How did the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry in the USA begin?
Some twenty years or so ago, a number of firms decided to take a stab at developing some way in which to deliver an ethical investment product to the public. There was, prior to that, a number of religious institutions and some foundations who at least demanded no alcohol, tobacco or firearms in any of their investments. And that grew out of the relationships in our country from the prohibitionist era [when alcohol was illegal] and the abolitionist era [i.e. when people moved to end slavery], in thinking in various different religious circles - mainly Quakers and Shakers and Mennonites, and the folks of the inner light - who began these processes of questions about their investments and what their money was doing.
So it sort of switched to the late 1970's and early 1980's, when there were a number of brokers in major firms, who made a decision that they would break away and try to clear their business, do their stock business using some of the major firms back offices, but trying to develop products that would be not only alcohol-, tobacco- and firearms-free, but products that would have an ethical stance to them, that there would be an equal opportunity clause which would take care of gender and race bias, and nine or ten years later there was a pretty good cry from the animal rights people that we shouldn't have animal testing in the cosmetics industry and in some of the pharmaceutical industries. So that's how the products became available to the public.
There wasn't necessarily in the beginning a public demand for these kinds of products, other than in your traditional religious or very highly ethical circles. However, that's changed. People have come to the realisation that to invest well, you can also do good. It's been a slow and steady increase in business over the last fifteen years, such at the very height of the excess of the market a year ago April [i.e. in 2001], we were looking at close to a trillion and a half to a trillion and three quarters dollars of investments sitting in the entire socially responsible world. [Note: according to the Social Investment Forum's "2001 Report on Socially Responsible Investing Trends in the United States", the total assets screened for one or more social issues under management in the USA alone rose from $1.49 trillion in 1991 to $2.03 trillion in 2001, representing 12 per cent of the total $19.9 trillion in investment assets under professional management in the USA.] That's a pretty large chunk of money! In today's market that money translates into about a trillion and a quarter dollars, so we've had a sell-off, but not anywhere near the significant sell-off that my country, the United States, and the rest of the world have experienced. And I think largely because of the social screening that's gone on in these firms over the last 15 or 20 years, the models of social screening - and that means how we actually filter alcohol, tobacco and firearms, equal rights and animal testing, and now we're beginning to look at companies that are really operating on a sustainable model. There are fairly complicated systems of reporting and gathering information, and being sure that we're cross-checking continuously with the four or five hundred companies that we look at, that winnow down to about a hundred, a hundred and fifty companies that qualify for all of the five screens. Your normal socially responsible investor will have a certain profile, where they might not need all five screens in their portfolio, but they'd be happy with two or three screens. We won't recommend anything that doesn't at least cover the original three screens.
So there's my firm, Progressive Asset Management, there's the Calvert Social Investment Fund, there's Pax World, there's Working Assets, and there are a number of small... there's the First Affirmative Financial Network which has recently come in through the Progressive network, and the Progressive network is also [part of] the Financial West Group network out in California. We happen to clear through Payne Webber. A number of other players in the social investment market clear through other brokerage firms or other banks. Of course Amy Domini's fund - the Domini Social Investment Fund - is an investment firm that not only sells a product but also clears its own screens of socially responsible business, so they both sell a socially responsible service and do the investing. At this point in time, Progressive Asset Management just does a screening and the brokers who are in the Progressive network, who are all independently using Progressive's products, are still you know, considered as Progressive's investment analysts.
So now we have the recent problems in the market, and obviously the horrific acts in New York on September 11th, and that has eroded a lot of confidence in the markets, then of course followed on by the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and other scandals. Now those scandals are unfortunately seen to be a little endemic in our system, because of some of the creative accounting and creative products that have been developed in financial circles. We don't buy those companies. We did not by into the whole EBITDA [Earnings Before Interest, Taxes and Depreciation Allowances]. We did not buy into that kind of accounting as a socially responsible investment firm, neither did Domini or any of the other managers who manage on a socially responsible basis. So our business has tended to begin to pick up, it began to pick up about six or seven months ago now [i.e. early in 2002], with people actually calling us saying "can you help me find an ethical investment? Is it possible, you know, in this climate, that I can have enough confidence in somebody to find me something that I believe in and that at I know at least proper financial procedures have been adhered to?" So that's kind of been a sort of silver lining for us in an otherwise pretty grim and pretty tough environment.
