I am especially interested in promoting the concept of socially responsible investing. This includes its accompanying review strategy – environmental, social, and governance investing.

During the summer of 2020, in the midst of COVID quarantines, economic shutdowns, and social and political unrest, one story jumped out to catch my attention. At the end of August Brookfield Asset Management announced that Mark Carney was joining their management team as a vice-chairman responsible for their environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment strategy.

Carney has been an advocate for active financial investment on environmental issues for a long time. This appears to be the perfect opportunity for him to continue that work.

In addition to his role at Brookfield, Carney is also the UN special envoy for climate change and finance.

When making the announcement, Brookfield chief executive said, “Building on our track record in renewable investing, Mark will help accelerate our efforts to combine better long-term outcomes for society with strong risk-adjusted returns… (his) insights and perspectives will add tremendous value to our global investing activities for the benefit of our investors.” Media “on both sides of the pond” made a note of the story and took the opportunity to discuss its meaning and context.

The Most Famous Chair of the Bank of Canada — Ever

Mark Carney is probably the most famous chair of the Bank of Canada there has ever been. If a central banker can also be a rock star, then Mark Carney is definitely that central banker.

Although he also has British and Irish citizenship, Carney was born in the Northwest Territories and grew up in Edmonton, making him a true Western Canadian. After 13 years with Goldman Sacks, Carney joined the Canadian Department of Finance and the Bank of Canada. Mr. Carney came into the role of Governor of the Bank of Canada just as the financial crisis of 2007-08 struck.

His role in handling that crisis helped Canada to survive the crisis more effectively than other countries. In 2011 he was even named Reader’s Digest “Editor’s Choice for Most Trusted Canadian.”

First Non-Briton as Chancellor of the Bank of England

Then, in a search for new challenges, Carney was appointed as the new Chancellor of the Bank of England in 2012 – the first non-Briton in bank history. And in that role, he served to calm financial markets hit by the uncertainty of the BREXIT decision. COVID-19 struck just as Carney stepped down in March of this year. Both times Carney was praised for his stickhandling (a quaint Canadian colloquialism) of the crisis. Troubling times were made a bit easier by his calm demeanour and sensibilities.

Carney Moves to Brookfield

Mr. Carney’s new role will allow him to continue to address the role that finance plays in society as a whole. It’s a commitment that appears to be central to Brookfield’s investment and business strategy. When describing their responsibility as a company, Bruce Flatt clearly states: “We operate long-term assets and businesses across the globe. This approach dictates both our investment strategy and our commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. We believe that value creation and sustainable development are complementary goals. Throughout our operations, we are committed to practices that have a positive impact on the communities in which we operate.”

Just What is Environmental, Social and Governance

Brookfield calls it environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment strategy. Elsewhere you might see it called socially responsible investing (SRI). In the end it’s pretty much the same thing. According to Wikipedia: “Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business.” In many ways, ESG puts meat on the bones of Socially Responsible Investing. ESG attempts to review and advocate specific corporate strategies it believes benefit humanity, the environment, and ultimately corporate success.

Environmental Concerns

Wikipedia lists climate change and sustainability as environmental concerns. As these issues grow in importance, their impact on the corporate bottom line will grow. When assessing a company’s environmental record and strategy, you are ultimately also evaluating its prospects for long-term success. “The long-term view is becoming prevalent amongst investors.”

Social Concerns

All companies play a role in society as a whole. The way that companies address that role also has an impact on their long-term profitability and corporate success. That can include:

  • promoting diversity in their recruitment and hiring practices,
  • addressing human rights concerns in their actions within local communities and in the wider supply chain,
  • ensuring effective consumer protection principles are in place
  • acting on concerns for animal welfare in the testing and development of products

Corporate Governance Concerns

Issues regarding the ultimate corporate climate are addressed here. This category includes the issues of corporate structure, employee relations, and compensation both for executives and employees.

