Observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day

The question is not whether it is important. It is. The question is whether it is important from a business and investment perspective. It is.

Not just here on Turtle Island, but globally, across all communities and cultures. In terms of regenerative practices, there is a deep wisdom indigenous peoples hold that we can only hope to emulate — that there is a system of which we are all a part, and we can use but cannot take and certainly cannot exploit. And, if we do respect and honor the world in which we live, there is a bounty capable of sustaining all and even offers the opportunity for prosperity. This goes for water systems, soil systems, climate systems, and social systems.

Outside of indigenous communities, we are only now understanding that regenerative and biodynamic cultivation is a superior model that is more self-sustaining, more productive, and more supportive of a stable climate and healthy oceans. Similarly, the medical future for cancer therapeutics, pain management, even mental health, lies in what indigenous peoples have known and practiced for thousands of years. If we hope to bring equal access, equal health, and equal opportunity to a world population approaching 8 billion people, and participate in the rewards that can yield, we have to see and hear the indigenous peoples. That means not consuming all of the natural resources under their stewardship. That means not indiscriminately violating their sovereign and sacred spaces with pollution and pipelines, or outright taking those places away. That means extending economic and other opportunities to their communities on their terms, not ours, so they can flourish according to their traditions and aspirations.

Respect for indigenous peoples through investment comes in many forms. The most obvious and least pursued is directing capital, not just monetary but natural, to indigenous communities. It also comes through holding companies to account for businesses, products and practices that disadvantage these communities directly or indirectly. What consequence do dammed rivers and drained aquifers have? Or poorly managed tailings ponds and other forms of pollution? What are the short and long term consequences of deforestation and replacement with monocultures which cause whole ecosystems to collapse? What about lack of access to basic financial services? Companies are responsible for what they do in an affirmative sense to support indigenous communities, what they do in a negative sense that harms them, and what they do to engage with and partner with those communities for mutual benefit.

The responsibility is not only corporate. Governments and other regulatory and sovereign entities are major players through policy and direct action in the help for or harm to indigenous communities. When holding the debt of these entities, consider what role they play in the lives  of these people and whether that lending capital may be better committed elsewhere.

There is a just and regenerative relationship to be had with indigenous peoples spanning nutrition, health, science, education, opportunity and prosperity, environment, and overall planetary stewardship, and the journey to that begins with respect and visibility. For the Indigenous Peoples of North America, including those of American and Canadian islands and territories, we honor and observe today and hold it as an offering of gratitude as well as a remembrance of past injustice.

DE&I and the dehumanization of data

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – that is a lot to pack into one three-letter acronym, and therefore DEI faces a similar uphill battle to ESG for community comprehension. DEI also covers a significant swath of investment considerations that fall broadly under various ESG frameworks. This family of topics had a moment in 2020 when the collective historical trauma expressed in MeToo/Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter, Land Back, and other social movements converged with the newfound trauma of (and free time and free attention created by) COVID. It was at long last the Emperor-has-no-clothes moment for entrenched power structures from companies to governments. Personality-driven takedowns have dominated the news cycle, and probably unhelpfully pulled attention away from the systems-level challenges by casting individuals rather than institutions in the role of villain, but companies have taken heed and are at various stages of attempting to address internal processes and external imaging around the people processes that make up their enterprises. 

ESG and impact investors have been using the flow of capital to improve fairness, access and opportunity for all since long before it became a leading focus of conversation about companies right behind (and in numerous cases right in front of) climate change and the environment. Having been interviewed twice on the topic in the span of a week, and having to articulate what conscious investors are thinking about DEI, some clarifying thoughts were stimulated for me that I thought should be written down for posterity and hopefully action.

We are creating and then not resolving tensions around people in the corporate setting. On one hand we want to blind human resources processes to race, creed, color, religion, orientation, and gender, and let core competencies drive hiring, incentives, promotions, reviews, etc. On the other hand we want to shine the spotlight on these distinctions and celebrate individuality and diversity with the belief that out of a diverse workforce comes greater innovation, productivity, collaboration, and ultimately profit.

Data is a big part of this. For years it has been a maxim that corporate transparency is a proxy for overall good ESG performance, or at least a leading indicator. There is information in the active decision not to disclose that casts a company in a poor light. So, now we have data. A lot of data. We crave even more data. And data can be indicative. It can give a point-in-time view of a company’s DEI performance relative to the population at large. In other words, does the company look like its community, its customers, its partners, and its suppliers? It can give insight into trajectory as well. Is the company improving in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion over time?

