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 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

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:

The long and winding road

by Pat Zerega

Senior Director Shareholder Advocacy, Mercy Investment Services

This weekend, we saw Rocketman, the story of Elton John. It brought back memories of so many songs we grew up with.  For some reason I kept thinking of the song the long and winding road as a parallel to the story (even though it was written by the Beatles, Elton John performed it on occasion). Part of the reason it came to mind is that the song reflects how I feel about the private prison work and GEO specifically. It might be helpful to review some of the history that got us to today.

Around 2003, John Celichowski, O.F.M., Cap. and Valerie Heinonen, O.S.U., began approaching the private prison companies. At that point, their stock was considered ‘penny stock’ with few members at ICCR owning GEO, CCA or Cornell. The first resolution oat GEO received 3.2% and a similar resolution brought CCA to the table without going to vote. Fr. John moved on to leadership in the community and passed the mantle to Fr. Mike Crosby.  A variety of approaches including lobbying and human rights policy development continued with GEO and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) through 2011. Dialogues were often contentious (my participation was through the Lutherans), and at one point the CEO of GEO wondered why we didn’t just “sell the stock and leave them alone.” We continued to focus concern with the people in custody.

In 2011, a resolution calling for a human rights policy was filed. At the same time, the Jesuit Social Research Center had obtained a grant to work with private prisons around human rights and training, so the Jesuits began to lead both dialogues. This grant brought in prison experts to help lead the way and both companies developed polices and entered into dialogue.  

We all know writing a policy is not the be all and end all of work. We need to see that the policy doesn’t sit on the shelf but is implemented, training occurring and the culture changing. Shareholders expected to be able to find that out through dialogue and increased transparency in reporting on the prison companies’ websites.

Since that time, the dialogues have focused on several issues including medical care and segregation from the general population, but shareholders felt like we were not seeing the real impact hoped for with a human rights policy. Abuse allegations remained high, and news coverage of these events continued. In the spring of 2018, we began to see many reports concerning immigration detention conditions in private prisons. ICCR hosted letters to both private prison companies with more 50 signatures asking for the prisons not to become involved with government detention contracts.

CoreCivic answered the letter and continued to engage in a meaningful way, this spring presented its first ESG report. They are working on other ways to be transparent on human rights issues.

In the late summer of 2018, GEO, however, put a ‘pause’ on dialogue. This was new to me. I’ve had companies stall or not answer letters, but to actually write and say they didn’t want to talk was new ground.

Our group was frustrated and decided to file a resolution in the fall of 2018 asking for a report (that was indicated in GEO’s own policy) concerning how implementation of the human rights policy. Many shareholders joined the group of Jesuits and Mercy Investment Services addressing this issue, and in November the resolution was filed.

As expected, the resolution was challenged, but the SEC denied the no action thus, agreeing it had to be on the ballot. Shareholders filed a proxy memo indicating reasons why it should be left on, alerted proxy advisors of the resolution, and the week before the AGM learned that both proxy advisory firms were supporting the resolution. As that information became public, we also received an unexpected email from GEO, telling us they would no longer oppose the resolution and filed such a statement with the SEC. The company never quite supported the resolution, nor changed the proxy on their site, nor put the SEC statement on their site, nor did they reach out to talk with us. So, we prepared to present at the AGM (a virtual-only AGM, but that too is for another day), and garnered nearly 88% of the vote.

(Photo by Pat Zerega, Door County Wisconsin 2016)

The story of course does not end there. Shareholders have met since then to discuss next steps and have sent a letter requesting to return to the dialogue table with all interested parties and explain what we are looking for in the requested human rights report. Thus far, there is no answer to that request, but we know there is always another twist in the road ahead.

Faith-Based Shareholders: In It for the Long Haul

While it may seem like a long time, it is heartening to recall that Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, waiting to enter the promised land.

Almost 30 years ago, Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap. began a dialogue with executives from Wendy’s. Concerned that adequate progress was not being made on due diligence concerning potential and actual human rights issues, the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph filed a shareholder resolution on human rights this year. The company challenged the resolution, and the Securities Exchange Commission ruled that the resolution could be omitted. As our resolution had been omitted by the SEC, it would not be coming to a vote, but I attended the shareholder meeting in Dublin, OH on behalf of the Capuchins so as to make a statement to the board and the company officers about our concerns in the area of human rights due diligence.

