Bank Foreclosures Draw Investor Ire

Guest Commentary by Ariane van Buren, Contributing Analyst, The Murninghan Post

The TakeAway: Public pension fund investors turn up the heat on big banks as outrage over lending and mortgage practices mounts.

With millions of families losing their homes – and fears that millions more are on the brink – there’s a groundswell of concern about exactly what banks were doing, efforts to create safeguards so it won’t happen again.

Shareholder resolutions calling upon bank boards to conduct independent reviews of mortgage and foreclosure practices at Citibank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America won high votes this season as pressures mount for banks to come clean about their questionable loan and securitization strategies.  (Vote tallies at JPMorgan Chase were unavailable at this writing.)  The Citigroup proposal received 29.3 percent support (based on votes cast “for” or “against”); those filed with Wells Fargo and Bank of America were supported, respectively, by 23 percent and a 39.5 percent, according to figures provided to Murninghan Post by Heidi Welsh of Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2). Continue reading

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Smart Power, Adaptive Leadership, and Human Rights

Part One of Two

The TakeAway: Advocates for corporate responsibility need to address the wider context of global politics and power, particularly within conflict zones where human rights abuses are most pronounced.

So we got Osama bin Laden. Now what?

This question, raised by pundits and policy makers, generally relates to using military power to protect and advance American interests. Overall, many reactions to bin Laden’s death – and our involvement with NATO forces protecting Libyans from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s deadly wrath, not to mention continued unrest in Egypt, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East – stem from a misunderstanding of the context of power in the 21st century, and the fact that American influence on foreign policy no longer is restricted to the use of military force, or “hard” power. Continue reading

Posted in Human Rights, Public Policy | 2 Comments

Elizabeth Taylor and Social Justice

The TakeAway: Elizabeth Taylor forged a path for “celebrity social responsibility” that enabled others to use their star power for advancing sustainability and justice.

“Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility.  If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so.”

Last evening when picking up the New York Times at a Cambridge 7-Eleven, I pointed to Elizabeth Taylor’s picture on the upper fold, saying to the young Asian cashier, “Now, there’s a beauty for you, perhaps the greatest movie star of all time.”  “Who’s that?” he asked.  “Elizabeth Taylor,” I said, “someone who was not only a screen goddess but a crusader for social justice, too.” “How come I never heard of her,” he asked.  “Well, maybe because you’re too young,” I replied.  “We’ll never see another like her again.”  “Well, I’ll go look her up in Google,” he said, putting my two dollars in the till.

Who was Elizabeth Taylor? Take your pick.   Continue reading

Posted in Human Rights, Notable People | 11 Comments

Stepping Toward Corporate Sustainability Footprinting

Guest Commentary by Bill Baue, Contributor and Curator, The Murninghan Post

The TakeAway: Corporate sustainability ratings and reports don’t really tell us if a company is sustainable, but sustainability footprinting takes a step in the right direction.

I challenge you: name a corporate sustainability rating that earns its title—namely, by rating a company’s actual sustainability.  Or a corporate sustainability report that reports whether a company is really sustainable.  In other words, do they tell us if the company is doing its part to ensure future generations can meet their needs (to riff on Brundtland) and to preserve a planet similar to the one where we developed our civilization (to riff on Hansen)?

Many ratings and reports tell us how much carbon a company emits, or water it uses, to cite two prominent issues.  Great!  Phase Three of SustainAbility’s Rate the Raters project rightly commends raters who clearly identify their objectives, and the goal of pushing for incremental advances in corporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance is laudable (and may even be profitable, as many raters seek to show.)

But this approach falls short of a more necessary and transformative goal: telling us whether these emissions and water use are sustainable – in the thermodynamic, biological sense (to riff on Hawken) – for the company and the world surrounding it.  Continue reading

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Passing It On: Joan Bavaria’s Legacy

Over at Ceres, nominations are still open – through next Tuesday, March 8th – for the Joan Bavaria Awards, so it’s a good time to reflect on this extraordinary woman who gave so much to what is now a large and vibrant movement.

