By Dale Wannen
As we enter 2014, many of us are now pondering a New Year’s resolution. Some of us may improve our diets by eating more of that organic rainbow chard or scrumptious kale while others may consider getting up a little earlier to sweat it out at that 6:00am bootcamp or Crossfit class. One resolution that you may want to consider is to create a healthier investment portfolio. As we get our monthly statements and quickly gaze at the positions, one cannot help but be upset by seeing big polluting oil companies or greedy banks show up as holdings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Below are the top 8 questions when it comes to the world of sustainable and responsible investing (SRI).
What is sustainable and responsible investing or SRI?
Ok, so climate change is happening. Scientists (yes, those who acquire knowledge) have told us that the earth has warmed 0.8 percent since the late 1800s. They have also reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide has gone from 280 parts per million in 1750 to over 400 parts in 2013. But what does this have to do with my 401k or investment portfolio you ask? Everything!
When you click the BUY button in your brokerage account, you are becoming an owner in the stock of a company just as if you were buying a pint of ice cream from the local Whole Foods. USSIF’s most recent paper, Investing to Curb Climate Change, outlines the various, fairly simple steps to make positive changes when it comes to your portfolio.
My daily ritual of drinking a glass of orange juice was something that was passed down from my parents. However, with Lebron James and Ellen DeGeneres pushing these vitamin and energy infused bottles of goodness, it seemed like the newest generation was shifting this morning ritual to vitaminwater. After all, using the word “vitamin” in front of the name surely implies that there is some nutritional or healthy value. It must be good for you, right? Wrong! These drinks hold about as much nutrition as that piece of lint in your pocket.
In retaliation for this misinformation, the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, is suing Coca-Cola (Coke bought vitaminwater for over $4 billion in 2007) on the grounds that vitaminwater labels and advertising are filled with “deceptive and unsubstantiated health claims.” vitaminwater contains about 33 grams of sugar, while Two Hostess Ding Dong cake snacks have about 36 grams of sugar. Instead of taking the silent plea here, Coke attorneys are defending the lawsuit by stating that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitamin water was a healthy beverage.” What!?
As I spun a few squares of Charmin toilet paper off of the roll to complete my morning duty, I wondered who makes this product? I then hopped into the shower and washed my hair with Pantene Shampoo, put Duracell batteries into my non-functioning mouse, used a Bounty paper towel to clean spilled coffee off of my desk and then used a Swiffer to clean the floor where the coffee dripped as well.
Astonishingly, all of these products are made by the largest maker of packaged goods in the world, Procter and Gamble. Along with the products come absurd amounts of packaging. Yesterday, this absurd amount of packaging was the focal point of a shareholder proposal at P&G’s annual shareholder meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. Approximately 5.8 percent of shareholders voted in favor of the resolution.
The shareholder resolution, co-filed by the non-profit organization As You Sow, Green Century Equity Funds and Trillium Asset Management, asked Procter and Gamble to adopt Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies with respect to its packaging materials. What EPR does is shift the financial responsibility of collecting and recycling all of those plastic Gillette razor packages and Tide detergent bottles from taxpayers and local governments back to the big companies financially benefiting from selling all of those products.
So the big boys have entered the room. It was recently reported that Goldman Sachs has invested $9.6 million into the nation’s first ever Social Impact Bond or SIB. This bond addresses the recidivism rates in NYC prisons and will be used to help train and counsel at-risk incarcerated youths. SIBs, in a nutshell, are a new investment tool that fund social programs in the hope that the goals are reached and in turn create a profit for the investor (If you are unfamiliar with SIBs an explanation can be found here).
With Goldman Sachs entering into this arena, it seems as if big banks are starting to take notice of a possible way to profit. Whether this is a plus or minus remains to be seen. Goldman’s investment will be guaranteed by Mayor Bloomberg’s wealthy philanthropic group, backing their $9.6 million. If the recidivism rate drops by 10 percent over a 4 year period, Goldman could profit up to $2.1 million. Granted, let’s keep in mind that Goldman Sachs brought in about $37 billion in revenues last year and Goldman employees make 8 times the average worker.
I hate to admit this, but while perusing the aisles of a large chain supermarket last week, something moved me to purchase my first can of SPAM. As I opened up the rectangular can, a feeling of nostalgia took over and I created a somewhat delicious fried spam sandwich. Now, when it comes to finding a truly sustainable dinner at the supermarket, a can of SPAM or Dinty Moore stew doesn’t exactly come to mind.
However, for this Fortune 500 company, Hormel Food Corporation, which produces such classically unhealthy foods and has been scrutinized by shareholder advocacy campaigns for spreading of pig manure on fields as fertilizer, credit earned is credit due. Hormel recently announced impressive results in terms of metrics when it comes to minimizing their negative impact on the planet.
Over the past five years, the company surpassed three key sustainability goals including water reduction, packaging and solid waste minimization.
As an advocate of shareholder activism, I seldom see more than one or two shareholder proposals on proxy statements. However, yesterday’s JP Morgan shareholder meeting contained 7 shareholder proposals and had me smiling like a kid in a candy store. Now this is what shareholder advocacy is supposed to look like.
