Forty years ago when I sat where you are sitting today, the world was such a different place. The year I graduated there had been race riots in our cities and the war in Vietnam was cleaving the nation but we picked flowers and held hands and sung “if I had a hammer” we were full of hope. The Northfield of 1968 did not particularly emphasize empowering girls. We were largely being groomed to be school teachers. We had a dress code, We wore skirts unless it fell below 15 degrees, then we could wear nice slacks. Our code required that at all times we wore sturdy brown lace up shoes. We rebelled by not wearing socks. There was daily chapel, mandatory, of course. We had two types of students, posos’ and negos’. I was a nego, a person with a negative attitude.
But the school always had a strong message of “doing what is right.” We had a social service club that you could get into if your grades were good enough and you didn’t have any behavioral demerits. I got in. This allowed me to spend Saturdays playing with the kids at the Belchertown farm, a state run facility for what we then called the mentally retarded. It looked like a zoo, with people behind bars, picking their scabs and smiling shyly. The stench was beyond words. It was an honor to serve them. I decided to become a teacher.
And at first I did go to teacher’s college, but soon dropped out. Though eventually I returned and with great reluctance and lack of distinction I finished. I graduated without passion or skills and landed a job as a photo copy clerk at a stock brokerage firm. I rose through the ranks and became the secretary to the secretary of the Chief Executive Officer. Then, in a moment of complete naïveté I asked to be trained to be a broker and the boss said yes.
I didn’t know it then, but four women at Merrill Lynch had just sued that firm, charging discrimination against women. Without that brave lawsuit, I’d never have had a chance. Nor did I notice that I was the only female in the sales force. I just thought it would be more interesting than typing, and it was. The big boss had seen that I got to work early enough to have read the paper and drunk my coffee before he arrived at 8:50. So he figured I was a go getter.
And when I became a broker I ran into clients whose memories and way of thinking were like my own. And they challenged me. They didn’t want to participate in war, in dirty extractive industries, in products that kill when used as intended. They wanted to find ways to invest in safe and useful goods, They wanted to fight racism through the way they invested. And I listened and learned and eventually I saw. This is right. This is my path. I invented something. I called it Ethical Investing, I told people let’s do three things:
First, let’s pick stocks that are ahead of the curve on the issues we care about, on the environment and human dignity. That way we will create market demand for an alternative accounting system to the one we use today. We’ll build a means of accounting for the true cost to people and the planet picked up in the name of corporate profits.
Second, let’s remember that owners of a share of a company have the right to go to the annual meeting and discuss non-routine items with the company’s management and the board. Let’s use that right to talk about racism, pollution, unsafe products and other things we care about.
Third, let’s funnel money into less traditional investment areas, areas that push the envelop in terms of financing good things. Let’s make deposits at community development credit unions, let’s make loans to finance micro-credit–loans of $30, $40 or $50 to an entrepreneur in an emerging economy. Let’s finance new greener technologies.
So I wrote the book, Ethical Investing; it came out in 1984. Now 1986 was the year of the crescendo of divestment of American companies doing business in South Africa. Blacks couldn’t vote there and the world was outraged – one tactic was to humiliate the South African government by making them pariahs; companies using their slave labor were also pariahs. $600 billion worth of portfolios were purged of companies doing business there. And I had written the book and so was the expert, called upon to defend my argument, to defend the thought that the way you invest matters.
That left me a passionate advocate. I knew I had to remove barriers at the top and inspire grassroots at the bottom. When I found my voice 27 million people were living in virtual slavery in South Africa, and that was wrong. But today they vote. Back then powdered infant formula was being sold to women who couldn’t access clean water to mix it with and who could have breast fed. Babies died. Today most manufacturers avoid the practice. Investors made the difference.
Investor responsibility as a concept did not really exist when I started; but it does today. Ethical investors got fair trade coffee mainstreamed – we got the spot lights on sweatshops. We jumpstarted micro-credit, loans $30, $40, or $50. to the poor. We accomplished a lot.
But we did not accomplish enough. Your challenges are greater compared to 1968, your roads are worse, your courts are worse, your schools are worse, your nation’s commitment to the least of these is worse, the water you drink, the air you breath, the food you eat, the safety of your neighborhoods are worse. The spirit of love and commitment to face a brave and shining future has been stripped away.
