Author Archive

A Radical New Way of Thinking About Investing

As frontrunners of the socially responsible investing movement, we at Natural Investments are “resilient investors” who are working off a radical new map of the investing universe. We invite you to navigate your own path across this vast terrain. But before we start exploring the nooks and crannies, let’s take a moment to ask the fundamental question: why invest?

Some would say this is obvious—we invest to build wealth. And what’s the point of building wealth? To be secure? To then build even more security and more wealth? Isn’t that what we all want? Well, no, at least not in the way it’s usually presented. While we take it as a given that most people want to increase their financial assets (at least up to a point) and have some nice things, traditional measurements of personal wealth are inadequate, often ignoring that which gives us the most satisfaction. Economists measure our “standard of living,” but what we’re really after is a higher “quality of life”—and while there is overlap, those two are not the same thing! The point of investing, we’d like to suggest, isn’t just about having more, but about being happy in a full, classical sense.

Let’s look back—back as far as 2500 years—for help in answering these questions. Aristotle, writing in the Nicomachean Ethics, described the point of a well-lived life, the goal we should be aiming for, as “blessedness.” For Aristotle, blessedness meant enjoying family and friends, with a deep feeling of well-being and contentment. In our day, this ideal might suggest a mature experience of knowing one’s mission, succeeding at pursuing that mission, having a solid primary relationship and close friends and family, having sufficient financial resources to live well according to your own standards, to be making a contribution and leaving a legacy one can be proud of, and staying in right relationship to the natural world that sustains life. It’s not about more—it’s about better!

We don’t think of investing as simply a professional, numbers-crunching discipline; for us it’s something much more fundamental. We believe investing should support financial goals (buy a house, start a business) and it should support the bigger and deeper and more profound purpose of a life: Aristotle’s blessedness. Investing can help each of us live a better life, and it can help improve communities and build a better world for all.

To do this, we must first break out of the confines that limit our ideas about wealth. Financial choices are just one part of a continual process of giving and receiving, balancing risk and reward, and exchanging time, energy, and money with those around you. So let’s make room for values and communities, for society and the Earth. And let’s expand our vision to include the interior realms of emotional and spiritual well-being as well, which are enduring elements of healthy human development. By doing so, we are bound to get more relevant, and more life-nourishing results.

(This article is adapted from The Resilient Investor by Hall Brill, Michael Kramer, and Christopher Peck and is part of an ongoing series in our monthly e-newsletter. Subscribe here.)

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Can You Future-Proof Your Life?

Many people are motivated by the desire to be as prepared as possible for an uncertain future, but they recognize that this is no easy task. We encourage you to take a big picture view of the world and consider the many ways that the future could unfold. You’ll want to envision where you would like to be going in both the near-term and in years to come, and to keep abreast of the wide and growing range of investment choices available to you. By thinking in this broad, creative way, resilient investing gives you the tools to design a personalized plan. This will show you where you’re currently investing your time and money, highlight areas that you might be over or under emphasizing, and provide the guidance you’ll need to move forward in your chosen directions.

As you put your plan into action, you’ll notice a newfound sense of calm, one that rests on the knowledge that you’ve taken measured steps to future-proof your life and are ready to ride out the inevitable storms and surprises that come your way. You can’t eliminate risk, but you can dial down your stress levels and have more peace of mind by knowing that you’re prepared. Having a comprehensive and diverse set of investments will provide genuine benefits when one or another market you’ve invested in has a downturn (whether it be a sudden drop in the Dow, a dry spell that decreases yields in your garden or regional food network, or an unexpected health challenge). While it is always painful to suffer a hit in one area, investments in other Zones will likely be doing better and help carry you through.

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2017 Social Impact Report

Corporate Engagements

Natural Investments is involved in a variety of efforts with our industry colleagues that facilitate positive economic, social, and environmental change, including shareholder engagement with companies and public policy advocacy. Some of our efforts in 2017 include:

We signed a letter to the dozen major banks, including Wells Fargo and Citibank, that are financing the Dakota Access Pipeline, urging them to avoid legal liabilities and financial and reputational risks associated with financing the controversial project—and to advocate publicly for the rerouting of the pipeline away from tribal land.

We signed a global investor statement to leading consumer and agriculture companies asking them to adopt zero—deforestation policies for sourcing key agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, paper, and lumber. Deforestation in Latin America, which is largely caused by commercial agriculture, is a leading contributor to climate change, and the recent Soy Moratorium in Brazil proves that the rainforest can be protected while expanding agricultural production.

