When Will Sustainable Investing Be Considered to be in the Mainstream?

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

“Movements” – what comes to mind when we describe the characteristics of this term are some 20th Century examples.

The late-20th Century “environmental movement” was a segue from the older 19th and early 20th Century “conservation movement” that was jump started by President Theodore Roosevelt (#26), who in his 8 years in the Oval Office preserved some 100,000 acres of American land every work day (this before the creation of the National Parks System a decade later).

The catalysts for the comparatively rapid uptake of the environmental movement?  American rivers literally burned in the 1960’s and 1970’s (look it up – Cuyahoga River in Ohio was one).

And that was just one reason the alarm bells were going off.  New York’s Hudson River was becoming an open, moving sewer, with its once-abundant fish dying and with junk moving toward the Atlantic Ocean.  Many East Coast beaches were becoming fouled swamp lands.

One clarion call – loud & clear — for change came from the pen.  The inspired naturalist / author Rachel Carson wielded her mighty pen in writing the 1962 best-seller, “Silent Spring”. 

That book helped to catalyze the rising concerns of American citizens. 

She quickly attracted great industry criticism for sounding the alarm…but her words mobilized thousands of early activists. And they turned into the millions of the new movement.

She explained the title:  There was a strange stillness.  Where had the little birds gone? The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.”  (Hint:  the book had the poisonous aspects of the DDT pesticide at its center as the major villain.)

Americans in the 1960s were becoming more and more alarmed not only of dumping of chemical wastes into rivers and streams and drifting off to the distant oceans —

—but also of tall factory smokestacks belching forth black clouds and coal soot particles;

–of large cities frequently buried beneath great clouds of yellow smog a mile high on what were cone clear days;

–of dangerous substances making their way into foods from the yields of land and sea;

–of yes, birds dropping out of the sky, poisoned;

–of tops of evergreen and other trees on hilltops and mountains in the Northeast burned clean off by acid rain wafting in from tall utility smokestacks hundreds of miles away in the Midwest…and more. 

Scary days. For public health professionals, dangerous days.

We will soon again be celebrating Earth Day; give thanks, we are long way from that first celebration back in spring 1970. (Thank you, US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin for creating that first Earth Day!)

Most of our days now are (as the pilots cheer) CAVU – ceiling (or clear) and visibility unlimited. 

We can breathe deep and as we exhale thank many activists for persevering and driving dramatic change and creating the modern environmental movement… and on to the sustainability movement. 

And now – is it time (or, isn’t time!) for another movement along these lines…the sustainable investing movement going mainstream? 

Experts pose the question and provide some perspectives in this week’s Top Story.

In Forbes magazine, they ask:  “Why Hasn’t Sustainable Investing Gone Viral Yet?”

Decio Fascimento, a member of Forbes Council (and chief investment officer of the Richmond Global Compass Fund) and the Forbes Finance Council address the question in their essay.

In reading this, we’re reminded that such mainstream powerhouse asset managers as BlackRock, State Street/SSgA, Vanguard Funds, TIAA-CREF, and asset owners New York State Common Fund, New York City pension funds (NYCPERS), CalPERS, CalSTRS and other capital market players have embraced sustainable investing approaches. 

But – as the authors ask:  what will it take for many more capital market players to join the movement?  There’s interesting reading for you in the Top Story – if you have thoughts on this, send them along to share with other readers in the G&A Institute universe.

Or send comments our way to supplement this blog post.


This Week’s Top Stories

Why Hasn’t Sustainable Investing Gone Viral Yet?
(Wednesday – April 10, 2019) Source: Forbes – Let’s first look at what sustainability looks like in financial terms. In sustainable investing, the ideal scenario is when you find opportunities that produce the highest returns and have the highest positive impact. 

And of further reading for those interested:

The Holy Land Principles for US Companies — Campaign for Fair Employment in Israel and Palestine

by Hank Boerner – Chairman G&A Institute

Important note: We published this on 2 December…please note in third and fourth paragraphs important clarifications as of 4 December based on input from Father Sean McManus.

Investors and companies will be keeping watch on a new campaign gaining momentum that is advocating for fair employment policies and practices by US companies doing business in Israel and Palestine.

At the center of the campaign are the Holy Land Principles for companies doing business there.

Clarification:  All 546 U.S. companies doing business in Israel and/or Palestine are receiving communications from the Principles advocates.  The package sent to CEOs included a “pamphlet” with and other background on the issue along with a copy of organizer Father Sean McManus’s updated memoir, “My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland…and the Holy land.”