The challenge with a data-centric approach to investment decisionmaking in this context is that it dehumanizes the very person-centric considerations wrapped up in DEI. We reduce people to observations that go on a check list. Rather than looking at the richness and complexity of an individual or a team of individuals, we tick boxes – Woman, check. Brown, check. LGBTQ2SIA+, check. I have heard it said in largely unrelated contexts that, as a corporate community, we have created edifices that obscure the humanity of workers, of people, by calling them “human resources” or “human capital”, as though people are nothing more than raw material that goes into the corporate machinery in order to manufacture profit. Now we are reinforcing that tension by being primarily data-driven in our scrutiny of DEI performance.

Data partially answers the question of who is doing better, but without asking whether that was an accidental byproduct or the outcome of a culture and a set of processes that inherently overcome systemic bias. Data can demonstrate correlation – the company’s performance improved as its workforce became more diverse, or the company became more diverse as performance improved – without demonstrating causation. Did the company take its success as an opportunity to make their workforce more diverse, equitable and inclusive? Or did better DEI performance unlock additional value for the company?

Disclosure, and our examination of it, needs to go beyond counting heads, and provide insight into the processes that make a company more person-centric. We also need more insight into what companies are doing to improve their access to a representative workforce, and also improving access of the representative workforce to employment opportunities. Often we hear that “there just aren’t enough qualified X candidates for this specific role or this level of seniority, so we looked at as many diverse candidates as we could but the sample was so small we couldn’t make the diverse hire.” 

Do companies take a long-term view of their workforces and recruit a representative cross section of people and then cultivate and develop them over time, training and rotating and promoting until there is a full pipeline of qualified individuals for all jobs at all levels? Do companies recruit at HBCUs and Indigenous Universities? Do companies collaborate with academia to promote a diverse and representative student body majoring in every needed discipline? Are companies hiring and evaluating only around proven experience, which is skewed by the limited opportunities diverse workers can access, or are they seeking and promoting on skills, aptitudes, and ability and willingness to learn? Are companies looking at their internal cultures, policies, locations, etc. and looking for ways to improve that two-way access, like proximity to diverse communities, flexible work hours and leave policies for parents and caretakers, training and development including tuition assistance, and open hiring?

In other words, are companies treating the lack of representative candidates as an externality that can’t be changed, only managed, or are they taking ownership for changing the system? 

There is another critical factor that does not get enough attention, and that is what the early lifecycle of a company looks like. Evaluate companies for DEI attributes the same as we do individuals – look at the origin stories. The capital markets do an entirely insufficient job of providing access and opportunity to diverse and representative founders and leaders of early-stage companies. It seems reasonable to expect that founders that look like the population at large are more likely to create companies that look like the population at large. Private investors still unabashedly focus on the “bros” because they have historically had the access and therefore the seasoning to go through the mill and get funded. Investors like track records, so we need more people with track records. Many of the most successful and acclaimed companies right now were not even a glint in their founders’ eyes a decade or two ago, and now they are worth billions and hire millions.

Much the same as building more diverse, equitable and inclusive workforces, it will take less than a decade to identify, fund and promote startups where DEI is their DNA, and that will rapidly grow into the next generation of high performing companies. This is well within the time horizon of private and institutional investors, and could catalyze a much deeper, systems-level change that turns the entire market through success, competition, growth and profit.

Getting slapped by the invisible hand of the market

Perhaps not used the way Adam Smith intended, but we are experiencing a moment where the invisible hand of the market is acting in the self-interest of a generation of investors who see decisions around capital allocation as including more considerations than just time horizon, risk and return. However, the establishment is trying to duck the blow because it does not appreciate the same benefits. The Department of Labor put out a proposed rule to ratchet up the threshold for inclusion of ESG-oriented investments in employer-sponsored retirement plans to a level far exceeding what is applied to the broader market. Responses came in during the 30-day comment period from across the spectrum — from academia to Wall Street — arguing against the rule and making the case for the fundamental investment merits of ESG.

We have put out a new paper, “Slapped by the Invisible Hand“, which takes a step to the side of the fundamental argument for inclusion, and looks instead at the likely-unintended structural problems that would be introduced into the entire retirement plan system by carving out ESG as a separate class of investment receiving inconsistent treatment. You can find it in the Library or follow this link.

So, anything happen while we were gone?

