ESG investing is expanding—and adds to returns

Two new reports highlight the expanding adoption of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria among money managers, as well as the benefits to the bottom line that accrue to ESG-savvy investors.

The biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends from US SIF, the trade organization for the SRI industry, shows a continuation of the rapid adoption of ESG criteria among mainstream money managers that was noted in the previous Trends Report. In the last two years, the value of portfolios that include consideration of ESG factors has mushroomed by 69%, to over 8 trillion dollars, under the management of 777 money managers and institutional investors, and over 1000 community investing financial institutions. While the number of more active money managers who filed shareholder resolutions

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Investors are responding to climate and societal crises

In the face of continued grim climate news and disturbing societal trends, it is increasingly clear that governments cannot marshall the resources—or perhaps even the will—necessary to the tasks before us. Increasingly, though, forward-looking investors are stepping in to help lead the way forward. Two recent reports offer some encouraging signs that global finance does indeed include many actors who are committed to the changes that we need.

Domestically, a progress report on an impact investing initiative from the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation shows actual investments to be outpacing and outperforming the initial commitments and expectations. When this private-investment initiative was announced in June 2014, they had $1.5 billion in new commitments to impact investments from private funds, foundation programs and endowments, investment banks, small family foundations, and nonprofit organizations. By the time the dust settled on the first round of planning, that total had grown to $2.5 billion to be invested over the five years from 2014-2019. The recent report followed up and found that in just the first eighteen months, through December 2015, almost half of this total had already been invested, suggesting that in the long run the goal may well be exceeded.  This is especially likely when we turn to the returns coming in on the early investments, which universally have exceeded expectations.  It turns out—no surprise to the SRI community—that investing in projects with strong social and environmental impact is very good business!  So far, about two-thirds has been invested for social impact and one-third for environmental impact, especially climate solutions. 81% has been invested here in the U.S.

financing_sustainable_development_momentum_to_transformation-212x300Internationally, the news is also encouraging. A recent UN report outlines the challenges before us: to meet both the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development goals and the targets in the Paris climate agreement, $90 trillion of investment is needed over the next 15 years.  This amounts to about 8% of global GDP over this timeframe, a daunting but not unrealistic goal.  But to get there, it will mean marshaling the same power of private financing. As former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson points out in an op-ed entitled How to Raise Trillions for Green Investments:

“The good news is that there is a global abundance of private capital. To unlock these riches, governments must create conditions that encourage private investment in clean technologies and sustainable development. With smart, well-designed and coordinated policies, financing models and instruments like bonds and incentive programs, countries have the potential to solve some of the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges while still maintaining economic growth.”

Paulson is especially enthused about the explosive growth of green bonds, which nearly quadrupled from 2013 to 2015, up to $42 billion.  Of this, 40% is being deployed in China, where the government there has set ambitious green energy and building targets.  The Building Energy Efficiency and Green Development Fund is a public-private partnership that will bring leading-edge technologies from U.S. companies to China to increase the energy-efficiency of new buildings there. (One more reason to NOT start a trade war with China!)

All this investment is still just the first few drops in the $90 trillion bucket, but the rapid ramping up of these and other green investment commitments suggests that the financial powers that be are finally waking up to the scope of our challenge and are ready to put their massive wealth to work making the changes that are needed. Time will tell whether it will be enough, but we’re encouraged that it’s happening on a scale we haven’t seen before.

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Big corporations at forefront of LGBT rights fight

Did you know that despite the lack of any federal laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination, three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies have policies in place to do just that?  The “S” part of corporate ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) standards and SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) has been coming alive in increasingly dynamic ways in recent years.

