It’s been a busy summer season for advocacy, and it continues to be refreshing to discover allies on Capitol Hill for the priorities of sustainable and responsible investors.
The EPA recently announced environmental protections under the Clean Water Act for Bristol Bay and a plan that could permanently block the development of the proposed Pebble Mine. The letter we co-signed calling for the EPA and Congress to permanently protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay and the world’s largest wild fishery against large-scale mining may have helped.
The change in US administration this year has generated a palpable sense of optimism among proponents of socially responsible investing and a sustainable and just economy. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other federal agencies have appointed new leaders whose values align with our priorities. As a result, many of the 11th-hour rules and regulations put in place by the previous
administration in 2020 have either been paused, deemed unworthy of enforcement, or canceled.
Fifty years is a long time to be active in any field. For Tim Smith, his five decade career has been defined by leadership in the socially responsible investment industry. Smith co-founded the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, in 1971 and served as Executive Director from 1976 to 2000. The Episcopal Church, one of its members, was the first organization to file a shareholder resolution with a corporation; the resolution to General Motors in 1971 addressed its investment in South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Crisis and opportunity have an interesting partnership. They don’t always go together, but when they do, they can catalyze powerful change in individuals, countries, and human civilization. Many forces converged in 2020 to create such a dynamic—a global pandemic, heightened attention to racism, extreme weather events and accompanying natural disasters, the disruption of democratic norms by a white supremacist authoritarian president, the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and, finally, a historic election.
The year 2020 demanded resilience, and while we surely felt tested on many levels and tried to hold onto our center, many of us found ourselves reflecting on the meaning of life and then acting to change our own lives and work harder to build a just, equitable, and sustainable society.
Natural Investments plays a proactive role within our industry by facilitating positive economic, social, and environmental change. One of the ways we push for the transformation we want to see is through shareholder engagement with companies, as well as advocacy with elected officials and federal agency commissioners on matters of public policy.
The Biennial Report on US Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends, which measures the state of the industry at the end of 2019, shows that sustainable, socially responsible, and impact investing (SRI) is on its way to becoming the new normal. Since the previous report two years ago, the amount of assets under professional management in the US that integrates some form of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria jumped 43% to over $17 trillion. Not only is this the largest two-year increase in 25 years of reporting, but the total suggests that one of every three dollars of professionally managed investments is invested using SRI criteria.
There are now about 400 money managers practicing SRI and more than 500 institutional investors (such as pension plans, government treasuries, and university and foundation endowments) applying various ESG criteria as a matter of investment policy. More than 1200 community development financial institutions provide capital to people and communities in need of basic banking services, loans, and access to credit.
Despite the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, socially responsible investments (SRI) have received higher inflows of capital in 2020 than in any other period of American history. That’s right: investors have poured more than $21 billion into 300+ publicly available domestic SRI funds, well before the year’s end. All told, investors have already purchased more sustainable investments in the first half of this year than in all of 2019––a year that had already seen inflows that were a whopping 4 times higher than any previous year.
In The Resilient Investor, we noted that this is an era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Five years after the publication of our book, which was devoted to planning for major disruptions, it turns out even we underestimated how prescient our framework would be!
Typically, volatility is described in terms of the severity of equity market price fluctuation. Severe peaks and valleys in a short period of time typically reveal the levels of investor uncertainty in the absence of dependable economic patterns.
Market uncertainty increased when Trump was nominated and elected and was generally higher than normal throughout 2018 and 2019. Although it skyrocketed in February and March, as the pandemic emerged, it has actually been decreasing the past few months.
Over the past 30 years, Natural Investments has grown slowly and organically over time by attracting advisors who are aligned with our mission. Even without specific growth targets, our firm has expanded, introducing more people, new ideas, and a wider range of business styles. As a collective of advisory practices, we share common investments, codes of ethics and conduct, policies and procedures, technologies, and values––yet there is a diversity of approaches in how, where, and with whom we work.
2019 Social Impact Report
This growth has created dynamism and prompted deep reflection on how we wish to move forward, particularly as we work to maintain a sense of family while embracing diversity and minimizing bureaucracy. Beginning a few years ago, for example, our desire to make a commitment to gender and racial diversity led us to add more women and people of color to the team.
We’re witnessing a watershed moment in history that will redefine the parameters of our global economic system. The traditional capitalists who created this system believe the sole purpose of business is to make money regardless of the cost to our environment, people, or the rule of law. This short-termism ignores the consequences of corporate practices and favors regulatory policies that benefit the largest businesses (as well as the politicians who depend on them to preserve their power).
Yet the harmful effects of systemic self-interest have become increasingly obvious—from inequality, exploitation, and injustice to the collapse of natural systems—spurring a movement of people around the world who want business and government to address these problems and raise operational expectations for business.