Don’t miss these two webinars!

Each year, ICCR and Ceres offer webinars that highlight resolutions filed by members. These webinars provide excellent guidance to institutional investors and individual investors concerning shareholder proposals in the coming proxy season. We cannot recommend highly enough your participation in both webinars.

  • ICCR’s 2020 Proxy Resolutions & Voting Guide Overview. ICCR member resolutions reflect some of the most hotly-debated themes in the national discourse, from the failure of energy companies to meaningfully respond to the climate crisis threatening our planet, to the role of corporations in perpetuating civil and human rights abuses through technology products, and the unrelenting rise in the cost of U.S. healthcare. Register here. (Thu, Feb 27, 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Central) (UPDATE: 2020 Proxy Guide is here. Slides and recording are here. )
  • Business Case to Vote For 2020 Climate-Related Shareholder Proposals. An annual webinar presenting key climate-related shareholder proposals for the 2020 proxy season, and reasons why you should vote for them. Hosted by the Ceres Investor Network on Climate Risk and Sustainability. Register here. (Thu, Mar 12, 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Central) 

Even if you cannot attend live, registration means that you will be sent a link to the slides and recording of the webinar. In other words, even in the event that you have a schedule conflict, it can be valuable to register and watch the webinar at another time. Please, register for these webinars!

The Awakening of a Giant?

By Frank Sherman

Much has been written about socially responsible investing becoming mainstream. US SIF reported two years ago that $1 in every $4 of professionally managed assets in the U.S utilize ESG criteria or shareholder advocacy, a double digit annual increase since the mid-1990s. SRI concerns have also broadened from governance issues (e.g. proxy access, political and lobby spending, executive pay, separate chair) to corporate environmental impact (e.g. sustainability reporting, climate, water) and more recently, social impacts (e.g. human rights, labor rights, diversity).

Another trend in the investment world is the disproportionate growth of passive investing. As open-end and exchange-traded mutual funds managed by large asset managers make up a growing portion of U.S. equity holdings, they take on a growing fiduciary responsibility. When you buy these funds, you transfer your fiduciary responsibility to fund managers to engage companies and vote proxies for you. These long-term and diversified owners have no way to exit a stock, so the only way to influence shareholder value at a portfolio company is through exercising active ownership rights.

Given these trends, it is not surprising to read Morningstar’s recently released proxy voting report stating investor support for ESG resolutions reached a record high in 2019 averaging 29%. This excludes the proposals which were withdrawn based on company agreements. Average support for ESG shareholder resolutions across the 50 fund families analyzed rose from 27% in 2015 to 46% in 2019. However, they found that five of the 10 largest fund families —Vanguard, BlackRock, American Funds, T. Rowe Price, and DFA— voted against more than 88% of ESG-related shareholder resolutions. Their support would have caused 19 of 23 resolutions earning more than 40% support to pass if supported by just one of the largest two asset managers. In response, these fund managers claim to ‘engage companies privately’.

The silver lining highlighted by Morningstar is Blackrock. Recall that two years ago Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, told CEOs that to sustain financial performance they must “understand the societal impact of your business as well as the ways that broad, structural trends – from slow wage growth to rising automation to climate change – affect your potential for growth”. He went on to say that companies need to engage their stakeholders and if they wait until they receive a proxy proposal to engage, “we believe the opportunity for meaningful dialogue has often already been missed”. This year in BlackRock’s annual letter, Fink stated that climate risk is changing the fundamentals of the financial system. BlackRock would be aligning its investment approach, including how it votes proxies, with sustainability. Fink committed to using proxy voting to advance TCFD- and SASB-aligned financial disclosures and to an unprecedented standard of proxy voting transparency. They demonstrated their seriousness by joining the Climate Action 100+, a global investor initiative which SGI is a member, representing $34 trillion in managed assets, to engage the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters to take necessary action on climate change.

Morningstar predicted that BlackRock’s “willingness to vote against management would give engagements on sustainability issues more teeth…as corporate management becomes more open to engaging with shareholder proponents”. I remain hopeful…

The Ag Sector: The Nexus of Migration and Human Trafficking

Agricultural workers are some of the most vulnerable workers on the planet. In the U.S., we carve out laws that treat agricultural workers differently from all other U.S. workers. Further, it is a sector populated largely with foreign-born workers. All too often, these circumstances generate situations of horrific human exploitation.

On Friday, February 14, we were joined in our quarterly webinar by a leader in efforts to uncover human trafficking and modern slavery: Laura Germino of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Laura, a founding member of CIW, helped to establish the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign. In 2010, she was honored by the U.S. State Department as a TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Hero. In 2015, the anti-slavery campaign received the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combating Modern Day Slavery. CIW has pioneered a worker-based social responsibility model, the Fair Food Program, to include workers in addressing exploitation and abuse and to eradicate modern slavery in Florida’s tomato fields. We also discussed how these lessons can be applied to our corporate engagements.

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

We are very grateful for Laura’s presence in this webinar, for her long-standing commitment to eradicate modern slavery in the ag sector, and her generosity in sharing her wisdom and experience with us.

As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here

Diversity in the Board Room

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon garnered media coverage from CNBC and the New York Times for his new plan that requires I.P.O. (initial public offering) clients to have at least one “diverse” board member, if they wish to have his firm’s services. “We’re not going to take a company public unless there’s at least one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women,” Mr. Solomon told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

I guess that my first response is it’s about time. Diverse boards are good for business. While hardly the first, Wharton told us that in 2017, Forbes drew the same conclusion in January 2018, and Harvard Business Review in March 2019. The Wall Street Journal article last week asked the question “why, when women earn the majority of college degrees and make up roughly half the workforce, do so few occupy the chief executive job?” Their analysis shows that the number of women CEOs of the country’s top 3,000 companies has more than doubled over the past decade, but it’s still under 6%.