The team from Wendy’s were very gracious hosts. Having arrived early, a member of the investor relations team took me to visit what had been the office of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas. I had the opportunity to meet executives who have been on calls with us. Personally, I find it helpful to have a face to put to the voice that I hear on the phone. I also had the opportunity to meet CEO Todd Penegor, board chair Nelson Peltz, and chief legal officer E.J. Wunsch, as well as other members of the board.

The meeting itself lasted a bit over 75 minutes. After a brief video highlighting Wendy’s 50 years, Mr. Peltz opened the meeting. Three items of business were conducted: a vote concerning the board of directors, a vote concerning the company’s auditors, and, finally, an advisory vote concerning executive compensation. The video to the voting was completed within a swift 11 minutes. Next, Mr. Penegor gave an overview of the company’s business plan. Following Mr. Penegor, Liliana Esposito, the chief communications officer, addressed corporate social responsibility and gave an ESG update.

Upon the conclusion of Ms. Esposito’s remarks, the floor was opened to general questions and comments. First, Kerry Kennedy, daughter to the late Robert F. Kennedy, spoke in favor of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Fair Food Program. Next, Mr. Peltz recognized me, and I approached the microphone to offer my statement.

My remarks aimed to accomplish four things:

  • To identify the abundant risks for human trafficking and forced labor in agricultural supply chains;
  • To describe the fundamental shift effected by laws here in the U.S. and abroad that, while good and necessary, codes of conduct and audits are no longer sufficient;
  • To outline a better process, employed by many leading companies: a human rights risk assessment that incorporates the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • And to encourage Wendy’s to take these necessary steps that, at heart, are in accord with the deepest values of the founder, Dave Thomas, and the company.

Subsequently, Chelsea Rudman of the Workers Rights Consortium spoke similarly of the value of worker-driven social responsibility efforts. Lena Brook of the Natural Resources Defense Council spoke about the use of medically-important antibiotics in meat and poultry served at Wendy’s. A shareholder asked a question concerning the updating of restaurant infrastructures. Mike Telford of the National Pork Producers Council thanked Wendy’s for their relationship with pork producers. Nelly Rodriguez, from the CIW, offered a moving witness, in Spanish, about the importance of the Fair Food Program. Another shareholder asked a question concerning non-meat substitutes. Finally, a shareholder, who is also an adoption assessor, rose to speak a word of thanks for Wendy’s commitment to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Soon thereafter, the meeting was adjourned.

While the meeting maintained its decorum, no attendee could be blind to the concerns raised by the different voices. While I am disappointed that our resolution did not come to a vote this year, SGI remain committed to working with Wendy’s to improve their practices in the area of human rights.

As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. Even after a 40-year sojourn in the desert, the fact is that Moses never made it into the promised land, but he did see it before he died. Faith-based shareholders differ from day traders. We are in it for the long haul. We genuinely care about the companies we engage. We will bring items to their attention that may make company leadership uncomfortable. We do so, because we are committed to protecting people and the planet. We believe that the interests of the company, through the long haul, align with the interests of people and the planet.

The statement prepared for the 2019 Wendy’s shareholder meeting can be found here.

The surprisingly powerful voice of shareholders

By Mark Peters, Director of Justice, Peace and Reconciliation, Priests of the Sacred Heart, US Province, Member, SGI Board

How did I, someone who’s never been much into shopping and stores and has gotten his clothes from Kohl’s since junior high, find myself addressing the CEO, Board and a smattering of shareholders of Macy’s, Inc. in Cincinnati last month? It’s all thanks to a Capuchin priest who had the foresight to see how important corporations would become in the 21st Century.

Fr. Mike Crosby, OFM Cap, died two years ago, but he lives on in the work of Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment. Fr. Mike recruited me back in 2014 and coached me through my first shareholder resolution, which was with TJX, the company that owns TJMaxx, Homegoods and Marshalls. We got 3% of the vote, a victory because you needed that much to bring it back the next year. That time we got under the next benchmark and that was the end of that campaign, though not of our continuing dialogue with TJX. Votes under 5% are not unusual in this line of work! We often plant seeds that don’t bear immediate fruit.

