Laudato Si’ Week 2022: How SGI Members Contribute to Structural Change

By Frank Sherman

Each of us – whoever and wherever we may be – can play our own part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and the degradation of our common home.”

Pope Francis, October 2021

The global Catholic Church celebrates Laudato Si’ Week 2022 over May 22-29 to mark the seventh anniversary of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on care for creation. It is meant to be a celebration, showing the world how much the Church has changed in these seven years by inspiring millions of Catholics to bring the whole human family together to protect our common home.

There are several resources available to participate in the week-long celebration including the Laudato Si’ Week website and the 7 Laudato Si’ Goals with online and offline activities as well as resources for prayer, study and action. The events will focus on biodiversity, responding to the cry of the poor, divestment, education, and eco-spirituality. The Catholic Climate Covenant is hosting an online discussion on Tuesday, May 24th at 12 p.m. CT to spotlight U.S. diocesan efforts to uplift Laudato Si’ (register here).

Also coming next week are annual shareholder meetings for some of America’s biggest corporate greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Amazon. Amazon received a record 20 shareholder resolutions, 4 of which were filed by SGI members. ExxonMobil received 8 proposals, half of which were filed by our members while SGI members filed 2 of the 7 proposals at Chevron.  

Many of these proposals asked for more climate disclosure, GHG reduction targets or transition plans. One such proposal filed with both Exxon and Chevron asks for an audited report assessing how applying the International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero by 2050” pathway would affect company financial statements, including carbon prices, retirement obligations and capital expenditures. Companies must adequately reflect the impacts of the climate crisis and the clean energy transition in their financial reporting if shareholders are to have confidence that their capital is being effectively allocated and assets do not become stranded. This is especially crucial for companies like Exxon and Chevron, whose business strategy appears to be built on continuing growth in demand for hydrocarbons for the next several decades.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report delivered a sobering message: we’re already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change and continuing the current trajectory equals catastrophe. Governments, businesses and civil society must do more before it’s too late. So as your communities and organizations celebrate the progress made in the past 7 years, SGI members are doing their part to impact the structure drivers of climate change through corporate engagements.

SGI joins Major U.S. Companies and Investors To Urge Congress to LEAD on Climate

SGI participated in a delegation of more than 100 large companies and investors to meet with key lawmakers of both parties this week to ask them to LEAD on Climate 2022. It was a united call for Congress to pass an ambitious package of federal clean energy, transportation, infrastructure, and advanced manufacturing investments.

Best Buy, bp America, Gap, General Mills, HPand Microsoft were among the major U.S. employers, innovators, and manufacturers spanning all sectors of the economy participating in this advocacy event. Representatives from the participating organizations met with lawmakers and Congressional staff on Wednesday, May 11, and Thursday, May 12, in virtual forums. 90 meetings were scheduled over this two-day period.

View the full list of LEAD on Climate 2022 participants here.

This fourth annual business advocacy event gives leading companies and investors the opportunity to make the strong economic case for federal climate action, elevating their calls for clean energy and environmental justice investments that will bolster the nation’s competitiveness, lower energy costs, strengthen domestic supply chains, and confront the threat of the climate crisis. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Siemens Corporation’s Barbara Humpton, PSEG’s Ralph Izzo, and Hannon Armstrong’s Susan Nickey participated in a virtual roundtable and media briefing as part of LEAD on Climate 2022 on May 11th.

Representing SGI in the meetings, associate director Chris Cox said, “Fr. Mike Crosby began making the moral and business case for addressing climate change decades ago. It’s an honor to continue this work in pressing for environmental justice, as the harms of climate fall most heavily on the poor, those on the periphery.”

Organized by the sustainability nonprofit Ceres, LEAD on Climate 2022 features companies and investors that collectively count more than $1.6 trillion in annual revenue and $4.6 trillion in assets under management, and that employ more than 3 million people in all 50 states. The event comes at a critical time when Congress considers major investments in clean energy, transportation, and infrastructure, as well as the advanced manufacturing and supply chain capabilities to support it, either through a budget reconciliation deal or a bipartisan energy package.