SGI members have participated in the Midwest Diversity Initiative (MIDI), a coalition of institutional investors dedicated to increasing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity on corporate boards of companies headquartered in Midwestern states. The Coalition helps companies to:

  • Adopt a policy for the search and inclusion of minority and female board candidates
  • Require minority and female candidates to interview for every open board seat
  • Instruct third party search firms to include such candidates in the initial pool
  • Expand the candidate pool to include candidates from non-traditional sources

These efforts have seen some success: 24 Midwest companies engaged by MIDI have adopted the Rooney Rule, and 10 companies have appointed 12 diverse board members (see the press release). Nationally, we have a long way to go. On the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance website, Deloitte published a report that, as of 2018, just 34% of all Fortune 500 board seats are held by women and minorities.

On a related front, Melinda Gates found that in 2017 women founders received only 2% of venture capital funding. For lack female founders, the results are even more grim, only .0006% of venture capital has gone to them since 2009. In response, Gates invested in venture capital for women.

Women and people of color have a lot to contribute to the management and boards of successful companies. Personally, I’m glad to see that big business is slowly beginning to recognize it.

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.

Look Back at 2019: The Difference Between Hope & Despair

By Frank Sherman

As I reflect on 2019, there was plenty of news to discourage me: wars continue in the Middle East, and nations continue the proliferation of nuclear arms; refugee and migration crisis across multiple continents; rise of nationalism and hate crimes; growing wealth and income gaps; undeniable climate crisis, water scarcity, deforestation, and biodiversity loss…not to mention the rollback of regulations and social safety nets, polarization of political discourse, and impeachment hearings in our own country. A review of the global progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals found that, despite progress in a number of areas, progress on some Goals has been slow or even reversed. “The most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most and the global response has not been ambitious enough.”

But late last night, I was sent a message that woke me up. As I looked through the Capuchin Community Services 2020 calendar, a quote caught my eye. “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts” (Alain de Botton, The School of Life, London).

I then thought of Greta Thunberg’s (Time Person of the Year) speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in September excoriating world leaders for their inaction in the climate crisis, and the student March For Our Lives demanding more gun control. I recalled watching CNN’s annual Heroes of the Year Awards honoring the top 10 men and women who are making the world a better place by helping families affected by tragedy, cleaning up the environment, protecting neglected animals, and so much more. I read that worldwide terrorist attacks actual fell by 33% compared to 2017, to the lowest level since 2011. This year scientists learned to spot Alzheimer’s earlier and got a step closer to curing diabetes. China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter, is becoming a leader in electric vehicles.  

I also find hope in the work of Seventh Generation Interfaith and ICCR. We added 10 new members with the merger with the Midwest Coalition to our coalition bringing the total to 39. This year our members engaged several companies in the food and apparel sector asking them to conduct human rights impact assessments and to develop a human rights policy. We continued our work with Midwestern electric utility companies to accelerate their decarbonization plans and ensure a just transition for employees and local communities. We leveraged the Business Roundtable’s statement on the Purpose of a Corporation to promote transparency in corporate political spending and lobbying. We challenged pharmaceutical companies to base their executive remuneration policies on innovation and patient outcomes rather than predatory pricing. We challenged companies to trace their supply chains back to the wildfires in the Amazon and asked them to meet their 2020 deforestation targets. We asked food brands and restaurants to improve their nutritional profile and follow marketing-to-children guidelines to fight obesity. We hosted our annual conference, this year on impact investing, in October. Our quarterly webinars, blog articles and weekly newsletters kept our members informed on our issues and trained on our tactics.

How will you tell your story this holiday season?

Blessing to you and your family and a hopeful New Year!

A USDA Christmas

It’s hard to think about fall and winter holidays without thinking of food. Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas roasts and cookies, and plenty of latkes and chocolate gelt are on everyone’s minds for the last two months of the year.

On December 4th, the USDA changed the Supplemental Nutritional On December 4th, the USDA approved changes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Despite receiving thousands of negative comments, they proceeded with the first three proposed changes to the SNAP, all of which are expected to go into effect before the next presidential election.

Starting April 1, 2020, SNAP benefits will be cut for roughly 700,000 individuals, by reducing waivers and introducing new work requirements for able bodied adults without dependents. NPR Stated, “SNAP statutes already limit adults to three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they meet the 20 hours per week [work] requirement, but many states currently waive that requirement in high unemployment areas.” This rule change will make it more difficult to get this waiver. This initial change is expected to ‘save’ over $5 billion over the course of five years. 

The other two proposed rule changes would:

  • Close a “loophole that allows people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four — to receive food stamps” and “prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food stamps.”
  • Cut close to $4.5 billion “from the program over five years, trimming monthly benefits by as much as $75 for one in five struggling families on nutrition assistance.

If all of these proposed rule changes go into effect, approximately 3.7 million fewer people and 2.1 million fewer households would have received SNAP in an average month (Urban Institute).

According to the USDA website, SNAP provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency. These changes are proposed in order to ‘cut costs and help individuals achieve this idea of self-sufficiency’. However, access to SNAP allows individuals to support themselves and provide nutritious food for their families. Many believe these changes affect not only the individual’s ability to pay for other necessities, but will add stress to local food pantries and other non profits (Lohud, Dec 10, 2019). These changes will lead to an increase of food insecurity, devaluing of life, and challenge the idea that dignity belongs to every human being. “In this case, the result is more hunger and hardship for the members of low-income families who are doing their best to make sure everyone is cared for” (The Atlantic, Dec 10, 2019).

As we gather around Christmas dinner with our families, let us pause for those among us who go without.

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.