Frank Sherman, new chair of ICCR Board

We just received word from Josh Zinner, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility that yesterday the Governing Board of ICCR elected its new Executive Committee. Our own Frank Sherman was elected as the new chair of ICCR. The new officers for ICCR are:

To learn more about ICCR’s Governing Board, click here

The outgoing officers are Fr. Seamus Finn, O.M.I. (who was the keynote for our annual event), Kathryn McCloskey (United Church Funds), Tim Brennan (Unitarian Universalist Association), and Anita Green (formerly of Wespath, who also assisted us in webinars).

Dan Tretow, chair of the SGI board, said, “I congratulate Frank on his election as Chair of the ICCR Board of Directors.  His commitment to ESG issues and dedication to social justice is admirable.  We value his leadership at SGI and know he will be appreciated as Chair of the Board at ICCR.”

We at SGI are grateful for Frank’s generous service to our organization and to ICCR.

Climate Refugees: Rising Waters and Rising Concern

A new report from the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California – Berkeley sheds light on an emerging problem. The new report, “Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied,” by Elsadig Elsheikh and Hossein Ayazi, makes a compelling case to the international community for the adoption of a legally-binding convention that protects climate refugees.

In a chapter that I wrote concerning resilience and refugees, I raised similar concerns as those which underlie this report. When referring to those born in another land, definitions and distinctions abound, be they legal definitions, social science terminology, or one’s self-description. At home and abroad, the political and legal framework continues to evolve. Attempts to reform U.S. immigration processes have occasioned increasingly sharp political conflict over the past 20 years. Some politicians capitalize on this polarization. Domestically, racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment have both grown. Internationally, the member states of the UN finalized a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, augmenting the 1951 Refugee Convention. None the less, legal vacuums exist. The international standards do not provide for “climate refugees.” While the July 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration recognized climate change as a growing factor, the December 2018 Global Compact on Refugees eschewed the subject, using the term “climate” only twice, and, in one instance, in the context of a “business climate.” The World Bank estimates there will be as many as 143 million climate refugees, with a minimum of 92 million, by 2050. It is a growing crisis for which the world remains woefully unprepared.

This new report from UC – Berkeley profiles 10 countries that are among those most vulnerable under the climate crisis. For instance, Bangladesh, projected to lose 17 percent of its total land to sea level rise by 2050, would see displaced an estimated 20 million people, and the Maldives could lose all 1,200 of its islands to sea level rise. The release date of the report coincided with the U.N.’s annual Human Rights Day observance on December 10th.

The report also details specific vulnerabilities suffered by these refugees in U.S. and international law. The report argues that a new understanding of “persecution,” a longstanding requirement for receiving refugee status, could be broadened to include “petro-persecution.” In that event, a new agreement for climate refugees is made necessary, and such a framework should be undertaken as a revision to the 1951 Refugee Convention, or the establishment of a wholly new international convention.

A Step Towards Tax Transparency

News reports occasionally detail how large corporations, like Amazon and FedEx, manage to avoid paying any federal taxes. Adding to my personal dismay, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) report that, in fact, 60 Fortune 500 companies avoided all federal income tax in 2018, including: Chevron, Delta Airlines, Eli Lilly, General Motors, Gannett, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Halliburton, IBM, Jetblue Airways, Netflix, Principal Financial, Salesforce.com, US Steel, and Whirlpool. The full list of those that did not pay a dime is available here. We also know of companies that relocate to tax havens or companies that undergo a “corporate inversion” so that the foreign subsidiary becomes the parent company. At the end of the day, one asks: how do we better understand and compare the tax practices of different companies?

At the conclusion of the ICCR Fall conference (November 1), I went to Bloomberg for an event on Tax Transparency organized by AFSCME, the Fact Coalition, Global Financial Integrity, Oxfam America, and the Patriotic Millionaires. Yesterday (December 5), these same organizations announced the launch of a new global standard for tax transparency. The new global standard includes:

  • Reporting within the context of corporate sustainability;
  • Disclosures on tax strategy, governance, and risk management;
  • Public country-by-country reporting of business activities, revenues, profit, and tax;
  • And disclosure of the reasons for difference between corporate income tax accrued and the tax due.

A few of the remarks from the launch event have been shared with me, and I pass them on to you:

Why is tax transparency important?

Like most voluntary disclosures, companies that are doing the right thing disclose because the market rewards this behavior. Companies that are not doing the right thing are less likely to disclose, reflecting the potential for a financial risk and/or reputational risk.  Efforts like the new standard issued by the Global Reporting Initiative aim to allow for apples to apples comparisons.

