The fossil fuel divestment movement is failing. Except it’s not.

16334695327_79e561c1ab_z

Harvard divestment activists sit in

Despite all of the sound and fury set off by the campaign to divest fossil fuels — and there has been plenty — Bill McKibben, 350.org and their allies have persuaded only a handful of big institutions to sell off the coal, oil and gas holdings in their endowments. They’ve had little or no direct effect on publicly-traded oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, and none on the government-owned oil companies of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq that are shielded from chants of rag-tag college students telling them to “leave it in the ground.”

That said, by any measure other than financial, the divestment campaign has been a big success.

That’s the argument I make in a story about divestment, published today by YaleEnvironment360 under the headline Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement May Ultimately Win. Here’s how it begins:

Nestled in Vermont’s bucolic Champlain valley, Middlebury College is a seedbed of environmental activism. Middlebury students started 350.org, the environmental organization that is fighting climate change and coordinating the global campaign for fossil-fuel divestment. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmentalist who is spearheading the campaign, has taught there since 2001. Yet Middlebury has declined to sell the oil, gas, and coal company holdings in its $1 billion endowment.

McKibben’s alma mater, Harvard University — which has a $36 billion endowment, the largest of any university — also has decided not to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Indeed, virtually all of the United States’ wealthiest universities, foundations, and public pension funds have resisted pressures to sell their stakes in fossil fuel companies. And while a handful of big institutional investors — Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, Stanford University, and AXA, a French insurance company — have pledged to sell some of their coal investments, coal companies account for less than 1 percent of the value of publicly traded stocks and an even smaller sliver of endowments.

Put simply, the divestment movement is not even a blip on the world’s capital markets.

Yet McKibben says the campaign is succeeding “beyond our wildest possible dreams.”

Why? Well, you can read the rest of the story to find out, but in essence, the divestment campaign has in short order built a vibrant global climate movement, which is exactly what McKibben and his allies set out to do nearly three years ago. (See Do the Math: Bill McKibben takes on big oil, my 2012 interview with him.) Hundreds of US college campuses, cities and foundations have been forced to respond to divestment demands. They’ve debated and analyzed the climate threat. And, as the story explains, even when institutions decide not to divest — often for good reason, I might add — they almost always do something. What’s more, the campaign has spread wildly, er, widely to Europe and  Asia, thanks to social media, and it has taken on a life of its own, as a decentralized but loosely connected series of campaigns that are gathering momentum.

As a practical matter, divestment has re-opened an important conversation about whether and how institutions and individuals are investing with their values in mind. Last week, writing on my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles, I asked: Why won’t foundations divest fossil fuels? Most of the big ones have not, but they are all talking about “impact investing,” that is, aligning more of their endowment money with their programming goals. Some of that money is flowing to climate solutions including renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.And it would not surprise me to see one or two big foundations–Bloomberg Philanthropies, maybe?–decide to divest.

I invite you to comment on the divestment debate, preferably at YaleE360 or at Nonprofit Chronicles where the stories can be found.

Catching up, “creating” jobs and coffee pods

b3fe755a-d70b-48c4-a0a6-efece9924a03-620x372I’m just back from a wonderful vacation in Italy, and spending this week at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. To my surprise, I see that I haven’t posted here in more than a month. Lately, I’ve been writing more for my Nonprofit Chronicles blog, about how nonprofits and  foundations can become more effective. If you’re interested, please subscribe to the blog or “like” my Facebook page, which is devoted to the world of NGOs. I’m hoping to play a small role in the growing Effective Altruism movement, which aims to “do good better.”

Meantime, Guardian Sustainable Business published two of my business stories in May. The first story profiles an impressive investment firm called Huntington Capital which aims to invest in companies that create good jobs in places that need them. Here’s how it begins:

At the heart of the American Dream – the idea that anyone in the US, by dint of hard work and determination, can climb the economic ladder – is the American dream job. This is, the kind of job that can become a career, the sort of work that provides employees with decent wages, benefits, training and opportunities to better themselves. It’s the type of job that underlays a thriving economy.

It’s the type of job that San Diego-based investment firm Huntington Capital is trying to encourage companies to create.

On the surface, Huntington looks like a fairly standard fund company. It manages three funds that have a total combined investment of about $210m, most of which comes from pension funds, banks, insurance companies, foundations and wealthy families. Huntington, in turn, has invested this money in about 50 companies since its launch in 2001.