We could write an entire history book just from what has unfolded since the 2019 holiday season. There has been so much to say it has almost been like too many people trying to crowd through the door at the same time (something we don’t do any more…) and nobody gets through. There is a lot to say and it will be said now that we can turn our focus from just sheer absorption and processing and working with our clients to speak in broader terms about where we now find ourselves. Part of this will be unpacking a new understanding of ESG and regenerative systems to share in the very new world in which we now find ourselves.

Before we do that, time to play some catch-up. A few new articles landed which we have added to the Library, discussing everything from the failure of nations at COP25 to reconciling the rising enthusiasm for sustainable investment solutions with the numbers on the ground and in the market. We have also added the latest piece from The Investment Integration Project (TIIP), written in partnership with the Money Management Institute (MMI) and appearing in the Journal of Investment Advisory Solutions, “Sustainable Investment Products and Due Diligence”, which provides an excellent grounding for gatekeepers and other decisionmakers on how to systematically and fairly evaluate the growing multitude of investment options in the marketplace. It also makes a good starting point for investment boutiques who are trying to address the market to understand and meet expectations and constructively engage with teams making hire/fire decisions for asset management mandates.

Media updates on human trafficking and other issues

Three new articles are posted to the Library — “Collateral Damage”, exploring corporate externalities, the impact on systems, and how those externalities really create internal damage to company balance sheets when looked at properly; “Pulled in Many Directions”, discussing the alignment of stakeholder requirements in corporation and community; and “Breaking Free”, an all-too-brief look at the presence of modern slavery in Western corporate supply chains.

“Brothers Carrying Stone — Nepal” Lisa Kristine (c) 2019

This photograph, entitled “Brothers Carrying Stone — Nepal“, is part of an achingly beautiful but absolutely devastating series of photographs taken by humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine. Please visit her website and be a patron of her work but also a vigilant supporter of correcting the profound wrongs she has documented. Regarding this photograph, from Ms. Kristine’s website — “Each day, children make several trips down the mountain, delivering stones from higher up in the Himalayas. They use makeshift harnesses out of ropes and sticks, strapping the stones to their heads and backs. Many of them come from families where everyone is trapped in debt bondage slavery. One of the mothers describes what it was like to be in slavery, ‘Neither can we die, nor can we survive.'”

The Purpose of a Corporation

It will take some time to unpack both the intent and the implications of the Business Roundtable’s redefinition of the purpose of a corporation, but a quick meditation on their announcement on August 19th leads to a very confusing place for a sustainability-minded stakeholder.

On the surface, the “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation”, co-signed by 181 CEOs, seems like a tectonic shift in the alignment of stakeholder values. At long last, corporations are committing to prioritize something beyond unadulterated capitalism. The points they made and the rhetoric they used could have been taken right off the vision boards of a thousand responsible and sustainable investors. The five central principles they outlined are (direct quote from the Business Roundtable, August 19, 2019):

  • Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
  • Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
  • Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.

These principles actually vibrate on the same wavelength as the Certified B Corporation “Declaration of Interdependence”:

  • That we must be the change we seek in the world.
  • That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
  • That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
  • To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.

So where’s the fly swimming in the punchbowl? The sub-heading for the Roundtable’s press release said the following – “Updated Statement Moves Away from Shareholder Primacy, Includes Commitment to All Stakeholders”. Again, at face value this is a good thing putting aside profit and shareholder value as the priority above all others. But, this announcement lands almost contemporaneously with an announcement that the SEC would be holding meetings to discuss a plan on the table to reign in proxy advisory firms (a prior discussion of this move from Cydney Posner, Cooley LLP on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation can be found here), and during a period where the SEC has been increasingly lining up with companies to brush back shareholder resolutions and keep them off the proxy ballots. This move to limit the shareholder franchise has taken the form of questioning the materiality of the resolution to the overall business, as well as inching toward requiring a minimum percentage of ownership in order to sponsor a resolution.

The danger here is that the confluence of disenfranchising shareholders with this new announcement from the Business Roundtable could actually mean a net setback if sustainable business behavior is defined almost exclusively by what management says it is without the input from and the natural corrective of the shareholder. That fifth principle is the linchpin to whether this will work or not – being “…committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.” If the SEC defangs the shareholder, what does that actually mean in practice? We have seen repeated examples from aerospace to pharmaceuticals where self-supervision and fast-track regulation lead to bad outcomes for all stakeholders.