So following on from that kind of success, Progressive itself is looking at doing an internet socially responsible trading vehicle, where the public can trade with confidence and know they are trading on a socially responsible basis. I am working, as a progressive broker, on trying to develop a green fiduciary. Now what I mean by that is there are a number of firms that I have already mentioned who are selling securities throughout the world on a socially responsible basis. They are all relatively new at the game, and they have been using Citicorp, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, Payne Webber - which is Union Bank of Switzerland now - they've been using those kinds of firms as their fiduciary. So their money, the money that the client is giving us is still, in a sense, feeding back through that same trough, that same loop that's involved in the rest of the financial network. The idea now is that if we've got a trillion and a quarter dollars, we ought to be able to set up our own fiduciary, clear the business ourselves, and thereby become more proactive in - hopefully - municipal, green municipal, green Euro, and green UK gilt paper, debt paper, and finance some of the projects that we've been talking about here in Johannesburg. That's a small nutshell of what I want to do.
What would you like to talk about now?
Well I'd like to talk a little bit about what where we are, kind of in the world today, as some of us see it, in terms of a World Summit on Sustainable Development. First of all I think "sustainable development" is a loaded word, I think "development" carries a lot of baggage with it, which is go go go go go, and let's build build build, and let's, you know, dig up all the minerals we can, and build all the cars we can, and build all the buildings, and build all the roads, and continue this Western understanding, this financial understanding and consumption model that's predicated, the reason indeed for these kinds of conferences. I would have hoped to have had them come up with a little better name than "development" but so be it! We perhaps really should look at a model of re-habing the built environment and the built infrastructure that we have today, leaving the greensward of the Earth alone and preserving that forever in a Trust - similar to what the United Kingdom and Ireland and other sensible nations have done over the last fifty years, and that's preserving their property in a greensward, and putting a protective stricture on how it's used, and the governance of how that land is used, and the minerals underneath it.
I think that the world should look at doing that, you know, especially if we don't want to get into the Malthusian stories of what great large nations might do when scared for their energy supplies into the future. Those stories are stories that we all know about and are paradigms that some of our secret agencies seem to dwell on a little bit too much! So I would hope that at some point, out of all of what we've talked about, that we would come to an understanding of peace with this Earth that we live on, so that we can leave it to the seventh generation - and by that I mean if you can think forward far enough to seven times your own number of generations - that would be a good way to begin planning how we use water, how we use oil, how we use the minerals that are here, because they're not infinite, they're finite. And we have only been around for, as some people would like to say, you know, ten or fifteen or twenty or twenty five thousand years, whatever it is. That's just a drop in the bucket of time to this planet, and if that sun that's over there across the side of this building does burn for another billion years, that's a long time to go. And we need to think in those kinds of terms and we need not to rush and think that business and development is only going to happen if we continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger. We need to re-think some of those paradigms.
How significant is the pool of money that's screened according to SRI principles in the USA, and is there a significant untapped potential for this to grow?
Traditionally in the brokerage and investment banking business, if you see a dollar from a customer there is probably at least another dollar behind that dollar, maybe two, that you don't see. We'll call that the mattress money, the kind of thing that the client, no matter how hard you press him and profile, is not going to tell you about. He's going to say well I've got some insurance policies, some rainy day money and the rest of that. So the potential for actually self-funding or kicking a sustainable rehab of our municipal and national infrastructures around the world exists today. At least, it exists enough to build some pretty good - I'm loath to call them pilot projects, you know, I would say they would be very good in situ demonstrations of how you could run a city, or how you could run a small rural area, effectively, efficiently and cost-wise. And the other problem that we run into, or the methods we use to gauge costs, you'll hear that solar costs so much per kilowatt-hour, against oil which is cheaper per kilowatt hour - on a market price. Well to market-price oil, or to market price any commodity is a fallacy of our generation. It will be a fallacy and a hoax in the future, it will be something that you will hear a lot of other people talking about as time goes on. You cannot price finite resources as though they are infinite like growing corn, or growing soy, or growing vegetables, or even - unfortunately - growing cattle. They are not infinite! They are finite! So to market price against say, well you know it's going to cost so many kilowatts an hour for solar versus so many pennies a kilowatt for oil, is really, it's really a hoax. And it's another way in which, unfortunately, globalisation, NAFTA, those kinds of deals that are set with commodity nations by some of the Western nations, tend to pick a market basket of commodities and then they award a price to them. It's usually a fairly decent price on whatever today's average price would be. If, six months, nine months a year down the road, the producing nation finds itself in an over-capacity situation, it drives the price down, and then drives these developing countries into debt. And that also is a process which needs to stop.
