THE BLOG

Oil, Guns and Moral Outrage

12/20/2012 11:32 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

Last week, at Seattle's Newground Social Investment holiday party, the firm's Founder Bruce Herbert, a leader in SRI, gave a toast in which he applauded Bill McKibben's leadership in fossil fuel divestiture. Herbert asked the crowd to support McKibben's efforts, both in attending events (Herbert attended McKibben's "Do The Math" divestiture launch) and in our investment practices.

At first, I was thrilled. I wondered if the Do The Math campaign had already spread beyond college campuses to the broader SRI investment community. If so, the movement was unfolding even faster than I could have hoped.

Four days later in Newtown Connecticut, a 20-year-old gunman trained a semi-automatic gun on a 2nd grade classroom, killing 20 small children and 6 adults. In the midst of writing about fossil fuel divestiture, I realized there was something bigger going on: despite all the successes the SRI industry can claim, it has been a failure when it comes to products that kill.

SRI was first practiced by religious groups who refused to invest their money in companies whose products were harmful to their congregations, mostly alcohol, tobacco and gambling. These "sin" screens have been in place for at least sixty years. Later, other screens were commonly added for harmful industries such as pornography, weapons and the military. But none of these industries has been seriously affected by SRI.

This is not to undercut the work that SRI has done. Over the years, it has played an important role in anti-war, anti-nuclear, environmental movements, civil rights and economic justice, including most famously apartheid.

But as Robert Zevin, an early SRI advocate, says in a blog for The Huffington Post, SRI's original moral purpose has been subsumed to profit:

Many of us are now embarrassed to say that our religious or moral or political views should and do affect our investment selections. We know the gatekeepers don't want to hear it; and they know that many of their institutional clients definitely don't want to hear it.

And investors have even less influence when they simply refuse to invest. The old guard of SRI would hold stocks just to give them a seat at the table -- or rather, at the annual corporate meeting. Now, even investors as socially minded as the Gates Foundation are interested in only one thing: returns. That Foundation may do worlds of good for global health, but its biggest investments after Berkshire Hathaway are in McDonald's and Coca Cola, two companies most at odds with children's health.

At least sixty years of investors boycotting the gun trade has yielded zero result. In fact, SRI activism works best when rewarding companies that care about being good, whose products sustain life rather than take it. For example, CSRHub, the social responsibility data aggregator, created a special issue called "NRA Anti-Gun List" so that CSR executives can support companies that take a stand against guns, rather than providing a list of gun manufacturers and dealers to boycott.

Only new regulations prompted by consumer outrage will restrict guns. I fear the same is true for climate change. Noble a thought as it is -- and as much as we all love having an outlet for our outrage -- the truth is, divestiture itself will have as little effect as investment screens for guns. But the moral outrage that the campaign is sparking, like the moral outrage sparked by the massacre in Newtown, is a different story. I look forward to restrictions and even bans being enacted at all levels of government on both guns and fossil fuels. Investors and consumers can take care of keeping the responsible companies in line. I am thankful we have other means to handcuff the really bad businesses.