This year, as three southern states passed laws that actively codified anti-LGBT discrimination, some of the loudest—and most effective—voices raised against these initiatives came from large companies.  As summarized by The New Yorker:

Last month, executives at more than eighty companies—including Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, and Marriott—signed a public letter to the governor of North Carolina urging him to repeal the state’s new law. Lionsgate Studio is moving production of a new sitcom out of the state, Deutsche Bank cancelled plans to create new jobs there, and PayPal has cancelled plans for a global operations center. In Mississippi, G.E., Pepsi, Dow, and others attacked the law there as “bad for our employees and bad for business.” Disney said that it would stop making movies in Georgia, which has become a major venue for film production, if the governor signed the bill. Something similar happened last year in Indiana, after the state passed a religious-freedom law allowing businesses to discriminate against L.G.B.T. customers and employees. At least a dozen business conventions relocated.

The article goes on to look at the ways this leadership by corporate interests upends both progressive and conservative orthodoxy.  Progressives often decry the influence of business on government decision-making, but this time it’s a welcome addition to grassroots voices against regressive new state laws.  Meanwhile, as the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki notes, “to many conservative business leaders, today’s social-conservative agenda looks anachronistic and is harmful to the bottom line; it makes it hard to hire and keep talented employees who won’t tolerate discrimination.”

Though we’ve long been champions of the idea that business can play a key role in reshaping society in positive ways, this vocal leadership on perhaps the leading social justice issue of the day is a welcome surprise.

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California blazes a trail to the future, once again

Once again, California is showing the way forward.  This time, it’s more consequential than Hollywood’s entertainment, Silicon Valley’s new tech, or the Sixties’ social evolutions.  California is road-testing large-scale public policies that face up to the profound threat of climate change, showing the rest of us that a shared social commitment IS possible.  As fleshed out The California Code, published in the new west-coast quarterly journal, Boom:

California’s response to the drought is … nationally and globally significant. What state and local leaders did to reduce the risks, and how state residents reacted, was a very public demonstration of government’s capacity to act with reason and intelligence to a short-term ecological emergency, with a long-term vision.

California sprang to action in its fourth year of deep drought because water management professionals and state leaders recognized that California’s water-scarce condition could be the new norm. They accepted the scientific consensus that it could get considerably worse. The way out of the trouble was to convince state residents of the need for collective action and to instill behavioral changes in homes and businesses that would diminish demand and provide a higher measure of safety.

Perhaps that should not be surprising given California’s historical ability to set the national and global agenda in culture, technology, environmental restoration, and the like. It’s arguable, though, that what California is up to now in responding to global ecological disarray may be the most important contribution to human well-being that it’s ever made.

A series of remarkably astute and aggressive measures approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento has systematically formed a model for dealing with Earth’s new conditions, and it is proving to be effective. Among the most significant measures:

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Al Gore’s climate optimism

Earlier this year, a new talk by Al Gore was posted on the TED site: The case for optimism on climate change.  The 20-minute talk and subsequent short interview with TED-meister Chris Anderson is well worth a look.  Much of his optimism centers on the rapid shift in electricity production:

The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt of solar per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over. We’re going to win this. We are going to prevail. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where (the growth curve for solar) was (see arrow on image at top of post). We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves.

Gore quotes economist Rudi Dornbusch, who said, “Things take longer to happen then you think they will, and then they happen much faster than you thought they could.”  Importantly, the business community has been quick to jump onto the bandwagon, and in fact has been crucial to the rate at which its been gathering steam.  “This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector,” notes Gore. “We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since.”

Beyond these trends, Gore stresses the underlying nature of humanity, and of fundamental social changes:

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Planetary futurecraft: the time is now

We’ve long highlighted the dearth of novels and films about how humanity might marshall our ingenuity and societal focus to get from here to a better/wiser/saner future.  Most of the stories about the future seem to be set in post-breakdown dystopias or seriously degraded, “muddle-down” worlds.  And the few “breakthrough” tales, like Star Trek, offer no sense of how the transition occurred.

