Spring is the time of year when most corporations hold their annual meetings and shareholders cast votes on the board of directors, executive compensation and proposals submitted by shareholders.
Our proposals are conversation starters. They get executives’ attention, and hold it long enough for us to make our case. The shareholder proposal is a tool to help us persuade companies to see our point of view. The Domini Social Equity Fund has submitted more than 250 shareholder proposals since 1994.
After we submit our proposals, we often receive a phone call from the company’s Corporate Secretary to get a better understanding of our concerns and to see if they can convince us to withdraw the proposal. This year, these conversations led to agreements with Best Buy, First Solar, and Target. We also worked with our colleagues at Clean Yield Asset Management to withdraw our proposal at Whole Foods. Read more about these agreements.
But what happens when we are unable to reach agreement? At that point, the process reaches a public stage – the company annual meeting.
At the annual meeting, we have an opportunity to make a brief speech in the presence of the CEO, the Board of Directors and other shareholders (Some of these meetings are also webcast, taking our message to a global audience).
The Chipotle annual meeting, in Denver, was a lively one, following a nationwide rash of e-coli and norovirus outbreaks that has battered confidence in the brand. At the meeting, a couple of people spoke about working conditions at a Chipotle supplier, and several questions were asked about food safety.
Our speech began with a reminder that sustainability is key to the long-term success of this company. We applauded Chipotle for its efforts to embed sustainability into the brand, exemplified by its commitment to “Food with Integrity.”
After several years, however, we have been unable to convince Chipotle to publish meaningful sustainability information. Although Chipotle increasingly discusses sustainability on its website (and provided some metrics in its proxy, in response to our proposal), the company still fails to provide comprehensive information to help us understand how it is managing its key sustainability risks. Our speech sought to educate the Board about the critical importance of sustainability reporting to risk management (references to ‘our company’ in these speeches refers to the company that we, as shareholders, collectively own):
An annual report that identified our company’s key sustainability challenges would have flagged food safety long ago. It would have helped to build confidence in our company’s food safety systems. It would have helped management identify gaps, receive feedback, and improve its efforts. It might not have prevented last year’s outbreaks, but it would have helped to build trust, an essential driver of long-term value that is now very much at risk.
Sustainability reporting is about accountability, not marketing. It is a key part of getting the job done.
We were told that Chipotle will be releasing more information around sustainability and that we will be happy with the results. Our proposal’s strong 43% vote should send a strong signal that our message resonates with the company’s shareholders.
For many years, we have been concerned about the flood of ‘dark money’ in our elections – money that cannot be traced to anyone. This spending undermines confidence in our democracy and, we believe, weakens our economy’s overall resilience. We have therefore been working to convince corporations to publicly disclose their spending on elections.
In 2007, Verizon began full disclosure of its direct spending on elections, in response to a Domini proposal. In 2012, Domini welcomed AT&T’s decision to begin full disclosure of its direct electoral spending, including additional details about its board oversight process.
We continue to seek disclosure from both companies of an even riskier area of political spending. We are asking Verizon and AT&T to disclose their indirect political spending -- payments to trade associations and 501(c)4 organizations that are used to influence the outcome of elections.
From our speech at the Verizon meeting:
Verizon speaks about its need to participate in politics to allow it to compete fairly in the marketplace. Is it fair for Verizon to keep its indirect financing of American elections secret?
Fair competition is based on honesty and transparency. Disclosure is a bedrock principle of our capital markets and our democracy. Neither can function properly without it.
Disclosure would cause management and the board to think twice before funding political spending it would not wish to be associated with. It would lead to better decision making.
We also pointed out that both companies can simply ask these organizations not to use their money to finance elections, a step a number of other companies have taken.
At Nucor’s annual meeting in North Carolina, we called for a report on the company’s lobbying activities and drew attention to a press leak in 2012 that revealed that Nucor had contributed to the Heartland Institute, a notorious climate denial organization. We raised concerns with the company at the time, and determined last year to take this a step further when we saw that the company still had not produced any form of public report on these activities.