This year Chris Cox, Associate Director of SGI (along with Executive Director Frank Sherman, who was mentored by Mike), directed our resolution with Macy’s, requesting a report on their process for ensuring that no vendor is engaged in forced labor (their byzantine supply chains are the reason their clothes are so cheap and the company is so profitable). Chris consulted with experts in the drafting of the resolution and provided me with lots of material for the dialogue that the company agreed to after we filed. But ultimately the company would not agree to undertake the report, so we did not withdraw, as is sometimes done when a company does make a good faith beginning.

That’s what brought me to Cincinnati on May 17. Someone needed to be present to “move” the proposal, as the Board had made known it’s opposition to it and it would be dropped if no one spoke for it. However, Macy’s was stingier than most with the time they allot speakers, and we were told we had only one minute. So 800 miles driving and a hotel stay, all for the sake of 90 seconds (try and keep me to 60!) of opportunity to sway the votes of a mere handful of shareholders present at the (to me) surprisingly sparsely-attended AGM (annual general meeting) — all of whom, as it turned out, had apparently already voted their shares prior to the meeting.  So I was basically just talking to the board.

But in the end the shareholders spoke to them as well, because our proposal received 40% of the vote!  Chris and I were shocked, but very pleasantly so, as this ensures us a continued seat at the table with the company, and the very real chance of a win next year. Apparently investors are starting to care about human trafficking!

As often happens (and as someone else has done for us with this same proposal at the TJX AGM this week outside of Boston), we’d been asked to move another group’s proposal, this one on transparency on political contributions. I read their statement as well, and that proposal actually received 53% of the vote. I spoke to the Corporate Counsel afterward, and she said the company would likely implement the proposal because of that showing.

A number of other SGI members have had successful outings this proxy season, especially those working on climate change-related resolutions, which for most investors is now clearly a strong value. Now begins the work of readying ourselves for the next season!

Mark’s statement at the annual shareholder meeting can be found here.

Global companies and global problems

We have come to take for granted the size and sweep of modern multinational corporations. As companies merge to gain scale, it’s difficult to keep track of the corporation behind the brands we buy. Daily, we dress ourselves in clothes bearing labels of “made in” notices for countries that may be difficult to place on a map. We know that our vehicle, as well as our cell phone, was not made in an individual factory but assembled from components and parts made across a dispersed global supply chain. When out of season locally, we may notice that our fruit and vegetables may have come from distant lands. Multinational corporations seamlessly bring together many essential things in our daily lives.

Over the years, these multinational companies have grown to scales that may surprise us. While not an apples to apples comparison, the largest companies have annual revenues that dwarf the gross domestic product (GDP) of many countries. Some may be able to recite the top five global economies:

  1. United States ($20.5 trillion)
  2. China ($13.5 trillion)
  3. Japan ($5 trillion)
  4. Germany ($4 trillion)
  5. United Kingdom ($2.8 trillion)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Walmart, with over $500 billion in annual revenue, would rank #25, displacing Thailand. The fourth largest company, Royal Dutch Shell, displaces the Philippines at #40. The ninth largest company, Exxon Mobil, comes in just behind the Czech Republic, the 46th largest economy. At #11 among companies, Apple had a billion dollars more in revenue than Peru (#51 among countries) had in GDP. Foxconn, the 24th largest company, has greater annual revenue than the GDP of Kuwait (#58 in GDP). In all, 41 of the 100 largest economic entities on the planet would be corporations.

So, what does that mean for us? While policies and laws and regulations from countries are essential, companies play a critical role in addressing environmental and social issues such as climate change, food justice, health, human rights, and water stewardship. At bottom, the decisions that companies make have a tremendous impact on the most vexing global issues. In fact, choices made by companies, in many contexts, have greater impact than individual countries.

Michael Porter, in a 2015 TED Talk, underscored the importance of business in addressing critical problems. Global norms have been shifting. It is no longer acceptable for multi-national companies to simply meet the legal minimums set by local governments. Today, many international standards, including the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, underscore the role of companies. Some of our resolutions with companies this year reflect this emerging understanding of the role of companies in addressing human rights.

The work of SGI contributes to the work of so many others– socially-conscious consumers, non-profit organizations, workers in the supply chain, and ethical executives– in seeking a more just and sustainable world.
Given the scale of multinational corporations and global nature of our economy, our mission is more critical than ever.