So we need to be able to take the pressure off of our planet, the pressure off of our Earth, to supply us with energy, fossil fuel, coal. We need to look to the sun, we need to look to the wind, we need to look to this planet, to way this planet, to the beautiful way in which the creator has constructed this planet for us, and realise that these energy sources are real, they will do the job, and we need to pursue building them. So hence I think that a green fiduciary would be a great way in which to kick some of this off.
What about the way the World Bank works very closely with multinationals to create structural adjustment policies, and then people do a currency raid on a country like South Korea, causing massive bankruptcies which enables the multinationals to come in and buy up their companies at bargain basement prices?
Yes, that's kind of part and parcel of the same way in which we price the other commodities. If you go in and make these structural arrangements with these countries, knowing full well on the get-go that these countries have assets that you want, and later on you can destabilise them and buy the assets on the cheap, you know I think that's bad business!
Can regulatory frameworks put an end to that kind of practice? Do you think this is the desirable way of dealing with it?
I think education is the desirable answer! And knowing what your - I mean I hate the word opponent but if I may use the word - opponent across the table in negotiation from you, if you know what he or she really wants, price to scarcity! And I've been telling every African nation that I run into here "Price to scarcity. Do not price to market, price to scarcity! If you want to do business with us, and you want what we have, we'll be happy to sell it to you but we want some kinds of guarantees as to price and quantity that you're going to take. We also want to be able to know that you're going to be able to give us technology transfers, you're going to be able to help us to make that leap into these new technologies that are coming along, and that you're not going to try and manipulate a destabilisation."
I mean if somebody corners the market in something like - well I don't want to get into the names of some famous actors that are still running around Zug, Switzerland - but, you know, it is possible to take some of these smaller nations who have very good resources and to corner those resources and thereby drive their prices down and thereby destable their currencies after you've agreed currency lock-ins and currency rate adjustments.
So it's all part and parcel of the same kind of responsible investing and a responsible way in which to deal with your neighbours, because we're all connected on this planet and if we don't all deal with each other with the same set of tools then we're going to end up in the situations which happened on 9/11 in my country and we're going to end up with the situations which have happened all around the world with people who are disaffected and disinherited. We cannot continue with this behaviour, and guise it as good business and a way to make a profit and a way to solve the immediate cash problems of our multinational corporations.
You hear this continually: what can we do to make corporations be good citizens? A quick little historical note (I'm lousy, I apologise, on names) but it was the Union Pacific Railroad - after the Civil War, I believe in the late 1880's or 1890 - had gone across a large rancher's land, they'd taken it by eminent domain, or attempted to take the land by eminent domain, but I believe it was still some territorial land, and the rancher sued. He sued Union Pacific, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Mellon and the whole crowd. It got all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the argument on the Union Pacific side was that, after all, it was the operators of the railroad that were responsible, that shareholders shouldn't be held responsible, and the Court agreed with them. And thereby, forever after, shareholder responsibility or liability - as a plank of registration for common shares of stock - was removed. Thereby saying that shareholders have no responsibility but obviously it was the directors of a corporation who have the responsibility. And then in the 1960's - again, historically I apologise - I believe it was the Douglas court made a corporation a legal entity; they couldn't give it breath to live but gave it all the rights of a citizen of the United States. It's a little different in the UK, you still have a Charter House in the UK which every UK corporation, I believe, is still serving, basically at the pleasure of Her Majesty. That's how corporations were originally set up. The Sovereign was not able to do the work, the Sovereign was doing other things, so he set up trading companies and corporations and business cartels that were given a licence by the Sovereign - the Sovereign still held those people responsible for it. So that was removed from the plank of registration in American corporations.
I put it to you that if we returned that plank of shareholder liability back into the corporate domain, you certainly would have a very strong lever for corporate governance, because you definitely would want to know, early and often, what your money was doing, what they were doing with it, and what was going on. So you would have at least some element, then, of corporate governance.