Nucor’s mission includes a commitment to being “environmental stewards in our communities where we live and work.” As the nation’s largest recycler of steel, we want to ensure Nucor’s lobbying is consistent with that commitment.
This year, we also delved into a more traditional corporate governance area, because we see significant implications for sustainability – capital allocation decisions and share buybacks.
The temptation to devote capital to share buybacks is strong. Shareholders celebrate the short term boost in stock price and the increase in earnings per share, which may explain the very low vote we received on our proposal at 3M. But while share buybacks may boost stock prices in the short term, we are concerned that they can deprive companies of the capital necessary for creating long term growth. In conversations with both Target and 3M, we questioned whether sufficient capital was being allocated to climate change mitigation or to employee development.
Our proposal is designed to help ensure that future capital allocation decisions are not influenced by executive compensation incentives that may be impacted by large buybacks. In our speech, we asked whether 3M’s priorities were properly aligned:
In October, a columnist for Market Watch asked about 3M: “What do you make of a company that announces restructuring moves that include possible job cuts while it buys back shares?”
We would also ask what to make of the fact that 3M, a company that is driven by innovation, has spent $16 billion in research and development and capital expenditures over the past five years to support organic growth programs, and $21 billion to buy back its own shares. If you add in $6 billion spent on strategic acquisitions during that period, 3M has split its spending to grow the business roughly equally with spending to buy its shares.
As long-term investors, we question whether the line is being drawn in the right place. We question whether incentives might be misaligned.
Throughout the year, on behalf of our fund shareholders, we will continue to ask the hard questions that help corporate management to see risks and opportunities in a new light, in order to help to build value for all of us.
Domini Proposals that Went to a Vote this Season
|3M||De-link executive compensation incentives from share buybacks||5.8%|
|AT&T||Indirect political contributions disclosure||29%|
|Chipotle Mexican Grill||Sustainability reporting||43%|
|Nucor||Political lobbying disclosure||32.3%|
|Verizon Communications||Indirect political contributions disclosure||30%|
|UPS||Political lobbying disclosure||22.6%|
In addition to using social, environmental and governance standards to select our investments, each year the Domini Social Equity Fund submits shareholder proposals to corporations in its portfolio, addressing a broad range of social and environmental issues. They send a strong message to corporate management, and can often encourage the company to speak to us about reaching an agreement. Since 1994, the Fund has submitted more than 250 proposals to more than 95 major corporations.
We were pleased to reach agreements to withdraw four proposals during the first quarter. In response to our request to adopt a set of principles for minimum wage reform, Best Buy informed us that its board of directors was overseeing a process already underway to further develop the company’s position on wage levels within the company to ensure its employees have sustainable careers and that Best Buy continues to attract the best talent. We chose to withdraw our proposal in exchange for the company’s agreement to include additional factors in that process, including the effect of minimum wage reform on the company. Domini is also helping to coordinate investor education on this issue.
We were pleased to withdraw our proposal with First Solar after dialogue in the fourth quarter about the company’s political activities. At our request, First Solar’s board adopted a resolution to begin full disclosure of its political contributions, and also adopted a policy to restrict its trade associations from using its dues payments for electoral purposes.
Working with other investors, we withdrew our shareholder proposal to Whole Foods seeking information about the company’s efforts to mitigate the impact of its palm oil purchases on deforestation and human rights. The company agreed to enhancements to its Palm Oil Pledge, and to continuing dialogue to discuss implementation.
Our proposal to 3M addressing share buybacks caught the attention of Gretchen Morgenson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Market Watch columnist for the Sunday edition of the New York Times: “We’re not against buybacks,” said Adam M. Kanzer, a managing director at Domini. “The question is at what point do buybacks become excessive and when do they undermine the long-term value of the company?” We pointed out that 3M spent $21 billion to purchase its own shares over the past five years, but only $22 billion on research and development and strategic acquisitions. When such a substantial portion of a company’s capital expenditures is directed to buybacks, we believe it makes sense to ask whether there’s a more constructive way to invest that capital, such as research and development, employee compensation and training, and climate mitigation. The proposal prompted constructive conversations with 3M and Target. At Target, we were able to withdraw our proposal in exchange for a commitment to enhanced disclosures.