We signed a letter to sixty of the world’s largest banks calling for more robust and relevant climate-related disclosure to be supplied to investors on four key areas: climate-relevant strategy and implementation, climate-related risk assessments and management, low-carbon banking products and services, and banks’ public policy engagements and collaboration with other actors on climate change. Banks have an essential role to play in ensuring that we meet the Paris Climate Agreement goal of “making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

We supported shareholder engagements with three top carpet manufacturers—Mohawk, Shaw, and Interface—to encourage them to develop plans for sustainable carpeting redesign to make it more recyclable, to use higher levels of appropriate recycled materials, to develop national recycling goals, to help develop end markets for discarded carpet, and to take at least shared financial responsibility to implement these actions.

We signed a letter to major motion picture studios urging them to eliminate tobacco depictions in youth-rated movies. We believe this is warranted to protect the company’s reputation and consumer base, to avoid legal liabilities, and to eliminate the reputational and potential financial risks caused by the company being associated with this public health issue.

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NI Newsletter Spring 2018

Newsletter Contents

Supporting the Youth-Led Movement for Gun Control by Sylvia Panek

The Rule of Law, Wealth Inequality, and Our Response by Joel Koerner

Post-Disaster Lessons for Resilient Investors by Christopher Peck

Fighting Deregulation with Community Investment by Evan Quirk-Garvan

Your Money: Smart Strategy and Positive Impact by Eric Smith

What’s Up on Wall Street: Q2 2018 by Scott Secrest

Download the NI Spring 2018 newsletter (PDF)

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Rethinking the Purpose of Investing

In our combined decades of work as investment advisors, we’ve had the privilege of sitting down and talking deeply with hundreds of clients about what matters most to them. One thing that kept coming up in these conversations is that, although they liked our “invest with your values” approach, they didn’t like thinking about investing very much. We, on the other hand, think that investing is really cool, a focal activity where people make decisions that change their lives and the world. Are we just geeks, or do we see something that others don’t?

Eventually, we realized that most people have a rather narrow image in their minds about what “investing” really means. Do an image search on the word, and you’ll see lots of coins and dollar bills, graphs and charts, bullion bars and Wall Street suits. What generally comes to mind is that investing is done by those who have extra money, in order to turn this into even more money, using the methods promoted by Wall Street. While most of us are interested in becoming more prosperous, this concept of investing leaves many people out of the game, and even for those who do invest this way, it is a cold and abstract prescription that fails to touch on what gives deeper meaning to our lives.

We say that it’s time for a new approach.  Rather than wrinkling up one’s nose and doing “investing” the way we’ve been taught, we’re asking people to take a step back and really think about what a powerful and creative role this activity can play in our lives. This begins with expanding our notion about what investing truly is. Try this on for size: investing is something that we all do by directing our time, attention, energy, or money, in ways that move us toward our future dreams, using a diverse range of strategies.

Let’s start with dismissing the popular notion that investing is an activity that is only available to those with discretionary capital to play with. The fact is, neither the investment, nor the return, must necessarily be in the form of money. Financial investments are just one side of the coin; on the flip side is time, our most precious resource. We can and should bring this to the investing table by being thoughtful in the ways we focus our attention or channel our energy. Throughout this book, we’ll look at ways that the choices you make with your time, attention, and energy are as central to your long-term investments as the ways you work with your money.

Next, we rethink the purpose of investing. As the Beatles so joyously pointed out, money can’t buy us love. Still, the single-minded pursuit of most investors is to increase our financial “net worth,” though our real goals in life are much broader than this. Resilient investing recognizes that we are actually interested in cultivating several types of assets: personal (relationships, community, learning, health, spiritual growth), tangible (home, efficient energy systems, local food supplies, a healthy ecosystem around you), and financial (stocks, bonds, savings). By including all of these valued objectives in our resilient investment plan, we have the opportunity to shape virtually all aspects of our lives.

Finally, it’s important to rethink how we pursue those goals. Are the recommendations proffered by traditional investment books, magazines, and financial services firms the one and only valid methodology? Are there other strategies that you can use to diversify and seek out new opportunities that are largely ignored by Wall Street? And in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, might it be wise to consider the possibility that strict adherence to traditional, buy-and-hold-on-to-your-hats dogma may leave us vulnerable to systemic risks that threaten to send our economy reeling?