To date, three U.S public companies — Intel, GE and Corning — have received shareholder resolutions urging the companies to sign on to the Principles on behalf of the Holy Land Principles organizers for 2015 shareholder votes.  The filers are Harrington Investors ((Intel); Cardinal Resources (General Electric); Corning (Jim Boyle).

This campaign is reminiscent of two prior successful investor and advocate campaigns:  the struggle to eliminate South Africa’s official Apartheid policies and  structured discrimination practices, and the campaign to end anti-Catholic worker discrimination practices in Northern Ireland.  Both campaigns involved corporate fair employment issues in those countries.

This new campaign may touch some nerves of people on hearing the news because it may appear to be political — but the organizers stress that only one issue is involved:  fair employment by US companies.  Global or domestic politics aside, the campaign organizers say that this is the most basic, proper thing for American investors to be concerned about.

And, they stress, this is an American campaign, not a Palestinian or Israel campaign. and is restricted to employment conditions in the Holy Land — universally called that because it is home to three of the world’s major faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Principles campaign is centered on inviting American companies operating in the Holy Land to sign on to the Holy Land Principles — it is essential to note up front that the Principles do not call for quotas, reverse discrimination, dis-investment, divestment, or boycotts.

There are important precedents for this type of issue advocacy campaign.  US companies operating in South Africa and later, Northern Ireland were pressured over years in focused campaigns by investors, issue advocates and a number of US governmental jurisdictions to embrace fair employment practices in those countries.

In focusing on the policies of US companies doing business in Israel and Palestine, of course there may be sensitive issues raised (political, statecraft, religious, ethnic, etc. ).  This is understandable; we offer some background may help to put the campaign in context.

Background to help in understanding the Holy Land Principles:

The Holy Land is spiritual home to three of the world’s great monotheistic religious: in order of evolvement, Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

It is ironic to think that for hundreds of years, yea, for millennia, this relatively tiny land at the eastern edge of the larger Middle East region [that] is considered to be holy, fervently revered by literally billions of people (the faithful) …has been a battleground for various faiths, tribes, outside empires (Roman, Ottoman, British), and more recently, between regional states / nations and nascent states in formation.

Leaders of powerful nations watch or involved in the ongoing efforts to bring peace to the Holy Land and to settle the conflict that has haunted the Holy Land for the past 60+ years. The Palestinian population seeks to create their own state, and the US and other nations have encouraged a “two-state” solution (the State of Israel and a new State of Palestine).

Of course, this is a complicated corner of the world.  The State of Israel is the thriving democracy in the midst of numerous failed states in the region, or states now or previously ruled by monarchies or despots.  And the State of Israel for all of its years since founding the United States and Israel have been allies.

In the case of the MacBride Principles campaign for fair employment in Northern Ireland’s 6 countries (considered part of the United Kingdom), the UK was also a long-time American ally — but in no way did the MacBride Principles campaign vitiate the integrity of the Principles or the reasonableness of the request, the organizers point out.  The campaign never addressed the partition of Ireland, Irish independence, and other thorny political issues.

Similarly, the Holy Land Principles organizers take no position on the issues of one state, two states, refugees, settlements, United Nations resolutions, or issues beyond fair employment practices of US companies doing business in Israel and Palestine.  These are for other parties to address.

The 2014 Campaign Addresses Elements of Holy Land Social Justice Issues – With the MacBride Principles as Model

The campaign organizers point out there were discrimination issues in the six counties of Northern Ireland where the Roman Catholic minority was not being treated fairly by the Protestant majority.   The recent “Troubles” began in the late 1960s and civil unrest and strife continued on to the “Good Friday Agreement” brokered by the US in 1998.

Investors and social justice advocates in the USA created the MacBride Principles, a corporate code of conduct for US companies doing business in Northern Ireland and the standards for actions by the US Congress.

The “Easter” agreement ended the civil war between the United Kingdom’s security forces and Irish political loyalists and armed paramilitary forces (more than 3,500 people died during the conflict).

After years of campaigning, American companies signed on to the MacBride Principles for their Northern Ireland operations.

In a December 1997 post on the Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota, Father Sean McManus, President of the Irish National Caucus, explained:  “…there are 80 publicly-traded US companies in Northern Ireland and many, because of the systematic practice and endemic nature of anti-Catholic discrimination [the companies] are subsidizing discrimination…”

At that writing 44 US companies agreed to “make all lawful efforts to implement the fair employment practices embodied in the MacBride Principles for their Northern Ireland operations.”  The list of those companies and more information is at: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/links/macbride.html

A total of 116 companies have to date signed on to the MacBride Principles — the reference materials can be found on the web site: www.HolyLandPrinciples.org.