In addition to the above-mentioned engagements, we also spoke with Chipotle regarding its food safety and sustainability reporting policies, with Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo on matters relating to the Global Network Initiative and human rights, with Home Depot on its phasing out of pollinator-harming pesticides, and with Staples on minimum wage reform.
In August, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola was funding an organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which promoted scientific research on obesity. The organization was accused of emphasizing the need for exercise, shifting the blame for obesity away from sugary beverages. Coke’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, responded with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, pledging to ‘do better.’ In that piece, he noted that in addition to disclosing all of its spending relating to addressing obesity, the company would “engage leading experts to explore future opportunities for our academic research investment and health and well-being initiatives,” led by Sandy Douglas, President of Coca-Cola North America. Coke’s subsequent disclosures led to a series of articles in the Times. Ultimately, GEBN was shut down and Coke’s head scientist took an early retirement.
We have had constructive engagements with Coca-Cola on a wide range of issues, for many years, including human rights, water use and recycling. On the basis of this relationship, we were invited to participate in a one-on-one call with Mr. Douglas, as part of his expert “listening tour.” We discussed what he has learned so far from the public health experts he’s met with, Coke’s historical response to the problem of obesity and some changes they will be making. We look forward to continuing this dialogue.
Investors, companies and the general public have a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of scientific research. We are therefore encouraging companies that fund research to fully disclose these expenditures. In addition to Coca-Cola, we have also opened dialogue with Pepsi to discuss its approach to scientific funding, and to encourage greater transparency.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court reaffirmed what many of us have long believed—the Constitution is a living, breathing document built on a foundation of equality and the pursuit of happiness. It did not take a constitutional amendment to establish marriage equality, because those concepts are embedded in our nation’s founding documents.
The struggle for that important achievement was carried out over many years, from the streets, to the court rooms, to the board rooms.
We were pleased to join 379 employers and employer organizations in a friend of the court (amicus curiae) brief to the US Supreme Court to explain how discriminatory restrictions on the right to marry hurt business. According to the Court:
“As more than 100 amici make clear in their filings, many of the central institutions in American life—state and local governments, the military, large and small businesses, labor unions, religious organizations, law enforcement, civic groups, professional organizations, and universities—have devoted substantial attention to the question. This has led to an enhanced understanding of the issue—an understanding reflected in the arguments now presented for resolution as a matter of constitutional law.” Obergefell v. Hodges, Slip Op. at 23 (emphasis added).
Some of the largest publicly traded corporations in the world signed that brief, demonstrating that this issue had already been settled in the mainstream business community. By 2012, the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies prohibited workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, setting a higher standard than the law required.
That didn’t happen by accident. Much of it happened, company by company, due to the hard work of investors who believe that discrimination is bad for business. Companies were persuaded through letters from their shareholders, face to face meetings and the submission of shareholder proposals that were put to a vote at company annual meetings across the country. Some of these dialogues took years to achieve success.
The Domini Social Equity Fund played a small part in these efforts, convincing several companies to amend their non-discrimination policies to include “sexual orientation,” and voting for shareholder proposals submitted by others. A small change brought about by your mutual fund can have ripple effects throughout society.
This work helped to lay the groundwork for marriage equality by changing perceptions in the investor and business communities, strengthening the notion that an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity has nothing to do with their ability to perform on the job. We explained that corporations would benefit by greater employee loyalty and commitment. They would also gain the ability to recruit from the broadest possible pool of talent.
In the world of finance, the phrase “domestic equity” does not refer to marriage equality, it refers to the stock of American companies. But the word “equity” has a double-meaning. After all, a system that is fundamentally unfair is also not good for business in the long run.
In addition to using social, environmental and governance standards to select our investments, each year the Domini Social Equity Fund submits shareholder proposals to corporations in its portfolio, addressing a broad range of social and environmental issues. Since 1994, the Fund has submitted more than 250 proposals to more than 95 major corporations.
