Shareholder activism isn't a new concept, but growing awareness and concern among investors about the detrimental impact business activity has on the global environment is drawing attention to a host of environmental issues. And there is a growing movement of shareholders, be it individual or investment funds, who are concerned about the impact of the businesses in which they are invested.
In this article, we will look at the socially responsible investing (SRI) movement, what has been done so far and what can be done in the future. (To learn more about SRI, see Socially Responsible Mutual Funds and Change The World One Investment At A Time.)
Making Their Opinions Known
The socially responsible investing movement has worked hard to change corporate policies on a host of social, moral and religious issues such as business investments in politically sensitive parts of the world, workers' rights (sweatshops), the manufacturing of land mines and participation in so-called "sin" industries. (To read more on the subject, check out A Prelude to Sinful Investing and Investing The Anti-Corporate Way.)
In similar fashion, environmentally aware investors are focused on issues such as global warming, energy efficiency, reduction of carbon footprints, water quality, air quality and a host of similar concerns. As advocates for the environment, they are using their clout as shareholders to put environmental concerns on corporate agendas and hold companies responsible for their actions. In addition, shareholders are showing their concern through shareholder resolutions, allowing shareholders to propose change.
Green Investor Resolutions
The impact of these investor efforts are starting to be felt in corporate boardrooms. From single individual investors, to small mutual funds to massive hedge funds, corporations have faced a barrage of shareholder resolutions. (Keep reading about shareholder resolutions in Knowing Your Rights As A Shareholder and Can Business Evolve In A Green World?)
Firms of every type have been asked to disclose their carbon footprints, mercury emissions, performance on energy efficiency, recycling policies, political contributions to groups that oppose environmental protection, etc. They have also been asked to disclose their stances on issues ranging from global warming to the use of renewable energy.
Major power producers have faced resolutions seeking to set specific target levels for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in 2007, Sister Patricia Daly, a nun with 300 shares in Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) filed a resolution for the company to adopt quantitative goals to reduce its emissions, which received more than 30% backing by other shareholders.
Insurance companies have been asked to reveal their level of exposure to financial risks from climate change. For example, Prudential Financial (NYSE:PRU) faced a resolution requesting more disclosure on this issue. The resolution was removed by the shareholder who proposed it after the company agreed to disclose more information on the risks it faces from climate change.
Automakers have been asked to support clean air standards, including General Motors (NYSE:GM), which faced a shareholder resolution in 2002 requesting that it set goals on emissions from its vehicles as well as its overall operations.
However, while the majority of these "green" proposals have been voted down, they are still encouraging firms to act. In fact, companies often agree to take certain steps if the shareholders agree to withdraw their resolutions. Such compromises have encouraged many firms to disclose the environmental impact of a variety of activities, to institute policy changes, or to refrain from certain environmentally damaging activities.
For example, some oil companies have agreed to support environmentally friendly policies, computer hardware producers have instituted recycling programs, and a number of companies of all types have agreed to report on the scope of their carbon footprints. At the other end of the scale, refusals to act have painted other companies in a negative light and caused unfavorable comparisons with peers that have taken steps toward meeting the requests of these investors.
The Future of Green: What Can You Do
If you are a shareholder and you want to know what your investments are doing to safeguard the world that you live in, there's no time like the present to reach out and ask.
File a Resolution
Many investors may feel they have too small a position to make a change within a company as their holdings are only a fraction of the total. However, simply look at the example of Sister Patricia Daly who, with just 300 shares, gained 31% of the shareholders' vote on a climate initiative at one of the largest companies in the world.
According to the SEC Rules on Shareholder Proposals, to submit a proposal you must continuously hold $2,000 worth of shares or 1% of the outstanding for at least one year, and must be the registered holder of the shares. As well, each shareholder is able to submit one proposal per shareholder meeting.
Even if you don't file a resolution, make sure to read the proxy statement to see if there are any proposals that push green policies and if it makes sense to you voice your opinion with your vote. (Keep reading about this in Pay Attention To The Proxy Statement.)
Vote With Your Dollars
It is important to note that while you have the right to protest actions by the companies you are invested in and vote whatever way you see fit with certain proposals, it is often an uphill battle to enact change with a specific company. One of the easiest ways to voice your opinion is with your investment dollars by simply selling your shares in companies that are harming the environment and buying companies that are promoting green initiatives. (To keep learning about this subject, see For Companies, Green Is The New Black.)
There has been a clear push in our society to do more to protect our environment from the way we live our lives to the way we invest. More and more proposals have been filed by shareholders to enact change and companies are increasingly becoming aware of their environmental impact. While the move toward being green is just beginning, investors' opportunity to participate is increasing.