Established in 2008, the Joan Bavaria Awards for Building Sustainability into Capital Markets were created by Ceres and Trillium Asset Management “to recognize investors, corporations, and NGOs that have helped move the capital markets from a system focused on short-term profits toward one that balances financial prosperity with social and environmental health.”  Should circumstances warrant, each year, an Impact Award and an Innovator Award goes to an individual or organization that “shares the spirit of collaboration and coalition building demonstrated by Joan Bavaria and the organizations she founded.”  Previous award winners include, in 2009, Murninghan Post Co-Founder and Publisher Emeritus Robert K. Massie, now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts; and in 2010, Tim Smith, Senior Vice President at Walden Asset Management, and the Center for Political Accountability.

Please take a moment to reflect, and then submit your suggestions on the Ceres’ website. The 2011 Awards will presented at the May 2011 Ceres Conference in Oakland, California.

Joan’s physical form left us in November 2008, but she lives on in the hearts, minds, and work for thousands of us, each day.  If you don’t know who Joan Bavaria was, you should. Plain as that.  Here’s a glimpse. Continue reading

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Proxy Resolutions, Shareholder Engagement, and Buggy Whips

Part Two of Two Parts

The TakeAway: Shareholder engagement is on the rise, but can benefit from “transmedia mobilization”—that is, a greater understanding, adoption, and experimentation with a range of digital tools, including (but not restricted to) social media.

As we wrote Monday, the rapid proliferation of social media and other digital “technologies of freedom”, as the late, great MIT professor Ithiel de Sola Pool called them, have outpaced the ability of shareowner activists, corporate accountability advocates, company boards and managers to keep up. Meanwhile, proxy voting and corporate engagement are more robust than ever—the latter most often conducted in private, a form of “quiet diplomacy”, as pension giant TIAA-CREF calls it, enabling informed dialogue among investors, board members, and senior executives that boosts value creation. TIAA-CREF isn’t alone: Most company / shareholder engagement remains private, according to the authors of a groundbreaking study on the topic.

Add to the mix various new settlements in cyberspace across various platforms, where an eclectic group of players interact on a regular basis.  Whether through Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook, early adaptors are clearing the way for broader, more innovative modes of expression.   Continue reading

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Proxy Resolutions, Shareholder Engagement, and Buggy Whips

Part One of Two Parts

The TakeAway: Proxy resolutions continue to influence corporate behavior on social policy and corporate governance, but proponents need to explore additional forms of engagement, including social media and other digital means.

It’s the day after the Oscars, and whatever you think of the award winners or even the show itself, the event was marked by “two-screen viewing“—that is, simultaneous use of television and social media to enhance the experience.  As more and more people communicate in real time, networks and advertisers are trying to figure out how to capitalize on the phenomenon, which inserts a hyper-fast element into slower-paced programming, something about which Oscar viewers on Twitter repeatedly wrote.  Oscar producers, take note: better make it more snappy next year, or run the risk of losing your audience whose expectations have been raised for better performance via social media.

Moving from Hollywood to Wall Street, a similar message could be directed to corporate accountability and sustainability advocates.  Like check-writing in an electronic banking world, or cassette tapes versus MP3 technology, the use of shareholder resolutions to change corporate behavior now seems slow and musty—particularly with other modes of activism toppling political regimes, from Tunisia to Tripoli.  Yet shareholder democracy – which requires participation, accountability, and representation – is essential to keeping markets honest and efficient, as governance guru Nell Minow (also known as “Movie Mom“) wrote last week in bnet.com.

So how can proxy proponents and others calling for better company / shareholder engagement, like their Oscar telecast brethren, keep up in the digital age as they press for improved corporate accountability and performance—now backed by new laws and regulations requiring both?

That’s what came to mind last week while listening to a pair of well-produced webinars on shareholder engagement and proxy voting. Continue reading

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Dumb Math and Regulatory Wipeout

The TakeAway: House Republicans efforts to reduce the deficit will gut regulation of financial markets and put the nation at risk, so it’s time for investors and the public to fight back.

You’d think that by now, as we try to regain our economic footing in the midst of the Great Recession, with so many people out of work and in horrible financial shape, there would be widespread support for better oversight and regulation of the very financial markets that created this mess.  Or at least support for enacting new rules to clean it up.  But you’d be wrong.  In a stunning reversal of policy making after last year’s historic financial reform, the pendulum has swung back in favor of Wall Street as Congress debates the budget for both the rest of this year and next.  Last night, despite valiant efforts to increase funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) – who co-authored the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act – the House voted to cut the SEC’s budget for the remainder of FY 2011.  Today the House will vote on other amendments to H.R. 1, a measure to keep the US government funded and operating past March 4 when current funding expires.