Father Sean McManus — the same man who launched the MacBride Principles on November 4, 1984 –is also President of the Holy Land Principles (based in Washington, DC) and is still President of the Irish National Caucus.  He is calling on US SRI investors to support the “just, moderate and eminently reasonable Holy Land Principles.”

The Principles, he points out, do not call for quotas, reverse discrimination, dis-investment, or boycotts.  (All of these strategies are hugely unpopular among certain stakeholders.)  They do call for fair employment by American companies.  He describes the Principles as pro-Jewish, pro-Palestinian, pro-company.

Father McManus points out that the Holy Land Principles are based on the success of the MacBride Principles — “now universally regarded as having played a most effective role in promoting equality, justice and peace in Northern Ireland.”

To date, Father McManus reports that one US company has signed on to the Holy Land Principles:  Oxygen Biotherapeutics. OXBT is a specialty pharmaceutical company focused on developing and commercializing a portfolio of products for the critical care market.  In September the Company received shareholder approval to change the Company name to Tenax Therapeutics, Inc.

Is Father McManus discouraged by slow progress?  No – he explains that it took five years for the first US company to sign the McBride Principles.  He adds: “Holy Land Principles is in it for the long haul.  We know the companies will be persuaded sooner or later to sign the Principles. We just urge them to do it sooner rather than later and be on the right side of history, which dictates that American principles should follow American investment.”

By Father McManus’s count, there are 546 American companies operating in the Holy Land; a complete list he assembled is available at:  HolyLandPrinciples.org

The MacBride Principles has had positive, long-term effect.  In November, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli visited Northern Ireland and spoke with Irish News. The newspaper reported that the recently re-elected comptroller (who is sole trustee of the US$180 billion state pension fund) pointed out that the NYS Common Fund had investment capital set aside for Northern Ireland. It is important for the political institutions of Northern Ireland to remain stable to ensure the north is attractive to investors.”

MacBride Luminaries:  During the campaign to have companies adopt the MacBride Principles, individuals and jurisdictions voicing support included President Bill Clinton; US Senator Bob Dole; NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani; NYS Governor Mario Cuomo; Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn (later, ambassador to the Vatican); and 16 states passing MacBride legislation (including New York).

Quo Vadis, Holy Land Principles?

Going forward into the 2015 proxy season we will see where and how the Holy Land Principles may make an impact in the American corporate sector, and in the capital markets.  This is a new campaign seeking to gain traction,  characterized as a “moral appeal” by the Father McManus and the campaign managers.

Intel is in focus and the organizers have created a 29-page pamphlet: “Why Intel Should Sign the Holy Land Principles.” Similar reports have been prepared about GE and Corning.  Activist investor Harrington Investors has filed a resolution with Intel for the 2015 annual meeting of shareholders; similar resolutions are filed at GE and Corning.  The campaign organizers are inviting voting support by other investors.

Intel, says Father McManus, has 10,000 employees and billions of dollars invested in the Holy Land.

On a positive note, Father McManus points out that the “Intel and the 546 US companies have certain fair employment guidelines already in place…but with the MacBride Principles [experience] it was not until the companies sign on that real progress was made in discrimination…:

It’s interesting to speculate:  Will US companies agreeing to the Holy Land Principles help to make a difference in debate about the future peace efforts in the region? Time will tell; what is immediately  important to the US companies as they consider the invitation to sign on to the Principles:  What happens if they (a) sign on or (b) ignore or brush off the request to agree to this new code of conduct?

American CEOs and boards of at least 546 companies no doubt will be watching the progress of the Holy Land Principles every closely.  As will the investment community, and issue advocates, keeping in mind the American social justice campaigns in South Africa and Northern Ireland that changed the course of history.

Pension Fund Activists Focus on Climate Change, Diversity, Director Nomination Process — with New York City Funds in the Lead

by Hank Boerner– Chairman, G&A Institute

Leading and influential activists in the sustainable & responsible investment community are focusing on the filing of their 2015 corporate proxy ballots with ESG issues top-of-mind. Let’s take a look at the actions of the New York City (5) pension funds (with US$160 billion in Assets Under Management).