Specifically, companies and investors are calling for Congress to:

  • Meet the urgency and scale of the climate crisis with ambitious federal investments to accelerate the transition to affordable, secure, domestic clean energy.
  • Seize the economic opportunities to lead the world in clean energy manufacturing and deployment to create jobs, spur innovation, strengthen supply chains, and reduce costs and price volatility for businesses and consumers. 
  • Tackle inequity by targeting climate and clean energy investments in disadvantaged, rural, and frontline energy communities.

This is the second year that SGI has supported Ceres’ LEAD on Climate. With the midterm elections quickly approaching, the window is closing for the last, best chance of getting significant federal climate and clean energy investments passed in time to meet our climate, energy, and economic security goals.

Click here to watch the full recording of the roundtable and media briefing.

Walmart Hits a Double on Responsible Climate Lobbying Disclosure

By Frank Sherman

“Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, profoundly affecting all regions of the world and all sectors of society. . . . Companies need to be part of the solution to manage physical and transition risk, maintain societal license to operate and create value for business and society through mitigation and adaptation initiatives that draw on unique business capabilities.”

Walmart, 2021 ESG Summary

At first glance, this may be mistaken as an excerpt from an environmental NGO website rather than from the largest corporation in the world. But Walmart has long been recognized by many as a leader in climate action.  They were the first retailer to obtain SBTi certified greenhouse gas (GHG) targets and the first to make a zero emissions commitment that does not rely on carbon offsets for scope 1 & 2 emissions. Committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2035, they have also been recognized as the top retail partner by the U.S. EPA Green Power Partnership. EPA’s SmartWay Excellence Award for shipping performance recognized Walmart for the fifth year in a row. Their award winning Project Gigaton targets a reduction of at least 30% of estimated scope 3 emissions by 2030. No wonder they made CDP Climate’s ‘A List’ for several years.

But one area where Walmart, along with many other companies, has fallen short is in its engagement on climate public policy. That’s why SGI member, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province (SSND), filed a shareholder resolution with the Company, as part of a broader campaign coordinated by ICCR and Ceres. According to Influence Map, Transition Pathways Initiative and Ceres, Walmart’s direct lobbying is supportive of the Paris Agreement. The SSND proposal asked Walmart to evaluate whether their indirect lobbying activities through trade associations and social welfare and nonprofit organizations are aligned with the company’s support of the Paris Agreement goals. We also asked the company to be more public in their support of robust climate policies rather than engaging policy makers ‘in private.’ The proponents withdrew the proposal after the Company agreed to improve their disclosure.

Following the withdrawal, Walmart strengthened their Government Relations Policy and made extensive updates to their Engagement in public policy webpage, providing details on governance, policy positions, engagement process, and examples of positive advocacy. They published a list of trade associations to which Walmart contributed funds of $25,000 or more in 2021. They actively engage their trade associations to influence their public policy positions. They note that the Business Roundtable’s (BRT) position towards climate policy, although not as strong as we would like, improved as a result of Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon’s influence when he chaired the BRT.

To be fair, the goalpost on what constitutes “responsible climate lobbying” has been moving due to a number of factors including increasing calls from scientists for urgent action, such as the recent IPCC report. This culminated in the recently released Global Standard on Corporate Climate Lobbying describing 14 indicators to assess a company’s direct and indirect lobbying alignment with the Paris goal of limiting global temperature rise  to 1.5 degrees.

To be sure, there are areas where Walmart’s disclosure and practices can be improved. The main shortfall vs. the new global standard is the lack of a detailed public assessment of each trade association’s climate policy positions and how well it aligns with the Paris goals and the Company’s position. An increasing number of multinational companies are doing this assessment of their indirect climate lobbying through trade associations and nonprofits they fund, evaluating the actions they are taking to support or undermine the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees. The Company states, “If a relationship—on balance—does not align with our priorities, we would end ties with the organization altogether,” which they did a few years ago when they exited the Chamber of Commerce. “I wouldn’t say they hit a homerun, but it’s safe to say they made it to second base,” said Tim Dewane, Director of Shalom – the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province, the lead proponent of the resolution. “We have to continue to work to get them home.