The Roundtable is on the right track if these principles are pursued in a regulatory environment that preserves an appropriate level of governance and accountability for shareholders, who are ultimately the only ones that have the ability to hold managements fully responsible in a free market. Employees can quit, customers can boycott and suppliers can freeze their pipelines, but boards and C-suite executives work for the shareholders.

Tower of Babel keeping us apart

As is frequently the case in the money management industry, we are awash in terminology to address ESG and impact investing, and it all means everything and nothing at the same time. Well-intentioned but not well-considered marketing campaigns have repositioned words like “impact” to mean sustainable investing in the broadest sense, or negated their meanings entirely. Meanwhile, “SRI” has been re-branded as “sustainable and responsible investing” while simultaneously being relegated to the dust-bin as a pejorative for well-meaning but poor performing strategies.

As more people join the discussion we are increasingly talking past one another using language we think means the same things to others as it does to us, only to find out we are speaking different languages, or just plain gibberish. In the securities industry words mean something, and it is probably high time to see some of the discipline and compliance that governs the rest of the language of investing come into play since asset owners, advisors and consultants are making real decisions based on the words we use.

“A Confusion of Tongues” — Citywire USA, June 3, 2019

There is more sustaining gender inequity in business than meets the eye

While it may be appropriate to examine pay discrepancies or the imbalance in gender representation in leadership as a starting point, a much deeper examination is required to understand the systems-level constraints preventing equality in the working economy. The naive approach to investing for diversity and inclusion is to simply measure pay parity and the presence of women in the C suite or on boards. Better performance on these metrics may be an indicator of a more progressive enterprise, but it is by no means clearly causal. It could just as easily be that more inclusive companies perform better as it is better performing companies have the latitude to be more inclusive.

From an investment point of view it is necessary to look at everything from HR policies to recruiting and promoting practices to corporate cultures as well as the operational, competitive and other forces that are shaping them. Inclusiveness and equity start at a deeply fundamental level, and comprehensive ESG analysis can be the mechanism for digging to that level and establishing a platform for understanding and engagement to improve performance.

This month’s Citywire column posted in the Library starts to scratch the surface of this challenge, and looks to UN SDG 5 for guidance on what the foundational principles of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls looks like in investment terms.

“Equal Pay for Equal Work” — Citywire USA May 6, 2019

Happy (?) Earth Day

Well, the Earth isn’t particularly happy, and we aren’t so happy about what is happening to the Earth, so perhaps we should rephrase that to be Wishing You a Day of Concerned Observance for the Earth.

Today it seemed appropriate to come back to a recurring theme at RIS, that being the idea of the commons. We have been stuck with this notion that caring for the planet comes at the cost of truly free commerce. Underpinning that notion seems to be the sense that taking from the planet comes at no cost other than the expense of obtaining the license to exploit and the costs of the materials and processes to execute on that taking.

What we all need to recognize is that everything comes at a cost. Even if you subscribe to the notion that humans are the supreme beings on this planet, or even that only certain humans are supreme, that cost is socialized among us. If a factory belches GhGs or heavy metals into the air, we all share in that one atmosphere and the consequent health effects. If an oil well dumps millions of barrels of oil into the ocean, coastal communities and fisheries pay the price. If the water supply is polluted or overused, it is the citizens of Flint, Michigan or Charleston, West Virginia who get poisoned or the farmers of Nebraska or California who can’t grow productive crops. The consequences to access to clean water, breathable air, farmable land, fishable waters, safe and healthy food, clean beaches, and sharable wildernesses are shared by all.

In a free and fair market, people are compensated for taking risk, providing labor or sharing resources. But, the reality is people are not adequately compensated individually or collectively for the use of our commons. Our shared environment within our communities, our countries, and across our planet is being exploited with little concern for what it actually costs. Put aside for the moment you care about oily birds and homeless polar bears. If the market actually priced what it costs just human society for the uncompensated taking of our natural environmental resources in terms of health, welfare and prosperity, it would be far too expensive to sustain.

As long as it is cheap or free to take oil, coal, natural gas, minerals and water from our public lands, or to fill our public waters and public air with garbage and pollutants, this problem will never be rectified. The cost of doing business and the cost of capital need to take into account all of the costs for our people and our planet. What is the price for the use of our commons? Will they pay it? If not, they should lose their licenses to operate. Other businesses will take their places that serve the same needs but better consider the interests of all stakeholders. That is how a truly free market works.