I don’t know how to fix all that, but I know one thing. Money is a part of it. Think about money for a moment. The gross domestic product is a figure that represents every monetarily productive aspect of life and globally it is running at about $50 trillion a year. That is the real economy. Think of this as the real stuff; the cost of groceries, the payment of bills. Now we get to what that $50 trillion supports. The total of the world’s stock and bond markets, insurance against the interest rate moving oddly, the bets on currency changes, the things that derive out of the real economy. In 2007, that extra stuff amounted to about $660 trillion. Let’s see, a real world of $50 trillion, is underpinning a financial casino of $660 trillion. That’s 13 to 1. Real stuff vs. betting, what do you think runs the world? Real stuff or financial products?
Money has impact. Big money has big impact. Investors claim fiduciary duty not consider the societal consequences of making money. Is this okay? The hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their homes last year don’t think so. The millions of Americans sacrificing food to fill a tank with gasoline that has been inflated by speculators don’t think so. The nations crippled by debt created when their currencies dropped in value don’t think so. The millions suffering famine due to speculation on grain crops know who to hate. It’s Wall Street.
My message is this: The managers of money must own responsibility for the future. My task, the task of my field, is to illustrate an alternative role for Wall Street. And, remarkably it seems to be starting to have an effect.
Globally there are roughly 840 green or ethical investment mutual funds, 50 in Japan, 31 in Korea, one in China, 60 in Australia, 27 in Italy, 44 in Switzerland, and so on. It didn’t used to be that way. In 1980, when I started writing my first book, I found two, though there were probably ten, counting England.
Now, over 4,000 companies publish reports on the ways they impact the lives of people and the planet. This didn’t happen because global finance had a heart. This happened because millions of individual men and women saw where to start. There is an old story: Thousands of starfish washed ashore. A little girl began throwing them in the water so they wouldn’t die. “Don’t bother dear,” her mother said, “it won’t make a difference.” The girl stopped for a moment and looked at the starfish in her hand. “It will make a difference to this one.” At my mutual fund company, the starfish is our logo. Millions of people have heard the message: every little action helps, and they’ve become ethical investors.
I started out a shy and unremarkable girl in a rural dairy community. I had been afraid of my own shadow. But something shifted. I found myself undaunted. When I researched for ethics in investments and found no literature I was stunned. I wrote a book. When I studied for my chartered financial analyst designation and was taught that limiting a universe limited return; it seemed nuts. I knew that every portfolio manger in the world promises to limit your universe so as to enhance your return. So I created an index for my kind of investors, and it has done better than the more conventional S&P 500. When I found out that mutual funds wouldn’t tell how they voted other people’s money power at corporation’s annual meetings, it seemed weird. Who’s money was it anyway? I wrote the Securities Exchange Commission, the boss of mutual funds in Washington, and told them to do something, eventually winning the battle against Fidelity and Vanguard, by making mutual fund votes at corporate annual meetings a matter of mandatory disclosure. These were outrageous but brave acts for the child I had been.
But I also had something to build on. I was never afraid of the boring part of work. I’d cleaned the bathrooms and risen early to make sticky buns for 75 students in East Marquand, as part of my domestic duty to the school community. And I wasn’t afraid of “going there” to the hard places. I’d willingly sat with urine stained, dreadfully needy children at Belchertown. And I had a confidence that faith delivers. I had soared on the bars of Jerusalem, sung at least weekly at chapel. I’d delved into the great faith texts of the world, learning the many truths that simultaneously exist in once incident. And I had a gift for words. I’d learned to express myself, to weave a story that made real an abstract. Even though I’d been a nego. I had that loser negative attitude. This school imbued me with values and skills that made all the difference.
Some of you listening to me today know just where you hope life will lead you. You are already committed to fulfilling a specific destiny. And the chances are excellent that you will. Others are where I was. You are nice unformed persons, maybe even with a negative attitude. But you do have a future. The passing of time is glorious; the choices myriad. You don’t know what you are capable of but know this: the core of who you are has been marvelously shaped, prepared to get you there. You’ll walk through these gates with the ability to work, the humility to give, the faith to commit, the skills to communicate and the sincere desire to make a mark on the world. You’ve learned it through your head, you’ve learned it in your heart, you’ve learned it by your hand and you, as was true of me, have a lantern to guide your way.
God speed and thank you.