The city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, was elected in November 2013, along with the new high-visibility mayor (Bill DeBlasio).  Under Comptroller Stringer’s direction, the fund(s) are filing proxy proposals with 75 companies to demand a greater voice in the nomination of boards of directors.  This is the characterized as “giving shareowners a true voice in how boards are elected.” .

This campaign is designed to roll out proxy access demands across the broad public company universe in the United States.  Back in the 1800s, one of the corrupt big city political bosses was William M. “Boss” Tweed.  Said Comptroller Stringer:  “The current ]corporate] election procedures would make Boss Tweed blush. We are seeing to change the market by having more meaningful director elections through proxy access, which will make boards more responsive to shareowners.  We expect to see better long-term performance across our portfolio…”

(As local point of reference, Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall was a member of Congress and director of the Erie Railroad Company and 10th National Bank.  He was convicted of corruption and died in jail in 1878.  His name is synonymous with corruption, cronyism, political back slapping.)

The NYC comptroller serves as investment advisor to, and custodian and trustee of the 5 funds, which are for city employee beneficiaries — teachers, police, fire department, board of education, city employees.

Proxy access” is the ability for owners to nominate directors in addition to — or in opposition to — the company’s slate of directors (in the proxy statement).  Comptroller Stringer wants to give shareholders with (1) 3% of shares and (2) holding the shares for 3 years the “threshold” of being able to nominate candidates for board service, up to (3) 25% of the total board membership.  Those companies not agreeing to the proposal received the NYC fund ballot initiative.

And big corporate names are involved; the resolutions are being filed at:

  • 33 carbon intensive coal, oil & gas, and utility companies (such as Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Apache, AEP (power), Southwestern Energy, ConocoPhilipps, Peabody Energy);
  • 24 companies with few / or no women on the board, and “little or no” racial or ethnic diversity – including eBay, Priceline, Level 3 Communications, Urban Outfitters, Alexion Pharma;
  • 25 companies that received “significant” opposition to 2014 shareholder votes (advisory, not binding) on their executive compensation plans.

In focus: :”Zombie directors”  – of 41 corporate directors receiving less than a majority vote in 2013, 40 remain on their boards.  As Comptroller Stringer described them, “unelected, but still serving…

“This is all part of what the pension fund leaders call their “Boardroom Accountability Project,” designed to call attention to as boards of directors and their perceived failure to address critical issues — climate risk, excessive compensation and lack of diversity in the board room.

Note that under “”plurality” voting in un-contested elections, a director who receives just one vote (his or hers counts if shares are owned) is re-elected…even if every other vote is cast against him.  The project seeks to have companies amend their bylaws to change that situation.

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli was re-elected by an overwhelming statewide majority in November; he enthusiastically endorsed the city funds’ project (he is the sole trustee of the US$180 billion New York State Common Fund). He described the Board Accountability Project as a wake-up call to boards of directors to change the way business in the board room is done.

Also in support:  Anne Stausboll, CEO for California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) — the nation’s largest public employee pension fund with US$ 300 billion in AUM.

Her colleague, Anne Sheehan, corporate governance director at the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) termed the board accountability project “long overdue for our country,” voicing her support.  The fund has US$186 billion AUM.

This is not just a “New York City” liberal-leaning thing — voicing support for the project were other public sector fiduciaries:

  • William R. Atwood, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment. (US$5 billion AUM)
  • Francis X. Bielli, executive director of the Philadelphia Board of Pensions & Retirement.   (US$4.5 billion AUM)
  • Travis Williams, chairman of the Firefighters Pension System of Kansas City, Missouri (US$460 million AUM)
  • Alex Fernandez, chairman of the Miami (Florida) Firefighters Relief and Pension Fund.( US$1.5 billion AUM)

Comptroller Scott Singer explained that the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) first proposed “universal proxy access” (for all shareholders) back in 2003 as a “way to end the Imperial CEO,” as Enron, WorldCom and other large-caps imploded and many went out of business.  In 2010, the SEC approved a universal policy access rule in response to the financial crisis.” In a federal district court case, the rule was set aside; the SEC still allows “private ordering,” the ability for shareowners such as pension funds to file resolutions to be placed on the annual voting ballot.

And so the battle lines are being drawn for 2015 corporate engagements.  Many of the public companies named by New York City funds are seen as leaders in sustainability, responsibility and accountability.  The proxy resolutions would seem to state otherwise.

It will be interesting to see how the Board Accountability Project progresses, and how corporate boards and C-suites see the demands presented for greater “Corporate Democracy.”