Frequently, companies will reach out to us to see what steps they could take to convince us to withdraw our proposal and avoid a shareholder vote on the issue. A high vote on a proposal is nice, but we always prefer to withdraw our proposal in exchange for an agreement. Over the years, often in partnership with other investors or NGOs, we have convinced numerous companies to adopt new policies to protect factory workers and the environment, and to enhance public transparency.
In the first quarter of 2015, we withdrew four proposals in exchange for the following commitments:
Lowe’s, the world’s second largest home improvement retailer, agreed to eliminate neonicotinoid pesticides — a leading contributor to global bee declines — from its stores by 2019. The company will also redouble its pesticide management efforts with its plant suppliers, and will begin a variety of consumer education initiatives focused on pollinator health. Lowe’s has also informed us that it now offers a full range of natural or organic alternatives to its synthetic pesticide offerings. Read more about this important announcement.
Avon agreed to review and revise its palm oil purchasing policies to address impacts on deforestation and human rights. Avon utilizes palm oil derivatives (products derived from palm oil) in a wide variety of products. About 60% of the palm oil consumed globally is in the form of derivatives. Read more about this important announcement.
Southwestern Energy committed to publishing annual methane emission reduction targets and to include these targets in determining bonuses for management and staff. Methane is a relatively short-lived, but potent, greenhouse gas. The company is leading a group of companies called the ONE Future Coalition, a collaborative effort to reduce methane leakage below 1%, from the well-head to your kitchen burner. Southwestern, however, has not set its own targets yet. This is the first time the company has publicly committed to do so.
MeadWestvaco agreed to full disclosure of its political contributions. Thanks to concerted efforts by investors, including Domini, more than 140 large corporations now disclose their political spending so that they may be held accountable by their investors and consumers.
Domini Social Investments announced today that Avon Products (Ticker: AVP) has agreed to review and revise its palm oil purchasing policies to address impacts on deforestation and human rights, in response to a shareholder proposal filed by the Domini Social Equity Fund (Ticker: DSEFX). The proposal was co-filed by the Appleseed Fund, in collaboration with Ceres.
“We were very pleased to withdraw our proposal in response to these new commitments from Avon,” said Adam Kanzer, Managing Director and Director of Corporate Engagement at Domini. “As investors, we are seeking to invest in good companies and make them better. Our proposal has helped to spur an internal dialogue about the impact of Avon’s palm oil purchases, encouraging the company to set the bar higher.”
Over the past several years, Domini has been encouraging companies in its Fund portfolios to adopt appropriate policies and procedures to address the impact of its commodity purchases on forests and human rights, including palm oil. According to WWF, “Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations – destroying critical habitat for many endangered species, including rhinos, elephants and tigers. In some cases, the expansion of plantations has led to the eviction of forest-dwelling peoples.”
Avon is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and has previously committed to purchase GreenPalm certificates equivalent to 100% of its palm oil supply. These certificates are used to finance sustainable palm oil production, but cannot guarantee that Avon’s actual palm oil purchases are produced sustainably.
Most of Avon’s palm oil purchases are in the form of products derived from palm oil (“palm oil derivatives”), further complicating the company’s ability to trace its purchases back to their source. Avon utilizes palm oil derivatives in a wide variety of products. About 60% of the palm oil consumed globally is in the form of derivatives.
In response to Domini’s proposal, Avon has committed to take the following additional steps:
- Avon agrees to establish a cross-functional internal team to assess the Company’s palm oil sourcing and develop a recommendation for implementing a time-bound sustainable sourcing plan.
- Avon will revise its palm oil policy to establish a time-bound plan to purchase certified Mass Balance or segregated sustainable palm/palm kernel oil, with full traceability back to the planation for all direct purchases and the majority of its palm oil derivatives purchases. “Mass Balance” is a term established by the RSPO to denote palm oil supply that contains a mix of certified and uncertified palm oil. “Segregated” refers to 100% certified sustainable palm oil that can be traced to its source.
- Avon commits to provide updates on its website about the development and implementation of these new palm oil commitments.