The Necessity to Perform Investor Human Rights Due Diligence

In this difficult time, we continue to follow the crisis in Ukraine from afar. The war itself and its humanitarian and economic fallout pose some tough questions. Good stewardship may come down to posing and answering difficult questions.

For at least two decades, we ignored Russia’s globalized corruption and localized aggression. Ignored may be too soft– some even welcomed it. On March 4, 2018, Putin’s agents poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, then residing in the United Kingdom. Investors and global companies were willing to look the other way. Again, investors and global companies willfully ignored the attempted assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August of 2020. In fact, Germany, China, and the US topped the list of major investors in the Russian economy that year. On-going investments allowed Putin to entrench power, and, now, he is an unopposed dictator and global security threat.

The commencement of the Russian war in Ukraine has led to a corporate withdrawal from Russia that happened faster than anyone could have imagined. In less than four weeks, from American Express to YouTube, 380 global companies announced some kind of withdrawal from Russia, based on data compiled by the Yale School of Management. At the same time, Yale tracks 39 companies that will remain in Russia or have refused to disclose plans regarding their operations. [The Yale list does not include Koch Industries or its subsidiaries that, according to Judd Legum, also are continuing their operations in Russia.]

The motivations for abandoning business in Russia could be described in a handful of categories. Some companies have left on principle. Some have left as a consequence of sanctions. Others may have left for fear of boycotts and backlash. Still others didn’t want to be labeled as being on “the wrong side of history.” Some have only halted operations for now.

There was, obviously, another, earlier course of action: those who, based on human rights due diligence, found that investment in Russia was a risk that they would not undertake. Due to internal assessments of human rights and political governance risks, informed by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), those asset owners already had limited exposure to Russia. Since there has been an international armed conflict, internal armed conflict, and military occupation in Ukraine since 2014, enhanced human rights due diligence was required under the UNGPs. Change can be planned and gradual, or attempted in the heat of a crisis, but most would recommend the planned and gradual route.

Investors, like all business actors, are expected to respect human rights as outlined by UNGPs. Investor responsibility is increasingly embedded into legal frameworks (e.g. EU rules requiring investors to disclose steps taken to address the adverse impact of their investment decisions on people and the planet). ICCR’s Investor Alliance for Human Rights has developed a toolkit to help asset owners and managers address risks to people posed by their investments.

We should review the whole of our investments and use the IAHR toolkit and other resources to do so. Asset owners that expand investments in Saudi Arabia are willfully ignoring flashing warning lights about human rights risks. If Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in 2018 did not persuade an asset owner or an asset manager, this weekend’s mass execution of 81 prisoners is not likely to be a deterrent either. Or consider Myanmar. Since the February 1, 2021 coup, gas revenues are the largest funding source for the Burmese armed forces. Foreign gas companies work hand-in-hand with Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which is under control of the Myanmar military. The same can be said for investments in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China and a host of other countries.

While the U.S. and international community have reacted with great speed and resolve to punish Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, it is troubling that we have yet to levy a similar sanctions regime on the Chinese government for its genocide in Xinjiang.

The examples of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, and XUAR China highlight the increasing severity and number of conflict-affected and high-risk areas across the globe. It is up to investors and companies to respond to these systemic risks with systemic solutions, putting conflict-sensitive policies and practices into place.

Our colleagues at Heartland Initiative developed the “Rights Respecting Investment in CAHRA methodology” as one resource to assist investors.