Again these treaties such as NAFTA and other treaties that are being talked about in the host country here in Africa where we are, tend to denigrate the eh values, they I mean - it's not really the values the word that I'm looking for - they tend to abrogate, perhaps, common law in the country where they are because of the treaty law that's going on around these particular companies that are going to be multinationals operating in your country. So you don't have the same protection, the same rule-of-law protection that you would once you've given up some of that and the corporation has the right to demand to strip mine or ... ashore or dig for oil in a wildlife preserve, or drill for oil in a wildlife preserve, or do that kind of behaviour. Again if we were able to put that plank of responsibility back into the registration of new issues of stock - and perhaps correct the deficiencies, or at least hold that as a club over the heads of boards so that they would perform in a better manner - I think that would go to a great extent to dissuade some of the fears that the investing public has today, and rightfully so.
Is the investing public powerful enough to get that kind of legislation passed?
In the times that we're in right now, perhaps! Perhaps if enough clamour is made with enough elected officials, the possibility of that happening could begin to gain some momentum. I, frankly as much as I like, inherently, the system of government that I've grown up under, I've grown up to realise that it has its deficiencies and it has its limitations. There's an old adage in the United States: if you can't get a job, get elected
What about the proposed Framework Convention on Corporate Accountability which has been made by the NGOs here in Johannesburg? Do you think that's a good idea?
Yes, I think it is a good idea. The proposed convention on corporate responsibility by the NGOs here at the Johannesburg summit is a step in the right direction! Again what they need to look at is this registration piece, because until and if the laws are changed in some of these countries to bring that responsibility back to the shareholder, it's tough to bring these corporations to heel. The bankruptcy laws in the United States are such, and the organisational laws are such, and the cronyism is such that deals can be cut in the back rooms and hands can be spanked and the entities can continue to roll on doing business almost as usual.
Now can we go into the subject of security and military corporations? How important are weapons manufacturers to the US economy? And to what extent are military planners and strategists beginning to redefine the concept of security, to include environmental and social problems overseas that lead to conflict and terrorism?
That's a large question! Again, what we're talking about is how can one view the military industrial state in the United States in light of the fears for terrorism and in the light of the new argument at the Pentagon that seems to be going into a pre-emptive stance. The language is "in certain occasions where it may warrant a pre-emptive stance, we cannot stand by and wait for somebody to bomb us" for instance "to use a suitcase," and all the fear and scare tactics that are going on in this present administration over "what ifs." The question is, does that feed into the profits, directly, of the military industrial complex? And of course it does! You can make a very good argument for the fact that if you continue to pound the table on terror, and you continue to terrorise the people about terror, and talk to them about it - and the media is clamouring over it - yeah, you're going to be able to push through Congress huge appropriations for the military, for Lord only knows what kind of gear that we may never use! And of course the impact of that on the environment is ten-fold! First of all they're not investing that much money on the environment, they're not doing that much about it, and now they're going to spend more of the tax-payers' dollars - world-wide - on building engines of destruction, hopefully that will never get used! You know, and if you want to know why we've had a surplus, the Cold War ended, folks! You know, we didn't have to build any more stuff that we will never going to use, so that money could go somewhere else, you know. And if we start doing that cycle of building stuff that we'll probably never use - and if we do use it it's a pretty scary ending - you're just building in utilities of death that we don't need, and that hinder, hinder investments for the environment and really do leave it to the concept that I'm talking about, and that others are talking about, about a green bank, about a green fiduciary that can do this kind of work that both our governments and our industry, our present industry, don't seem to be inclined to doing.
Again it goes back to those elected officials, you know, they're people, I mean they put their pants on one leg at a time or zip their skirts up, you know, just like everybody else does, and they have fears and they get scared and they can be terrorised. And to a large extent America is in that mode at this point in time. It is a breath of fresh air, for a little bit of time to be out of that daily "let's roll to war" concept that goes on without even a scintilla of thought as to the cost. And not just the cost of building the materials, but the energy that's used, that we can't find again to use to do something else. At some point we're going to get to the law of diminishing returns, where we may not be able to get to the future using the resources that we have today, that we have today, we may not be able to get there, we may have expended to much stuff. So instead of chasing Osama Bin Laden, and bombing, pounding sand in the desert, and now chasing Saddam Hussein, we should use other methods, we should use political methods, methods of persuasion. And frankly, we should go talk to these people, and find out exactly what they want! And perhaps it won't be as onerous as we might think.
