Socially Responsible Investing: How Small Investors Can Drive Change

By Jacen Greene

From Quaker prohibitions on slave trading, to boycotts of firms doing business in apartheid South Africa, to analyzing corporate carbon emissions, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) has come a long way. In a panel session called “SRI 3.0: the Evolution of Socially Responsible Investing” at the 2011 Net Impact Conference, a group of SRI experts discussed how they evaluate firms, how investors can learn more about corporate sustainability (and avoid greenwashing), and how you as a small shareholder can actually change corporate behavior.
On the panel were:
The panel members opened with the various screening methodologies used to select firms for investment. Negative screening excludes firms that match certain criteria (such as an energy firm that uses nuclear power), while positive screening does the opposite. A binary screen applies a simple yes/no rubric to a firm (do you use nuclear power?), while a sliding scale screens based on revenue impacts (how much of the energy you sell comes from nuclear power?). The development and application of these screens are what give SRI funds their distinctive flavors, but savvy investors can develop their own methods—if they have good information on corporate practices.As governments and shareholders demand more transparency from corporations, corporate sustainability reporting has become more common and accurate, but not yet universal or comprehensive.A Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) guideline issued in January 2010 recommended that firms disclose risks related to climate change, but only 9 of 8000 letters from the SEC requesting clarifications on corporate reporting since that time have mentioned climate change, according to Kron. Investors that want to learn more but aren’t interested in the greenwashing common to some company websites can review notes in the yearly 10-k filings of firms, or can access detailed reports from companies that file information with the Global Reporting Initiative database.

So you’ve learned what the firms you invest in are doing to improve their sustainability (or not), and you think they could do better.  Want to directly influence the practices of firms you invest in, but don’t own enough shares to get your own seat on the board? Investors who hold at least $2000 of a company’s shares for more than a year can make a shareholder resolution (500 words or less) to be voted on at the next shareholder meeting. Proxy voting—when shareholders vote by mail—can be used to support or oppose such resolutions. Exercising your shareholder rights is a powerful (if little-known) way for you to make a statement or even change corporate behavior.

From selecting portfolio firms based on their reporting to actively influencing company behavior, investors have more tools than ever to affect business practices. The question is, Will investors use those tools to make the firms they invest in more sustainable and responsive?

Jacen Greene is a social enterprise consultant based in Portland, Oregon.

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