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Amy Domini Speech on Ethics in Business at the Dalai Lama's New York Town Hall

Thank you. It is such an honor to have this opportunity to speak here today. Before beginning, I’d just like to acknowledge that on this panel are some giants in the effort to bring corporate values into alignment with society’s needs. I also want particularly to thank the Tibet House for hosting this event and to honor his holiness the Dalai Lama. Sir, your faith leadership, your dedication to the cause of human dignity, and your unflagging work for decency, kindness, and a livable planet has made possible a better life for the millions upon millions of voiceless people you serve.

Gentle audience, this afternoon I’d like to build a case for hope. For I sense that we are at a turning point in history, and that my field, socially responsible investing, has a pivotal role to play in it.

Socially responsible investors embrace three distinct yet intertwining disciplines. We buy better companies. Why? Because only when investors define better as encompassing human dignity and ecological sustainability, will corporate management work towards accomplishing those goals. We are better owners. Why? Because each of us can be, “closer to thee, my lord,” including corporations, and by exerting our voices as owners, at the annual meeting of the company, for example, we force emerging issues on to the corporate agenda. We are better neighbors. Why, because a healthy society depends on healthy roots, or, in our case, healthy grassroots. So we support community development financial institutions, by investing in them.

Bringing investments into alignment with personal values makes sense to a lot of people. Socially responsible investing has taken hold globally. At my last count there were five funds in Japan, one in Malaysia, twenty in Canada, one in Brazil, fourteen in Australia, seven in Spain, ten in Italy, two in morocco, over forty in England, a half dozen in South Africa and so on in at least a dozen other countries. The notion of corporate social responsibility has become accepted and yet I feel great urgency.

We have grown. We have entered the mainstream; we have altered the vocabulary; we have even had a measurable impact, but we have not yet altered the course of human events.

A widening gap between rich and poor, unsustainable population growth, rising temperatures, falling water tables, shrinking cropland per person, collapsing fisheries, decimated forests, the loss of plant and animal species and of natural ecosystems. Some 24,000 people per day die of hunger-related causes, and three quarters of these are children. An average African family consumes 20 percent less than they did 25 years ago.

The wealth transfer that we Americans have enjoyed is not just us getting richer and the rest of the world not getting richer. We have reduced household consumption in the southern hemisphere. Meanwhile we’ve deluged poor nations with armaments and the man-made scarcities that now play out against the backdrop of religious, ethnic, racial and tribal enmities, and threaten to send entire regions, even continents, into the abyss of civil war and slaughter while we profit from the sales.

There is no “they” creating the conditions of global disaster. We are the problem. Corporations increasingly rule the world. They, however only serve you and me. We invest in the system. We have our 401k plans, our savings, all managed for us by fidelity, vanguard and other giants of finance.

Mutual funds are far and away the fastest growing force in the financial services industry today. With assets of roughly $7 trillion, mutual funds own almost half of the market capitalization of the United States of America. The average holding period of a company’s stock in a fund is under twelve months. The message to management: get a good contract, now, while I own the stock. And so Unocal contracts for oil in Burma, resulting in the enslavement of thousands, an so American battery manufacturers contract for lead from Peru, resulting in the poisoning of thousands, and so forth. This system is geared towards only one result -- putting a little money in your wallet.

But the small investor is more than a wallet; the investor is also a living being. Unlike an “excellent investment result,” you and I need air to breath, and furthermore, we hope to live in pleasant surroundings.

My remarks are a call to action. Values must become integral to the investing process. Universal human dignity and ecological sustainability must become the goal of all investors. Like me, you must enter the belly of the beast. Together we must alter the path that the tidal wave of global finance is set upon and save the planet.

This is my passion. I have spent my entire adult life teaching people that the investments our parents made created the world we live in and that we must act quickly to see to it that the investments we make build the world we want.

My field is much misunderstood. Many say we cannot be a single voice; there are conflicting values at work. But the values of human dignity, of ecological sustainability, in short, of a pleasant future for our great, great, great grandchildren, are universal values that every social investment professional strives to achieve.

They say that you cannot make money this way. And yet the Domini 400 social index, the index created that serves as a benchmark to my industry, has outperformed the Standard & Poors 500 Index on a one year, three year, five year, ten year and since inception basis [as of August 30, 2003].

Investors stand at the fulcrum between two worlds, the world of finance and the world of commerce. By building a caring presence at this essential juncture, socially responsible investors make possible the use of the financial engine of the planet, surely the strongest human-made force at work today, as a tool for building a future that encompasses human values along with monetary ones.

Fifteen years ago the SRI industry posited that the way you invest could make money and make a difference. This turned out to be true. Fifteen years ago the majority in South Africa had no vote. Nelson Mandela has credited ethical investors with giving him the single most important tool he had to bring the government of that nation to the bargaining table.

Fifteen years virtually no company’s equal employment opportunity statement addressed sexual orientation, today it is the norm. Fifteen years ago no major company had agreed to comprehensive social and environmental reporting, today it is the norm among the largest companies in the world. Fifteen years ago no Fortune 500 company had an African-American or a woman at the helm, today more than a dozen do.

Now we know that we can make a difference. We’ve seen it, touched it, tasted it. Over the next fifteen years, our job will be to change the rules…to build a world where human dignity and environmental sustainability not only hold equal sway with profits, but where profit itself is a tool to deliver these, along with desired goods and services.

We are at a flex point in history. This is a small planet and our time is short. We are weary of suffering and injustice. We must act now if we are to save this fine green earth and her children.

We have the tools; we have the structure; and we cannot afford to fail.

Thank you.

©Amy Domini, 2009