Earth Day in the Time of COVID-19: Investor Engagement Focus & Impact

Lauren Compere, Managing Director

Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our focus has been both local and global: the health and safety of our community, the health of our planet, and our impact and role as active, engaged investors. As we look to assess and address the impacts of COVID-19, we must continue our vital work in addressing ongoing systemic risks, particularly the climate crisis. In this sense, our engagement priorities have not changed, but the lens through which we evaluate and act will.

COVID-19 and society’s efforts to contain the contagion together pose a global challenge, with both short- and long-term implications for companies, investors, governments, and society. At Boston Common, we feel it is important for portfolio companies to prioritize stakeholder well-being – the health, safety, and financial needs of employees, contractors, customers, and suppliers have all been brought into sharp focus by this crisis. As active, engaged investors, we commend the contributions of many company managements that have stepped up to show leadership, but call to account some opportunistic behavior we have seen such as price gouging, firing employees who are concerned for their health, and limiting access to much needed products on the front line.

What is Boston Common doing? 

We have been active on a number of fronts, notably:

  • Direct dialogue with companies
  • Working with investor networks and other partners
  • Our own responsible business practices
  • Planning and rethinking our future work in light of the crisis

Company Engagement

Our active dialogue with companies continues apace, and we are energized by their responsiveness on a range of issues from climate risk, eco-efficiency, and human rights. What has changed is the tone and tenor, which is more personal and empathetic as we all face similar challenges. Through our engagement approach, we demonstrate that we are patient investors with a long-term focus. We acknowledge the short-term challenges of COVID-19 and applaud company responses, but still demand accountability to maintaining the highest ethical practices, as they balance the interests of shareholders and stakeholders as well as the sustainability of their organizations.

Working in Partnership

We actively supported the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility’s (ICCR) Coronavirus Investor Statement on workplace and supplier practices, and the engagement of pharmaceutical companies to coordinate and collaborate on urgent medical needs. I recently joined the board of the Global Network Initiative – a multi-stakeholder organization of companies, investors, NGOs, and academics committed to advancing user rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Two recent calls discussed the opportunities and risks of using data to respond to COVID-19, how it is shared by companies, and who has access to it. We have joined Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) conversations to ensure that responsible sustainable approaches remain at the forefront with a longer-term focus on future financial recovery so that we continue to think about how the financial system should ideally function. As a firm, we have espoused the same approach we have asked others to take:

  • Continuing to pay our composting, cleaners, and other contract vendors who rely on this income
  • Supporting local food banks and other social agencies addressing urgent community needs in Boston and San Francisco, donating a total of $26,630 between firm and employee contributions.

Future Focus

What is clear is that the COVID-19 crisis shines a light on structural inequalities globally across a wide range of issues: how work is valued, what is considered a sustainable living wage, the public health risk posed by industrial agriculture and food insecurity, and unequal healthcare access and outcomes in low income and communities of color. This calls for a refresh of engagement priorities as well as investor and private sector action. Issues like responsible corporate tax practices take on greater urgency as we see much needed investment in healthcare infrastructure and other social safety nets ahead of the next crisis. 

We are not deprioritizing other systemic risks such as climate change. Rather, we are adjusting the lens through which we examine our asks and actions. As investors, we are aware that many environmental protections under the EPA are being rolled back, including consultation on controversial energy projects; this will likely lock in more carbon emissions for years to come. We are also mindful of the vital importance of “digital human rights,” even as we use information technology more readily to manage contact-tracing and disease management.

Much will change as a result of COVID-19. We must ensure that as investors we memorialize the lessons learned in this crisis, empowering companies to manage for the long term, with a focus on joint recovery and prosperity as the world emerges from lockdown.

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