A Tour of the SRI Conference

A grass-fed dairy farm in Virginia

In early November, 2017, my Natural Investments colleagues and I attended the 28th annual SRI (Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing) Conference in San Diego.  I always get excited about this conference because it is the premier educational and networking event for financial advisors, fund managers, and others connected to our industry. It has become a touchstone for me—not just because of the wonderful people I meet, or the inspiring investment opportunities—but because it helps me reconnect with why we do this work.

When I arrived, I heard that the conference had set a new attendance record, with many of the 800+ attendees being newcomers from Wall Street looking to break into SRI.  There were some grumblings that big corporate interests have identified SRI as a growing, profitable business and have been moving in on the SRI space, and the speakers seemed to recognize this. They made it clear that all were welcome, but that we are united by a common purpose: to use the power of our investments for the good of people and planet. It isn’t about financial returns, they said (because we know research has established that SRI performance is competitive), but what we are able to accomplish on the ground, in the real world.

To that end, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emerged as a major theme of the conference. World leaders adopted the SDGs in 2015, calling for all sectors of society to work toward gender and racial equity, clean power and water for all, a sustainable economy, and the end of poverty and hunger, among other ambitious goals. For SRI professionals, the SDGs can provide more clarity of purpose than the more nebulous phrase “positive impact,” which can easily be misunderstood or misused by newcomers.

In another area of the conference, dozens of companies staffed booths where attendees could learn more about their services. I saw several of the fund managers I’ve come to know over the years, and received personal updates on how they are investing and what they expect going forward.  One of them was a regenerative agriculture fund that invests in conventional farmland and leases it on favorable terms to local farmers, who then convert it to organic production. This fund creates local jobs, improves soils, and fights climate change—while investors can benefit from rent payments and the improving value of the farmland. Although this fund is unique, it’s a great indication of the real world impact our industry is having.

I was struck by how many new funds were represented at the conference. Our industry is indeed growing!  One fund occupies a new niche—global real estate investments that have been screened for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.  It’s important for investors to own both domestic and international real estate for diversification purposes, yet socially responsible investors have never had a fund dedicated to doing this in a sustainable way.  I got the opportunity to meet the fund manager right there in person and learn about how this investment works.  Our team will certainly be following up with more research on this new option.  I ended up visiting nearly all of the other new funds as well, taking notes and asking friendly yet probing questions to help me get a sense of whether these new products could add value to our clients’ portfolios.

During the conference, my Natural Investments colleagues and I arranged private meetings with several managers to delve deeper into their offerings.  We learned about the financial details, but more importantly, we got to know the people behind these investments.  That’s why it’s so important to attend this event—it’s the best way to get a real sense of the expertise and integrity of the people we work with. I came away from the conference thoroughly inspired, filled with new information and insights and a renewed sense of purpose for the job I do.

 

James Frazier

James Frazier

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