As for fiscal year 2012, on Valentine’s Day the White House proposed a $3.7 trillion federal budget that put forth $1.1 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years, but added billions for regulatory implementation and enforcement.  House leaders weren’t impressed, declaring it dead on arrival.

Level funding is not an option, says House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).  “Our goal here is to cut spending. I’m not going to move any kind of short-term [continuing resolution] at current levels,” Speaker Boehner said yesterday.  In addition to cuts affecting the FBI and Head Start are proposals that neuter financial watchdogsincluding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) – empowered to protect investors and the general public, thus restoring Wall Street to its glory days of unfettered speculation.

In the name of austerity, these cuts end up restoring power to a handful of oligarchs and shadow financiers that threaten the American way of life.  At a time when Mideast youth are toppling political tyrants, America’s elected officials are delivering us back into the clutches of economic tyrants.

In the memorable words of Talking Heads’ David Byrne, it’s the “same as it ever was”.  That’s why a coalition of activists are calling upon investors and the general public to speak out, letting Congress know that proposed spending cuts within the stopgap 2011 continuing resolution (CR) will cost America much more than they save.

Continue reading

Posted in Climate Change, Corporate Governance, Politics, Public Policy | 2 Comments

Freedom Bytes

The TakeAway: President Obama and Mideast protesters relied on digital technologies to change regimes, but beyond campaigns, how can they be used to build sustainable prosperity and justice?

On Wednesday the contrast was stark, as democracy’s rituals – revolution and public reporting – played out at the same time, not just with formal rhetoric, but with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.  President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address and Egypt’s violent protests capped a day where, aided by social media, the Old Order gave way to the New, blurring distinctions between politics and economics, and ideologies.  Drawing on familiar themes, Obama’s big picture speech cited this generation’s “Sputnik moment”—a level of research and development to restore America’s position in a global economy, enabling us to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world”.  “We are a nation of Google and Facebook,” he said, pledging to “connect every part of America to the digital age”.  Meanwhile, young Arabs took to the street, demanding connection to the modern age.

Social media, some say, has come of age.  That’s certainly true for young revolutionaries sick of longstanding political and economic disenfranchisement.   Continue reading

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Corporate Oligarchs, Politics, and the Common Good

The TakeAway: Among other events, this week’s anniversaries of JFK’s inaugural speech and Citizens United call us to fight to elevate conscience over politics and capitalism.

This week juxtaposed statesman service and corporate dominion at a time when oligarchs increasingly control public life, requiring us to rise from our complacency over gains made on sustainable prosperity and justice.

First, the light: Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, in which he made his abiding call: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  On Tuesday Sargent Shriver, the epitome of this hope, died, at the age of 95. Shriver was Kennedy’s brother-in-law, one of the last of the New Frontier public servants who, as U2’s Bono wrote in the New York Times, “embodied service and transcended, so often, grave duty”.  As founding director of the Peace Corps and architect of the War on Poverty (which drew, in large measure, from Paul Ylvisaker’s Grey Areas project at the Ford Foundation), Shriver knew what many of us forget: that mirrors must be broken, that it’s better to look at the face of your neighbor than your own. And on Monday, we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and our pledge to uphold simple truths.

But on the other side, darkness looms: Today marks the first anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which turned JFK’s call on its head.  Rather than individuals sacrificing for American ideals, Citizens United sacrifices the political process for corporate ideals. Continue reading

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Scaling Pains at AccountAbility

The TakeAway: AccountAbility Standards Board resigns en masse, while the UK standard-setter for sustainability assurance and stakeholder engagement pledges to stay true to its mission.

Last week, the voluntary Standards Board (SB) at AccountAbility resigned en masse in a letter voicing disappointment over “mission creep”, another seismic shift after the late 2009 departure of founding CEO Simon Zadek, followed by advisor and staff leave-taking throughout 2010.  Last Friday AccountAbility posted an open statement responding to the SB, stating it was going to maintain its core identity.  Late yesterday, AccountAbility provided further information on structure, governance, “profits”, and ownership. Continue reading

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Bob Massie for U.S. Senate

The TakeAway: Our friend and colleague Bob Massie announced his candidacy today to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate—an extension of his lifetime commitment to service.

