The Multinational Monitor

December 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 12



THIS ISSUE OF Multinational Monitor outlines some of the many ways in which people can shape the conduct of corporations through stock holdings and investment strategies. A number of institutions and individuals, controlling billions of dollars in investments, have in recent years divested their portfolios of investments in corporations engaged in a wide range of misbehavior.

Most successful has been the South Africa divestment movement. Several of the country's largest institutional investors and pension funds have sold stocks in companies that maintain business ties with South Africa. Almost 200 corporations have left South Africa since 1985. As portfolios have been rearranged to accommodate such considerations, institutions and individuals have turned more and more to "ethical" investment funds, which allow investors to dictate the terms of their investments. These funds offer those who are looking at more than the "bottom line" a variety of investment options.

But considering more than the bottom line does not require abandoning it. Ethically-screened investments match, and frequently outperform, traditional investment houses in their rates of return.

Garth Bray's article presents factors to consider in selecting an ethical investment fund and a review of some of the more popular ones available. Some institutions purchase or hold stock in corporations to which the term "ethical" cannot be even loosely applied. In cases where ethical investments are not possible, these institutions can, and do, take advantage of another form of power--shareholder resolutions. While most resolutions fail to pass, Heidi Welsh's article demonstrates that numerical strength is not a prerequisite to justice, particularly when resolutions are used as part of a campaign to modify corporate conduct.

In the area of personal banking services, a wide range of socially-sound passbook accounts, certificates of deposit and credit cards are available. Some financial institutions are, of course, more progressive than others, and community reinvestment performance, credit availability and other measures should be carefully checked before investing. South Shore Bank in Chicago is a leading example of a progressive, community-oriented financial institution. The bank's "development deposits," certificates of deposit dedicated to financing low-income housing projects, offer a model for financially sound and ethically admirable banking that could easily be copied in many cities. What consumers buy, and what they refuse to buy, can also be an important force for change.

The techniques, such as boycotts and informed, ethical purchasing, may not break a company, but can affect a company's image and, consequently, sales. Even the most notorious corporate renegade cannot long ignore the loss of tens or hundreds of thousands of customers and expect its corporate shareholders to quietly watch their dividends dwindle. Nestle Corp. acquiesced to demands that it change its marketing practices in the Third World after a seven-year boycott. Although a new boycott is now in effect, the utility of the technique should not be dismissed. It was only when the boycott was over and its organizers disbanded that the company dared break its promises. And the Shell boycott, led by the United Mine Workers of America in response to the company's continued sales of oil to South Africa, has sparked actions against the petrochemical company around the world. While it is too soon to measure its chances for success, the early response has been encouraging. One problem for consumers is, of course, keeping track of what companies are on which boycott lists. Co-op America publishes a monthly "Boycott Box." In addition, the National Boycott Newsletter, published quarterly, provides comprehensive lists of boycotted companies and products, as well as articles on the progress of boycott campaigns. Another marketplace force is "positive purchasing." Co-op America, which offers only socially responsible products, has proven that there is a large and receptive market for these goods. And resources like "Shopping for a Better World" by the Council on Economic Priorities provide consumers with information that they can apply in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, many could do better in putting economic punch behind their ideals. Foundations squander a mountain of clout by failing to exercise moral control over the investments that generate much of their grantmaking ability. Jim Donahue's article on where the 10 largest U.S. foundations invest their money shows an opportunity lost and a callous disregard for the values these foundations profess to hold and promote. And finally, we end the year by presenting Russell Mokhiber's and E. Virgil Falloon's compilation of "The 10 Worst Corporations of 1988," a roster of miscreant multinationals. With it, we bid 1988 goodbye.