Conscientious Investors

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As globalization helps the rich get richer, the rich are finding themselves in a peculiar pickle: whatever are they to do with those fat stacks of loot?

Sherazad Adib has some suggestions. She's part of an elite team of investment consultants in Montreal called the Groupe Investissement (Investment Group). Made up of four youngsters looking eerily like regular business-people, the group aims to get investors to put their money in select companies that they deem socially or morally responsible.

Demers Conseil, a well-known investment company, partially funds the groupand provides it with luxurious office space. So far, Groupe Investissement has completed five contracts, each for about $15,000. "Investors have aresponsibility to put pressure on business to change working conditions andenvironmental practices," says twenty-six-year-old Adib, who lived in Franceand Iran before moving to Canada eight years ago. "Businesses have problemsand realities they have to face and you can't ignore them, but we mustalways combine that with social and environmental regulations."

Globetrotting Eric Steedman, also part of Groupe Investissement, has seensweatshops first-hand. He says the same problems exist from Guatemala toKorea: no overtime pay, miscalculation of wage rates and child and slavelabour. Steedman says that there are sweatshops in Canada, and he worriesabout the increasing use of prison labour. "The whole move to privatizeprison - where your business is modelled on having more and more people injail - I think that's pretty shameful."

The group is part of a growing trend of rabble-rousers who believe there'smore to changing business practices than waving a sign around. Investors areholding votes to tell their companies how to behave. And in today'simage-conscious times, they claim, companies can't help but listen.

North Americans have begun taking that responsibility seriously.Shareholders at Sears Canada, Hudson's Bay and Wal-Mart recently voted onproposals calling on the companies to adopt International Labour Organization principles on sweatshop labour. Investors in US oil giants likeExxonMobil are pushing their companies to invest in renewable energyproduction, like hydro dams and solar panels.

But the movement exists beyond the tight ties and hard desks of the officeplace. Canadian students have been entrenched in a war against universityinvestment practices for years. A typical gripe involves university"donations." When BioChem Pharma gave $100,000 to Montreal's Concordia University in 1997, students accused the university of entering a partnership deal that would see the company using the school and its resources for free research. As these types of university deals become more common, students find themselves fighting their schools internally through referendums and student elections.

"It's a takeover of the education function of the university," says DavidBernans of the Concordia Student Union, and author of thesoon-to-be-published Con U Inc.: Privatization, Marketization andGlobalization at Concordia University (and Beyond). "Students are taughtto become cogs in a corporate machine, where they're not being trained ascritical citizens, but as commodities to sell themselves to the highestcorporate bidders. For average people to turn a blind eye to it is classsuicide. You're turning over the reins of power to a wealthy few."

But Bernans stresses that responsible investment has its limits. "The bestthing about investment activism is it brings to light the worst excesses ofcorporate power, and that's a really valuable service. But the idea thatshareholder democracy is going to happen is a sham. Because it's not oneperson, one vote, it's one dollar one vote."

The Groupe Investissement's Steedman was once a militant himself. The formerpunk protested nukes and environmental unfriendliness until he learned hecould change the world and earn big bucks at the same time. So he gothimself a master's degree in business administration (MBA). "I never really sawmyself as a business guy," he says. "I did my MBA at McGill to find out moreabout the business world because you can't really change things if you don'tknow how they work. People should wake up and realize that they havenumerous ways to retake control of the political agenda."

He's not afraid of money though. "If we hit $100,000 in revenue bySeptember, I think that would be okay. One of the reasons we've been puttingin a lot of work for relatively little pay is because we think there's goingto be a big payoff a couple of years down the road. I believe this is a wayto make the world more responsible. But I'd like to see this develop as aprofitable business."

Craig Segal is a freelance journalist and researcher based inMontreal. He has written for Adbusters, Reader's Digest, TheMontreal Gazette, and is a regular contributor to The MontrealMirror. You can reach him at craig@cam.org. A version of this articlepreviously appeared in The Montreal Mirror.

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