What Story Do We Tell?

For an author and former tech company executive, Seth Godin has a no frills blog that offers pithy insight. In a podcast some years back, he observed the following:

“Once you have enough for beans and rice and taking care of your family and a few other things, money is a story. You can tell yourself any story you want about money, and it’s better to tell yourself a story about money that you can happily live with.”

SGI is an organization for those who want to tell a different kind of story about their money than a simple report on the bottom line. Our members are those who want their investments to tell a story consistent with the values and passions of their lives. Our members have served those on the margins in far-flung missions or just on the other side of town. Our members have run schools to provide a quality education, inspired by faith, to those who might not otherwise be able to obtain it. Our members have built health institutions that have served the ill and injured regardless of their capacity to pay. Our members have worked tirelessly to care for and to protect creation. Would it not make sense that the savings destined for their healthcare and retirement, and those funds entrusted to them by generous donors, be used in ways that reflect what our members believe to be important?

Once upon a time, I used to urge folks to look through the last ten checks they wrote—now, I’d suggest that younger readers look through the credit card statement—what do those expenditures say about our priorities and values? The work of SGI is to tell a story with our funds. It is a story that values the poor so often invisible within the economy, especially vulnerable children and women. It is a story where the Earth, its soil and seas and air, is more valuable than the gold and oil buried underground.

A story that focuses solely on the economic return is a story too thin to heal. Indeed, we need a story rich enough to live by. Our story will not interpret the world to everyone’s satisfaction. But, finally, in our judgement, their stories can’t stand up to our stories.

How Well Are Your Financial Service Companies Incorporating ESG?

by Frank Sherman

Of US institutional investors, 43% incorporate ESG factors into their investment decision-making process, according to the sixth annual ESG survey by Callan. This percentage has almost doubled since the survey was first launched in 2013. Yet many financial service companies only pay lip service to these issues. How well do your financial advisors and money managers incorporate ESG best practices?

The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) is committed to advancing sustainable, responsible and impact (SRI) investing across all asset classes. One of the core deliverables from their strategic plan is to identify and disseminate information about best practices within the field and provide tools for practitioners to undertake a rigorous and comprehensive approach to sustainable and impact investing. They published a Roadmap for financial advisors earlier this year on how to incorporate SRI investing into their practice. US SIF released a second Roadmap this month, this time focused on money managers. This Roadmap describes steps to establish board and senior level oversight; identify sources of ESG data, research and training; develop an ESG incorporation strategy; implement an investor engagement strategy; measure impact; and participate in building the field. Due to come out later this year, the third and final guide in the US SIF series will focus on asset owners.

I recommend that SGI members read and share these guides with their Investment Committees and question them on how well your financial advisors and asset managers have incorporated these best practices into their services.

Seventh Generation Interfaith will continue to support your corporate engagements and public advocacy on your community’s priority social and environmental issues. . . a key part of your SRI investment strategy.

New Vatican Document on Markets and Ethics

While CEOs may have nervously read Larry Finke’s letter, they may find greater guidance in their task reading a new Vatican document, Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones (Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System). The new document, approved by Pope Francis, running to just over 11,000 words, brings Vatican heft to financial instruments including shareholder risk, subprime mortgages, derivatives, credit default swaps, interbank loans (LIBOR), shadow banking systems (think, cryptocurrency), and offshore tax havens.

While some may consider Pope Francis an outlier, the 49 footnotes, grounded in traditional Catholic teaching, illustrate the continuity of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis on papal teaching related to the economy. The document aims to apply those principles to the current context. The document posits:

No profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor. (#10)

In other words, profit in the marketplace, in and of itself, is not enough.