Bob Massie, co-founder of The Murninghan Post and publisher emeritus, today announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.  While we intend to maintain the highest standards of journalistic decorum, we’re thrilled to pieces.  We’ve known Bob for more than 25 years, and can’t think of anyone better suited to represent us – all of us, whatever stripe or size – in the nation’s capital.  As you can tell from recent posts, what happens in politics with a big or little ‘P’ affects just about every aspect of sustainable prosperity and justice.  We’re all in this together, whatever path we take to make a difference.

Why is Bob running?  A full statement appears on his online campaign website, www.bobmassie.org.  “The United States, as it has many times, stands at a crossroads,” he begins.  “Some feel we are facing inevitable decline.  Today we are in danger of losing our way…. We have many problems that require careful consideration – how to reinvigorate our economy, revive our education, and provide for citizens who have been struck down by misfortune – but we will not make progress unless we restore our ability to dream dreams.” Continue reading

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Tone at the Top: Rebooting Democracy’s Dialogue

The TakeAway: We must hold lawmakers accountable to high standards of statecraft, just as we hold ourselves accountable when engaging on ‘hot button’ issues such as corporate accountability, sustainability, and human rights.

It was a high-minded day.  Following a Native American blessing and other remarks, last night President Obama called for civility and national unity at the memorial service for Tucson’s shooting victims.  Earlier, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) gave an emotional speech on the House floor after introducing a resolution honoring those who were killed or wounded, and called upon the membership to “carry on a dialogue of democracy”.  One by one, members of Congress rose to pay tribute to their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who continued to fight for her life.  On Tuesday, President Clinton said the tone of political debate must change.

While these are sincere and heartfelt statements about collective aspirations and commitments, they’re undermined by Congressional images and vocabulary.  Despite calls for civility, some House leaders responsible for financial reform, climate policy, health care, and other critical problems continue to use incitive sound bites.  Since taking over last week, the House has turned up the rhetorical heat at a time when cooler heads and bipartisan problem solving must prevail.  It’s time for Congress to abandon polarizing language and restore decency and integrity to the business of statecraft.  It’s also time for us to hold them accountable, just as we hold ourselves accountable through stakeholder engagement on controversial topics affecting corporate accountability, sustainability, human rights, and other issues where reasonable people disagree. Continue reading

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Dead Hands and Invisible Hands

The TakeAway: The 112th Congress, mindful of the values that underlie the whole Constitution, needs to face up to its responsibility to make policies that advance the common good and a sustainable future.

This morning, for the first time ever on the floor of the full House, the U.S. Constitution was read in its entirety—a laudable event if it means that the new Congress understands what’s in it and behaves accordingly.  Let’s hope the newly-elected members, especially Tea Partiers, take a purposeful, pragmatic view of their job and put away childish things.  By “childish things” I mean dead hands and invisible hands, symbols bespeaking Tea Party and conservative Republican anger over federal overreach.

Their “dead hand” interpretation of the Constitution is driven by anger over health care reform; their “invisible hand” philosophy of unregulated markets was rocked by the passage of financial reform.  But the nation’s problems have gotten so great that Congress needs to be creative, not creationist. Continue reading

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Who’s Friending Whom?

The TakeAway: News of Goldman Sachs’ $50 billion valuation and private offering of Facebook underscores the need to rally social media to promote corporate sustainability and accountability.

The biggest business story of the New Year broke in the wee hours of its first business day when the New York Times reported that Goldman Sachs was offering shares in Facebook to wealthy clients before an expected public offering in 2012.  DealBook reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote that Goldman considered Facebook worth $50 billion, and that Facebook already had raised $500 million from Goldman and Russian investor Digital Sky Technologies.  Reactions were immediate, ranging from where that puts Facebook compared to other tech companies in the public market, to the credibility and impact of that valuation, to implications for our regulatory system when wealthy insiders have special access.  Missing from the debate is how to use social media to fight back against this kind of creeping corporate and financial oligarchy at a time when the rich continue to get richer while the economy continues to teeter. Continue reading

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Turning Points

The Takeaway: After 110 posts, we salute our supporters, celebrate our accomplishments, make some changes, and prepare for an even better 2011.

