An Honorable Harvest: Universal Owners Must Take Responsibility for Their Portfolios

Despite a maturing industry of ESG professionals and coordinated efforts by shareholders calling for more responsible corporate behavior, we continue to see unabated climate and water crises, growing political instability, and continuing abuses of human rights in supply chains. The founder of a movement called The Shareholder Commons argues that to help business to address these systemic challenges, corporate responsibility must move beyond the company-by-company decision-making model. An economy based on market competition cannot rely on individual businesses to adopt basic sustainability rules that take priority over profit. Critical sustainability boundaries must be implemented collectively to be effective. 

The crux of the problem is that although shareholder returns derive mainly from efficiency and productivity gains, they can also result from careless exploitation of common resources or powerless workers. And the competition for margin and capital makes it difficult for companies to recognize, let alone forgo, profitable exploitation.

A sustainable economy demands that we help companies to distinguish between honorable and dishonorable profits, and to find ways to eliminate or offset the latter. The author holds out a model of capitalism that limits the availability of choices that exploit negative externalities and inequality while preserving the principles and practices that create value and a reasonable sharing of gains among all stakeholders.

Universal owners—long-term diversified investors—appear to be in the best position to formulate and enforce such a model, given the current design and practices of our capital markets. Such global investors have the incentive and power to engage in the collective decision-making necessary for a sustainable economy. The power exerted by institutional investors through their allocation and stewardship of equity capital can be used to insist on more sustainable business practices. Because they are diversified across thousands of companies, universal owners can bypass the competitive bottleneck for margin and capital that holds sustainability back at the company level. These large investors can work together to establish authentic sustainability boundaries for the companies they invest in; and by so doing, they can allow us to leverage all the good work done to date on disclosure and ESG integration, and so realize a world in which companies continue to compete for profits, but also for a truly honorable harvest.