BlackRock CEO challenges companies to “serve a social purpose”

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, called for corporations to act with social responsibility and to see beyond short-term gains in his annual letter to S & P 500 CEOs. The critical paragraph reads:

We also see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining. As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.

Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock (courtesy of FT)

In the letter, Fink calls on companies to proactively manage environmental, social, and governance matters through deeper board and investor engagement and thoughtful strategy development. Companies, Fink suggests, should act as stewards for all their stakeholders – including employees, customers, and communities.

Public response to the letter has been mixed. While some find a billionaire’s plan to combat inequality to be ironic, hypocritical, and hollow, many, including us here at SGI, hope this call-to-action will have effect.

BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with $5.7 trillion in assets under management as of July 2017 (or, put another way, 20% of the U.S. market), is a significant shareholder in all the largest companies, for better or worse. As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine noted:

Pick your least favorite public company — guns or tobacco or oil or opioids or Facebook or whatever you think is doing the most harm to society — and BlackRock Inc. is among the top five holders. Fink’s threat — contribute to society or you’ll lose BlackRock’s support — rings a bit hollow since BlackRock’s index funds can’t sell. (They can vote against directors, sure, but what exactly do you want a gun maker’s directors to do?)

Aside from supporting the ICCR proposal to enhance Exxon Mobile’s climate disclosures, BlackRock has  avoided shareholder advocacy in the past. If BlackRock genuinely engages, it has an opportunity to dramatically move the needle in favor of corporate social responsibility.

SGI joins investors to call on companies to stay the course on Bangladesh Accord

Statement endorsed by 147 investors representing $3.7 trillion appeals to global brands to recommit to three-year extension to fulfill Accord’s mandate to remediate fire and safety violations in apparel sector.

Members of the Bangladesh Investor Initiative issued a statement today calling on companies sourcing from the Bangladesh apparel sector to renew their commitment to protect worker health and safety by endorsing the three-year extension of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord).

The investors, including Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment and its members, say additional time is needed to complete the remediation plans and worker training indicated by audits at the over 1,600 factories covered by the Accord. The statement will accompany letters being sent to the 160 companies that have not yet become signatories to the three-year extension of the Accord, urging them to participate.

The investors are part of the Bangladesh Investor Initiative organized by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to press brands and retailers sourcing in Bangladesh to join the Accord and remediate human rights risks in their supply chains. The statement was endorsed by 147 institutional investors that collectively represent $3.7 trillion in managed assets.

Said Henrike Kulmann of Allianz Global Investors GmbH, “The new agreement between global trade unions and companies ensures that the industry continues to remediate safety issues found in garment factories and build effective worker safety committees. They are an important component to mitigating risks to workers and supply chain disruption as well as reputational risks to global brands sourcing in Bangladesh. We call on all companies sourcing from Bangladesh to become Accord signatories to mitigate these serious human rights and business risks.”

For the 1,600 factories have been inspected under the Accord, 82 percent of the identified safety issues have been fixed, the majority of them electrical. “Investors have been particularly pleased to see that, in addition to fixing specific problems, the Accord has worked to address the systemic issues that led to disasters like Rana Plaza,” said Lauren Compere of Boston Common Asset Management, “It is critical to ensure that future safety problems are detected before they become life-threatening events. The detailed comprehensive work achieved by the Accord is a positive signal to investors that safety risks are being carefully and sustainably managed.”

The investor statement recommends brands undertake the following:

  1. Accord companies, who have yet to sign the 2018 Accord, do so during the first Quarter of this year.
  2. Companies that were part of the Alliance, which is disbanding in 2018, join the Accord and therefore maximize collective leverage to complete safety reforms and strengthen action to build the capacity of the Bangladesh government’s oversight of worker safety by 2021.
  3. Brands and retailers sourcing in the garment sector expand safety inspections to knitting, spinning & weaving; washing, dyeing & printing facilities; embroidery & accessories; home textiles; leather and footwear.
  4. Brands, retailers and other stakeholders strengthen the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in Bangladesh’s garment sector to ensure an integrated approach to promoting fire safety and building integrity, and to provide a platform for stakeholders engaged in fire safety initiatives.