…What sets Huntington apart is its commitment to have – in its words – “a positive impact on underserved businesses and their communities”. The company calls itself an impact investor, meaning that it aims to generate returns that are social or environmental, as well as financial. Rather than focusing on Silicon Valley startups, a fairly well-worn investment landscape, it helps finance established, small and medium-sized companies in California and the southwestern US. Most of its target companies sell goods and services to other businesses, like air filtration products, janitorial work and enterprise software.

I learned about Huntington after reading “Managing vs. Measuring Impact Investment,” an excellent story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Morgan Simon, who co-leads Pi Investments, which invests in Huntington. She makes an important point–that creating jobs is not nearly as important as what kinds of jobs are created. Indeed, she goes so far as to argue that companies that create low-wage, no-benefit jobs actually make poverty worse because

“job creation” is a slippery concept: Outside of true innovation and demand generation, we can’t do much more than move jobs from one zip code to another. And even when jobs are created in a low-income community, if they are low paying, then by definition they are precisely what keep those communities locked into cycles of poverty.

How does that work? In general, we don’t just have a national unemployment problem; we have an employment problem, where more than two-thirds of children in poverty live in households where one or both parents work. The vast majority of these households are led by people of color, notably African Americans and Latinos who are twice as likely to be working poor.

…Rather than counting jobs, we were interested in the migration of low-quality jobs to high-quality jobs.

Last week, the Guardian published my story headlined The good, the bad and the ugly: sustainability at Nespresso. Here’s how it begins:

The sustainability story at Nespresso, a company that sells coffee machines and single-serve capsules, is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

On coffee sourcing, the company – part of Swiss multinational Nestle – is an industry leader, training coffee farmers and paying premium prices. In the last few years, it has invested in reviving coffee production in war-weary South Sudan. That’s good.

But the company’s single-serve aluminum pods create unnecessary waste. A valuable, energy-intensive resource winds up in landfills. That’s bad.

Nespresso won’t say how how many of its pods get recycled. Transparency is an essential ingredient of sustainability. So that’s ugly.

Like most companies, Nespresso is complicated. You can read the rest of the story here.

Sparking sustainable aquaculture

photoOn a recent visit to Cambodia, I visited a poor fishing village not far from Siem Reap where thousands of tiny forage fish, pulled from a large freshwater lake called Tonle Sap, were left to dry in the sun by the side of a road. They were, as best as I could determine, bound for Thailand where they would ground up and made into feed for fish or chicken, which wind up in supermarkets, mostly in Asia. There’s nothing sustainable about this kind of fish farming, or poultry raising.

Yet aquaculture, done right, can be an important source of produce healthy protein. Aquaculture today provides almost half of all fish that humans eat. Its share is projected to rise to 62 percent by 2030 as catches from wild capture fisheries level off and an emerging global middle class demands more fish, according to the FAO.  “If responsibly developed and practised, aquaculture can generate lasting benefits for global food security and economic growth,” the UN organization says in a recent report.

A small investment firm called Aqua-Spark is trying to promote best practices in aquaculture. I reported on their efforts in a story posted today to Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

For better or worse – often for worse – aquaculture is the fastest-growing animal-based food industry. Half the seafood eaten in the US is farmed, and most of that is imported. Yet it’s not unusual for fish farms to pollute local waters, damage coastal habitatand deplete the oceans of feeder fish. Or, as the Guardian reported last year, exploit slave labour.

Aqua-Spark, a global investment fund based in the Netherlands, aims to do better. The fund, which focuses exclusively on aquaculture, recently made its first two investments, putting $2m into a biotech company called Calysta, whose technology makes fish feed out of methane gas, and another $2m into Chicoa Fish Farm, a tilapia-farming startup in Mozambique that intends to build up aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa.

These small steps won’t have much impact on the global aquaculture industry, which was valued at US $135bn in 2012 by IBIS World. But Aqua-Spark isn’t alone. Brands and retailers, including Unilever and Walmart, as well as NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, are all working to limit the environmental impacts of fish farming.

“There aren’t a lot of perfect models out there,” says Amy Novogratz, who founded Aqua-Spark with her husband, Mike Velings. “If we make investment available to the ‘best in class’ companies, they will help set a bar for sustainability. And if we can help them succeed, others will follow.”

And if you’re wondering, yes, Amy Novogratz is the younger sister of well-known social entrepreneur, activist and author Jacqueline Novogratz.

You can read the rest of my story here.