- Avon commits to a good faith dialogue with Domini and Appleseed on the development, implementation and public reporting of Avon’s new policy commitments, including discussion of time-bound commitments with clear goals, and the inclusion of human rights standards.
Friends of the Earth, Domini Social Investments and Trillium Asset Management praised Lowe’s (NYSE: LOW) for making a commitment to eliminate neonicotinoid pesticides — a leading contributor to global bee declines — from its stores.
After input from suppliers, NGOs, investors and other key stakeholders, the company announced it will phase out neonicotinoids (“neonics”) as suitable alternatives become available, redouble existing integrated pest management practices for suppliers and provide additional material educating customers about pollinator health.
“We commend Lowe’s for taking a leadership position on this critical issue,” said Adam Kanzer, Managing Director and Director of Corporate Engagement at Domini Social Investments. “Sales of neonic-containing products may be exacerbating a critical systemic risk – alarming declines in honeybees and wild pollinators that support our food systems. As investors and as human beings, we all depend upon pollinators. We believe Lowe’s actions will help protect an irreplaceable resource.”
“We are pleased Lowe’s is listening to consumer concerns and to the growing body of science telling us we need to move away from bee-toxic pesticides by taking steps to be part of the solution to the bee crisis,” said Lisa Archer, Food & Technology Program Director at Friends of the Earth. “Bees are canaries in the coalmine for our food system and everyone, including the business community, must act fast to protect them.”
“Lowe’s public commitment will better position the company to meet the demands of an increasingly environmentally-conscious consumer base. And, it sends an important market signal that restricting the use of bee-harming pesticides is essential to tackling bee declines,” said Susan Baker, Vice President, Trillium Asset Management. “We applaud the company’s positive steps on this issue.”
Friends of the Earth Campaign
This announcement follows a two-year campaign led by Friends of the Earth and allies* to urge Lowe’s and other garden retailers to stop selling plants treated with neonicotinoids and remove neonic pesticides from their shelves. More than one million people signed petitions and thousands of activists delivered letters directly to Lowe’s stores in cities across the U.S. and Canada asking for this change.
A study released by Friends of the Earth and Pesticide Research Institute, Gardeners Beware 2014, showed that 51 percent of garden plants purchased at Lowe’s, Home Depot (NYSE: HD), and Walmart (NYSE: WMT) in 18 cities in the United States and Canada contained neonicotinoid pesticides at levels that could harm or even kill bees. In the past year, more than twenty nurseries, landscaping companies and retailers—including Home Depot, Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM) and BJ’s Wholesale Club have taken steps to eliminate bee-killing pesticides from their stores. The UK’s top garden retailers including Homebase, B&Q and Wickes, have also stopped selling neonicotinoids.
Investor Engagement on Pollinator Declines
Investors, in collaboration with the Investor Environmental Health Network, began engaging home improvement retailers and food companies in their portfolios about the environmental risks of neonics in 2013, the year Domini and Trillium opened conversations with Lowe’s about the topic.
While Domini and Trillium had constructive dialogue with Lowe’s, the investors chose to submit a shareholder proposal in November to stress the urgency of the issue. The proposal, submitted by the Domini Social Equity Fund (Ticker: DSEFX) and by Trillium Asset Management, on behalf of Ellen Webster, asked the company’s Board of Directors to conduct a risk assessment of its environmental protection policies and practices to determine whether continued sales of neonicotinoid-containing products are in the best interests of Lowe’s, its consumers and its shareholders.
The investors withdrew the shareholder proposal in response to new commitments which will help the company provide its customers with products that promote healthy gardens and reduce risks to pollinators and other beneficial organisms.
- A time-bound phase out of neonicotinoid (“neonics”) containing products in shelf products and plants, to be completed by the Spring of 2019, as suitable alternatives become available. For nurseries, Lowe’s will phase-out neonics for bee-attractive plants, and plants where regulatory requirements do not require the application of neonics (certain states require the application of neonics on certain plants and nursery material). Lowe’s plans to implement this phase-out as soon as is practicable.