Sustainable Funds are Taking Off Under COVID

According to Morningstar, sustainable funds are seeing record growth. Growth was being seen in 2019, but it had grown even greater in 2020. By mid-year sustainable funds had witnessed a net inflow of $20.9 Billion, essentially equivalent to all of 2019 ($21.4 Billion). And far outstripping any other year on record.

The results for 2019 actually were 4 times that of the previous highest year. The uncertainty we have seen throughout 2020 emphasizes the impact that issues identified in ESG strategizing can have.

The Morningstar article closes by saying: “It won’t take much in the way of additional ESG fund flows to set a calendar-year record for the fifth consecutive year. Sustainable funds continue to perform well relative to conventional funds in a year of great uncertainty caused by the pandemic and other issues like the movement for racial justice and the upcoming election. These issues have underscored the need for investors to consider ESG-related risks in their portfolios and have affirmed the value of sustainability within the mainstream of investing.”

ESG and SRI can only grow in prominence

Fundamentally the issues being addressed under ESG reflect a good way of doing business. By following these principles, companies and these entities that invest in them can count on a smoother ride in the future with fewer public relations snafus or upset and diminishing markets. Addressing social and environmental issues head-on is an effective business strategy.

Businesses can lead the fight against racial inequality, help to address the growth in wealth inequality, and even pursue active solutions to climate change. The refreshing part is that in the long run good social policy is also good financial policy.

by Todd Race

When I think about the effectiveness of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Investing, I often look back in history to find examples of social movements that used economic power to affect social policy. There are examples of campaigns to improve society and the economy that convince established interests of the need to change with the times.

Abolition, the movement to abolish the slave trade, is one of the first to come to mind for me. And Canada played a prominent role in making change possible before anyone else.

Abolition: A brief history that starts with a personal, Canadian touch

I have a personal, present-day connection to the abolition movement of the 18th & 19th centuries. Not long ago, I signed a petition calling for a street near my home in Toronto to be renamed.

Dundas Street is named after Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. As a minister under Prime Minister Pitt, he is accused of playing a major role in delaying the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the late 18th century.

We can find the name of Dundas all over Ontario. There are major streets, public squares, towns, and even counties named after him.

This was because of his friendship with John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, 1791-1796. Yes, they were friends even though they took very different stands on abolition.

Simcoe was an abolitionist before he arrived in Upper Canada. And he was able to oversee the passage of the Act Against Slavery at the first meeting of the Executive Council of Upper Canada in 1793. This was the first piece of anti-slavery legislation passed anywhere in the British Empire. Efforts in other colonies, even in British North America (New Brunswick, Quebec in particular), were not so successful.

Note: Since I first wrote this post, the City of Toronto has announced that they will rename streets and squares named after Dundas. The process of choosing new names has only just begun.

Abolitionist Efforts in Mother England Went on for Decades

While the Executive Council of Upper Canada acted in 1793, it took until 1807 for the British Parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act, officially known as An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This act abolished the slave trade – the transportation of slaves mostly to regions in the new world, namely the United States and the Caribbean. But it would take until 1833 for them to actually abolish slavery itself.

The campaign in Great Britain to abolish the slave trade began with the establishment of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. It included organizing petition campaigns and boycotts of produce created by slave labour – especially West Indian Sugar, produced on slave plantations.

One element of the Sugar Boycott was the effort to point out that sugar was available from plantations elsewhere in places like Malaysia that were not produced using slave labour. Similar to the emphasis in climate change education to point to renewable options to fossil fuels.

These abolitionist campaigns were important for:

  • educating the public about the existence and reality of slavery
  • demonstrating support for abolition in the community, and
  • focusing the attention of public officials on efforts to achieve abolition

These campaigns went on for years as abolitionists fought to eliminate slavery in all its capacities.

But like so many other publicly popular campaigns (women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, abortion rights, the anti-apartheid movement, to name just a few), the campaign needed decades to finally convince the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade. In fact, slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833-34.

