Corporations have run amok. For evidence I refer you to the slew of major corporate scandals to have come down the pike in the past few years—Enron, WorldCom, and Halliburton (which is doing such a fine job overcharging the American taxpayer in Iraq that George Jr. awarded Halliburton a multi-million dollar, no-bid contract for work in Katrina-devastated New Orleans). The worst aspect of all this collective incompetence is that the taxpayer pays all the bills—pays them through taxes, investment portfolios, and retirement accounts. Corporate America and its lobbyists can be accused of running the Government (and one need look no further than the recently passed polluter-friendly energy bill for proof) but it is shareholder cash that drives corporate power, and we are asleep at the wheel.
Even people who do not think of themselves as investors often are. The majority of working adults own some form of stock, bond, CD or pension fund—all of which can be seen as underutilized political capital.
In an era when corporations wield so much political power, our investments represent more than simple monetary gain. Each share of stock is a vote for a corporate entity, its policies, lobbyists and environmental standards. So the question is, do you want to vote for Phillip Morris, or do you want to vote for Co-op America? Do you invest your retirement funds in gigantic, bloated organizations which underpay their workers and send all the cash to the fat cats in the glass tower, or do you seek out smaller, local investment opportunities which are equitable and shareholder driven? These seem like rhetorical questions, but take a peek at your portfolio and see who your dollars are supporting.
Lest I be accused of starry-eyed idealism, there are precedents for investor-sparked social change. The most notable success was the anti-apartheid disinvestment movement of the 1980s. Individuals and institutions shed their holdings in companies that did business in South Africa, which included familiar names such as Coke and IBM. Investor pressure created the momentum needed for the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act to pass despite the veto of then-President Regan. The cost of doing business in South Africa increased dramatically, both monetarily and in public goodwill, and American corporations were forced to withdraw.
There is an additional reason to invest in responsible companies—it’s better for your finances. Over the years, socially responsible investments have an equal or greater rate of return as traditional funds. Your mother was right, being good really is its own reward.