Earth Day

While the term “climate change” had not been invoked by April 22, 1970, awareness of human involvement changing Earth induced a fear mixed with hope. Scientists could not see the future of our planet, and newspaper headlines at the time captured concern for the environment and for peace as protests surrounding the Vietnam War were met with groups putting cars on trial

And as most of the United States currently sits in the unknown because of the COVID-19, the Earth keeps turning. 

But with EPA rollbacks during a global pandemic, the US withdrawing from the ever-important Paris Agreement, and the impacts of the BP oil spill still being felt ten years later, it can be difficult to find those positives. But they do exist.

Many improvements have been made since that first Earth Day, now 50 years ago. The current National Geographic depicts how life expectancy has increased along with food production, more people have access to clean water and electricity, and pollution levels (overall) have fallen. Even during this crisis, we see renewable energy, like solar and wind, growing in capacity.

Coupled with this uncertainty of the environment, for me comes a feeling of nostalgia: remembering the saplings handed out to us in elementary school, thinking about the recycling program my grandmother started in her town, visualizing the passion Denis Hayes had in organizing the first Earth Day. These individual acts, small notions, and world movements all exude a hope of possibility of positive change. From a young age, environmental activists like Severn Suzuki, Greta Thurnberrg, and Delaney Reynolds witness to a heartfelt passion as vibrant as Hayes’. Students are urging their universities to divest from fossil fuels. Community gardens push back against the concrete that dominates our cities.  

On the first Earth Day, 50 years ago, New York City’s Mayor Lindsay put it simply; “Beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?”

Webinar: Human Rights Due Diligence

On Friday, April 17th, SGI’s quarterly webinar addressed due diligence in human rights required of companies. The traditional audit and codes of conduct, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. We were fortunate that ICCR’s Anita Dorett, Camille Le Pors, the lead for the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, and Patricia Jurewicz of the Responsible Sourcing Network, joined us for this webinar. Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Anita, Camille, and Patricia  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.

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

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.

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.

SEC’s Proposed New Rules Threaten Shareholder Democracy

Last December, our blog gave an update on efforts by trade associations to restrict shareholder rights .

On Tuesday, November 5, the Securities and Exchange Commission unveiled the exact nature of that threat and voted 3-2 on two separate measures to propose changes to rule 14a-8 that would severely restrict investors’ access to the corporate proxy. The changes would require that:

  • Shareholders own $2,000 worth of company stock for a minimum of three years (up from one) before they can submit a shareholder resolution. They can submit proposals earlier if they own $25,000 for one year and $15,000 for two years. Small shareholders can no longer come together to aggregate their shares to file a resolution.
  • Re-submission vote thresholds were raised from 3%, 6% and 10% for the first three years to 5%, 15% and 25%.
  • Proxy service providers (such as ISS and Glass Lewis) will be required to provide a draft of their proxy advice to companies for comment ahead of issuance. There are several other restrictions on these companies.

These proposed changes are significant threats to our voice as shareholders. They have received significant push-back in the media (Reuters, MarketWatch) and by several investor groups (ICCR, US SIF, CII). “Between the filing threshold increases and the doubling of percentages for resubmissions, it means that smaller investors are going to find it much more difficult to file resolutions,” says Josh Zinner, CEO of ICCR. “It’s a blow against shareholder democracy.”

The 60-day comment period opens once the proposed rule changes are published in the Federal Registrar. Our members are encouraged to sign on to Ceres and ICCR comment letters or, better yet, send in your own comments to the SEC. You should also consider sending letters to your Congressional representatives. Finally, consider submitting op-eds and letters to the editor to your local paper and newsletter stories and blog posts on your websites.

To learn more about the issue and concerns, you read the statements by Commissioner Robert Jackson and Allison Herren. “There is a common theme that unites the two proposals before us today”, said Commissioner Herren. “They both would operate to suppress the exercise of shareholder rights.”

With regards to a second proposed rule change, ISS (Institutional shareholder Services) has filed a lawsuit against the SEC. The final resource is a website, supported by ICCR, that is gathering evidence and sharing reports concerning the shareholder proposal process (Investor Rights Forum).

A lot more to come on these proposals. Please lift your voice in opposition!