One of our favorite next-gen futurists, Alex Steffen, is aiming to do something about that.  He’s not shifting gears and becoming a novelist—that could be great!—but he is gearing up to weave together a story that points the way forward.  At a time when every year of delay ups the ante on our game of chance with the climate, and during a season in which the US political world is being shaken from all sides, he reminds us:

When we can imagine no future we want, something far more dangerous takes its place in our minds: the future we fear. Without visions of progress worth coming together to fight for, crisis tears people apart. That’s no accident, either. Divide and rule. Where there is no vision, people are easy prey. … You’d think that this would be when the Very Serious People who’ve been running our countries, corporations and culture would step up and counter that fear-mongering with leadership and vision. You’d be wrong.

They can’t lead us because every good future is now a heroic one, and they’re not heroes. They’re managers and accountants and gatekeepers, (telling) us that all we can do is take small steps, support slow transitions, gradual improvements, incremental policy gains.

If you know Steffen at all, you know he won’t settle for that!  Alex cut his teeth running Worldchanging, the crowd-sourced, solutions-oriented compendium that was a new-millenium grandchild of the venerable Whole Earth Catalog.  He then moved on to write Carbon Zero, a look at what it will take to decarbonize our cities, along with a series of powerful clarion calls for change, including a profoundly thoughtful 50-year vision, Putting the Future Back in the Room, and a recent “here’s how we did it” talk framed as recollections from 2115.

Now he’s putting that same energy, and all he learned along the way, into a project he’s calling

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Corporate giants collaborating to jump-start the circular economy

The idea  of a “circular economy” has been around since at least the 1970’s—at root, it’s a Recycle Everything vision—but it’s taken on new life in recent years as sustainability efforts have matured within governments, corporations, and academia.  Now, as the EU begins to codify the concept and corporate titans collaborate to fund a rapid ramp-up of recycling capabilities, the linear economy (manufacture-use-trash) may become a thing of the past.

Joel Makower of GreenBiz.com summarizes the concept succinctly:

The term has no official definition, but at its core, the circular economy is about “keeping the molecules in play.” In such a system, products are made primarily from benign and nontoxic ingredients — “nutrients” that can be returned safely to soil or water or, in the case of more durable components, placed back into service again and again. Toxic ingredients are not verboten; they can be used as needed in products or processes so long as they, too, are continuously cycled back into productive use and kept out of the waste stream. And, of course, as much of this as possible should be powered by renewable energy.

That all sounds like a generations-old greenie dream, but in the past couple of years, it’s gained adherents among corporate giants looking to capture some of the lost value in their products and packaging materials—one accounting found $11 billion of value in trashed U.S. packaging materials alone (see image above).  The 2015 World Economic Forum’s annual conclave in Davos, Switzerland, affirmed its commitment to a 2-year-old initiative called Toward a Circular Economy, which will work with policy makers and the financial community to spotlight and scale current circular economy efforts, especially in the developing world. Makower’s valuable overview continues:

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Big business stepping up its climate game as the future beckons

With the world’s attention focused on the COP21 climate talks in Paris, there are encouraging signs that the business world is ready to get fully on board and become as much a part of the solution as the problem.  Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligman is encouraged:

If we are going to meet the challenges of a changing climate, we must accelerate nature-based solutions with deep involvement by the business sector. I am optimistic, because I see many companies recognizing that climate change is an economic issue — it affects sourcing, logistics and global markets. Sustainability is no longer an afterthought. It is an integral part of corporate operations and supply chains.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Leggett at Winning the Carbon War reports from Paris that “fully a thousand mayors announced that their cities were pledging to 100% renewable power targets” and that institutional commitments to fossil fuel divestment jumped by over 25% in just the past ten weeks.  Even more encouraging is a move by the G20 countries to form a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) charged helping financial markets get a better handle on rapidly increasing climate change risks.  It will be chaired by Michael Bloomberg, who laid down the gauntlet:

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Recollections from 2115

Alex Steffen recently gave a keynote talk at The Nature Conservancy’s annual trustees meeting that could serve as a statement of purpose for the Dreamers and Drivers among us who continue to believe that we can find our way through the eye of the historical needle.  It’s in the form of a talk to a conservation gathering a hundred years from now, looking back:

We’ve lost so much. We came far too close to losing nearly everything. If things went on as they were, we might have.