Considering the bank’s recent lost bet of $2 billion in derivative trading and CEO Jamie Dimon’s $23 million pay package, this is an opportune time to perhaps take a brief look at what small and big shareholders were advocating for at one of the world’s largest banks:
Ever wondered why CEO of Goldman Sachs hasn’t been fired yet?
Realizing the pressure of a recent shareholder resolution, Goldman Sachs was able to get the largest public employee and health care workers’ union in the country, AFSCME, to pull their proposal regarding Lloyd Blankfein’s role as both CEO and chairman of the board. Originally, the proposal was to be voted on in the upcoming May shareholder meeting and had the potential to garner a majority vote hence kicking Blankfein out of this dual role. AFSCME was concerned about the conflict of interest inherent in having one person essentially managing himself. In exchange for pulling the proposal, Goldman agreed to change its board structure and appoint a “lead director” to its board.
Coincidentally, this action taken by Goldman comes less than a month after disgruntled employee Greg Smith wrote the New York Times Op-ed Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs. In this sultry piece Smith describes the dilapidated culture at the investment bank referring to clients as “muppets” and has now many large investors questioning the ethics at the 143 year old firm.
President of AFSCME, Gerald W. McEntee, released a statement on their agreement with Goldman stating:
Corporations and governments around the world took notice of the power of the masses in 2011 with the Occupy movement taking center stage. But behind the scene, investors used the power of their proxy and sent strong messages to executives and board members in record numbers to advocate for change at the companies they invest in.
- The average shareholder support level rose above 20%
- 21 resolutions received more than 40% support
- 5 resolutions received more than 50% support
In case you didn’t get the memo, excessive executive compensation was supposed to become a thing of the past after their actions played a major role in the recent financial meltdown. For the past year, shareholders have been able to fight for change due to the recently implemented Dodd-Frank bill. Dodd-Frank is the most sweeping financial reform the US has seen since the great depression and includes a number of sweeping changes, including the right for shareholders to weigh in on executive compensation and corporate affairs with a non-binding vote. Allowing owners of publicly traded companies to vote on such an important matter would seem to shift things in a positive direction. Right? Wrong.
Surprisingly, shareholders voted to reject executives’ (excessive) paychecks at less than 2% of almost 2000 publicly traded companies. This is a dismal number considering the current median pay of CEOs sits at $8.4 million, a 35% increase from 2009. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek report Investor Say on Pay is a Bust, there are two strong parties advocating head to head, for and against this legislation.
In times when oil prices are on the brink of huge increases and radiation leaks from Japanese nuclear reactors seem out of control, natural gas is the latest panacea of energy companies looking for cheap, quick solutions. While energy providers are jumping on the natural gas bandwagon, impact investors are jumping off just as quickly due to environmental concerns like fracking.
Harrington Investments, Inc., an investment advisory firm specializing in socially responsible investing (and my employer), announced today that it is divesting its entire holding in Chesapeake Energy Corporation (CHK) due to the corporation’s poor environmental record and its lack of accountability to shareholders.
On a typical cold and rainy morning in Seattle this week, Microsoft shareholders, board members and executives gathered for the annual shareholders meeting to discuss the trials of the previous year, along with prospects of the future.
This is the shareholders’ only time to speak their minds directly to Bill Gates, and only one shareholder resolution was on the ballot, introduced by shareholder activist John Harrington (full disclosure, he’s my boss), addressing Microsoft’s commitment to sustainability.
Despite the fact that many would-be students cannot afford the cost of college in the US, at least there are loans for the determined. The Obama Administration pours loads of cash into the hands of those eager enough to pursue a degree and all the Dominos pizza that comes with it. In fact, a recent overhaul of the student loan program in the states makes it even more accessible for young Americans to enter college. In countries less fortunate, your options are very limited as far as attending university. Imagine a vehicle in which people from all over the world would be able to donate as little as $25 towards individuals wishing to pursue higher learning. Imagine no further. Kiva, the pioneer in micro-lending for entrepreneurs in less fortunate countries that has loaned more than $150 million to 408,000 entrepreneurs in 53 countries, has entered the student lending business.
Companies across the globe are beginning to address their sustainability principles and criteria. By making tangible positive changes, greenwashing may finally be fading away. Enter Hershey’s. The Hershey Company is the most recognized chocolate brand throughout the world and produces very well-known sugar-laden snacks such as Milk Duds and Jolly Ranchers. Recently, this chocolate confectioner became a sponsor with the American Dietetic Association, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. The press release regarding the partnership states:
The Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition develops and supports cutting-edge scientific research for products and technologies to provide consumers with a range of snacking choices, and will collaborate with ADA on consumer and health professional initiatives including an innovative, national consumer-focused nutrition education campaign. The campaign will spotlight the expertise and experience of registered dietitians, the nation’s front-line food and nutrition professionals, in helping people achieve a healthy, personalized, balanced eating plan.”
San Francisco-based New Resource Bank has always maintained a triple bottom line approach to its operations dating back to the opening in 2005. In fact, the bank has offset 100 percent of its electricity usage and company travel by purchasing renewable energy certificates and also partners with iReuse to track and reduce waste and consumption. To complement this already green initiative, New Resource Bank has now become the first publicly traded Certified B Corporation.