Success was Incremental in Canada and Britain

The Act Against Slavery, passed in Upper Canada in 1793, had a number of provisions that took effect over time. This served to calm down the slave owners while introducing the necessary changes. It is unsightly for us now, but it got things done. The act decreed that no new slaves could enter the colony and that no children born to a slave would become slaves.

This meant that slavery would disappear over time. It also meant that slaves who escaped along the Underground Highway had a place to go. Without that, it’s hard to understand how any escape efforts could have succeeded.

The British Parliament started by abolishing the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean colonies in 1807. It took another 25 years to actually abolish the use of slave labour on the sugar and cotton plantations themselves.

Economic Aspects of the British Abolitionist Campaign

A major element of the century-long abolitionist campaigns was economic pressure – what we now call boycotts. The most famous of these was the British Sugar Boycott I mentioned before.

But sugar was not the only product that abolitionists identified with the slave trade. The Committee to Abolish Slavery used these campaigns many times during the forty years it took for the Committee to Abolish Slavery to accomplish its aims fully.

The Campaign to Abolish Slavery concentrated much of its efforts on public education and participation from the onset. Campaigns aimed at education and personal economic action succeeded in bringing attention to the evils of the slave trade and suggesting ways for people to get involved in their daily lives.

Interestingly, while the Sugar Boycott was a very successful part of the anti-slavery campaign, the term “boycott” itself was not actually created until the 1880s – in “honour” of Charles Cunningham Boycott, a British estate manager in Ireland.

US Abolitionists Used Economic Pressure Too

As we know, slavery continued in the United States until Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, at the height of the American Civil War. Abolitionist efforts in the United States before the Civil War also included refusing to buy or use products produced with slave labour. In the United States, this included cotton and tobacco.

Sustained by Lobbyists – Not by Economic or Social Relevance

As the Campaign to Abolish Slavery got started, historical conditions began to make the continuation of the slave uneconomic and unethical. The development of modern industry highlighted the inefficiencies of the plantation system that needed slaves to survive. These economic developments and modernizations gave added impetus to ethical, moral, and spiritual efforts.

Although plantations became less economically viable for society as a whole, those who personally benefitted from their continuation had a significant interest in maintaining them. As a minister in the Pitt government and leading the efforts against Napolean, Dundas played a significant part in delaying abolition and propping up the interests of those in the slave trade.

And now today’s lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry are playing a similar role in maintaining an industry that society has outgrown. Modern advancements make renewable energy a more cost-effective way of producing the energy we need.

Activists and commentators point to this fact – that fossil fuels are becoming less economically viable and environmentally damaging. Renewable energy is becoming more cost-effective and has been for years. The only way to maintain coal and gas as energy sources is through subsidies. Environmentalists have been accusing the industry of this for years. As subsidies become less acceptable and the fossil fuel industry becomes less viable, ESG investors can champion new economically and environmentally more effective opportunities.

Abolitionists Then – ESG Investors Now

I see a historical overlap here with our modern emphasis on ESG. ESG seeks to look at outmoded economic models in a socially relevant light.

This is especially true of efforts to highlight environmental aspects of ESG – the first part of environmental, social and governmental investing.

Transition is Essential

In Upper Canada, Lord Simcoe was able to introduce legislation that effectively abolished slavery, just not right away. His compromise was to ban the further importation of slaves into Upper Canada and ensure that children born to enslaved women would not become slaves themselves.

Efforts in Britain ended up taking the same gradualist route, chipping away at the slave trade and its role in the world.

The American Civil War is an example of abrupt change that brought an effective end to slavery worldwide.

Climate change initiatives also center around the struggle to shift from one economic/environmental model to another. Current efforts worldwide demonstrate that, including President Biden’s infrastructure plans and the carbon tax fight here in Canada.

When we look back on the abolitionist movement of the late 19th century, it’s hard to think that anyone could have ever supported the continuation of the slave trade. When others look back on early 21st-century society, I hope that they will be equally confused by lingering efforts to maintain the fossil fuel industry.