Most people don’t have the ability, flexibility or funds to invest like a professional, and a more common approach for ‘investing in what you know’ takes the form of how well you can follow a company, mainly by looking at what you (or others who you trust) know about the company, or what the company has disclosed or reported about itself.
In the public markets, this means what a company publicly reports, and we (or the analysts) will read their “Form 10-Qs” and “10-Ks,” which publicly reporting companies must file with the SEC every quarter and year, respectively. We might also listen in on their webcasts, track their progress in the news, and even monitor their competition as a comparison.
The SEC reporting is still based mainly around financial information, with much less attention devoted to other material actions and impacts, but this is starting to change. There’s a lot of great work underway by organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB), who are creating sustainability performance measures for these publicly reporting companies, and then monitoring and reporting on them separately. The largest database of corporate sustainability reports is still the UN Global Compact Initiative, which they publish on their website.
For private companies, there are also some new approaches, such as the GIIRS rating system for companies or funds, allowing companies to voluntarily report measurements on social and environmental impacts. B-Lab’s “B Corporation” label allows a company to do a self-assessment, which they claim leads to “B Analytics to help investors consider whether a company is properly managing its socially responsible impacts, with as much rigor as their profits.”
While these new reporting approaches try to help investors assess whether companies are meeting certain “sustainability” standards, trying to define these standards are can be a daunting task, especially as the definitions are too murky or continue to change and new reporting tools are created.
We first saw screening tools applied to companies (e.g. no oil, weapons or bad actor sovereignties) in an attempt to label the good ones as “socially responsible investments.” Then came the dawn of “sustainability,” which sounds good, but has many different definitions. Nor has “triple bottom line,” “ESG” (environmental, social, governance), or even “Impact” given us clarity in terms of a definitive metrics-based idea for understanding whether a company is really contributing to our world in a positive and replenishing way, or simply another extractor of resources leading us closer to the demise of our species.
Even if the definitions or surveys are well thought out, is a company’s reporting enough for us to rely on to know that they are really making the kind of “impact” we want to see? When a company receives a “good company” sort of label, in whatever new socially responsible format we like, does that mean that the label was strict enough to ferret out all of its behaviors? Can companies fudge, omit, or cleverly interpret the ratings questions so that the answers fit the right frame they want to display?
While the efforts to bolster transparency about private companies is a great step in the right direction, reliance on only the reporting approach to make investment decision poses meaningful risks. Borrowing the famous quote from Albert Einstein, I would refer to this as the investment equivalent of Spooky Action at a Distance. A potential investment candidate may have received high marks from an outside rating group, and only later might we find them to be acting in ways we deem distasteful. Maybe we didn’t realize they were hoarding revenues offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes, or providing their services to any kind of planet damaging company while espousing high-minded values, or grabbing federal funds while really only focusing on driving profits to its shareholders.
How do we know from a label whether a company truly practices all of the values they received high ratings on? Similarly, how do we know from a report whether they might be making certain private compromises to what they publicly report in order to bolster their bottom line?
If we don’t know the people behind the company, we may be left with only our faith in the reports, provided mainly or only from information supplied by the company itself, with little if any recourse for misrepresentations or omissions (except possibly a future rescission of their seal of approval, or being publicly shamed for their hypocrisy). Unfortunately, there are likely as many forms of greenwashing today as there are new efforts to heighten transparency, so relying only on modern internet-based tools or chat groups should be done at every investor’s peril.
Some who work directly in the area of socially responsible investment advising have seemingly given up on trying to identify the right term or the right actions, now hoping they can simply determine whether a company is behaving “responsibly.” And perhaps it really may be more meaningful to apply a “smell test” than to blindly rely on a label or a report. To paraphrase SCOTUS Justice Potter’s famous line from the Jacobellis pornography case…trying to define terms like Sustainability, Impact, or Socially Responsible using shorthand descriptions can quickly become unintelligible. But, like Justice Potter, perhaps we can apply that same personal test… I know it when I see it!
And that then begs the question…how do you see it? One very well tested method is to invest in who you know, and that means being able to find and get to know the companies, and the team, before you invest. Community capital markets provide just that opportunity. Community capital markets enable companies and investors, connected geographically or in fellowship, to engage with each other on a personal level. These kinds of capital markets can take the spooky out of the action, by bringing a personal touch to our awareness, and engaging with each other in financial transactions that support each other.