“To date, only 60 of the 220 signatories of the Accord have signed the new agreement to extend the program until May 2021,” stated David Schilling, senior program director of ICCR. “While much has been achieved in making garment factories in Bangladesh safer, there is more to be done, including the establishment of worker safety committees in each factory. The success of the Accord to date is built on the unprecedented collective action of brands and trade unions. Continued solidarity is needed to finish the job and prevent hard-earned gains from disappearing.”

Book recommendation: The Shareholder Action Guide

In a new series of posts, SGI will offer reviews and suggestions of books related to our work in shareholder advocacy.

For those who want an inspirational primer about shareholder advocacy, Andrew Behar’s The Shareholder Action Guide: Unleash Your Hidden Powers to Hold Corporations Accountable fits the bill. Replete with anecdotes and advice, coupled with references to on-line resources, this book explains the tools and strategies available to empower shareholders. Further, this handbook may well inspire new activist shareholders to demand corporate accountability.

Andrew Behar

The author leads As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that focuses on environmental and social corporate responsibility. As You Sow focuses on climate change, sustainability, human rights, and environmental health, and it engages, among others, companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Southern, FirstEnergy, Duke, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, HP, Dell, Apple, Proctor & Gamble, and Coca-Cola.

In 15 brief chapters, Behar takes readers through the basics. The first seven chapters include: shareholder responsibilities, how shareholders began to use their power with General Motors in South Africa, defining some limits on shareholder actions, explaining proxy votes, influencing fund managers, and corporate engagements and filing shareholder resolutions. Chapter 8 of The Shareholder Action Guide also tells the story of many campaigns in shareholder advocacy from across the past forty years. It profiles leaders in shareholder advocacy, including a testament to the work of SGI’s founder, the late Fr. Mike Crosby, for his efforts in tobacco. Those involved with SGI will recognize the names of numerous allies referenced in the book, including Tim Smith and Sr. Nora Nash, O.S.F. Subsequent chapters contemporary strategies in shareholder advocacy .

Behar explores how corporations are the most powerful entities on the planet. Sadly, many have had a long record of failing to care for creation, exploiting vulnerable people, and hiding boardroom decision-making. Since, by law, corporations are beholden to their shareholders, some philanthropic trusts, pension funds, and other institutional investors have used shareholder advocacy to press for changes in corporate policy. Behar also underscores the opportunity to engage individual investors, who have largely been silent, mistakenly thinking themselves powerless. The Shareholder Action Guide is designed to inform, inspire, and instruct investors in how to exercise their power to effect meaningful change on critical issues including environmental justice, food sustainability, executive compensation, and worker’s rights. Owners of as little as $2,000 worth of stock in a publicly traded corporation have the power to be heard. This book is a call to action designed to build a movement of active investors. Behar illustrates how investors can stop abdicating their power and act to make a better world.

The Guardian profiles Sr. Nora Nash

The Guardian, heralded for its independent and investigative journalism, ran a feature story on Sr. Nora Nash, O.S.F.: Sister act: how a Philadelphia nun faced up to Wall Street. Sr. Nora, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, engages in the work of corporate social responsibility through Philadelphia Area Coalition for Responsible Investment (PACRI) and ICCR.

The Guardian’s article is excellent in its outline of why and how a religious community engages in CSR work and offers considerable detail about the breadth of issues that Sr. Nora and her colleagues take on as well as significant detail about the shape of those efforts with Wells Fargo and Kroger. The Guardian interviewed not only Sr. Nora’s colleagues in CSR work but also got Kroger’s communication chief to speak about the experience of working with faith-based investors.

Please, visit the article. Perhaps you may even share it with others who may wish to learn more about socially responsible investment. Again, the article is found here: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/17/philadelphia-nuns-capitalism-activism

SGI Board Elects New Officers

The Seventh Generation Interfaith Board of Directors elected new officers for the 2018 calendar year. Dan Tretow (School Sisters of St. Francis), formally Treasurer, has stepped up to become President. Sister Sue Ernster (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) was elected to take the Treasurer position and Peg Groth (Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother) has agreed to serve as Secretary. The Officers deal with the administrative duties of the coalition and act as a sounding board for the staff. The membership is grateful for these volunteers for their service on behalf of the membership. Please join me in congratulating our new Officers.