On Wednesday, we published my 100th post, written since the first one – on free and fair corporate elections – appearing July 8th, when we launched this experiment.  When you add the Commentaries – from Bob Massie, Bill Baue, Liz Umlas, and Conrad MacKerron – the total is 110, an impressive number considering all that’s happened in the past six months.  As we pause and reflect on all that’s been accomplished along the way, I want to thank both Bob Massie (whose idea this was) and Bill Baue (who tried mightily to improve my prose), as well as my colleagues at The Transition Group – Sonia Hamel, Ariane Van Buren, Dianne Callan, and Josh Gay – for their extraordinary editorial support and all around commitment to turning this idea into reality.  And, I want to thank all of you who have followed, shared, Tweeted, and commented, and otherwise let us know that we’re making a constructive contribution.  We are very grateful. Continue reading

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Climate Change-Makers

The TakeAway: While Federal climate change policy action sputters, state and local initiatives continue to offer opportunities for progress and engagement.

Climate change has triggered long-standing power struggles in the US between federal and state rights reminiscent of Civil Rights in the 1960s and Roe v. Wade in the ’70s, when states balked at ensuring racial equality and access to abortions.  Climate turned the tables, though, as state-level action filled the void of Congressional dithering over the legitimacy and impact of global warming.  Here’s a review of where things stand in the federal/state tussles on climate policy. Continue reading

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Gaming for Good

The TakeAway: Game-based technologies can serve as powerful tools for advancing sustainability and civic engagement—while enabling us to become game creators, too.

If you’re like many Americans, you spent part of your Christmas holiday playing with your Wii, Xbox360, PlayStation 3, or Nintendo—or know someone who did.  According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, by 2008 more than half of American adults played video games.  (And all that gaming, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, consumes as much energy as does San Diego in a year.)  As digital culture expands, so do opportunities for diversion.

But what if these forms of immersive entertainment are good for you, helping you develop cognitive skills—even helping you do your job better?  And what if you, too, can learn how to develop “serious” games—e.g., games that do good?  The growing field of game development, while still aimed primarily at young people, offers intriguing possibilities for adults facing workplace challenges—such as better stakeholder engagement, sustainability reporting, and board representation. Continue reading

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Welcome Yule!

We’re taking tomorrow (Friday) off to enjoy the holidays with loved ones, but will be back on Monday.  In the meantime, we extend heartfelt Yuletide greetings to all of you, who have made this experiment so deeply satisfying.

As the winter light begins to glow,

This ever-circling year,

We hope you have a holiday,

That’s filled with love and cheer.

So as you gather round the hearth,

Telling tales both old and new,

Remember that the greatest gift,

Begins with peace on earth.


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Controversial Compromise on Net Neutrality

The TakeAway: The FCC’s decision on “net neutrality” creates a double set of rules applying to fixed broadband and mobile broadband—with the public interest standard in question.

The near decade-long struggle over “net neutrality” revolves around money, power, and access – in other words, whether Internet communication should be treated as differentially priced real estate, or an open marketplace owned by no one, accessible to all.  Neither, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided yesterday in its 3 – 2 partisan vote on the Open Internet Order.  People are still trying to figure out what happened, but one thing is clear: the battlefield has shifted to wireless, where consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs remain vulnerable to monopolistic practices.  And the “public interest standard” – embedded in successive telecommunications laws since 1927, which attempts to reconcile commercial interests with the needs of democratic society – remains as elusive as ever. Continue reading

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Extractives: Dirty Industries, Clean Standards

The TakeAway: New SEC proposals require ethical health, safety, and human rights due diligence by companies engaged in the extractive industries.

Extractive industries are by definition a dirty business, but recent legislation and regulatory moves aim to clean them up as much as possible.  Last week, an SEC hearing on “Specialized Disclosure” approved proposals on “conflict minerals”, mine safety, and resource extraction company payments to US and foreign governments.  Over the opposition of industry groups, the SEC’s action means investors and consumers will have a better picture of whether products and payments are tainted by human rights abuses, unsafe worker conditions, and corruption.  The disclosure proposals flow from provisions of the historic Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed by President Obama on July 21st.  They also build on other standards, such as the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).

