March 25, 2013
After Double-Checking the Definition of Plutonic
by Robert Kropp
Encouraged by a morning's reading of recent posts in Peter Kinder's excellent blog The Bell, a
writer meditates upon the uncertain finish to the race between sustainability and overconsumption
In a long poem I composed this weekend, I attempted to capture the challenge to sustainable
investors. Playing on my laptop while I wrote in longhand was Paul Hindemith's Sonata for Solo
Cello, and I wrote:
"…a work of
West European existentialism in the midst of
continent's most tragic century.
A work befitting a mantra of struggle
a struggle depicted
and a struggle to depict.
As are the efforts of sustainable investors
to yoke together the
of justice and finance…"
Equivalent to my personal struggle as
well, I surmised further. When I started writing journalism for SocialFunds.com five years ago,
there were days when I had to scramble to come up with even a news brief. Such a challenge doesn't
exist anymore. The ease with which I now find topics on which to write may have something to do
with a marginally greater understanding of what the sustainable investment community is about; but
it's more the case, I believe, that the tenets of sustainable investment have infiltrated the
mainstream. Not enough to change the world quite yet, but the conversation is expanding its
Recently I toted up the number of articles I have written for SocialFunds.com,
counting in excess of 1,300. Probably three quarters of a million words or so, I concluded. There
must be a book in there.
I wouldn't want to reproduce a collection of articles as a book,
nor do I possess the hubris to believe that such a collection would be of enduring interest.
Recalling the many interviews that I've conducted with thoughtful and engaged representatives of
the sustainable investment movement, I think that a modern history of the movement could hold some
value. But where would the narrative lead?
A recent report by the Governance & Accountability Institute revealed
that sustainability reporting by S&P 500 companies increased from just 19% to more than half in the
past year alone. Investors affiliated with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) successfully pressure global
corporations to report meaningful data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water use, while
signatories to the United Nations' Principles for
Responsible Investment (PRI) aspire to incorporate environmental, social, and corporate
governance (ESG) factors into their investment decision-making.
And the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) proudly points
to the fact that its members now engage in more dialogues than file shareowner resolutions as
evidence that corporations are increasingly embracing the messages of sustainability and social
But annual global emissions continue to set records while major corporations in
the fossil fuel industries continue to enjoy success in the world's stock markets, and there is
still no binding international agreement to address what is perhaps the greatest challenge
humankind has had to face. Crimes against humanity by the government of Sudan continue, while many
institutional investors continue to agree with the management of mutual funds that recommends a
vote against resolutions calling for genocide-free investing.
Sustainable investors know
they cannot right the world's many wrongs by themselves, and in the US look to regulators and
Congress to make their efforts less quixotic. They have found too little assistance there. The
Attorney General himself has described the nation's largest banks to be off-limits for prosecution,
not because of any presumption of innocence but because criminal charges against them might
destabilize an economy they effectively left in ruins five years ago. And despite the mandate
imposed upon them by the Dodd-Frank Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other
regulators have yet to implement the Volcker Rule, which would at least curb the practice by banks
of gambling with taxpayer-insured deposits for their own pecuniary advantage.
journalist, not an investment professional, and don't know exactly what sustainable investors can
do about such matters beyond the filing of shareowner resolutions and engaging in dialogues with
corporations. But I do know that climate change, overconsumption, and wealth inequality have struck
chords with elements of society that don't have to worry about what fiduciary duty entails.
Emboldened by an article in Rolling Stone authored by Bill McKibben of 350.org, students on campuses across the country are calling on
their colleges and universities to divest the holdings of their endowments in fossil fuel
And Occupy the SEC
(OSEC) has filed a lawsuit against six federal
regulators—the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the
Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC),
and the US Treasury Department—requesting that the Court compel the defendants to issue a final
I observed earlier in whatever this is that sustainable investors know they
cannot do it themselves, but they must be commended for their vision and their perseverance. But
the regulators to whom they turn for help too often seem mired in bureaucracy, while the
legislative bodies seem part of the problem and not a party to sustainable solutions. What is to be
As I do every morning when his email alerts me to a new post, I took a few minutes
this morning to read The Bell, a blog authored by
Peter Kinder. Peter is renowned in sustainable investor circles for being the cofounder of KLD
Research & Analytics, considered the first investment analysis firm to incorporate ESG factors.
More often than not, his blog has little to do with the world of investment. But it does have much
to do with envisioning a better world.
And in that is a lesson, I think, about the
transformative capacities of individuals.