Will I get back into the country [i.e.. the USA]? Michael, I'll be living in Ireland!
Hazel Henderson has been talking to me about the fact that most developing countries hold their foreign reserves in dollars or in other currencies like that. She's proposing to them that they, for starters, shift to the Euro, and that would create some changes in terms of American power.
Yes it would!
Then there are other issues like the proposals that Richard Douthwaite is making - and FEASTA - the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability in Ireland. He says that having the foreign currency reserves in dollars is in effect a massive loan being given to the USA...
...and to the other countries like Japan or whatever countries the currencies are held in, and that in order to overcome the problem of growth, the addiction to growth that's required by the money supply being created through debt by banks, there's a need to revert to the system where money is actually created by governments. FEASTA has interesting proposals for a two- or three-tier system with a global currency created by a new UN agency that would be used for foreign currency reserves, and then regional and national currencies issued by inter-governmental networks and national governments.
I think it's very important to bring the developed and developing nations up to some kind of a peer floor, where you're not having to take your currency - which is floated against the US dollar, to buy oil or other baskets of commodities throughout the world. I mean that puts you in second place in any kind of a race for development or a race for market share that you'd be involved in. And no matter what the resources are in your country, that you're continually forced to buy energy in terms of the American dollar, and you're South Africa, you've got to convert, you've got to have that conversion go on, and you're going to lose in that conversion. And yes, it is a boon to the country whose currency is used as the benchmark for world trade, as it was for the UK. Now the same thing doesn't have to happen that has happened in the past. I think that there are a number of conversations today about different kinds of currencies, not only country currencies but a world currency, and this, frankly the UN currency that is being discussed might be a very interesting step in that direction!
And what is the potential for the world's religious communities to become a really active force for sustainability in all its manifold expressions?
That's the really good news, I think, about what I've seen here in Johannesburg and in what I saw over the last year or two in the run-up to this summit. The world's religions are focusing on - most of them - on the concept of a web of creation. And by that I mean that all of what we know and what we call creation - this Earth, us, all the plants, all the animals - all of us are interconnected. We all depend and help each other. And for us as a dominant, to take up the role as the dominant species, and not be mindful of the rest of the beauty that's here, and understand that beauty, ties back in to what I was talking about earlier about a preservation order for the Earth, to stop any further development which would degrade the Earth's biosphere and the Earth's carrying capacity. So the religions today - in the Western experience and in the Eastern experience for a long long time - the Western experience religions are catching up to where a lot of the Eastern traditions are, which already had a profound respect for nature, a profound respect for the cycle of life, the tree of life, as do the Indigenous people that the settlers in the Western world ran into, had a great and wonderful understanding of what the Great Spirit and creator had given them; and their role in that gift, and where their responsibilities lie in that gift. And, luckily, we're beginning to move away from this concept of dominion logic, where we think that everything, you know, on this planet is, should be viewed from an anthropocentric, a human-based concept. We're beginning to move away from that, and the churches are taking the lead in that, and that's a really great story, and one that I'm very happy to be a part of, because this wonderful blue everything that we live on, this wonderful blue spaceship that carries us on, is all we know. There is no spare anywhere. It is an oxygen generator. And, you know, you ought to love your mother!
And a final question: is there any - I don't know enough about finance - but presumably local authorities and governments have bank accounts where they keep, they have a current account...
Are any of them starting to hold or invest that money in ethcially-screened portfolios?
Yes, the answer is yes! Contra Costa County in California divested itself of all of its tobacco stocks at the request of Progressive Asset Management. A number of other companies over the last four or five years have - a number of other municipal and state entities and state trust funds and labour and union trust funds have divested themselves of alcohol, tobacco and firearms stocks - to a great extent. And as I was saying, Contra Costa County in California took the lead on that, so did Humboldt County, and there are other, we're in conversations with other municipal and state entities to divest themselves of those kinds of investments and to keep that money in a clean yield.
We are talking earlier about the one and a quarter trillion dollars that's invested in socially responsible investment and how much money is behind it. There is arguably a few hundred billion if not another trillion dollars in municipal and state government funds that could be directed towards responsible investing. And in a lot of areas where the people live that are investors of ours now, these conversations are starting to take place. You know, "It's ten o'clock: what's your money doing?"