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.
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.
Climate change hysteria. Tar sands and fracking. Prices for oil and gasoline on a roller coaster. What in the world is going on with fossil fuels?
I’m no expert on energy, but as a fascinated observer, it’s been increasingly dawning on me that perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of an era. Of course, the end of fossil fuels will probably take decades to unfold—though change can also happen with surprising speed. (Think: the ubiquitous smartphone is not even ten years old yet!)
A permanent shift towards a low-carbon economy certainly appears to be underway. A number of key forces are working in concert to fundamentally change how energy is produced and consumed in our modern economies. These include new production technologies, evolving political realities around climate change, increasing energy efficiency, and the rise of renewable energy and electric vehicles. All of these are trends that look to be with us for a long time, inexorably pushing us towards a green energy future and away from polluting fossil fuels.
NI Managing Partner Michael Kramer was recently featured in an interesting interview with Joyce Lee-Ibarra, a consultant to non-profits, which focused on B-Corporations and what B-Corp designation means to Natural Investments.
I’m not much of a football fan, but around playoff time I perk up and start rooting for underdog teams to dethrone the champs. With all the problems that Big Energy has been having lately, the odds of upsets in the energy games have been steadily increasing.
Japan is on everyone’s mind. Despite the shocking destruction caused by the massive quake/tsunami, our attention has been on the radiation leaking from Fukushima Daiichi. We’re all praying the damage to the environment and human health can be contained, but it’s too early to know. This event has made it impossible to ignore the consequences of nuclear accidents, and has already had in impact on the future of nuclear energy.
Socially responsible investors have long had this on their radar. In our 1992 book Investing from the Heart, Jack Brill wrote that “most SRI investments are screened for nuclear energy. The reasons are not exclusively environmental, because nuclear power plants have also proven to be financial black holes for the utilities that built them.” Twenty years later nuclear is still a standard negative screen for SRI funds, though recently some former opponents of nuclear power have become converts. Nuclear plants do not emit CO2, so many people who are deeply concerned about global warming have reluctantly embraced nukes as a necessary path towards stabilizing the climate.
NI continues to recommend avoiding investments in nuclear power. Accident safety hasn’t been adequately addressed, and the lack of safe, permanent solutions for radioactive waste has been a deal killer for us. I’ve always felt it was a wacky way to boil water, but I’ve tried to keep an open mind. President Obama surprised progressives with his vision of a new generation of smaller, safer nuclear plants. Still, private investors have been unwilling to invest in nuclear power, despite huge government subsidies and limitations on liability for accidents.
If nuclear power is eliminated from our near-term future, how exactly will we meet energy demands without cooking the planet?
Evolving capitalism is a long-term process, and quite a roller-coaster ride, so each victory along the way is all the more meaningful. After spending a year with other SRI colleagues in dialogue with senior Costco management, I am thrilled to share that our efforts on your behalf have led Costco to adopt its first sustainable seafood policy, addressing a variety of policy, supply chain, labeling, and endangered species issues.
Costco is the largest retailer of seafood in the U.S., so this policy change will have a significant impact on the health of fragile global fisheries, and will spur immediate changes in the practices of every supplier of seafood to the company. Costco is limiting purchases of 12 endangered species, including Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, bluefin tuna, grouper, shark, orange roughy, monkfish, and Atlantic halibut, and will require that shrimp and other fish farmers comply with sustainability standards defined by non-governmental organizations in collaboration with global government and industry leaders. Costco’s policy states that the company will purchase the 12 endangered species only if they are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the most widely-respected independent certifier of sustainable fisheries.
Foremost on shareholders’ minds when approaching Costco was the desire to see adoption of a formal sustainability policy to guide all aspects of procurement, set targets for the achievement of sustainability goals, ensure the availability of “sustainable” choices for customers, and avoid the sale of unsustainable seafood products, including endangered and other over-harvested species. We requested that Costco define its sustainability goals, establish regular reviews of fisheries at great risk, and use practices that will mitigate or limit environmental impacts associated with aquaculture. The resulting policy changes begins to address all these concerns.
Is your life humming along as you’d like it to? Do you whistle while you work? Do you need any fine-tuning? Do you march to the sound of a different drummer? Can you think of another clever auditory-alignment phrase about the quality of your life? If so, I’d love to hear it!
In this article, I’m introducing a new mental model to the basket of tools we use in the strategic insight aspect of Holistic Financial Planning (HFP). As you might recall (and if you don’t, please email me for past articles), in HFP we have several phases, like developing a holistic goal, planning income, planning expenses, planning for profit, and monitoring towards success. The strategic insight mode hovers, in a sense, above all of the others. It’s a collection of tools and mental models that we grab occasionally to help make rapid progress toward our goal. Strategic insight models covered previously in these pages include looking for logjams, evaluating the weak link in your chain of profitability, and using the wheel of life to identify shortcomings.
I call my latest playful process “Fine Tune Your Life,” and it’s based on the idea of an equalizer used by DJs and sound engineers. If you have an audiophile friend you’ve likely seen an equalizer, with its many sliders and dials that precisely tune musical output.
People often think in terms of “on-off,” like a light switch, but in reality the fuzzy details of life are not “on-off” – they move through a range within many possible variables. Take something like health for example; you’re not either healthy or unhealthy. There are many factors to be evaluated to make a diagnosis: weight, resting heart rate, body fat percentage, triglyceride levels, etc, etc. The same is true for financial well-being.