Socially responsible investors press companies to do the right thing

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Demonstrators protest medicine prices outside Pfizer headquarters in New York City in this Dec. 4, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Andrew Gombert, EPA)
Demonstrators protest medicine prices outside Pfizer headquarters in New York City in this Dec. 4, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Andrew Gombert, EPA)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — If it’s spring, it must be corporate annual general meeting season.

For investors concerned about corporate accountability and transparency, it’s one of the busiest times of the year.

The annual general meetings give shareholders the chance to publicly engage corporate leadership on hot-button issues such as human rights, climate change, sustainability, lobbying expenditures and human trafficking.

Faith-based investors — many of which are members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility — have led shareholder advocacy campaigns for more than four decades. Over the years, they have leveraged their financial clout as stockholders to air grievances about corporate activities and to pursue responsible corporate action.

“There’s a unique role for faith-based investors in pushing the world’s biggest companies to acting as responsible and accountable corporate citizens,” said Josh Zinner, ICCR’s new CEO. “Primarily this is about using the role of investor to push companies not to do the right thing purely for moral reasons … but to do the right thing for shareholders as well.”

Such engagement affects small investors as well through the pension funds and mutual funds in which their contributions are invested. Capuchin Father Michael H. Crosby, executive director of the Wisconsin/Iowa/Minnesota Coalition for Responsible Investment, an ICCR member, said each investor, whether small or large, should have a say in any company in which they hold shares.

“It’s their responsibility because stocks give you ownership,” Father Crosby told Catholic News Service. “Ownership makes you responsible for the acts (of a company) like any other ownership makes you responsible under law.”

He suggested that shareholders, when they receive a proxy statement in the mail, examine it carefully and send in their vote.

Not all ICCR members are faith-based institutions. Among ICCR members sponsoring resolutions are the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, Calvert Investments and the United Steelworkers.

One ICCR member, Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment in Seattle, has used the leverage of its 15 members to press major companies on numerous interests throughout its 22-year history.

“We feel if we own the companies, we need to be responsible shareholders, which means they’re using our money for what they’re doing,” said Dominican Sister Judy Byron, the coalition’s coordinator. “I learned in owning these companies we have a responsibility for what they’re doing and to call them to be responsible.”

The coalition is supporting one of its member institutions, the Northwest Women Religious Investment Trust, which this year has filed proxy resolutions with ExxonMobil on climate change, Phillips 66 on greenhouse gas emissions, Chevron on hydraulic fracturing and Google/Alphabet on human rights risk assessment.

Such shareholder activism comes down to integrating personal values with the investment world, the Rev. David Schilling, a senior program director at ICCR, told Catholic News Service. “What’s at stake here is the lives of human beings. Publicly traded companies are given charters by the public to work for the common good, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” he said.

ICCR is tracking 257 resolutions filed by its members with 174 companies this annual meeting season. Included are 91 resolutions addressing climate change, which were filed on the heels of the historic COP21 agreement reached in Paris in December. Overall, the number of resolutions filed by ICCR members has increased by 60 percent since 2011.

A proxy can be voted on during a company’s annual general meeting. Investors filing resolutions say success is not dictated by their proposal being adopted, but by how much it moves corporate executives to act. Under Securities and Exchange Commission rules, a proxy resolution can be reintroduced if it achieves at least 3 percent of shareholder votes the first year, 6 percent its second year and 10 percent its third year and beyond.

“One of the real significant learnings from my involvement over the years is that persistence and perseverance pays off,” said Oblate Father Seamus Finn, of the order’s Washington-based Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office and ICCR chairman.

“You (first) bring up an issue and they’re likely to say, ‘We’ve never thought of that’ or might say, ‘We’re not sure how that affects our business.’ But you come back a year later, they’re going to listen. You come back a third or fourth year and you end up with changes,” Fr. Finn said.

Shareholder resolutions are part of the larger socially responsible investment strategy of Catholic Health Initiatives, an ICCR member in Englewood, Colorado. Colleen Scanlon, senior vice president for advocacy, said the nonprofit health system also directs funds to local businesses to keep the region’s economy strong.

Much of Catholic Health Initiatives’ socially responsible investment effort has involved pharmaceutical firms over the rising cost of prescription drugs and the impact on vulnerable people including the elderly. Scanlon said the health system had seen some success through meetings with pharmaceutical representatives, but has resorted to filing more shareholder resolutions to bring more attention to what it sees as a growing problem.

Elsewhere, Mary Baudouin, assistant for social ministries for the Jesuits of the Central and Southern Province based in New Orleans, told CNS that resolutions filed in recent years with the global agribusiness giant Bunge led to a series of meetings that resulted in the company altering its water-use practices to the betterment of local communities in developing countries.

That engagement with Jesuit partners resulted in company officials signing in June the CEO Water Mandate, a public-private initiative of the United Nations to assist companies in the development, implementation and disclosure of water sustainability policies and practices. The company also established a Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility Committee led by Carol Browner, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Our preference is to enter into dialogue with those companies,” Baudouin said. “It’s a really long process. Once we file the resolution it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It gets us in the door to have these constructive dialogues that can last a long time.”

By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service.

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