Joan Bavaria's Future of Socially Responsible Investing
What will Socially Responsible Investing look like in 15 years? I believe we are in a period of rapid change and growth with a somewhat uncertain outcome. Those of us who are involved in and support socially responsible investing, mission-related investing, corporate social responsibility and all that involves social and environmental considerations in a market economy must concentrate on what needs to happen to continue making progress, clearly visioning our desired outcomes.
SRI, as it has grown over the years, has broadened from a focused small community centered around causes such as the anti-apartheid movement to an impressive, multi-trillion dollar investment system in the U.S. alone (as reported by the Social Investment Forum), where participants might embrace some or all of a long list of goals and concerns. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), started by Ceres and now based in Amsterdam, reports that to date, nearly 1000 organizations in over 60 countries have declared their use of the GRI Reporting Framework The Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), “is a network of institutional investors and financial institutions dedicated to promoting better understanding of the financial risks and investment opportunities posed by climate change. INCR was launched at the first Institutional Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the United Nations in November 2003, and now includes more than 50 institutional investors that collectively manage over $3 trillion in assets. Members engage companies and policy makers through educational forums, shareholder resolutions, and other actions to ensure the long-term health of their investments.” The reporting and transparency we have sought has “gone mainstream.”
The goals and concerns of the small SRI community a few decades ago were generally those of caretaker, protecting human and natural resources from harm and avoiding exploitation for profit. Reasonable people will differ as to what harm or exploitation means. Over time, we have fostered processes more than an ideology, widening the lenses of capitalism beyond short-term financial gains for investors and bringing important new players to the table. Despite these processes, however, few of the participants have been willing or able to abandon the traditional intention of “investing” – obtaining maximum possible income or profit – and time horizons for measurement have shrunk.
Surveying Socially Responsible Investing, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Mission Related Investing as they exist today you find a completely different external environment than the one I found in SRI in the 70’s. The world of investing has been transformed by technology and by a bevy of ambitious math or finance majors. Investing has also become global, inexorably linking all regions of the world 24 hours a day. Given the pace of change in the past 15 years – the mainstreaming, the growth and the new and important participants – what can we expect in the next fifteen? What are the goals of those who have successfully engaged in a transformational effort, as imposing technologies and cultural pressures threaten to push back their progress?
We are witnessing a growing tension between opposites. First, we have the expanding world of investors cultivating sustainable investments that imply long time horizons and “patient capital,” accompanied by more and more companies that embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) and believe that environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are material to their business. Those promoting sustainable investments are squared off against the high-velocity world of esoteric financial products and fast-moving trading around the globe that knows no community of any kind and cares not at all for anything except results defined by the compounding of capital within truncated time frames. This high velocity world produces hundreds of ways to invest each year, such as the exchange traded funds (ETFs) that are being widely used as proxies for pieces of the general market, or the now established and too plentiful hedge funds, or the private equity funds that proliferate, occupying chunks of space in large investment portfolios with very little social or environment accountability.
Within the SRI community, those who sell services are, rightly, beginning to offer the new products to their clients to help them diversify easily and thus participate in the world economy with minimum risk. This is probably a good thing, as long as the concepts of transparency and sound social analysis are adhered to. But in spite of the proliferation of socially screened or activist products, we are faced with a very stubborn resistance from timeworn arguments.
Many organizations founded for social or environmental purposes still play the compounding math game with little social or environmental input because the trustees or board members fear an undefined and almost never meted out punishment for abrogating their fiduciary responsibilities. “Universal Owner” is a relatively new hypothesis which “states that a portfolio investor benefiting from a company externalizing costs might experience a reduction in overall returns due to these externalities adversely affecting other investments in the portfolio, and hence market return. (Raj Thamotheram and Helen Wildmisth, “Putting the Universal Owner Hypothesis into Action) This is a correct hypothesis, in my view. But in 2006 in the face of extraordinary profits made in the stock of some petroleum companies, many trustees and board members simply reverted to short-term comparisons. The fact that many socially responsible investors did not invest in the stocks that benefited the most, increasing close to 40 percent in that one year, prompted one Trustee to say “So now we know what Social Investing can do for us!” This person is on the Board of an environmental activist non-profit organization and could have been sanctioning investments in the same companies that they fight daily in Washington D.C. and on the ground.
If I were to predict tomorrow based on today, I would say “more of the same” but I hope for more maturity and sustainability. Straight-line growth would involve more products, more vendors, more activities, more corporate reports, and more tension. The sheer pace of change and recalcitrance of key actors could throw all we’ve accomplished in reverse. CERES, GRI and INCR must beg for money every day – they are vastly under-funded for the scope of their challenges. In fifteen years we could be twice as big and successful, an imbedded and necessary part of a more sustainable economic system, or hardly exist at all as the world races backward toward a voracious capitalism that tramples nature and the defenseless.
But let’s envision the positive option in fifteen years – bigger and successful, more mature and sustainable:
We’re at an important turning point in SRI as we have become visible, potent, and a threat. Growth for the sake of growth could lead us to a meaningless, if enlarged, future. It’s vitally important that we steer that growth, promoting core system changes that will ensure that socially responsible investing becomes an integral and permanent part of the market system.
This is reprinted from Special 15th Anniversary Issue.