How green are green bonds?

corp-bondSome $34 billion in bonds labeled as green have been sold so far in 2014, three times as much as last year. Some experts predicting that as much as $100 billion of green bonds will be sold in 2015. These bonds — issued by governments, companies and international financial institutions like the World Bank — will help to finance solar and wind energy, hybrid cars, efficient buildings, cleaner waterways.

This sounds like unalloyed good news–and it may be. It’s just hard to know.

Today, the YaleEnvironment360 website posted my story about green bonds, headlined with a question: Can Green Bonds Bankroll A Clean Energy Revolution? Again, the answer is maybe. That unsatisfying, perhaps, but that’s the way it is.

That’s because, for the moment, a green bond is any bond that an issuer decides to label as green. Big banks and NGOs are working to set stricter standards, but they will take a while to arrive. So, for example, corn ethanol, nuclear power and methane capture while fracking could all be deemed green.

The bigger question, though, is whether green bonds are financing projects that, without them, would not get done. Again, that’s hard to say. But if all we are getting with green bonds are labels on bonds that would have been issued anyway, we’re wasting our time.

That said, there’s potential here–at heart, the potential to attract new money to finance low-carbon infrastructure. So the boom is green bonds is worth watching.

Here’s how my story begins:

Looked at from one angle, climate change is an infrastructure problem. To limit global warming to 2 degrees C and avoid the worst effects of climate change, about $44 trillion will need to be invested in low-carbon projects like wind farms, solar panels, nuclear power, carbon capture, and smart buildings by 2050, the International Energy Agency estimates. That’s more than $1 trillion a year — roughly a four-fold jump from current investment levels.

Where’s the money going to come from? Maybe from green bonds, say bankers and environmentalists alike. Green bonds, which are also known as climate bonds, are fixed-income investments that are designed to finance environmentally friendly projects. Pioneered by international development banks — the European Investment Bank issued the first climate bond in 2007, followed a year later by the World Bank — they are today issued by state and local governments (Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and the cities of Stockholm and Spokane, Washington, among others) and by big companies (Bank of America, Unilever, and the French utility GDF Suez).

Uses of the bond proceeds are varied. The World Bank sold green bonds to raise funds for geothermal energy in Indonesia and free compact fluorescent bulbs for the poor in Mexico. Massachusetts raised money to clean up a superfund site. Energy company EDF’s green bond financedwind farms in France, and Toyota used the proceeds from a green bond to make loans to American consumers who buy hybrid cars.

The story goes on to explain why “green bonds may not be all they’re cracked up to be.” You can read the rest here.

Investing in Bangladesh factories–for a profit

bangladesh-garment-workersOliver Niedermaier is selling a “capitalist solution to one of capitalism’s worst problems” — the unsafe, exploitative, polluting factories in the global south. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

After more than a decade of corporate investment in social responsibility programs, codes of conduct, teams of inspectors and public reporting – all of it intended to improve the working conditions of factories in poor countries – anyone paying attention knows the system isn’t working very well. The Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh were poignant symbols of its failure.

Maybe it has failed because Western clothing brands and retailers – Nike, Gap, Walmart and the rest – have been behaving like regulators by writing rules and meting out punishment. At least, so argues Oliver Niedermaier, the founder and CEO of Tau Invesment Management. He advocates that businesses should instead try acting like capitalists, using markets and the potential of investment gains to reform their global supply chains.

Tau plans to raise $1bn to turn around factories in poor countries, beginning with the garment industry. Tau promises to deliver “improved transparency, greater dignity for workers, cleaner environments for communities, and enhanced performance and value for stakeholders”.

As the story goes on to say, this is an intriguing–but very much untested–idea. Can Tau raise the money? Will brands partner with the company, a newcomer to supply-chain issues? Most important, can factories in places like Bangladesh that adhere to the highest standards compete effective with those who do not?

I don’t have answers. But I do know that a new approach to the problem is desperately needed.

How to read a sustainability report

voices_gunther2It’s no exaggeration to say that a new corporate sustainability report is published nearly every day of the year. After all, most of the Fortune 500 now generate reports, many of which read like paeans to exemplary business behavior. If companies behaved as well as they are portrayed in these reports, the world would be a much, much better place.

Still, CSR or sustainability reports can be a useful starting point for looking at a company and its impact. In my latest story for the environmental website Ensia, I offer a guide to reading these reports. Here’s how it begins:

Corporate sustainability reports have been around since … well, it’s hard to say.  The first report may have been published by “companies in the chemical industry with serious image problems” in the 1980s, or by Ben & Jerry’s in 1989 or Shell in 1997. No matter — since then, more than 10,000 companies have published more than 50,000 reports, according to CorporateRegister.com, which maintains a searchable database of reports.

