Despite the massive economic and social disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, governments and investors continued to buoy the capital markets. Conscientious investors saw the opportunity to channel their money into funds supporting families and small businesses in crisis. Last year, Natural Investments and our clients held $785M in responsibly managed assets, representing a 21% increase from the prior year.
We directed a significant proportion of our client investments (approximately $541M) toward responsibly managed mutual funds and separately managed accounts that use ESG integration strategies. Applying environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria helps us screen out firms with the worst corporate behavior, an approach that minimizes poor performance risk, as shown by numerous studies.
Kachuwa Impact Fund is an investment cooperative and public benefit corporation focused on owning and operating “impact real estate” and investing in privately held “impact companies.” As a cooperative, Kachuwa is democratically owned and controlled by its members. Brady Quirk- Garvan of Natural Investments recently met with Blake Jones, founder of Kachuwa Impact Fund, to talk about what makes Kachuwa unique.
Brady Quirk-Garvan: What exactly is Kachuwa Impact Fund’s approach to investing?
Blake Jones: By design, at least 60 percent of Kachuwa’s assets are real estate and no more than 40 percent of its assets are investments. Kachuwa is like a real estate investment trust (REIT) combined with a mutual fund. Our diversified holdings have a positive impact on society and the environment. Kachuwa’s goal is not to maximize financial return; instead, it is to create positive impact while earning reasonable returns for its members that may be considered “below-market.”
In January, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, following closely behind 2016. The planet’s five warmest years have all occurred since 2015, and nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since 2005.
There is now overwhelming scientific consensus that CO2 emissions from fossil-fuels are a primary cause for our rising average global temperatures. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states, “Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 15 years.” The obvious remedy? A steep reduction of CO2 emissions.
In the last year, the climate crisis seems to have finally gotten its due in mainstream culture. The deniers are still dishing distractions, but the voices for change are now front and center. Perhaps Greta Thunberg’s sailboat journey to the United Nations was the turning point? Was it the asset manager BlackRock finally making a public declaration on the urgency of sustainability? Or maybe Amazon’s Climate Pledge to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2040? Certainly, the wildfires, floods, and sixty-degree weather in Antarctica make it harder to pretend the climate crisis hasn’t begun. Whatever future historians peg as the tipping point, it’s clear that we must mobilize a massive change in our entire global economy.
Natural Investments continues to purchase offsets for the carbon impact of our business activities. Our primary carbon impact comes from air travel for conferences and meetings.
In a time of trade wars and political leaders on the fritz, investors may consider more conservative options to avoid market volatility. Real estate, bonds, and even gold might look appealing in times of turmoil. For socially responsible investors with even a cursory awareness of the gold mining industry, however, the question of whether gold holdings are compatible with human rights and environmental protection is urgent and important.
No Dirty Gold is an advocacy group of nonprofits and companies in industries that use gold. The group supports voluntary improvements in environmental and social practices by the industry.
The community I call home, Duluth, MN, happens to be perched on a steep hillside that runs down to the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. There’s hardly a place in town where you can’t turn around and see the lake stretching out across the horizon. With such an expansive geographical feature nearby, it’s not surprising that people who live here share a special affinity for the lake, borne out in the names of local businesses (Lake Superior Brewing Company, Lake Superior Garden Center), local colleges (Lake Superior College), and the plethora of Lake Superior tattoos that adorn the bodies of many young locals.
Because Duluth people love Lake Superior with such fervor, we were outraged when we read about a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One that found eight of nine tap water samples taken from all five Great Lakes, including our beloved Lake Superior, contained plastics. It was especially alarming for the significant population of beer lovers in our community to learn that scientists also found micro-plastics in all of the 12 brands of beer brewed with water drawn from the Great Lakes.
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.)
Releasing my “noble poverty” mindset has been an exhilarating journey.
When I first heard the term “noble poverty,” I had a visceral reaction of relief at finally having a name for a condition I had lived with since I was a child.
