Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A critical Left view of socially responsible investment

Prompted by a comment a few days back I thought I would post up a short extract from Doug Henwood's Wall Street on social investing. Doug also runs Left Business Observer. Anyway, here's a quick quote.

"A contradiction no social screen can address is that investment profits originate ultimately, no matter how you dress them up, in the uncompensated labor of workers, and that they depend on a social order in which some people have money to spare and others don’t. When asked to comment on this, the former radical academic turned social broker Michael Moffitt conceded, “It’s a problem.” Moffitt’s past makes him aware of “the problem,” but most social investors don’t even think about it.

With South Africa no longer an issue, the most popular social screens reflect the concerns of upscale liberals: tobacco, women in the boardroom, animal testing, and the grosser environmental crimes. Concerns like women on the assembly line, unionization, and workplace injuries rarely appear. One of the favorite stocks of mainstream SI has been that of the Washington Post Co., a fiercely anti-union firm that publishes the daily journal of record for the DC branch of the status quo."

I would make a couple of counterpoints. Since this was written engagement has supplanted screening as an approach to SRI amongst mamy institutional investors (though screened funds still dominate the retail market). Secondly, although it is still the case that labour issues feature far less often than environmental or other factors, they have started making an appearance (FirstGroup being a good recent example). And I still believe that investor activism is a tool that unions should be using more often.

However I do agree that SRI as a distinct investment market/product often does little to address the underlying questions the labour movement is concerned about, and is often instead an exercise in feeling good about yourself (not necessarily a bad thing).

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