But who really reads them? As a reporter who covers business and sustainability, I do. Maybe you do, too — as an employee, investor, researcher or activist.

Here, then, are five tips to help you make sense of the next report that lands on your desk or arrives via email.

You’ll have to read the Ensia story to learn more but the key word to remember is context. The best corporate reports put their data in context, by comparing it with prior years or previous goals or industry peers or even the needs of the earth. Few reports meet this standard, alas.

Thanks to Steve Lydenberg and Bill Baue for their help with this story.

Illustration courtesy of Ensia

Are your investments tied to genocide?

SP1119147That’s a refugee camp in Sudan. If you are an investor in mutual funds, it’s possible–perhaps even likely–that you own a small share of one of a number of foreign oil companies that are doing business with the government of Sudan, and thereby helping to finance a genocidal, outlaw government that is directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and the displacement of many more.

I’m returning to the subject of “genocide-free” investing with a column this week at Guardian Sustainable Business, about the puzzling and troubling refusal of a mutual fund managed by ING US to even consider divesting in holdings in foreign oil companies that do business in Sudan. US oil companies are prohibited by law from operating there, but US-based mutual funds are free to invest in Chinese, Indian and Malaysian oil companies that help finance the Sudanese authorities.

Despite the best efforts of an advocacy group called Investors Against Genocide, big US mutual fund companies including Fidelity, Vanguard, JP Morgan Chase and Franklin Templeton continue to invest those foreign oil companies. It’s not because they are unaware of the issue. I’ve covered the topic of “genocide-free” investing since 2007, beginning with a story for Fortune.com headlined Fidelity’s Sudan Problem, and followed a few months later by another called Warren Buffett and Darfur. By then, Harvard, Yale and Stanford had divested their holdings in PetroChina and Sinopec, demonstrating that divestment is both possible and practical. In 2009, as an investor in mutual funds managed by Fidelity and Vanguard, I voted for divestment (and blogged about it here).

A few mutual fund companies–notably T. Rowe Price and TIAA-CREF–have agreed to purge their holdings of the Asian oil companies, but most have resisted. Among the most egregious is ING US, whose own shareholders voted for divestment. If nothing else, this is a reminder that we’re a long way from achieving “shareholder democracy” in corporate America.

Here’s how my story for Guardian Sustainable Business begins:

Call me old school but, in my view, companies should be accountable to their owners.

They should also try to stay away from repressive governments like the one in Sudan, where millions of people have been killed in a long-running genocide.

So when, as part of a campaign to stop the flow of money to Sudan, investors voted to ask a mutual fund managed by ING US to sell its holdings in companies that “contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity,” you’d think that ING US would comply.

It has not.

You can read the rest here.

To put this in perspective: It has been more than 15 years since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sudan, and nine years since the killings in Darfur were declared to be a genocide by the U.S. Congress. Yet financial institutions are still investing in the worst companies funding the genocide.

It’s another reason, not that we need one, why so much of Wall Street is rightly held in such low esteem by so many Americans.

My beef with B Corps

logoThere’s lot to like about the fast-growing B Corps movement, and one thing to dislike, as I explain in my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business US.

If you’re reading this blog, you are probably aware of B Corps. The idea takes a bit of explaining. B Corps are businesses that are certified by a nonprofit organization called B Lab to meet what its backers call “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” These businesses win certification much in the way that buildings are certified to have meet LEED environmental standards by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council; they have to complete an assessment of their performance, provide documentation and be open a review from B Lab, as the group explains here.

But the term B Corps is also used to describe “benefit corporations,” a corporate legal structure that has been set up by legislation that has now been passed by 20 states, including, most recently, Delaware. Benefit corporations need not be certified by B Lab, although many are.

It’s unavoidably confusing, but my beef with B Corps is simple.

The voluntary certification system makes sense to me, for reasons that I explain in the story–it’s a way to signal employees, customers and investors that a B Corps aims to do better than conventional companies. Most B Corps are small and privately held. Among the best known are Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, which is a unit of a conventional C Corps, Unilever.

The legal “benefit corporation” purportedly gives companies more freedom to serve society as a whole than conventional corporations have. I’m skeptical about this claim, to say the least, and I worry that it could be counterproductive–because it implies that conventional companies, which make up the bulk of the global economy, need to pursue profits, at the expense of broader social and environmental goals. This seems wrong on the face of it. After all, if Ben & Jerry’s can be certified as a “good” B Corps, doesn’t that mean that its parent company, Unilever, can be “good” too?

