Twenty years from now, we will have either successfully transitioned from our current economic growth paradigm to a new model of Sustainable Capitalism or we will be suffering the calamitous consequences of our failure to do so. Likewise, sustainable investing will either remain a niche strategy or it will have supplanted mainstream investing.
This is the critical point we must embrace: sustainable investing can no longer simply present itself as an alternative to traditional investment approaches that ignore environmental, social and governance (ESG) imperatives; it cannot simply be for some people; it must actually triumph over and displace traditional investing.
The current model of global capitalism—call it growth capitalism—is premised upon perpetual economic growth that must ultimately invade all accessible habitat and consume all available resources.1 Growth capitalism must eventually collapse, and is in fact collapsing, for the simple reason that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth. Moreover, the dislocations associated with this infinite growth paradigm and its incipient demise—climate change, rising inequality and extreme poverty, resource scarcity (including food and water shortages), habitat loss and species extinctions, ever more frequent financial crises, to name just a few—will increasingly bedevil global policy makers in the years ahead. The public sector is already experiencing a high degree of dysfunction associated with its inability to confront a defining feature of this system: the need for perpetual growth in consumption spurs a corresponding growth in public and private debt to fuel that consumption, which has roiled financial markets and sovereign finances across the globe.
Meanwhile, the environmental fallout from this infinite growth paradigm is becoming acute. All of earth’s natural systems—air, water, minerals, oil, forests and rainforests, soil, wetlands, fisheries, coral reefs, the oceans themselves—are in serious decline. Climate change is just one symptom. “The problem is the delusion that we can have infinite quantitative economic growth, that we can keep having more and more stuff, on a finite planet.”2 The problem is an economic system that makes no distinction between capital investments that destroy the environment, or worsen public health, or exacerbate economic inequality, and those that are aligned with earth’s natural systems while promoting the general welfare. Under growth capitalism, a dollar of output is a dollar of output, regardless of its side effects; short-term profit is valued regardless of the long-term consequences or externalities.
It is therefore discouraging that, in the U.S. at least, there is no serious discussion in mainstream policy circles about alternatives to the present system. Nor do I think there will be for some time given our current political/cultural drift. Political and economic elites, and the public itself, remain committed to growth capitalism, accustomed to “having more and more stuff,” for a host of economic, social and psychological reasons. As Jeremy Grantham has written, “[t]he problems of compounding growth in the face of finite resources are not easily understood by optimistic, short-term-oriented, and relatively innumerate humans (especially the political variety).”3 Our campaign finance system, wherein policymakers are essentially bought off by and incentivized to advance the very interests that stand to profit most from the current system, is no help. Making matters worse, large segments of the public do not even accept what science teaches us about climate change, or natural systems, or evolution, or a host of other pressing realities. The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Today, it seems that a growing number of people, aided and abetted by special interests that stand to benefit from public ignorance, are increasingly opting for their own “facts.”
So, neither the public sector nor corporate and economic elites, as a result of some new found enlightenment, seem poised to consider alternatives to the current system. To the contrary, their first impulse will be to resist any such efforts. This is the critical problem at the moment: while there is an array of powerful forces aligned against the type of sweeping, systemic change that is needed, there is no organized constituency for it. There are individuals and groups who support this or that reform, or who are focused on critical pieces of the larger puzzle (e.g., climate change, sustainable food & agriculture, gender equality, sustainable investing), but there is no movement, no political party or leader, no policy agenda to connect the dots.