Rich Stazinski, executive director at Heartland put it this way: “Companies and investors have had nearly a decade since the Russian invasion of Crimea to grapple with the ongoing consequences of conflict and risk in Ukraine. While abiding by evolving rounds of economic sanctions and export controls is necessary to make companies and investors legally compliant, it is far from sufficient to fulfill their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles. In order to do so, they must adopt robust policy and practices that address the heightened risks of doing business in conflict-affected and high-risk areas, from Ukraine to Myanmar to Xinjiang.”

Asset owners need to ask difficult or controversial questions. The very issues facing our portfolios and, indeed, our planet are too important not to.

Time for a Say-on-Pay

The proxy statements for 2022 are arriving, and we debate anew: “How much is too much?”

Mandated under the Dodd-Frank Act, say-on-pay is a nonbinding, advisory shareholder vote on the compensation policies for the company’s executive officers. In their proxy statement, companies must disclose how their compensation strategy has considered the results of their most recent say-on-pay vote, but the law does not require the company to make any changes based on the vote. Nonetheless, the say-on pay vote is a barometer for shareholder perception of the company’s executive compensation practices.

For instance, Apple proposes a $99 million pay package for CEO Tim Cook this year, but shareholder advisory firm ISS has recommended a “no” vote. I understand the basis for ISS’ recommendation is because it is triple the package of peer median pay and serves no purpose for retaining Cook, as he will earn shares in retirement. On the contrary, Glass Lewis, the other large proxy advisor, recommended supporting the package.

It is almost certain that the Apple say-on-pay resolution will have a majority of support as most shareholders routinely vote in favor of these packages. This will have a cascading effect on executive compensation in 2023 as peer companies will try to keep up. Cook’s proposed salary may simply be keeping up with the Joneses as Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai was awarded more than $280 million in 2019.

Last year, however, bore seeds of hopeful news. Failure rates on compensation packages in 2021 were considerably higher than 2020 and 2019 levels as numerous companies experienced a “failed” vote for the first time, including AT&T, Marathon, Starbucks, and Walgreens. A more complete list of failed say-on-pay votes can be found here.

There are, of course, better ways to ask the question than “How much is too much?” We hosted a webinar last year on Pay and Wealth Disparity. One of the participants, Rosanna Landis Weaver, will host her annual webinar on Thursday: “100 Most Overpaid CEOs: Are Fund Managers Asleep at the Wheel?” (You can register here.) As well, one can turn to the AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch.

SGI has a long history in this space. From our founding in 1973, Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap. advocated for a living wage. SGI consistently advocates for increasing the federal minimum wage.

In 2013, President Obama said, “Rising income inequality is the defining challenge of our time.” Pope Francis, in the same year, noted, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” As a consequence, one of Fr. Mike’s final efforts was a campaign for pay equity in 2014, filing shareholder resolutions with 12 retailers. The SEC allowed companies to omit the resolution based on ‘micro management.’ SGI members continue to challenge retailers and restaurants to pay living wages, for their own workers and for those in their supply chain.

In hopes of building an economy that works for the many, not one that concentrates more and more wealth in the hands of a privileged few, we keep coming back to this issue to see if there are new ways that we can address income and wealth disparity. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration proposal in 2021 on racial equity & starting pay at the Walmart AGM obtained strong shareholder support for a first-time resolution (12.5% of total shares or 27% of independent shares voted). SGI members have joined this year’s ICCR campaign asking restaurants to raise their sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.

Increasingly, economists have come to see that wealth and income disparity harm the economy. Rising concern for pay and wealth disparity in proxy voting and changes at the SEC lead us to think the tide may be shifting, and so we call upon shareholders to act.

ICCR’s 2022 Proxy Resolutions and Voting Guide

Yesterday, ICCR hosted its annual webinar on member proxy resolutions and published its voting guide. If you were unable to watch the webinar (or simply want to review it), or want to download the slides and the proxy voting guide, simply visit this page.