The Board is thankful to Mark Peters (Priests of the Secret Heart) and Sr. Ruth Geraets (Presentation Sisters, Aberdeen, SD) who served as President and Secretary for the past two years for their service and commitment to bring good news to the poor.

Frank Sherman, executive director of SGI, wrote this post.

Investors say executive pay packages at pharma may incentivize drug pricing risks

Today, the ICCR published a press release about resolutions filed with five U.S. pharmaceutical companies. SGI members are co-filers on each of the five resolutions. These resolutions are important components of SGI’s activity this year in health. The resolutions can be described as tools to gain insight into how executive compensation aligns with the values, vision, and business strategy of the companies.

This post will be updated with media coverage:

The press release is shared in full below.

Investors say executive pay packages at pharma may incentivize drug pricing risks

DATE:
Dec 13th 2017

In resolutions at five U.S. drug makers, investors request a review of compensation policies that may drive senior execs to ignore the long-term business risks of skyrocketing drug costs.

NEW YORK, NY, Wednesday, December 13, 2017 – Investors today announced they have filed resolutions at five major pharmaceutical companies asking for information about how well executive pay incentives mitigate long-term financial risks associated with mounting public concerns over the affordability of prescription medicines.

The investors are all members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a shareholder coalition that has been engaging the pharma sector for decades on drug access and affordability. In the resolutions, the investors argue that an executive compensation incentive program reliant on revenue growth solely from drug price increases is a risky and unsustainable strategy.

The resolution specifically requests a report on the extent to which risks related to public concern over drug pricing strategies are reflected in executive compensation policies, plans and programs. Read the full resolution text here. The five companies receiving the resolutions are Abbvie, Amgen, Biogen, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Eli Lilly. ICCR members also filed a separate but similar resolution at Pfizer and Vertex requesting a report on the business risks from rising pressure to contain U.S. prescription drug prices.

“As investors in these companies, we are concerned that misaligned incentive pay may encourage executives to sacrifice long-term, organic growth from drug discovery for short-term, ‘quick fix’ strategies that may pose business risks,” said Meredith Miller of the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust.

Public anxiety over drug prices has soared in recent years as millions of Americans struggle to afford the essential medicines needed to maintain their health. Scandals over excessive price hikes at several pharma companies have made the pharma industry the target of Congressional hearings, law suits, denials of coverage from insurers and ballot initiatives in several states which would force manufacturers to negotiate the prices of key medicines with government agencies such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Against this backdrop, the investors say, companies need to prove to their investors and to the public that they are doing everything possible to control drug prices in order to manage business and brand risk. The investors view executive incentive programs as a governance tool designed to ensure adequate oversight of risk and alignment of corporate strategies with mission.

Said Donna Meyer of Mercy Investment Services, “The increased scrutiny around drug pricing and how it is being managed by pharma management has had reputational consequences for the entire industry. Our resolution request is very straightforward: an evaluation of how these concerns are being integrated into corporate governance structures. To the degree that executive incentives reflect a company’s mission and growth strategies, this is clearly a critical and material issue for investors.”

“Our goal is to better understand what oversight these pharmaceutical company boards are exercising when executive incentives are tied so closely to profits,” said Cathy Rowan, who represents Trinity Health as a member of ICCR. “When these profits appear to be derived wholly from price hikes, it raises concerns among those of us who care about access to, and the affordability of, medicines — particularly for vulnerable populations like women, children and seniors.”

Investors are expected to vote on the resolutions at each company’s 2018 annual meeting of shareholders.

SGI Webinar Recording: Navigating the ICCR and SGI Websites

During our November member meeting, we announced our plan to conduct quarterly webinars to educate SGI Members on ICCR issues and processes. At the time, we agreed to start with an orientation of ICCR’s and SGI’s websites. We were fortunate to have Julie Wokaty of ICCR join us to give us a tour of ICCR’s website and Chris Cox to do the same for SGI’s website.

A recording of the webinar can be found here. The slides from Chris’ presentation on using social media for corporate social responsibility are here.

We will maintain an index of webinars and links to the recordings on our Resources page.