Boston Common Asset Management – Staying the Course, With Adjustments

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

Boston Common Asset Management with offices in Boston and San Francisco has been a sustainable and responsible investor since its founding in 2003.  The clients served are endowments, foundations, religious/faith-based groups, pension funds, family offices, and mission-driven organizations.

Part of its mission is to strive to improve corporate behaviors and responsibilities through engagement with corporate boards and executives and being active in proxy season with filing of resolutions, supporting other institutions doing the filing (often through collective actions) and voting practices.   Of course, like other asset managers, Boston Common is challenged as well by the changes brought about by the spreading coronavirus.

The Earth Day message from Lauren Compere, Managing Director of Boston Common included these points:

  • The firm’s focus is on both local and global issues – such as the health and safety of our community, planet and Boston Common’s impact as an active, engaged investor. Even as the impacts of COVID-19 are addressed, the work must go on in addressing systemic risk, especially the climate crisis.
  • Engagements (with companies) have not changed, but the tenor and lens through which public companies are evaluated and act will change.
  • Boston Common feels it is important in the crisis for portfolio companies to prioritize stakeholder well-being and the firm commends those companies that step up to show leadership.
  • At the same time, some companies are being called out – those firms that are price gouging, firing employees who are concerned about their health, and limiting access to much-needed products on the front lines.

What Boston Common is doing:

  • Having direct dialogue with company managements.
  • Working with investor networks and partners.
  • Looking at its own “responsible business” practices.
  • Planning and re thinking its future work.

Some specifics:

Company Engagements — Issues include human rights, eco-efficiency, climate risk. The changed tone is having more empathy, with more personal tone in these engagements.  Company responses are applauded and accountability is discussed – balancing interests of shareholders and stakeholders.

Working in Partnerships and Coalitions — The ICCR is a key partner of Boston Common, which is a signatory of the “ICCR Coronavirus Investment Statement” on workplace and supplier practices, and engagement of pharma companies to coordinate & collaborate on urgent medical needs. Link: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/watching-the-watchers-what-investors-esg-raters-are-doing-in-the-virus-crisis/

PRI:  The firm joined the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which has awarded Boston Common an A+ rating for our consecutive years.

Boston Common itself, a B-Corporation, is taking these actions:

  • Continuing to pay composting, cleaners, other contract vendors who rely on the income.
  • Supporting local food banks and social agencies addressing urgent community needs in Boston and San Francisco, contributing to date $26,630 in firm and employee-donated funds.
  • Future Focus” includes a “refresh” of engagement priorities and investor and private sector actions.  A range of societal issues that have been in the spotlight during the crisis must be addressed:  how work is valued; the need for a sustainable living wage; public health risks posed by industrial agriculture and food insecurity; unequal healthcare access and outcomes for low-income and communities of color; corporate tax practices, need for investment in healthcare infrastructure, social safety nets…and more.
  • Boston Common is adjusting the lens through which the firm examines its “asks” of companies and actions, and keeping systemic risk in focus (such as for issues like climate change, digital human rights, environmental protections as EPA rolls back the regs, controversial energy projects.)

Much will change with the virus crisis, MD Lauren Compere points out. “We must ensure that as investors we memorialize the lessons learned in this crisis, empowering companies to manage for the long-term, with a focus on joint recovery and prosperity as the world emerges from lockdown.”

Boston Common has long been a proponent for responsible behavior of corporations and investors and regularly joins with other asset managers in initiatives to drive change.

The issues involved include Amazon de-forestation, climate change and the portfolio risk posed by fossil fuel, urging the Detroit Big 3 (GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler) to drop opposition to California’s waiver authority on auto emissions standards, encouraging boards to include more diversity in director choices, and bank financing of controversial projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

About the name:  Many people have visited the beautiful Boston Commons in the middle of this New England city.  The firm’s name comes from the concept of standing at the intersection of the economic and social lives of the community; the “universal commons” is the firm’s shared mission and vision.

Information: https://bostoncommonasset.com/Membership/Apps/Boston_HP_Input_App.aspx 

 

The Corporate Proxy Season is Underway – ESG Issues Are in Focus

by Hank Boerner, Chairman, G&A Institute

It’s a new year and the 2014 corporate proxy season is really underway, and the topics in focus are reflective of asset owners’ and managers’ concerns about key societal issues. Managements taking no action on the issues, deciding the wrong actions, or boards and managers ignoring the facts regarding key topics of concern to the asset owners could lead to greater risk, lost opportunities, and dramatic hits on corporate reputation — and share price valuations.