That is a shame because there is a clear alternative to growth capitalism that has been articulated in recent years by a diverse body of economists, ecologists, scientists and other leading thinkers—including leaders in the sustainable investment community.4
Although there is as of yet no unified theory or common language, let alone any sort of organized movement to speak of, what has emerged is essentially a unified vision, and that vision might best be described as Sustainable Capitalism.5
Sustainable Capitalism may be thought of as a market system where the quality of output replaces the quantity of output as the measure of economic well-being. Sustainable Capitalism “explicitly integrates environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into strategy, the measurement of outputs and the assessment of both risks and opportunities…. encourages us to generate financial returns in a long-term and responsible manner, and calls for internalizing negative externalities through appropriate pricing.”6 Essentially, business corporations and markets alter their focus from maximizing short-term profit to maximizing long-term value, and long-term value expressly includes the societal benefits associated with or derived from economic activity. The connections between economic output and ecological/societal health are no longer obscured but are expressly linked.7
There is no question that growth capitalism must give way to Sustainable Capitalism. It’s as simple, and as urgent, as that. Over the next 20 years, the sustainable investing industry must play a pivotal leadership role in ushering in this historic transformation. We will need to connect the dots and catalyze the movement. Why us? For the simple reason that finance is where the battle must be joined. It is the financial system that determines how and where capital is invested, what is valued and not valued, priced and not priced. The sustainable investment community’s role is vital because the fundamental struggle is between a long-term perspective that fully integrates ESG factors into economic and investment decisions and our current paradigm which is increasingly organized around short-term trading gains as the primary driver of capital investment and economic growth regardless of consequences/externalities.
The notion that sustainable investing can simply keep to its current trajectory—a few more assets under management here, a few more successful shareholder resolutions there, a few more GRI reports issued, another UN conference, an occasional victory at the SEC—and achieve what needs to be achieved on the scale required is, frankly, untenable. We need to be more ambitious in our agenda.
We will also need to take a more critical stance, not only advocating for ESG integration but against economic and investment approaches that ignore ESG concerns. We will need to consistently critique the notion that externalities associated with economic output are somehow collateral, or that financial return is sufficient without beneficial societal returns, or that markets are inherently efficient and self-correcting. We will need to unabashedly offer sustainable investing not as an alternative approach but as a better approach—as the only sensible, responsible way to invest.
I believe the sustainable investing industry will also need to align itself with a more explicit public policy agenda—while remaining non-partisan—and work with like-minded reformers to advocate for that agenda. For example, sustainable investors should be sounding the alarm about resource scarcity and advocating for a massive public/private investment plan in clean energy, efficiency technologies and modernized infrastructure.8 The age of resource scarcity and the need for efficiency solutions is upon us.9 At Pax World, we offer a fund—the Global Environmental Markets Fund (formerly the Global Green Fund)—whose investment focus is precisely that. Our industry needs to fashion such investment solutions, and I believe there will be opportunities to do so collaboratively as well as competitively.
I also feel strongly that the greatest impediment to sustainable development across the globe is gender inequality. Advancing and empowering women and girls is not only a moral imperative but can unleash enormous potential that is now locked up in our patriarchal global economy. Sustainable investors need to press the case that gender equality needs to be a pillar of Sustainable Capitalism. At Pax World, we also have a fund—the Global Women’s Equality Fund—whose investment focus is exactly that.
In my view, the sustainable investing community should also be advocating for public funding of federal elections, either through a constitutional amendment or, absent an amendment, through a voluntary public funding system. The notion that we can tackle any major public policy issue, let alone undertake the epochal transition to Sustainable Capitalism, while politicians and regulators are captive to the very interests they are supposed to regulate, is beyond naïve. We will not be able to reform capitalism if we cannot reform Congress.
Finally, asset management firms like my own will need to find ways to craft new, more persuasive messages, launch new products, form new partnerships, and fashion new distribution strategies and alliances that are focused on lifting the industry as a whole, because a rising tide will lift all boats. Pax World has taken a step in this direction in launching our ESG Managers Portfolios, where many ESG managers and strategies are now available under one roof in one set of asset allocation funds. There is more to be done—together, as an industry.
The times call for leadership. The transition to Sustainable Capitalism is necessary and urgent, as is the triumph of sustainable investing over investment approaches that effectively prolong and exacerbate the current crisis. Twenty years from now, our industry will be judged by whether we have met this burden of leadership. Our impact either will be dramatic or inconsequential. We either will succeed or we will fail. We should resolve to succeed, and to work collaboratively toward that end.
The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author of this report. All information is historical and not indicative of future results and subject to change. This information is not a recommendation to buy or sell any security. This manager commentary represents an assessment of the market environment at a specific point in time and is not intended to be a forecast of future events, or a guarantee of future results. This information should not be relied upon by the reader as research or investment advice.
Originally published in the Fall 2012 special 20th Anniversary issue of the GreenMoney Journal and greenmoney.com. Reprinted with permission.