Mikelann Valterra, founder of the Women’s Earning Institute, has defined noble poverty as “the belief that there is virtue in not having money and that good people do not have it.” People with this mindset live by the phrase “It is better to be good and poor than rich and evil.”
The roots of the noble poverty mindset I used to carry run deep. I was raised in a devout Catholic family in a small rural town in Kentucky. My parents had me when they were both nineteen and worked hard to make a sweet little home for my siblings and me, but they struggled over money. The conflicts over power and control were exacerbated during their divorce, when I was a teen.
My experience of church teachings gave me clear messages about money: “You cannot serve both God and money,” “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and the most memorable to me as a child, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
I first started earning money through small jobs: brushing my grandmother’s hair for ten cents and later babysitting. At sixteen, I worked at a local video and record store and did my own tax returns. I worked two to three jobs at once to put myself through college, and even still, I took out as much in student loans as I could to pay my tuition; I was part of the first generation of students to incur unprecedented educational loan debt without fully grasping the consequences.
I went on to get an M.S.S.W. in social work and worked for nonprofit organizations with refugee and immigrant families and affordable housing. In my early thirties, when I began teaching financial literacy, I realized that I needed to start a retirement account and found an SRI mutual fund for my first IRA.
Even then, by age forty, I was still living with a mindset of noble poverty. I realized that I wanted to retire from this way of thinking and living. I came to understand that my calling was socially responsible investing, and I began doing deeper personal money work to liberate myself from the noble poverty mindset as I helped people align their money with their values.
As they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, taught me that we live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity. From her work with Buckminster Fuller, she saw that our systems that are still catching up with the reality of abundance. I now work with my clients to leverage their investments to transform these systems, so that fair trade, gender equity, inclusion, and economic justice become integral to our economy.
Barbara Stanny, in her book Sacred Success, taught me about women and our relationship to both money and power. She says that women’s challenges with money are often really challenges in their relationship with power. I continue to explore this for myself and help my clients in their own challenges with power.
There are many other teachers, of course, who have helped shaped the unique path I find myself on today. I am thankful to have defined my own “brand of joy,” an idea coined by Tanya Geisler that emphasizes the WHY of my work. As we begin a new year, I am thrilled to be continuing this journey with my clients and colleagues.
Sufficient savings, diligent budgeting, and smart financial planning are of course crucial for a comfortable retirement. Adequate income and assets are essential for the basics— food, shelter, and healthcare—and to maintain one’s lifestyle. However, money is by no means the only important consideration in retirement.
During a recent conversation with a retired couple we serve, they shared how their community organizes an abundance of volunteer activities that offer opportunities to facilitate community engagement and encourage cooperative solutions to shared social barriers. Their enthusiasm illuminates the qualitative concerns that are central to resilient investing and highly desirable for what we might call “resilient retirement”: engaged communities, adaptability, and prioritization of the common good.
Recent catastrophes provide an opportunity to practice a future-planning mindset.
It’s obvious that significant Earth changes are occurring these days—in the past month alone, we’ve seen several major earthquakes, ravaging fires, devastating hurricanes, and torrential flooding. When we wrote The Resilient Investor a few years ago, we anticipated future volatility and uncertainty due to climate change and other factors, but we didn’t know how immediately prescient our insights would be. The September trifecta of superstorms in the Atlantic provided a stark reminder that as resilient investors, we must incorporate disaster mitigation, in addition to disaster preparation, into our financial analysis and planning—for there are few places in the world that will be truly “safe” from the impacts of climate change.
To this end, our top priority must be a bold adjustment in how we produce and consume energy. The good news is that businesses and local governments had already begun to take steps in this direction before our current, climate-change-denying Administration took power. In fact, despite a near-total absence of leadership by the federal government, Americans are on target to meet he 2025 CO2 reduction targets set by the Paris agreement (1800 million tons of CO2); by the end of 2016, we were halfway there. Carbon-based utility generation is down 25% already, ten coal plants are closing, and many states are setting aggressive renewable energy goals.