What struck me first as I approached the group of about 20 protestors (their ranks swell into the hundreds after the work day ends) was how different they all appeared to be. There were adults of all ages, both genders and even, as I spoke to them, from both political parties. At one point I found myself speaking with a gentleman named John, a clean-cut self-described conservative republican who supported the Bush tax cuts and trickle-down economics. Next to him was Steve, a longer-haired liberal democrat, artist and ardent supporter of local small businesses.
What both John and Steve share is a firm belief that large corporations (represented by the nebulous “Wall Street”) now control the political process in Washington and have created an unfair playing field. Perhaps best expressed in a statement of support released by the faculty of New York’s Columbia University (another example of the diversity of this movement), among the goals of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is the desire to “bring attention to the various forms of inequality – economic, political, and social – that characterize our times, that block opportunities for the young and strangle the hopes for better futures for the majority while generating vast profits for a very few.”
As I talked with John and Steve, they spoke passionately about the need to support locally-owned businesses, the desire to eliminate (or at least limit) corporate greed and see ethical fair labor practices implemented by large employers, and the need for government to assist the impoverished and those bordering on financial ruin. From an outsider’s perspective, those certainly seemed like reasonable ideals. But I also challenged them on the costs of entitlement programs, the ideas of personal responsibility and productivity and the need for jobs to be created through innovation, demand and sustainability, not through hand-outs and non-regenerative projects.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between their concerns and what the SRI industry has been doing for over 25 years. No longer just a “green screen,” SRI has evolved into an awareness advocacy that encourages individuals to vote their values with the choices they make both as consumers and as investors. While the “S” in SRI has long stood for Socially Responsible Investing, today it stands for Sustainable Responsible Investing as they examine a wide range of global issues including the need for strong local economies, fair labor and human rights practices and the need to address poverty.
According to the website of First Affirmative Financial Network www.firstaffirmative.com, a socially responsible RIA located in Colorado Springs, Co., and producer of the “SRI in the Rockies” annual conference, SRI now “incorporates environmental, social and governance criteria” into the investment selection process. Among those criteria is an evaluation of the “executive teams who have demonstrated a commitment to accountability and ethical practices,” exactly the kinds of commitment the OWS demonstrators are calling for.
While I am not an active participant in the SRI industry, I would classify myself as an “interested observer.” For years SRI has suffered under the perception that investors have to give something up in returns to follow their conscience while investing. I believe First Affirmative and the many other SRI financial advisors and product providers would argue that is not the case. Even if it were, it seems to me that the concerns being expressed by the OWS movement are philosophically so similar to the ideals that guide SRI that many investors might now be willing make that trade. In fact, when I began explaining the SRI philosophy to John and Steve, about half the protestors gathered around to listen, with many asking where they could get more information.
For advisors who haven’t looked at SRI recently but have clients who view themselves as among the “other 99%,” taking a new look at SRI might well help you connect your client’s values to their investment portfolio, creating stronger, more loyal client relationships. With dissatisfaction growing and no real end to the economic malaise in sight, a little extra due diligence on SRI might well be worth the effort.