cooperative and its approach.
As a cooperative, the utility provider is entirely owned by its members—its employees and customers—who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. With a strong commitment to renewables, KIUC has utilized multiple strategies to increase its green energy capacity. From Power Purchase Agreements made with owners of large renewable energy facilities—including a solar array owned by Greenbacker Renewable Energy, a company in which many NI clients are investors—to directly investing in the construction of member-owned facilities, the cooperative is well on its way to achieving its goal of 50% renewables by 2023.
With the completion this year of its second 12 megawatt solar facility in Anahola,
I recently made a visit to Oregon and took the opportunity to tour some of the farm properties held by Farmland LP, an organic farmland fund in which we have a number of clients invested. Farmland LP acquires conventional farmland and converts it to certified organic, sustainable farmland, and its partner, Vitality Farms, manages the farming and livestock operations on their properties. Recently named one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company, Farmland LP owns about 7000 acres of farmland in Northern California and Oregon. Nearly 1500 of those acres are in Oregon just outside of Corvallis, an hour and a half from Portland. I drove out to spend the afternoon with Jason Bradford, Managing Partner at Farmland LP and Owner/Manager of Vitality Farms. It was the highlight of my trip! We toured multiple properties so I could see firsthand the wide variety of organic production currently underway after five years of infrastructure development and farming operations.
This January, I spoke at La’akea Permaculture Community about new models of green business and finance, and as always, included a brief history of international microfinance as developed by Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. After my talk, one of the attendees told me that she herself had been a microloan success story, and I’m honored to share her story here with you.
In 1991, Donna Fischer was a poor single mother living in Taos, New Mexico and looking for work. She suffered from health problems and low self-esteem and never imagined that she would one day single handedly found a flourishing solar power installation company.
She benefited first from a job training program that paid half her wages as an electrician’s apprentice; here, she first discovered her deep interest in solar power to meet people’s home energy needs. She then had the good fortune to join a local women’s economic opportunity development program that used a comprehensive microloan program based on Grameen’s highly successful model. She became part of a small group of eight women, all hoping to gain skills to build businesses as a way to improve their economic conditions.
The Economist lays it on the line: “Forget China, India, and the internet—economic growth in the next decade will be driven by women.” Indeed, it’s already begun, with women’s incomes worldwide growing from $13 trillion in 2009 to $18 trillion by 2014. That $5 trillion of growth is almost twice the growth in GDP expected from China and India combined during that period, making women the world’s biggest emerging market. Even Goldman Sachs, while not my favorite authority, says, “investing in women is the single best way to reduce inequality and drive economic growth.”
Gender equality in economic structures will both promote economic growth and make the world a better place. While the World Bank wants to “make women more competitive in financial markets,” it misses the vital point that financial markets need to be reframed to value the work that women are already doing. Hence the importance of a new conversation emerging in the investment field: Gender Lens Investing. Gender Lens Investing says that when we acknowledge the competitive advantage that gender inclusiveness brings to business, as well as the remarkable social and financial impacts connected to empowering women economically, we will make better investment decisions and ultimately transform our global economy.
Out on the edges of Portland, in a pretty suburb called Sherwood, my friend Narendra Varma has established a noteworthy new model of community-based sustainable agriculture. It’s an interesting, well thought out project that began with the lovely name “Community by Design.” Having been a founding member of an intentional community, I was very curious to hear the details of the organizational infrastructure that is designed to foster the growth of a land-based, cooperative economic and social system.
I came to know Narendra through Slow Money, a national movement to catalyze investment into sustainable regional food systems. Narendra, inspired by the movement, decided to invest his personal assets into creating a model that could benefit his own family, local farmers, and the greater community. Based on 58 acres of farmland with a pond and year round creek, Narendra’s project is just two years old. The vision is supported by a constellation of three entities: the Community by Design LLC, a not-for profit land trust that owns the land; a member-owned cooperative of farmers, producers, and local customers called Our Table, which leases the land and manages an integrated organic food production business; and the Manav Foundation, a 501c3 educational non-profit dedicated to promoting a locally adapted culture and economy.
Narendra gathered a great team of people together and drew from several key resources in fleshing out his vision. The project is based on permaculture and biodynamic principles of farming and land stewardship, and a design team that included permaculture greats Jenny Pell and Doug Bullock of Permaculture Now! were integral in the initial planning stages. The Northwest Cooperative Development Center helped draft their articles of incorporation and provided valuable advice along the way.
This fall brought a big transition back to Hawaii for me. My oldest daughter started college this year, freeing me up to return to east Hawaii, my home of twenty years. It’s been interesting to come back to Hawaii after three years of being centered in the city of Portland, Oregon. I’m struck by the changes – once sleepy little Hilo town seems to be having a Renaissance. There are new shops and restaurants and the downtown area is bright, creative, and colorful. “Think Local, Buy Local” signs are everywhere and the shops are full of beautiful, quality, island-made creations.
I can directly see the impact of the work my friend and colleague, Michael Kramer, has been doing in this island community. He played a critical role in the founding of a local BALLE chapter, called “HALE” – Hawaii Alliance for a Local Economy. The organization, led by newly named BALLE Local Economy Fellow, Andrea Dean, spearheaded the “Think Local, Buy Local” campaign to increase awareness about the value of supporting local business. Their website states that “Independent businesses located in communities that have an active “buy local” campaign operated by a local business organization (such as HALE!) experienced markedly stronger revenue growth compared to those in areas without such an initiative.” The results are clear in Hilo. Andrea also drove the Kanu Hawaii Eat Local Challenge – a project near and dear to my heart because my youngest daughter and her 4-H club made a fantastic video (see bit.ly/YLrndK) documenting their week-long commitment to eat only locally grown foods that culminated with a feast prepared for their friends and families.