- Redoubling pesticide management efforts and the addition of an application reduction plan with plant suppliers, including the collection and sharing of growers’ best practices around use of biological controls and integrated pest management (“IPM”) practices, and research into best alternatives. Nurseries will be required to disclose to Lowe’s the amount of pesticides used per acre, or a similar metric.
- Increased focus on consumer education initiatives including in-store distribution of EPA and Pollinator Partnership pesticide brochures and product tags which will highlight the health of bees and other pollinators.
- Funding of pollinator gardens through the company’s philanthropic and volunteer programs.
- Disclosure of these efforts in its 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.
- Continued dialogue with Domini, Trillium and Friends of the Earth focused on implementation and public reporting of these commitments.
“Along with our allies, we will continue to work with Lowe’s and other retailers to move neonicotinoid pesticides off their shelves and out of garden plants as soon as possible to ensure bees can find save havens in our backyards and communities,” said Archer. “With a new spring planting season upon us, it’s important for gardeners to be aware that many plants in stores today still contain neonicotinoids. We look forward to the day shoppers can buy home garden plants without worrying about harming pollinators.”
Lowe’s announcement comes eight months after a meta-analysis of 1,121 peer-reviewed studies by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides concluded neonicotinoids are a leading factor of bee declines and are harming birds, earthworms, butterflies and other wildlife. The Task Force called for immediate regulatory action.
In October, 2014, the Council on Environmental Quality issued guidance for federal facilities and federal lands which included acquiring seeds and plants from nurseries that do not treat these items with systemic insecticides.
On April 2, the EPA announced a moratorium on new or expanded uses of neonicotinoids while it evaluates the risks posed to pollinators. Last month, more than four million Americans signed petitions calling on the Obama administration to put forth strong protections for bees and other pollinators. The Pollinator Health Task Force, established by the White House this past June, is charged with improving pollinator health, and assessing the impacts of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on pollinators.
In 1970, Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay for the New York Times Magazine, arguing that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
For many years, the Friedman point of view prevailed: the job of a corporation is to serve its shareholders. A portion of Friedman’s argument rested on a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand—the notion that a “free market” also means “freedom.” Here is how Friedman put it: “In an ideal free market resting on private property, no individual can coerce any other, all cooperation is voluntary, all parties to such cooperation benefit or they need not participate. There are no values, no ‘social’ responsibilities in any sense other than the shared values and responsibilities of individuals.”
Perhaps that is how an “ideal” free market would function. Forty-five years after Friedman’s essay, however, we still remain very far from that ideal state. Consider these unsettling facts:
- Although illegal, slavery and forced labor persists in many forms around the world. Researchers estimate there may be as many as 36 million people in slavery today—more than at any other time in history.
- According to a two-year study conducted by Verite, forced labor in Malaysian electronics factories is widespread, impacting one in three migrant workers.
- Last spring, the Guardian reported that “large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand” are integral to the production of shrimp sold in leading supermarkets around the world.
- Every year the government of Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, forcibly mobilizes children as young as ten years old to harvest their crops.
Many corporations are now well aware of these facts, and enforce codes of conduct at factories and fields around the world through regular monitoring. Some collaborate with labor unions and human rights groups, and actively seek to find the root causes of these abuses. They are changing the definition of “good business.” But these changes did not come about through the influence of a magical invisible hand of the market. These transformations are largely the result of concerted engagement by investors and civil society organizations repeatedly raising concerns with corporations for decades.
Milton Friedman allowed for profitable socially responsible activities—this is just good business after all, not “social responsibility.” He failed to see, however, how far away we are from his ideal free market, and the critical need to convince companies to act more responsibly, even when it is in their long-term best interests to do so.
In 2010, Domini convinced Nucor to adopt strong policies to address forced labor and slavery in Brazil. Read the case study.
Learn more about Domini's approach to Human Rights
Several years ago, at a Goldman Sachs annual meeting, time was set aside for shareholders to ask questions of the CEO. A man approached the microphone and announced that he was a guest, not a shareholder, and wondered if he could ask a question. “No,” he was politely informed, “only shareholders can ask questions.”
