Given that I'm late in following up on my March outburst Bullish on SRI, I thought I'd lead with a compliment. The volume and thoughtfulness of your responses blew me out of the water. More than that, I was downright surprised and pleased by their tenor.
Not only were you never bitter, condescending, or rude, but scarce few of you note that, on subjects of corporate and social responsibility (SRI), I am not precisely settled. Fewer still point out that working closely with Tom Gardner on his Motley Fool Hidden Gems -- a performance-oriented, stock-picking newsletter -- I am very much, as my mother would say, a phony.
A hard road to follow
I came closest to being exposed on this by a college Nordic ski coach, of all things, who accuses me of "becoming more Norwegian Lutheran like, don't ya know?" And who goes on, "Ya can't have or make money without sinning. Now you know the struggles of true investing."
Not only does this guy talk cool, he makes a point. As does the slightly more prosaic Denny Blouin, who loves the concept of SRI and is up to the challenge, but remains unconvinced there is "any such thing as a pure investment." Moreover, as he points out, "All decisions are relative to how strongly one holds one's ethical principles." I tried to say it better, but I couldn't.
There is, I believe, no accusation in either response, but the implication is obvious: Social and corporate responsibility may not be downright antithetical to our desire to make money in stocks and bonds -- that is, extract abnormal profits from inputs that never were ours to begin with -- but they're close. Suffice it to say, responsibility makes poor fodder for anybody's Capitalist Manifesto.
The phony five
Thus far, I have made little headway in my quest for Denny's "pure investment," but along the way I've found some things in the right direction. There are companies out there that -- much like me (and, from your emails, I'd suggest like many of you) -- are far from perfect, but are at least trying to make the world a better place. If you would, walk with me a ways.
Procter & Gamble
If it strikes you as curious that a transglobal consumer products company should front my list, join the club. Then again, that's the whole point. If the company bombards us with senseless advertising, and if its products harm the environment and drive reckless consumerism, Procter & Gamble is a near miracle on the civic front.
Among other good deeds, BusinessEthics.com points out that its No. 2 corporate citizen for 2004 excels "in service to minorities and women, and to the community." This includes heavy investments in minority-owned U.S. businesses and the banks that support them. Further from home, P&G is notorious for its contributions to relief efforts overseas, most recently pitching in heavily in the wake of earthquakes in Turkey.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to having long ago worked a brief time for P&G. Today, I can say I'm proud to have done so.
I had the fortune of speaking with Howard Schultz, founder of not everybody's favorite coffee empire. It was an odd sensation: Here was the brand perhaps most lampooned for colonizing our suburban landscape promoted by a man who is at once both generous and community-minded.
Look no further than The Simpsons for a portrayal of Starbucks as the poster child for commercial homogeneity (or was that hegemony?). And yes, as with Wal-Mart
Less commonly discussed is that Starbucks is a crowd-pleaser when it comes to Fair Trade, conservation, and the preservation of biodiversity. The company also treats its employees well, donates generously to charity, and funds valuable community initiatives both locally and abroad. Most important, for much of the world, coffee is an unsavory, cutthroat business -- and as such, the good-practice strides Starbucks makes beyond our borders go a long way.
Hershey blends its mission and community more nearly than any company I know. For good or bad, Hershey, Pa., is the quintessential company town. And unlike so many notorious company towns of the past, by all indications, it's mostly good.
I've heard but one complaint: Hershey is a regular user of some of the most commonly grown genetically engineered (GE) domestic crops in the U.S., yet it makes no effort to label its products. Call me a phony again, but I'm not sure how sold I am on the whole anti-GE debate.
Moreover, that Starbucks scores higher when it comes to labeling, but has likewise been attacked for using milk from cows injected with bovine growth hormone (rBGH), illustrates the complexity of our quest. We may never find an investment that is "pure" in everyone's eyes.
Bottom line: Hershey strikes me as an uncommon corporate citizen, a model for a society in which companies and workers look to put down roots, and scores high in my phony five. Plus, it makes candy.
Whole Foods Market
Whole Foods is the nation's leading retailer of natural and organic foods. That alone makes it a hit with the granola set. As you'd expect, the hook here is green: Not only has the company banned the use of GE ingredients in its private-label lines, Whole Foods is a big supporter of organic farming and sustainable agriculture and fisheries.
This is another case where I was influenced by hearing it from the top. That CEO John Mackey is accessible is less of a surprise when you consider that, by policy, he can't earn more than 10 times the salary of the average full-time worker. Believe it: All workers know what all the other workers are taking home; all they have to do is ask. Oddly, Mackey points out, they rarely do.
Frankly, that strikes me as an interesting policy. Sorry RandyBob and all others who wrote in championing our late-capitalist meritocracy.
For all the talk about being in "the American Dream" business and helping all Americans own their own homes, this pick might draw some ire. After all, here is a quasi-governmental agency with a mysterious Congressional charter that by all indications puts it at an unfair competitive advantage.
Yet, who can deny that owning a home is a huge step toward financial independence, or that without Fannie Mae, fewer Americans could swing it. As important, a great many of these incremental, first-time homeowners are minorities and women historically underserved by traditional lenders. We may indeed reach that point where we no longer need a Fannie Mae, but thus far, the company's role in facilitating the secondary mortgage market has made the world a better place.
Famous last words
For what it's worth, all five of my phonies do a pretty fair business. None is out to woo you with press releases and outlandish promises. And if all might be seen as giving with one hand, evenings and weekends, and taking back with the other over the course of the workweek, then I think we're the better for it.
Of course, how you invest is up to you. When digging for stocks at Hidden Gems, the team doesn't intentionally screen for companies deemed socially responsible. But if yellow flags are raised, the subject does come up, and discussion ensues. Attribute that to the personality and worldview of the people on staff (you can toss in a little Foolish culture, too).
But if you ask me, there's a more quantifiable reason. Over the long haul, this will serve our members well, as companies with a conscience are less likely to be brought down by scandal or will react swiftly in the event that something does go wrong. I'd even venture to say that they will fare well in an enlightened (and hopefully greener) future.
More Fool coverage:
- Finding Lynch's 10-Baggers, by Tom Gardner
- Starbucks on the Fly, by Tom and David Gardner
- The Art of Picking Winners, by Paul Elliott