We refer to this notion of spreading our wings into more spacious skies “weaning off Wall Street.” It opens our minds to exploring strategies beyond the one that rules today’s herd, with its all too familiar mantra of “show me the money” and creates space to think about what’s important close to home, how to support a sustainable global economy, and thinking in a visionary way about evolutionary investing.

 

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The Resilient Investor

What Does Resilience Really Mean? 

Excerpted and adapted from The Resilient Investor, by Hal Brill, Michael Kramer, and Christopher Peck

For the past few years, the term “resilience” has been the buzzword du jour in economics, climate science, leadership, online security, and community planning. Surprisingly, it has managed to span the ideological spectrum even in these partisan times. The Post-Carbon Institute recently re-branded their website as resilience.org, while the World Economic Forum in Davos jumped on the bandwagon by focusing its 2013 conference on “Resilient Dynamism.” If resilience science speaks simultaneously to re-localization activists in their transition towns, as well as the 1% gathered in their enclaves, it’s clearly an idea whose time has come.

 

Let’s take a look at what is meant by resilience and why it has arisen from so many quarters as a concept that is truly emblematic of our times. In Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, authors Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy frame resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” They see resilience as “an essential skill in an age of unforeseeable disruption and volatility.” A unifying and powerful lens, resilience can focus our awareness and actions at all levels—for individuals, businesses, communities, nations, and the entire planet.

Many people become aware of the importance of resilience only after a disaster. Do a search for “Hurricane Sandy & Resilience” and you’ll find numerous articles and conferences convened as decision-makers tried to figure out what we could learn from this super-storm and how we might rebuild in ways that will leave people less vulnerable. But the time to focus on resilience is before disaster strikes; in 2014, President Obama proposed a $1 billion “resilience fund” to help communities protect themselves from climate change impacts such as floods, drought, and wildfires.

Futurists and systems theorists are having a heyday, creating a menagerie of frameworks describing resilience, but it really doesn’t need to be a difficult concept; we see it all around us. Anyone who’s over 40 knows that they’re not as physically resilient as they used to be; injured children recover more quickly than injured grandparents. Healthy ecosystems bounce back from fires or storms better than degraded ecosystems. Technology companies become irrelevant if they fail to respond decisively when circumstances change: perhaps the most striking example is Kodak, once synonymous with the very idea of photography, but left in the dust by the shift to digital imaging.

For those with a strong bent on assuring that we maintain the viability of the biosphere, it’s worth taking a moment to see why resilience is starting to displace sustainability as an organizing concept. Zolli points out that sustainability tries to come up with an “equilibrium point” in which a system stays in balance but this is counter to how many natural and human systems operate. As architect and systems thinker William McDonough wryly asks, “Who simply wants a sustainable marriage?” Resilience does rely on the principles of sustainability (unsustainable investments weaken the capacity of a system to maintain integrity), but it strives for a healthy dynamism rather than stasis.

The lens of resilience makes us more cognizant that for better or worse, we have entered the age of the Anthropocene—a new term for a geological age in which humans have become the dominant factor shaping the world. Natural systems have been damaged to such a degree that we need to be prepared for random, extreme disruptions, according to Zolli and Healy. At the same time, resilience points out that we should be designing our systems, and our lives, so that we do more than survive such disruptions.  We’ll want to “capture the upside,” thriving and growing when exposed to volatility and disorder, while also seizing emerging new opportunities as they come into view.

For some, resilience has a flavor of hunkering down, waiting for disaster to hit, and coming out unscathed. That’s not a very juicy way to live, and it’s not what we mean by resilience. Our goal as investors is to make things better, for ourselves, and for the world. We are using “resilience” in its most flexible and optimistic form, still loyal to the goals of sustainability (providing for the needs of the present without harming the future), and with eyes staying sharp for emerging prospects. Here’s our new and improved definition:

Resilience helps us to thrive by anticipating and preparing for disturbance, improving the capacity to withstand shocks, rebuilding as necessary, and adapting and evolving when possible.

Resilience is a powerful remedy for our uncertain times. It helps us learn to live with the fundamental complexity of modern life, rather than trying to simplify our way out of it in order to make decisions. When the inevitable disruptions do hit the system, resilient investors will have the best possible shock absorbers to minimize being rattled, and be positioned to bounce back even better than before. Our favorite one-liner comes from Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who wrote, “When surprises are the new normal, resilience is the new skill.”

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NI Newsletter Winter 2018

Newsletter contents

Download the NI Winter 2018 newsletter (PDF)

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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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