It was a telling moment that spoke a significant truth about the corporate system – only shareholders count. For many, a responsible company is defined as a company that takes care of its shareholders. A nod will be given to other “stakeholders,” such as employees and community members affected by corporate activity, but only to the extent that these good relationships help create wealth for shareholders. Shareholders? That’s us. Most of us don’t know much about picking stocks, so we trust a financial advisor or a mutual fund manager to do this for us. Nearly 100 million Americans invest in mutual funds.
When you invest in a mutual fund, your money becomes part of a common pool of assets that the fund manager uses to invest in stocks or bonds or other financial instruments. It’s their job to look out for your best interests. A mutual fund is a profit-seeking vehicle, but it can also become a vehicle for the common good. Your small investment can be leveraged to help produce significant change.
Shareholders have not done a particularly good job monitoring the behavior of the companies they own. In fact, they are often a significant part of the problem. Corporations are some of the largest economic entities in the world, and they are managed with the steady drumbeat of "make me money" in the background. It should come as no surprise when companies cut corners on safety, oppose environmental regulations and outsource production where wages and worker protections are weakest. They do this to satisfy their shareholders. A year before the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, Tony Hayward, BP’s former CEO, quipped that he pays his shareholders an annual dividend “to keep his job.”
Moral and financial concerns are not independent but interdependent. Corporate success depends on a delicate web of relationships with employees, customers, communities, governments, suppliers, investors, and ecosystems. Companies that treat these stakeholders with dignity and respect can prosper in the long run by avoiding problems and winning the loyalty of their employees and consumers. They can also create tremendous value for society. When oil companies like BP pay insufficient attention to worker health and safety, however, shareholders also suffer. And CEOs, like Mr. Hayward, lose their jobs.
So what does it mean to be a shareholder? A shareholder is a person of influence. Together, we have an opportunity to seek profits and wield that influence for the common good.
Read why Domini chose not to invest in BP, years before the Gulf of Mexico disaster. .
The complexity of our food production systems is astounding, as are its staggering impacts on climate change and human rights. Any given meal or afternoon snack can touch on issues as far-ranging as the survival of the orangutan or a land rights dispute in Africa. Climate change, water scarcity, nutritional content, marketing to children, animal welfare and labor rights are all on the table.
Behind each familiar brand lies a complex set of relationships stretching across the globe. We view these relationships as opportunities for positive impact. As investors, we can create the incentives for companies to simultaneously be more transparent and to dig deeper to ensure their businesses are operating responsibly. Through your investment in the Domini Funds, your money is working to help catalyze this process of transformation.
For example, deforestation is an important driver of climate change, accounting for an estimated 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The Consumer Goods Forum, an industry association, has acknowledged that “the consumer goods industry, through its growing use of soya, palm oil, beef, paper and board, creates many of the economic incentives which drive deforestation.” All 400 members of the Forum, representing all the world’s major consumer goods manufacturers, retailers and service providers, have committed to zero net deforestation by 2020.
Who will hold these companies accountable for these commitments? What do they mean in practice?
The shareholder proposal is an effective tool for encouraging corporate management to come to the table to discuss our concerns. We developed a proposal that we have submitted to several of the largest food companies, asking for public reports assessing each company’s impact on deforestation and its plans to mitigate these risks. We’ve asked these companies to report on their impact by commodity, as each carries its own set of risks and possible solutions. Among these commodities, palm oil has received the most attention because its production is responsible for large-scale forest conversion in the tropics and extensive carbon emissions.
At Domini Social Investments, the research we conduct to understand the dynamics of our food systems is core to the investment process. Whether it is expressed in the avoidance of many manufacturers of agricultural chemicals, in the search for systems that provide safer food for all, or in the proxy votes we cast or the hard questions we ask of corporate managers, we view our social and environmental standards as key to the process of helping both the public and corporations understand what is at stake.
Download our 2014 Annual Report (PDF) to learn more about the ways the Domini Funds are helping to promote better food production around the globe, including our approach to local and organic sourcing, genetically modified organisms, pesticide use and deforestation.