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 Bangladesh Garment Factory Workers Tragedy — and Investor and Corporate Response Five Years On

By Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

We are five years on from the Rana Plaza “Savar” five-story factory building collapse and fire that killed more than 1,000 garment workers in Dhaka (Dacca), the crowded capital city of Bangladesh. (The accident was on April 24, 2013). In the ashes and debris there were the labels of prominent developed nations’ apparel marketers. Reputations were at stake — “Reforms” discussions were immediately underway in Europe and North America.

The Europeans moved on with the “Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety” while in North America brand marketers were moving on “The Alliance on Bangladesh Safety.”

Where are we today?

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) is keeping the accident and aftermath in the focus of the investment community and stakeholders. Yesterday ICCR (a coalition of 300-plus institutional members managing $400 billion AUM) and the group of allied investors issued a statement that helps to explain where we are.

About The Accord

Right after the building collapse, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was created as a model for collective action by brand marketers and retailers that source in Bangladesh.

The Accord is now being extended (as the five-year deadline is reached in May) for another three years to complete the remediation of the 1,600 factories and companies that have not signed on (yet) are being invited by the investor coalition to become signatories and to implement the reforms spelled out in the Accord.

The Accord, the investors point out, is still serving as a model that can be adopted and applied to other at-risk countries and sectors.     

The Bangladesh Investor Initiative – led by ICCR – was a catalyst that brought together 250 institutional investors with US$4.5 trillion in AUM in May 2013 to urge a stronger corporate response to the Rana Plaza tragedy, including urging companies to sign on to the Accord.

The coalition invited companies to commit to strengthening local worker trade unions to ensure a “living wage” for all workers, and to engage with the Bangladesh government.

About the Accord:

  • Corporate signatories agree that global and local trade unions and NGOs could be invited to inspect the country’s apparel factories and implement reforms to protect workers.
  • Companies were asked for transparencies in publicly disclosing their suppliers – including those located in the nation of Bangladesh.
  • Worker grievance mechanisms and effective remedies (including compensation) should be put in place for all workers and their families.
  • The investor coalition argued that supply chain transparency is critical to safeguarding workers and employer responsibility – including information on sub-contractors.
  • Note that the Accord is legally-binding for signatories.

Making the Case

Lauren Compere, Managing Director of Boston Common Asset Management makes the case for companies: “Stakeholders, including investors, rely on transparency as a tool for evaluating corporate performance on a range of social, environmental and corporate governance issues. The Accord has been very transparent in requiring disclosure of each of the 1,600 companies it covers, which helps investors track progress. This is a ‘best practice’ that all companies need to implement, beginning with Tier One suppliers, then throughout their supply chain.”

Progress Report – 5 Years On

To date, 220 brands and retailers have signed on to the original Accord. Remediation plans have made 2.5 million workers in “Accord factories” have been made “meaningfully safer”. A steering committee made up of an equal number of brand and union representatives and a neutral chair from the International Labor Organization govern the Accord.

The Accord provided for in-depth health and safety training to personnel in 846 factories, reaching 1.9 million workers. A grievance process is in place; to date, there have been 183 worker complaints investigated and resolved.

Detailed information is required for each factory.

The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund has been established to compensate workers injured in the collapse and families of workers who were killed (note that Bangladesh has no national employment injury system). $30 million has been raised to date; companies sourcing garment/apparel work in the country were asked to contribute; 30 companies did so, along with several union funds and foundations. The ILO is the trustee and oversees distributions.

The investor coalition is pleased with the progress made to date – but stresses that there is much work still be done (therefore the 3-year extension is necessary). “The job of mediating all of the issue is far from done and we will continue to urge those companies that have not signed on to the 2018 Accord and its three-year extension to do so.”

The New Elements to the Accord

The 2018 Transition Accord has gathered140 signatory companies to date, with 1,332 factories covered. The new elements include:

  • Safety Committee & Safety Training at all covered factories;
  • Training and Complaints Protocol on Freedom of Association;
  • Severance payments for affected workers in factory closures and relocations.
  • Voluntary expansion of the scope to include home textiles; fabric and knit accessories;
  • Transition of Accord functions to a national regulatory body.

We’ll bring you updates as the Transition to the new Accord continues.

About the Nation of Bangladesh

Located in Southeast Asia, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is the world’s 8th most populous country, according to Wikipedia (163 million estimated). It was once part of “British India” until East Bengal became part of the Dominion of Pakistan, was re-named East Pakistan and then became independent in the early -1970s. It is characterized as a “developing country,” one of the poorest, and trades with the USA, EU, China, Japan, India, and other nations. Per capita income was estimated at US$1,190 in 2014.

The largest industries are textiles and ready-made garments; leather-goods (footwear is the second largest in exports. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothes in the world.

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Notes / Information:

There’s more information for you on the ICCR web site: www.iccr.org

Information about the Accord: http://bangladeshaccord.org/

The Accord Update for April is at: http://bangladeshaccord.org/wp-content/uploads/ACCORD_FACTSHEET_Apr2018.pdf

There’s information for you in G&A Institute’s “To the Point!” management briefing platform:

https://ga-institute.com/to-the-point/a-big-year-2018-for-developments-in-corporate-sustainability-sustainable-investing-the-two-halves-of-the-great-whole-of-the-new-norms-of-capitalism/

CNBC in commenting on the five year anniversary (on April 24) noted the factories still pose a life-threatening risk, with 3,000 of 7,000 factories endangering the lives of low-paid garment workers (according to a New York University Centre for Business and Human Rights Study).

The story is at: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/24/bangladesh-factories-still-pose-life-threatening-risks-five-years-on-from-rana-plaza-disaster.html

The NYU report authored by Paul M. Barrett, Dorothee Baumann-Pauly and April Gu is at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/547df270e4b0ba184dfc490e/t/5ac9514eaa4a998f3f30ae13/1523143088805/NYU+Bangladesh+Rana+Plaza+Report.pdf

Human Rights Watch also weighed in with “Remember Rana Plaza: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/24/remember-rana-plaza