A well-grounded tax strategy must be sustainable. These tax disclosures are valuable for investors because, for instance, a company with a very low tax rate raises questions about the sustainability of the rate and, consequently, a risk to earnings down the road. For investors, knowing the tax rate paid by a company discloses something about the risk tolerance of management and board. Bad practices have a habit of catching up with companies. A company may be exposed to penalties, fines, and clawbacks. The leaking of the Panama Papers resulted in recovery of $1.2 billion in taxes and penalties to date.

More importantly, taxes finance important undertakings like roads, schools, and government, things that companies and investors rely upon. A bedrock principle is that one should pay taxes where value is created. The Tax Standard clarifies how much companies contribute in taxes to the countries where they operate and, thereby, allows us to better see the impact of tax avoidance on the ability of a government to fund critical services and to encourage sustainable development. As the late Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice, put it: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

We at SGI believe that this new standard is an important step forward and encourage companies to disclose according to this standard.

For more information:

Highest Youth Tobacco Use since 2000, says CDC

This morning, the Center for Disease Control released its latest National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), and the results can only be described as alarming.

The report concludes:

Findings from NYTS indicate that in 2019, approximately half of high school students (53.3%) and one in four middle school students (24.3%) had ever used a tobacco product. Furthermore, approximately three in 10 high school students (31.2%) and approximately one in eight middle school students (12.5%) had used a tobacco product during the past 30 days

National Youth Tobacco Survey, p. 10

According to reporting by Axios, this is the highest youth tobacco use report since 2000.

Alongside this news, please, remember that the NYTS follows Wednesday’s update (Dec. 4) that identifies 2,291 cases of hospitalized e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) reported to CDC from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 2 U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands). Further, another forty-eight deaths have been confirmed in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Each day that administration debates its course forward amid concerns for public health and election and jobs impact, more young people risk getting hooked on tobacco products. Both of these CDC reports, the weekly update on EVALI and the NYTS, underscore the critical need for public health policy and action at local, state, and federal levels.

Shareholders, too have a critical role to play. Recently, we have written about SGI’s commitment to continue this work that originated decades ago with Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap. For instance, today is the filing deadline for two resolutions at Altria Group, Inc. One resolution concerns greater transparency regarding Altria’s lobbying efforts, and the other calls upon Altria to review corporate adherence to Altria’s principles and policies aimed at discouraging the use of their nicotine delivery products to young people and to report to shareholders. Both of these resolutions deserve broad support from shareholders.

Raise the Alarm for Xinjiang

Over the last few years, casual readers of newspapers likely had vague awareness that China had imprisoned more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in camps in the country’s far-west Xinjiang province. While the Chinese government claims that the prisoners are volunteers who receive job training, human rights organizations allege that the ethnic minorities endure mass incarceration in “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate those ethnic minorities.

In the last six months, a barrage of new events and evidence clarified the situation with striking details. In June, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) published a detailed, 34-page report on a factory owned by the Hetian Taida Apparel Company that supplied university logo clothing to Badger Sportswear. The WRC found:

. . . the investigation Badger commissioned of Hetian Taida, in response to allegations of forced labor, was fatally compromised by the company’s rush to exonerate itself and its supplier; the company announced findings, supposedly based on worker interviews, before [emphasis added] interviewing any workers. [p. 2]

The U.S. State Department placed China on Tier Three (the lowest category) in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, dedicating considerable attention to Xinjiang. In early October, Time magazine reported that the U.S. Blocks Imports From 5 Countries Over Allegations of Forced Labor, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intervened on a Costco shipment from Hetian Taida. Days later, the WRC issued an Update on Forced Labor and Hetian Taida Apparel. Badger Sportswear only cut ties after CBP intervened on the shipment for Costco.  The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group for brands and retailers, issued a disappointing and underwhelming statement in response to this report that they were “deeply concerned” and called on the Chinese government to act. Also, Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a critical report entitled Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains offering specific guidance for companies and investors. A rare event these days, a bipartisan letter came from members of both the U.S. House and Senate calling on the CBP to investigate and block goods coming from the Xinjiang province.  

Last week, classified documents from the Chinese government were leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, providing policies and procedures inside the re-education camps.   The camps reportedly have watch towers, double-locked doors, and video surveillance “to prevent escapes.” The Chinese government apparently uses the camps to train its artificial intelligence programs for use in mass surveillance. The documents demonstrate that forced labor is an integral part of the Chinese government’s strategy for ideological conversion through industrialization. This is the largest incarceration of people based on an ethnic or religious identity since 1945.

