Socially Responsible Investing

Excerpt from Chapter One

The way we invest matters. It’s a small planet and there isn’t much time. Our pristine spaces are disappearing; our natural heritage of species is being decimated. Our rich cultural and ethnic diversity is all but gone, and vast ghettoes scar every metropolis. Millions live in slavery, or prisons, or as captives in their own homes. Children of eight are forced into the advance guard of armies. Others are sold into bonded apprenticeship or prostitution. Each day hundreds of thousands of people die of malnutrition, diarrhea, and a dozen other poverty-created causes.

Times have never been so good. Employment is full; the economy is humming. In the United States, populations that never before had a chance at a job are being hired and trained by employers desperate for the workforce. The steady rise in stock prices has raised the wealth levels of millions, giving them discretionary spending dollars and some comfort that they will be able to retire in dignity.

How can these two worlds coexist? Or perhaps the question is how long can we allow these two worlds to coexist? What is the natural outcome of the world we are building? Is it one in which a few coddled and blinded individuals live a life of peaceful luxury, cleanliness, and grace while earnestly doing their best to assist those unfortunate billions who live lives of relentless suffering? Are we already living this life?

A change in the model is urgently needed. We can no longer accept the adage that the business of business is business and that the rising tide will lift all ships. It hasn’t and it won’t. It cannot without a rewriting of the definition of success. Business is run on a set of rules that values making money for the few owners above all other outcomes. These rules have made business the most powerful force on the planet. Our large companies have revenues that far exceed the incomes of most emerging nations; they even exceed those of whole continents. Nothing can stand in their way as they strive to achieve their perceived primary mandate: making money for their shareholders.

Symbols can be helpful in seeing the truth, and the history of architecture provides us with an apt example. From ancient times through the Renaissance, the largest structures on the landscape were built in tribute to a deity. The soaring cathedrals of Europe and the wats of Southeast Asia were built in tribute to the fact that a universal goodness and purpose exists and must be honored.

Next came the age of government. Through much of the past 300 years, the largest buildings were the houses of parliament or great palaces. These were built in acknowledgment that the population’s social structure was of primary importance and must be honored. While they honored something a bit narrower than universal goodness, they still had the good of the majority as their purpose.

During the past century, until quite recently, the largest buildings in city after city were company headquarters. Whether you drive into Cincinnati or Milan, you see a skyline dominated by huge monuments to the company that chose this place to build wealth for its shareholders. The Pan Am Building of New York became a landmark to guide tourists to Grand Central Station. We built these in tribute to the great engines of commerce, to the power of commerce to give people food, clothing, shelter, and desired goods and services.

But now even this is shifting. Today the Pan Am Building has a new name and a new owner; it is now the Met Life Building. Today our large monuments belong to the financial services industries. Today we acknowledge and honor the power of money movers. Neither universal goodness nor even a respect for social fabric or for commerce is symbolically raised about our city roofs. Today money movers have replaced God, government, and commerce. The implications are chilling.

Surely the investments we make today shape the world we live in tomorrow. It is not likely that if our investments are made in a vacuum, without consideration for the social or environmental impact they may have, the results will be a continual slide toward rewarding that which is profitable at the cost of that which is life enhancing. Today two worlds exist side by side, and already most of us with money cannot see the other world. Through the symbols of power already displayed in our cities, we see only what values we hold dearest.