A coalition of retail and industry groups – including WalMart, Costco, Lowes, and Target – opposed the conflict minerals measures, claiming they’ve little control over manufacturing and sourcing decisions.  Proponents – including social justice advocacy groups, the Social Investment Forum, and investment managers Domini, Trillium, Boston Common, and As You Sow – argue the proposed rules protect investors while advancing the public interest. Continue reading

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Corporate Philanthropy and CSR: Private Initiative for the Public Good

Part Two of Two

The TakeAway: Attitudes toward corporate philanthropy reflect continued ambivalence about consolidated wealth and how best to foster accountability and sustainable prosperity.

Public suspicion – even scorn – of excess wealth and power is a sturdy American tradition that continues to this day.  Current ambivalence about the intent and impact of corporate philanthropy draws succor from late 19th century disputes over threats posed by large-scale benevolence – referred to as “tainted money” – to pluralism and democracy.  There are striking parallels to that era and now, where concerns about the social purpose of concentrated wealth drive the social responsibility / sustainability movement. Continue reading

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Corporate Philanthropy: Greenwash or Sustainable Solution?

Part One of Two

The TakeAway: Corporate philanthropy, often criticized as mere PR or greenwash, has evolved strategically in ways that advance sustainable value creation.

December, the “Big Ask” month for nonprofits, inundates individual and organizational inboxes alike – including those of corporate grantmakers.  And companies interested in high-impact giving ask themselves the same questions you and I do: How can we use our finite resources to support work that aligns with – and advances – our values?  However, the term “corporate philanthropy” still gets quickly dismissed as vapid public relations or, worse yet, “greenwash”.  Better for companies to pursue a more embedded approach, where their good works extend core business strategy, instead of marginal efforts that contradict other business operations in an attempt to curry public favor. Continue reading

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Cancún Talks Bridge Trust Deficit

The TakeAway: COP16 climate talks accomplished more than expected, while restoring trust in the international process that can lead to stronger future measures.

Despite media reports citing lowered expectations – and fear that Copenhagen’s dysfunctions would spill over to this year’s gathering – the 16th annual Conference of Parties (COP16) climate negotiations held in Cancún, Mexico over the past two weeks ended up far better than many people thought—despite mixed reviews from afar.  “It is not what is ultimately required but it is the essential foundation on which to build greater, collective ambition,” said United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.  “The outcome wasn’t enough to save the planet,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  “But it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made.”

While worldwide agreement on reducing human-caused carbon emissions remains elusive, important gains occurred on both formal and informal fronts.  Continue reading

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A Window on Corporate Anti-Sweatshop Efforts

Guest Commentary by Conrad MacKerron, Senior Program Director of As You Sow Foundation

The TakeAway: Gap, Levi’s and Walmart top first-of-its-kind supply chain scorecard from As You Sow, while Abercrombie & Fitch, Saks, and Sears fail to provide info.

Eight years ago, we at As You Sow (along with other shareowner activists) spurred Gap Inc. to develop a scorecard that publicly ranked its suppliers on code of conduct compliance, while also frankly discussing progress and challenges.  This resulted from our struggle, working with other activist investors and social justice groups, to improve sweatshop conditions in the global supply chains of US companies, as major brands outsourced production. Many companies, such as Nike and Walmart, adopted vendor codes of conduct to promote decent working conditions, yet few companies disclosed specific actions they took to implement the codes.

Concerned about the piecemeal and anecdotal supply chain compliance data – and the need for new evaluation and reporting models – we created our own survey of compliance polices and resources, to rank companies in the apparel sector.  We just released a scorecard and report, Toward a Safe, Just Workplace: Apparel Supply Chain Compliance Programs, the first publicly available comparable baseline data for these retailers doing business in the US. Continue reading

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Moving Beyond Modern Portfolio Theory

The TakeAway: Harvard’s Initiative for Responsible Investment works to build a “master narrative” for responsible investing, along with educational tools for improving trustee performance.

