Friday, February 4, 2011

Socially Responsible Investing

Amy Domini, founder and CEO of Domini Social Investments, opened her convocation speech with a focus on how to invest with social responsibility in our current world, where amidst “the widening gap between the rich and poor” and a “deteriorating environment”, “large corporations continue getting richer and bigger returns.” The mission of Domini's investment management company is to provide investment vehicles to the socially responsible investor, and she emphasized that shareholders in Domini Funds made a difference in the world by engaging companies on issues such as global warming, sweatshop labor, and product safety. She pointed to how America’s architectural landscape illustrated our rapidly shifting ideals; that “first the churches and religious structures were the tallest buildings, then it became the houses of parliament, and now of course the skyline is occupied by buildings like Pan Am, representing just how the big corporations are dominating our livelihoods.” In this new dynamic, certain changes regarding responsible investment need to be implemented, she said.

Domini emphasized the important role of the investor, stating “how we invest today will shape the future.” In light of that, socially responsible investment focuses on people and the planet, in attempts to “improve standards of investing to meet better than average standards of regard” for those two areas. She said the effort seeks to “generate capital for underserviced and economically disadvantaged people”, thus establishing a dynamic that had previously been neglected in light of increasing profits and financial progression. Domini also noted that role of the shareholder and how they take on “the role of owners, meeting with companies on issues of concern.” This leads to a new development of investment, from what was historically considered to be the community – the immediate hometown – and emerged on a larger stage, involving both the national as well as global participants.

Domini drew upon the Sullivan Principles – two corporate codes of conduct developed in the 70’s in South Africa – as a major example of applying economic pressure in protest of the system of apartheid and substandard corporate social responsibility. Particular foreign companies pursued harsh programs of racial segregation and discrimination for their employees, and after evaluations of their practices, they eventually had to implement changes as a response. In light of this, Domini emphasized the evaluative procedure involving the particular companies her management firm handles. One example she gave was the food industry, where they demand certain standards in the practices of individual companies, and rate them such that “lowering sugar is considered positive, whilst advertising to children is negative.” These evaluations are then used to determine how qualified a company is in practicing socially responsible investment. Domini noted the risks inherent specific industries, stating that “we exclude companies selling addictive products, as well as nuclear powers due to concern, in this day and age, of terrorism.” On that note, she admitted that one of the main challenges is with the energy industry, because of rampant “corruption and damage to native communities” that irresponsible companies ultimately instigate.

In conclusion, Domini noted that the importance of socially responsible investment is gradually “entering the psyche of governments and companies,” thus alerting them to the role of financing in building safe societies. She pointed to a new global status quo, where “annual socially responsible investment reports are produced by over four thousand companies worldwide,” and in many countries the government has released legislation mandating this practice, putting pressure on companies to follow suit with this “universal reporting.” In connecting company management with NGO’s and investors, Domini and her firm “seek solutions to create more thoughtful citizens,” reaffirming the notion that “becoming an investor makes you part of the solution.”

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