And all of that that could affect the value of the investors’ holdings. Since many of the shareowners are fiduciaries (think of SRI mutual funds, public employee pension funds, state trust funds), the growing consensus is that as fiduciaries, asset owners have a duty to be vocal, to actively engage with corporate management, and to take strong stands on key ESG issues. And, in some cases, to bring those issues to the electoral process at proxy time so all shareholders can have their say. Of course, there is usually negative press resulting for some companies.

“Proxy season” used to be those times of year when certain gadflies showed up to (in the view of management and board) ” harass” the assembled corporate leadership. (Such pioneer proxy luminaries as the Gilbert Brothers and Evelyn Davis come to mind.)

Today, the proxy  season is actually a year-round engagement, with advocates such as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) institutional members active in dialogue with corporate managements and board members on various E-S-G issues. One sea change of a decade ago or more was the linking of traditional corporate governance concerns with environmental and social or societal issue concerns, and working through the barriers to getting their resolution to the proxy statement and to vote.

Linking “good governance” practices with progress (or lack of) on supply chain issues, or product stewardship, marketing practices, protection of natural resources, or lobbying and political spending, now helps advocates avoid the “no action” letter from the SEC that allowed corporate managements to ignore the shareholder’s resolution. (In the past, the usual practice of SEC staff was to advise the company protesting the draft resolution that “no action” would be recommended to the commissioners if the company ignored the draft.)

So what is in store for 2014 corporate proxy voting — what are the issues in focus? Sustainable & responsible investing (SRI) advocates are raising issues with companies about public policy and climate. (As we write this, every US state is in the grip of a cold wave, that is being linked to climate change by experts.)  For two decades now, investors have engaged company managements about climate change.

Now, coalitions of shareholders are involved in a larger collective effort — “Raising the Bar” — in response, they say, to the expanding and alarming scientific evidence of our changing climate. And, as long-term advocates like Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management point out, the resulting significant environmental and economic impacts on the corporate enterprise. Investor interests are very concerned about climate change.

A number of companies — AEP, Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil — have received draft resolutions by coalition shareowners urging boards and managements to re-examine their opposition to regulation and legislation intended to address climate change. That includes their lobbying on climate change issues and disclosing more about those actions to their owners.

It’s not just direct company actions in focus — the shareowners include the corporation-funded efforts of the US Chamber of Commerce , the oil lobby (American Petroleum Institute) and the National Association of Manufacturers in the lobbying and advocacy on issues…

Beyond climate change, other proxy resolutions call for companies to re examine their state-level lobbying, especially through such groups as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which operates primarily with corporate contributions and promotes conservative public policy issues with :”model” legislation which often moves from state-to-state. (An example is the “Stand Your Ground” laws adopted by a number of states.)

The companies in focus include Microsoft, Pfizer, Time Warner Cable, and UPS. Among the prime movers in this initiative: State of Connecticut Retirement Plans, Zevin Asset Management, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, and Walden Asset Management clients.

Some companies are responding to shareowner concerns — Coca-Cola, John Deere, Dell, P&G, GE, GM, Unilever, and Wal-Mart have reduced their involvement or quit ALEC,according to information provided by Walden Asset Management.

Other concerns: ICCR’s David Schilling advises that an issue now in focus is the garment industry’s pricing policies, following the Rana Plaza tragic fire in Bangladesh (killing 1,000+ people). The “Accord for Fire and Building Safety” addresses pricing practices and the almost 300 institutional members of ICCR and other shareholder advocates are focused on current pricing models, outsourcing, and prevailing wages in developing countries.

And, from Green Century Capital Management we hear that more than 40 institutional investors representing US$270 billion in AUM are urging the other invesotrs, major palm oil products, consumers, and major shareholders in such companies as food marketers Kellogg and financiers HSBC to support an effort to not contribute to further deforestation or support human rights violations. “Fueling deforestation is bad business for any company seeking to position itself as a responsible, sophisticated global player,” says Lucia von Reusner, Green Century’s shareholder advocate.

Ceres helps to mobilize business and investor leadership on climate change. Rob Berridge, director of shareholder engagement, says investors Ceres works with are asking corporate managements to actively address forced labor, deforestation, habitat destruction, and accelerating GhG emission, and to develop and operate palm plantations more responsibly.

Consumer-facing brand companies — Uniliver, Kellogg, Dunkin Donuts, HSBC — are facing high-profile consumer campaigns on palm oil issues. Some companies are saying in response that they will purchase of finance palm oil that has been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

There is much more action to come in the days ahead as the peak of proxy voting nears — we’ll bring you news and commentary and insight on trends in this space.  Stay Tuned to the 2014 ESG-focused proxy campaigns.