Instead, we live today on a healing planet. Yes, much has been lost, but much was saved or restored or reinvented, and what was saved and healed and made anew has become a powerful legacy.

Those gifts became the seedbeds from which sprouted our new world. That we have so much left from which to coax a long and bountiful tomorrow is no accident. Those seeds of hope were saved and planted and tended to by people who made the decision that they would live as if the future mattered. As if nature mattered. As if we mattered.

These were visionary people. Responsible people. Courageous people. All around the world, our best ancestors took up the challenge of leaving a different, bolder legacy, one not of error and loss, but of leadership, stewardship, innovation.

Take five minutes to soak in Steffen’s vision of how we became the ancestors who, “when they understood the planetary crisis they faced, their answer was not cynicism or surrender, but to seek out others and together meet that crisis with action.” It’ll perk you up for another day of doing what we can today to assure that our descendants have a future worth living in.  (That final link is another compelling essay, in which Steffen makes the moral case for not giving in to despair.)

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Two more notches in the fossil-fuel-free belt

Following up on this post from a couple weeks ago, here are two more striking indications that fossil fuel investing is becoming a losing game.  An analysis by Canadian research company Corporate Knights has found that 14 of the world’s largest institutional investors would have done much better over the past 3 years if they had divested from their major fossil fuel holdings and expanded investment in environmentally-oriented companies they already own.  The fourteen have a collective total of just over a trillion dollar in holdings, a figure that would have been 22 billion dollars (2%) higher had they divested.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was especially hard-hit; it totals about $40 billion, and left $1.9 billion (4.6%) on the table by sticking with its fossil fuel holdings.  The divestment criteria used is similar to the earlier comparison using the S&P 500 as a benchmark, targeting the Carbon Underground 200 (companies that have the largest as-yet-untapped reserves of coal, oil, and gas), plus utilities that generate more than 30% of their power using coal.

Meanwhile, MSCI, one of the world’s leading providers of financial indexes, made a simple tweak in its All Country World Index (ACWI), simply dropping 124 companies that have large reserves of oil, gas, or coal on their books.  The resultant fossil fuel free global index outperformed the ACWI by 60% in its first year (gaining 6.5%, versus 4.1%).  Tom Kuh, head of ESG indexes for MSCI, stressed that “Carbon is increasingly becoming a factor that investors are looking at in understanding risk in their portfolios.”  Responding to this concern, MSCI will be providing carbon footprints for all of its indexes beginning next year.

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9 sustainable firms join the billion-dollar club

Here’s a piece of good news that’s flown under the radar: sustainability-oriented companies are rapidly becoming mainstream leaders of the corporate world.  Nine companies have crossed the billion-dollars-a-year threshold in annual revenues, and several more are not far behind.  E. Freya Williams, whose recently-released book Green Giants looks at the traits and qualities that these companies share, proclaims that sustainability-driven firms are no longer “going up against with the big boys. They are the big boys.”  And not surprisingly, they’ve been performing like gangbusters:

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Big-finance mainstream seeing the light on climate

Here comes some more indication that Paul Gilding’s optimism about market forces steering a rapid transition away from carbon-intensive energy may indeed pan out.  As Exhibit A, check out this op-ed from Hank Paulson, Secretary of Treasury for George W. Bush during the economic meltdown of 2008:

For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets. When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. Millions suffered. Many still do.

We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.  This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore.

And that’s just his opening salvo.  Yowsa!  Exhibit B is even more startling; it’s a dry-as-sand financial assessment of the risks of Paulson’s “climate bubble” as it affects the world’s biggest institutional investors. Despite its “just the fact, ma’am” tone, the message is one that we can definitely get behind:

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