Another paragraph reflects the concerns that we raise in our resolutions regardinging executive compensation with the pharmaceutical companies:

In addition, such logic has often pushed managements to establish economic policies aimed not at increasing the economic health of the companies that they serve, but at the mere profits of the shareholders, damaging therefore the legitimate interests of those who are bearing all of the work and service benefiting the same company, as well as the consumers and the various local communities (stakeholders). This is often incentivized by substantial remuneration in proportion to immediate results of management, but not likewise counterbalanced by equivalent penalization, in the case of failure of the objectives, though assuring greater profits to managers and shareholders in a short period, and thus ending up with forcing excessive risk, leaving the companies weak and impoverished of those economic energies that would have assured them adequate expectations for the future. (#23)

Not only does it speak to management and shareholders, the document offers some challenges to consumers as well:

It becomes therefore quite evident how important a critical and responsible exercise of consumption and savings actually is. Shopping, for example, a daily engagement with which we procure the necessities of
living, is also a form of a choice that we exercise among the various products that the market offers. It is a
choice through which we often opt, in an unconscious way, for goods, whose production possibly takes place through supply chains in which the violation of the most elementary human rights is normal or, thanks to the work of the companies, whose ethics in fact do not know any interest other than that of profit of their shareholders at any cost.

It is necessary to train ourselves to make the choice for those goods on whose shoulders lies a journey
worthy from the ethical point of view, because also through the gesture, apparently banal, of consumption, we actually express an ethics and are called to take a stand in front of what is good or bad for the actual human person. Someone spoke of the proposal to “vote with your wallet”. This is in reference to voting daily in the markets in favor of whatever helps the concrete well-being of all of us, and rejecting whatever harms it. (#33)

For those of us who engage in socially responsible investing, the document concludes with some significant encouragement:

In front of the massiveness and pervasiveness of today’s economic-financial systems, we could be tempted to abandon ourselves to cynicism, and to think that with our poor forces we can do very little. In
reality, every one of us can do so much, especially if one does not remain alone.

Numerous associations emerging from civil society represent in this sense a reservoir of consciousness, and social responsibility, of which we cannot do without. Today as never before we are all called, as sentinels, to watch over genuine life and to make ourselves catalysts of a new social behavior, shaping our actions to the search for the common good, and establishing it on the sound principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. (#34)

The most evocative phrase for me from the document is here, that “we are called, as sentinels.” Frank Sherman, when describing our work in corporate social responsibility, likes to say that we are “canaries in the coal mine.” While more and more people are taking up the work of fighting human trafficking, we would be nowhere were it not for the work of so many dedicated religious sisters who have kept a laser-like focus on the issue. Time and again, faith-based socially responsible investors take up a concern, “as sentinels,” long before others take notice. For 45 years, SGI has been a pioneer in socially responsible investing, and we can draw strength from this document that our work is critical for achieving a more just and sustainable economy.

The full text of the document can be found here in a PDF or on the Vatican website here.

Helpful commentary on the new document can be found here:

Less helpful but interesting commentary:

FSPA takes CSR to court

When we saw a recent article (Wisconsin groups to get $12M settlement for natural gas price fixing) from the La Crosse Tribune quoting Sr. Sue Ernster, FSPA, we wanted to bring it to the attention of our SGI members.  Sr. Sue adds:

FSPA participated in the lawsuit of the manipulation of natural gas pricing by multiple utilities as another way of how we live out our social justice activities and our values.  We see this as an effort to help those whose voices are not represented in this and other situations.  We are utilizing the resources we have at our disposal to hold those accountable who were responsible for this price manipulation.

Our hope is that participating in litigation settlements such as these, as well as filing shareholder resolutions with companies, demonstrates that people are paying attention, asking questions and holding them accountable for their actions.

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

The New York TImes examines low-carbon investments

Last week, The New York Times published an article, Funds That Can Put Your Investments on a Low-Carbon Diet, that examines low-carbon investments. Like SGI in our resource page, the article highlights Fossil Free Funds, a resource from As You Sow. The article highlights some of the investment funds that provide low-carbon alternatives. It also includes a general assessment from an industry leader, Jon F. Hale of Morningstar, on the risks and performance of these funds.

As the NYT is behind a paywall after ten monthly free articles, here is a PDF version of the article without the photos or links: Funds That Can Put Your Investments on a Low-Carbon Diet – The New York Times.