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Can one person hold corporations accountable?

This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

When you make a deposit to your retirement account at tax time, when you remember to bring a reusable bag with you to the Berkeley Bowl, or even when you contemplate donating to an organization you like, do you ever stop to think about how your money is being used, and who is making decisions about its investment?

If you’re like many people, the answer is “no,” or if it’s an especially harried day, “Wha?”

Most of us have some type of savings or retirement plan, but generally that’s where our knowledge ends. We don’t know how that money is invested, or whether it is helping or hindering big social and environmental problems, such as income disparity, poor labor conditions, corruption, pollution, or climate change. As Andy Behar, founder of the Oakland-based nonprofit As You Sow and author of The Shareholders Action Guide, said, “Many have a workplace retirement plan that they toss a percentage of their pay into each month. … What they may not know is that those funds are baskets of company stock that they may not like much, like Exxon, Chevron, Halliburton, Monsanto, or Dow.”

In other words, saving monthly into a 401K, 403C, or IRA is a big positive for your personal future, but is it a positive for your family, your community, your planet?


Kate Campbell, founder and partner at North Berkeley Investment Partners, agrees with Behar that knowing what we own is a powerful way to hold companies accountable.

“I would go further to say that people are not only alienated from understanding [what they own], but that they also feel conflicted about the fact that they own companies they don’t feel great about, despite not knowing exactly which companies they are,” she said.

Campbell said that many of her clients become distressed when they find out they own a particular stock (i.e. business) that goes against their ethics or beliefs. “Liz Claiborne, Mitsubishi, Halliburton, JP Morgan, McDonalds — these are everyday companies that have a huge impact on investors’ sense of ethics when the investor knows that they own it,” Campbell said.

Most companies’ operations aren’t black and white. For instance, an oil company may invest in the development of sustainable technology, but it’s precisely that muddied picture that can confuse investors (i.e. you) and turn people away from understanding what they own and what they can do about it.

How do we get past this confusion? One strategy involves two areas that might seem contradictory: Buddhism and economics. Clair Brown is indeed a Buddhist and an economist at UC Berkeley, and she has demonstrated beautifully in her book, Buddhist Economics, how the basic Buddhist tenet of slowing down and experiencing what is happening in your life can provide clarity. “My focus is on the role of government in creating policies to reduce inequality, carbon emissions, and global suffering, and provide a sustainable economy in which people can live meaningful, comfortable lives,” said Brown.


What does this mean for banking, investment vehicles, saving, and property ownership broadly? Brown’s work strikes a chord in many progressives when they contemplate their own participation in consumer capitalism. Once we begin to think mindfully about how our money is spent and where it’s going, then we can move through contemplation to understanding and, perhaps most importantly, to action.

For those unsure where to begin, Behar, Brown, and Campbell suggest people start by figuring out what they care about. If, for instance, you want to support the efforts to slow down and reverse climate change, to promote gender equality and integration, discourage overpaid CEOs, private prisons, or the manufacturing of firearms, then one solution is to direct your money into funds whose managers are mindful of where they invest, and who engage with company managements to create change.

If you want to take it a step further, you can also engage companies directly on your own as an individual investor. This is the kind of work Behar does at As You Sow, where he’s spent the last 25 years working to help individuals, financial managers, foundations, and other nonprofits work directly with corporations to improve awareness, expand disclosure, and guide companies to new commitments of social responsibility.

With more than $7 trillion in retirement accounts, that’s a hefty bargaining chip. If enough people engage companies in this way, it can make a huge difference, Behar said. “It’s like GrabYourWallet but on a much bigger scale. You are investing in a future that you want.”

In a similar vein to engaging companies, Brown said that we should also be engaging the government on issues that are important to us. “We must be courageous to demand that our governments and companies transition to a sustainable clean energy economy, with economic growth based on providing well-being to everyone and not just more income to the rich.”


For more on these complex and important topics, mark your calendars for the Bay Area Book Festival event at the David Brower Center (2150 Allston Way, Berkeley) on Sunday, June 4, titled “Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is,” with Andy Behar and Clair Brown, moderated by Kate Campbell. Sponsored by North Berkeley Investment Partners.

This story was written by, and is sponsored by, the Bay Area Book Festival. For more information about the festival, which takes place on June 3-4, 2017, visit the festival website. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.