The Heart of Money: “What Do You Look for in Conscious Corporations?”
Michael, William, Patrick, and Henry in hot and humid Havana, Cuba, with water in evil, single-use plastic bottles.
Paul Sutherland no longer lives in Uganda and now resides in Michigan with his four youngest kids, ages 5 to 10, where he and his wife, Amy, try to be an example of Parenting for a Peaceful world in which democracy begins at home.
“What companies do you feel are really conscious and practicing virtues?” “What type of leadership?” “Who do you admire?”
I often get these questions at seminars and schools and even in coffee shops—and typically the person asking has “Be the Change” printed on their T-shirt or on a laptop sticker. And I cringe because these “questions” are often barely disguised statements like: “Corporations, governments, institutions are killing the environment, fostering greed and consumerism, propping up dictators—all for a profit.” And underlying all that is the question: “How do you profit and still feel untarnished and superior?”
Well, to be honest, we must live consciously before we go blaming, shaming, and complaining about how others (corporations/governments/institutions) behave. So, after a bit of a rant I will get to the original question.
But first, the rant!
Years ago, I was at TED Global Event’s fancy dinner networking evening when a Brazilian sat down next to me and started a conversation by saying, “I have been a social activist working for the environment for 20 years, and I have seen no change, nothing!” He paused, looked in my face, and asked, “What can we do about this?”
I looked down and said, “Look at your plate.” I pointed to the fish, beef, chicken, and cute little shrimp flown in from someplace far away and said, “We can start by being conscious of what we consume, and our own effect on the environment.” Again, he looked in my face, this time a bit stunned, but said nothing as he got up and walked away. I went back to my salad, fruit, bread, and rice and thought about why there is such a disconnect between how we perceive ourselves and our actions and our actual actions. It starts with us: We should not abandon our responsibility to our earth and others because we like beef or it’s more convenient to use a Styrofoam cup, drive instead of walk, leave the lights on, or buy more stuff we don’t need.
Seriously. We like our homes warm, or cool, and we don’t care how the energy is sourced—nor do we make the connection that our actions hurt the kids in Uganda by causing their energy and food prices to rise much higher than they need to be. It all begins with us. But we want the government to regulate our lives, and we want all corporations to be ethical, just, and loving in their behavior to save our planet—instead of actually saying yes to a low-impact diet and life and living it. Even though everyone else seems not to be doing their part.
In a chat a few weeks ago with a very happy, vibrant businessman, I heard something that I found quite relevant to the questions about conscious investing. He said the private equity firm he has used to help finance his business’s growth does not invest in contracts, paper, business plans, or “ideas” but rather looks to the character of people who will be executing on the business. Who are they? they ask. Are they honest? Do they talk about environmental sensitivity as they drive to the restaurant in an Escalade to eat fresh, free-range chicken and organic arugula salad flown in from Chile, with locally raised bacon dressing? This firm tries to look through to the actual people in the company and see if they are exhibiting and living the life that they consider ethical and conscious. Do you?
Think about this: You don’t see a lot of gas-guzzling Hummers anymore. We’re also seeing fewer Styrofoam cups and plastic straws as people become aware of the environmental consequences of their use. At the recycling depot behind our local high school I see people with Trump and NRA stickers on their vehicles, happily saving the planet. No one regulated these changes. No government agency said you must recycle or quit the use of Styrofoam, but they do because government action usually follows the lead of those governed. In a democracy the people get the government they deserve. We also get the companies we deserve.
If you have read this far hoping for answers, please forgive me. The world is a complex place, and you will not hear me saying, “Buy these 10 companies because they are all ethical.” That’s placebo “feel good” investing and it doesn’t change the mainstream that will save our planet for our kids. We must change our behaviors so our kids see us taking the virtuous, sensitive, environmentally and socially thoughtful actions. If we do that—and raise our kids to feel connected to themselves and our world—then we have hope to make some real change. S&H