My worry is that the implicit argument — that most of the world’s companies don’t have the freedom to do the right thing for society — undermines faith in capitalism (which is fragile, at best, for good reason) and that it discourage reformers inside and outside of big companies who are pushing corporate America to do business better. It’s a bit smug to suggest that traditional companies can’t do as much good for the world as B Corps can.

Here’s how my story begins:

To the supporters of B Corps – benefit corporations that say they aim to serve workers, communities and the environment, as well as their owners – 1 August 2013 was an historic day. In what B Corps described as “a seismic shift in corporate law,” the state of Delaware, where one million businesses are legally registered, enacted legislation that will “redefine success in business” by giving the owners and managers of legally recognised B Corps protection as they pursue “a higher purpose than profit.”

The B Corps movement has much to be proud of: it has built a brand that stands for good business, attracted hundreds of committed followers and sparked debate about the role of business in society. But claims – sometimes made explicitly, sometimes implicitly – that B Corps have more freedom to take an expansive view of their social and environmental responsibilities is not only mistaken, but potentially damaging to the cause of sustainable business.

After all, if conventional companies have no choice but to focus narrowly on maximising short-term profits, at the expense of workers, communities and the planet, then we’re in a heap of trouble and unlikely to get out, because 99% of US businesses today are conventional C Corps, and most are likely to remain so.

You can read the rest here.

RSF Social Finance: Making money, making change

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

If you have a few extra dollars in savings, and you’d like to earn more than 0.00001% interest or whatever it is your bank or money market fund is paying, and you’d like to support socially-conscious businesses, you’ll want to take a look at RSF Social Finance.

RSF Social Finance is a financial services organization of modest means (about $145 million in assets under management) that is bursting with big ideas and bold rhetoric. It calls itself “a leader in building the next economy.” It seeks to generate “social and spiritual renewal through investing, lending and giving,” Its mission is to “transform the way the world works with money.”

Whew. What’s going on here?

To find out, I visited RSF Social Finance’s offices in the Presidio complex in San Francisco last week to talk with Don Shaffer, the organization’s president and CEO.

At the simplest level, RSF looks and acts very much like a bank: Its flagship product, the Social Investment Fund, takes deposits and makes loans to so-called social enterprises, a term that’s widely (and often carelessly) thrown around to describe businesses or nonprofits whose intention is to improve society and the environment.

Deciding what qualifies as a social enterprise is subjective, at best. That said, the RSF Social Investment Fund supports companies and nonprofits that, by all appearances, do great work. Among them: [click to continue…]

Deep green investing: a closer look

A divestment rally at Harvard

A divestment rally at Harvard

As you’ve no doubt heard, Bill McKibben and his allies at 350.org have launched a  a national campaign to persuade colleges, universities, churches, foundations and, yes, people like you and me, to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. The campaign raises interesting questions as, I’m sure, McKibben hoped it would. Among them:

Does divestment make sense as a strategy to curb climate change?

If those of us who are concerned about climate change want to align out investments with our beliefs, what options are available?

In a column called Deep Green Investing published last week by Ensia, a lively new online magazine about environmental solutions, I argued that, by itself, divestment will probably not accomplish much. Having said that, the campaign could prove useful as one of a number of tactics being deployed by 350.org, the Sierra Club and others that are aimed at bringing about political change–namely, taxes or caps on global warming pollutants, EPA rules to curb coal-burning, etc.

In The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard argues that these grass-roots climate efforts have already produced results–350.org galvanized opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, which may have persuaded President Obama to delay a decision after the election, and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has, along with cheap natural gas, helped drive the decline of coal in the US. Hertsgaard writes:

As important as the victories themselves was how they were won. Both the Sierra Club and 350.org eschewed the inside-the-Beltway focus and top-down political strategy of big mainstream environmental groups, as exemplified by the cap-and-trade campaign. Instead, they emphasized grassroots organizing at the local level on behalf of far-reaching demands that ordinary people could grasp and support. Their immediate goal was to block a specific pipeline or power plant, but their strategic goal was to build a popular movement and accrue political power.

This is the political context in which the divestment movement makes sense. It won’t shake up the oil industry–the Ensia story explains why–but it’s a useful organizing tool.

But what might the campaign mean for investors? Today, I’m taking a closer look at a couple of “deep green” broadly-diversified mutual funds that have decided, unlike most other funds that market themselves as green or socially responsible,” to cleanse their portfolios of companies that extract fossil fuels. [click to continue…]