The webinar spotlights investor concerns, maps out 2022 proxy season trends, and shows increasing investor support for ICCR member concerns. Published annually since 1974, the ICCR 2022 Proxy Resolutions and Voting Guide presents the 436 resolutions filed by ICCR members — whether as lead or co-filer — as of February 16.

Revised: The USCCB SRI Guidelines

For the first time since 2003, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops revised and approved new Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines at their gathering in November of 2021. SGI’s first webinar of 2022 examined what is new in the guidelines, how an investor might implement them, and how the guidelines may call us to act in new ways. We were so grateful to be joined by Duane Roberts of Dana Investment Advisors and Katie McCloskey of Mercy Investment Services.

The USCCB staff under the leadership of a Bishops’ Working Group, chaired by the USCCB Treasurer, developed a draft of the guidelines over two years. Both of our speakers were consulted as external subject matter experts.

This revision to the USCCB Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines provides an opportunity for Catholic investors to review and update their investment policy, and perhaps their investment program as a whole. The bishops are explicit about seeing the guidelines as a “holistic framework that sees economic development intrinsically linked to integral human development and good stewardship of God’s creation.”

Like all Church documents, these guidelines need some contextualization. Officially, their scope is quite narrow: the document guides the USCCB’s investments and other activities related to corporate responsibility. Apart from that narrow scope, there is a broader mission: that they serve as an inspiration, helping to inform the investment decisions of religious communities, dioceses and archdioceses, colleges and universities, healthcare organizations, and Catholic foundations. One might say that it is a rather practical expression of a Catholic vision for the economy.

As people of faith stewarding the assets of Catholic institutions, many SGI members have a unique opportunity to develop and apply the USCCB SRI Guidelines for asset stewardship in the present, while ushering in a different form of stewardship altogether in the coming decades. Having begun in 1973, SGI sees this as a journey. We thank you who are our members for being on the journey with us, and we invite and welcome others who are interested to be on this journey with us.

We also offer thanks to Duane and Katie for being such great companions on this journey. Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Duane and Katie in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.

Bill Bars Forced Arbitration in Sexual-Assault, Harassment Claims

Congress has passed legislation to ban mandatory arbitration clauses for cases involving allegations of sexual harassment or assault. With the Senate having passed it yesterday, the bill, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act (EFASASHA), will now go to President Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.

EFASASHA will invalidate most contractual provisions requiring the arbitration of claims alleging sexual harassment or sexual assault. Once in effect, EFASASHA will apply to all pre-dispute arbitration clauses, including those in contracts executed before the law’s enactment.

The new law may have an outsized impact in the asset management industry, given firms’ reliance on arbitration to resolve all manner of disputes. Companies will need to re-examine their approach to dispute resolution and to their anti-harassment initiatives more broadly.

SGI is pleased to have been a part of earlier efforts to ask companies to remove these unjust clauses from employment contracts. Cindy Bohlen of River Water Partners led engagements with a number of companies in her firm’s portfolio, and she wrote about it here in SGI’s blog.

Of the bill, Cindy Bohlen said, “Corporations will be required to have strong policy regarding remedy following allegations of sexual misconduct, including the right to legal action. This change will ensure that employees feel comfortable coming forward in such cases, which will promote inclusive and healthy corporate culture, benefitting employees and corporations alike.”

In these partisan days, we believe that investor outreach contributed to the passage of this bill in both chambers by wide margins.

Revised: The USCCB SRI Guidelines

For the first time since 2003, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops revised and approved new Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines at their gathering in November of 2021. 

Please, join SGI for our first educational webinar of 2022 to learn about what is new in the guidelines, how an investor might implement them, and how the guidelines may call us to act in new ways. We’ll gather at 10 a.m. (Central) on Tuesday, February 15th, and we’ll be joined by Duane Roberts of Dana Investment Advisors and Katie McCloskey of Mercy Investment Services.

Join the webinar on Zoom via this link

If the Zoom meeting is full, please, join the webinar via our YouTube channel which will also live stream the webinar. We will attend to questions from the both Zoom and the YouTube comment box.