Steve Lippman, green investment expert, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m the senior analyst on the Social Research and Advocacy team at Trillium Asset Management, a Boston-based investment management company dedicated solely to socially responsible investing.
The biggest part of my job is actively engaging with companies we hold to encourage them to improve their social and environmental performance. So for instance, we played a role in convincing PepsiCo to establish its first strategic plan on water conservation and stewardship, Staples to set goals to more than triple the amount of recycled content in the overall mix of paper products it sells, and Citigroup to adopt groundbreaking policies to review and reduce the environmental impacts of the large projects it finances. Of course, many of these victories also came about because of work by lots of environmental groups and other players from around the world. Yet as shareholders, we often have a unique ability to offer our input and press senior corporate managers to consider the need for better environmental and social policies and performance.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
There are 173 right now, and that’s even after a morning spent mostly reading, responding to, and deleting emails. I was on work travel last week, and any time I’m away it’s a huge struggle to catch up.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Some corporate general counsel are not the most fun people to deal with … initially at least. We seek to work collaboratively with companies we hold. As investors, we want the companies we hold to be successful as businesses as well as act responsibly — and in fact, we think acting responsibly is the best way companies can minimize future risks and protect long-term shareholder value. But early on, some general counsel and others within companies see us much more as adversaries than as partners discussing common goals. The hard part is, once we’ve built a level of trust and understanding with senior managers within a company and are satisfied they are moving on the right path, it’s time to start over with a new company full of people suspicious about our intentions. So it’s back to calling the next defensive general counsel.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
On the flip side, plenty of people within companies, from CEOs on down (and even many general counsel), are very nice and great to work with. Despite the egregious things you read about in the newspaper almost every day, I don’t think many people in companies go to work every morning eager to make sure more rainforest is cut down, more poisons are dumped into local communities’ drinking water, and more kids are working in sweatshops. Promoting those outcomes is just not going to feel like a day well spent to most people. Yet companies do play a role in those things happening, I think in large part because we’ve built an incredibly complicated system of global commerce that is almost entirely focused on quarterly earnings and rewarding companies for short-term thinking. Many corporate managers are actually surprisingly eager to explore ways their organizations can take a step back and figure out how to narrow the gap between the common values most of us share and the way their businesses operate day to day.
Who is your environmental hero?
One group of unsung environmental heroes is the growing number of environmental-affairs managers and other people acting as internal advocates within companies. They are doing the hard, unglamorous, and often thankless work of lobbying for change from the inside. There are too many of them to name individually, and I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out, but hopefully they know who they are.
On the other side of the table (or banner sometimes), over the last five years, the San Francisco-based group Rainforest Action Network has had an incredible impact on corporate behavior at corporate giants from Home Depot to Bank of America. It’s particularly amazing when you realize they only have a staff of about 20 people. Like all of us in the environmental movement, they’ve achieved their victories with the help of lots of allies and coalitions, but they’ve really led the way and had a tremendous impact.
What’s your environmental vice?
I’m sure my biggest environmental impact comes from too much air travel, both for work trips and fun trips. I’m getting better about trying to cut down on work trips and schedule meetings by teleconference rather than in person. On the other hand, I’m currently based in Seattle and a teleconference is really no substitute for a winter vacation in Mexico.
What are you reading these days?
I’m just finishing Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is about Dr. Paul Farmer’s efforts to address the global health crisis in Haiti and the world’s poorest populations. It’s inspiring, but for those who are in the mood for a lighter read, I’d also recommend another book I’ve recently read, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, written by the drummer for Semisonic (whose song “Closing Time” you may have heard highly overplayed on the radio a few years ago). If you’re looking for a book related to socially responsible investing and corporate responsibility, I really enjoyed Marc Gunther’s new book Faith and Fortune. I doubt those books have ever been mentioned together in the same paragraph before.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Forming new alliances with investors. For instance, the environmental coalition CERES has incubated the Investor Network on Climate Risk. Through INCR, state pension funds and other major institutional investors are demanding to know how oil, utility, auto, and other companies are planning to address long-term business risks from climate change. In the past two years, the INCR and other broad coalitions of shareholder groups including Trillium Asset Management have convinced major utility and energy companies to issue their first-ever reports on what risks climate change poses to them and how they plan to address the issue. Some of those reports, such as a recent one by Cinergy, acknowledge that further regulatory action to address climate change is inevitable and build the case that the U.S. government needs to take more action now to address the risks of climate change rather than continuing to delay.
I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of getting people’s buying decisions to reflect their social and environmental values, at least here in the U.S. There’s a greater level of awareness in Europe, and there’s certainly been strong demand here for some environmental products, notably organic foods and hybrid autos. Still, while people consistently tell pollsters they factor environment and social issues into their purchasing decisions, their everyday choices don’t seem to send a clear message that they value a clean environment or an end to sweatshop labor. There are some resources out there for socially conscious consumers, like IdealsWork.com, but I think there’s an opportunity to do a lot more. I would love to see a group or coalition of groups organize and mobilize consumers to act in a way that’s as high-profile as MoveOn.org‘s efforts to mobilize grassroots engagement in political action over the past several years. (Or maybe someone at MoveOn could take this on, if anyone there is reading this.)
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
If I think back to what I was blasting out my dorm window, it was probably U2. I don’t think my upstairs neighbors have heard me playing “Where The Streets Have No Name” anytime recently, but they have probably heard more of The Magnetic Fields than they’d like to. Stephen Merritt, the force behind that band, might actually be as brilliant as Bono thinks himself.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do at least one thing to make your investing or purchasing decisions reflect your environmental and social values. The Social Investment Forum and SocialFunds.com have directories of socially responsible mutual funds, information about options for community investments in your local community or around the world, and resources that can be a great start in changing some of your investments. Or pick one brand or product you use a lot, see what environmental information they have on their website, and write the CEO to commend them for anything positive they are doing and challenge them to do more.
This applies not just to individuals, but to institutions too. It drives me crazy that many environmental foundations and environmental groups are using traditional money managers that are actually using the shares those groups own to vote against environmental shareholder resolutions filed by socially responsible investors. They probably don’t even know it’s happening, but it makes no sense that they are voting against proposals asking companies to stem global warming or pledge not to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If you’re an environmental foundation, do you really want to be voting in lockstep with the management of ExxonMobil on these issues? Because you probably are right now. The Foundation Partnership on Corporate Responsibility has good information on how foundations can leverage all their assets to create change, not just the grants they give.
I want to emphasize that this isn’t motivated by self-interest, or at least not by financial self-interest. I’d love to help more foundations invest their money responsibly, but would be just as happy to have another SRI firm invest their assets instead or even to get them to change how their traditional money managers vote shareholder proxies. I just don’t want their investments to be used to vote against the types of environmental change we’re all working for.