A Toxic Combination for Apparel Companies and Consumers

China is the source of about 40% of all clothing sold in the U.S. The Xinjiang province grows 80% of China’s cotton, and, increasingly, the cotton is ginned there. Companies are erecting new factories in Xinjiang for additional steps in the garment-making process. Further, fabric from China is exported to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam—all significant sources of apparel sold in the U.S

Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights within company-owned operations and through business relationships. This obligation is delineated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Every brand and retailer that sources from China is exposed to the risks for forced labor in their supply chains: the harvesting and ginning of cotton, the spinning of the yarn, and the business relationships with corporations collaborating with the Chinese government to build and staff these new factories. The issue is not “simply” a violation of a retailer’s code of conduct or a reputational risk; companies risk a violation of U.S. law concerning importation of garments made with forced labor.

As public scrutiny of these issues increases, it will become increasingly clear that companies’ due diligence mechanisms (audits and codes of conduct) are insufficient. We at SGI would argue that, even in the best of circumstances, audits and codes of conduct, while necessary, are insufficient to protect human rights. In the circumstance of the Xinjiang province, such efforts are rendered ineffective.

We urge companies to take this risk seriously. It is not enough to lay low and wait; companies must engage proactively. We also urge the U.S. government to take meaningful action against the Chinese government in this matter. Even our faith communities have a responsibility to act. Events in support of “religious freedom” ring hollow if it does not also include action to respect the religious freedom of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Finally, as consumers, we are called to solidarity with those who endure forced labor. NPR’s Scott Simon put it well: “What does it have to do with us? Look down at our shoes, our phones and our toys.”

To learn more:

Fiduciary Duty Webinar

At the heart of this webinar is the conviction, that the fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of a client does not exclude ESG and socially responsible investing. In addition to addressing common myths, this webinar describes the role and responsibility of a faith-based fiduciary.

On Friday, November 15, we were joined in our quarterly webinar by a leader in the socially responsible investing field: Frank Coleman of Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS).

We highly recommend sharing this video with your investment committee and other essential people involved in your investment strategy.

We are very grateful for Frank’s presence in this webinar, for his commitment to work on these issues, and his generosity in sharing his wisdom with us.

As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides from the webinar are available via Chris Cox.

Committed to Fr. Mike’s Legacy in Tobacco

Last week while attending ICCR’s Fall Conference, I attended the regular session on tobacco. As you likely know, Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap., our founder, was an early leader for his shareholder work in tobacco. Our session, in addition to our regular concerns on engagements with the tobacco industry, also included a significant conversation about vaping e-cigarettes.

By way of personal background, my grandmother smoked a pack a day of Pall Mall cigarettes. As a child, I detested the smell. At one point, I decided to leave my suitcase in our car when we would visit, as I did not want my clean clothes to smell of cigarettes. In other words, from early on, I never found smoking attractive. Consequently, I continually find myself surprised at its allure, especially to young people.

In reality, I should not be surprised. The attraction fits an old pattern. We remember the “seven dwarfs” testifying to Congress in 1994 that cigarettes are not addictive, in spite of having evidence to the contrary for decades. With Juul and e-cigarettes, we have a new addition to those archives. While regarded as proprietary information, e-cigarettes are more potent for their concentration of nicotine than cigarettes, according to Vox. In fact, a journal from Stanford University describes it as a “nicotine arms race.” In September, CNBC shared a CDC warning that Juul’s patented nicotine-salt technology allows for much more efficient delivery of nicotine directly to the brain, multiplying its highly addictive effect especially for teens. Hence, it was no surprise when Reuters reported yesterday that Juul disregarded early evidence that teens were becoming addicted. In September, Axios reported that the FDA warned Juul about its misleading advertising. In the face of mounting evidence of the damage caused, the White House planned to ban all flavored e-cigarettes, but the administration recently retreated that to banning all but menthol. Yesterday, the Journal of the American Medical Association published two studies: one on e-cigarette use among U.S. youth and another revealed the flavor preferences among U.S. youth. Simply put, the exclusion of menthol in the ban happens to coincide with the most popular flavor among American youth. Every Thursday, you can visit the website of the Center for Disease Control to see the updated statistics concerning Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products. As of this writing, the CDC counts 1,888 cases of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) and 37 deaths.

We were fortunate to be joined in our session by Meredith Berkman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes (PAVE). Berkman and her co-founders were recently featured in the Wall Street Journal: Getting Through to Your Teen About the Dangers of Vaping. She shed some light on the allure to young people. Armed with the various devices and pods, she demonstrated how discreet the products are and how easy they are to use. The PAVE website has a lot of great information.

Simply put, Fr. Mike made advances in this work over the decades, but the fight by no means is finished. For the health of a younger generation, here and abroad, may we have some share of Fr. Mike’s zeal, courage, and wisdom in our engagement with the tobacco industry!