Massive changes in financial regulations and ramped up activism – aided in part by interactive technology – make the spotlight on fiduciary boards burn brighter than ever.  For institutional investors of all stripes, this involves revisiting core assumptions that drive their decision making.  It also means rethinking the purpose and benefits of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which once served a positive purpose but now overlooks important strengths and weaknesses in the real economy.  Finally, it involves restoring power and authority to beneficial owners (what prominent UK governance advocate Lord Paul Myners calls “true owners”, not all-powerful consultants and money managers), and reviving opportunities for professional education—the kind that changes behavior, not just a pleasant retreat at a fancy resort.

These topics were discussed by more than 30 key thinkers and doers at yesterday’s daylong convening, the first of a Quarterly Convening Series, hosted by the Initiative for Responsible Investment (IRI) at Harvard Kennedy School’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Continue reading

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Radical Transparency: The Challenge to Sustainability and Democracy

The TakeAway: Reams of information released by WikiLeaks and the Federal Reserve challenge us to rethink our duties to promote sustainable accountability and representative democracy.

Debates on the recent WikiLeaks / Federal Reserve data dumps concentrate on the supply side of information tsunamis, but little attention has focused on the demand side.  This begs the question: how to process the vast material to make better decisions as citizens and capital investors?  Amidst the varied opinions about both events, most people focus on the ethics of what happened – and who’s next – rather than how the data gets absorbed and the implications for public engagement.  Transparency untethered to constructive action means little: it’s what you do with what’s revealed that counts.  Information swamping can easily lead to other kinds of problems—breeding alienation, apathy, and distrust so toxic to healthy markets and democracy. Continue reading

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IT Leads ET, But Needs Public Policy and $$$

The TakeAway: Information technology leader Google advances energy technology development, but clean energy progress relies on smart policy and capital flows, too.

“Google it.”  Over the past decade, the term has gone viral, as the name of the information technology  (IT) giant morphed into a verb for the service it provides: Web searches.  Over the next decade, Google stands poised to alter reality yet again, shape-shifting into a clean energy technology (ET) provider as well.   That’s what Google’s departing Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives Dan Reicher told a UMass Boston audience last Wednesday—the same day he was named executive director of Stanford’s new $7 million Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, a collaboration its law and business schools.  Reicher’s message mirrored his move, focusing on the need to push policy enabling the transition to a green energy economy more broadly.  The US needs to do more to “invent the future of clean energy policy, technology, and finance,” he told the crowd of several hundred. “We’re not going to get to where we want to go without taking a more integrated view.  Otherwise, we’ll miss the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.”

His appearance celebrated the launch of UMass Boston’s new Clean Energy Business and Professional Education Program, a joint venture between the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness (SERC) at the College of Management, and the Department of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences (EEOS) at the College of Science and Mathematics. Continue reading

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Divesting from Genocide: A Fiduciary Duty?

The TakeAway: Congressional hearing on ways to improve the Sudan Accountability & Investment Act proposes using the UN “Protect, Respect, Remedy” human rights framework to define fiduciary duty.

The moral case for flexing investment muscle (from shareowner engagement to outright divestment) against companies complicit in crimes against humanity, such as the genocide in Sudan, should be clear enough.  To bolster this, the fiduciary case – that corporate complicity in genocide represents a material risk that investment trustees must address – is gaining steam as well.  So said four expert witnesses at yesterday’s hearing on “Investments Tied to Genocide: Sudan Divestment and Beyond” before the House Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade.  The goal of the hearing: review progress and recommend improvements to the 2007 Sudan Accountability and Investment Act (SADA), which authorizes state and local governments to divest assets and prohibit contracts with firms doing business with Sudan, a country the US State Department has listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1983. Continue reading

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Business and Human Rights: The UN’s Roadmap

The TakeAway: The United Nations’ Draft “Guiding Principles” for Business and Human Rights helps governments, business, and civil society put the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework into practice.

“There is no single silver bullet solution to the multi-faceted challenges of business and human rights.”  So writes John Ruggie, United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General (SRSG) and Harvard Kennedy School Professor, in a draft report on business and human rights issued last Monday.  The “Guiding Principles for the Implementation of the UN ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework” (GPs) – governed by what Ruggie calls “principled pragmatism” – are posted for public review, offering an important opportunity for everyone in the corporate responsibility and sustainable investing fields to comment through January 31, 2011 on Professor Ruggie’s online consultation forum.  Next June, Ruggie will present the GPs in final form, along with Commentaries elaborating upon each one, to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Continue reading

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