Nuns Who Won't Stop Nudging: Shareholder Activism

By Sister Barbara Jennings, CSJ
Coordinator for the Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investments

We can't afford litigation...we don't write regulations...so we use our shareholder power to make positive changes in corporate policies and practices.

Amidst the news of the Occupy Wall Street protests, the shareholder activism among communities of religious women has received recent attention in  US Catholic and the New York Times, but sisters have been involved in the movement when it began in the 1970s to put pressure on Coca-Cola and Shell to stop propping up apartheid government  in South Africa.

Men and women religious who were domestic and international missionaries among the poor saw that systemic change is difficult but necessary. Members of many other religious bodies were seeing the same thing; thus the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility was born.   Shareholder activism is becoming more and more  well known among environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and among legislative reformers like Political Accountability and NETWORK.  

The Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investment is the St. Louis area arm of the ICCR, consisting of 14 religious congregations, both women and men, and some individuals and investment companies. When we file shareholder resolutions, we tell the company we are ready to dialogue about making the company more responsible, transparent and forthright regarding issues of justice. Often, the company would prefer we withdraw our resolution, but our perseverance makes an impact.  I have seen corporations notch up their reports on water use, human rights practices, and environmental responsibility as a result of MCRI/ICCR engagements.   

I'm grateful for all the congregations, and especially the Sisters of St. Joseph, who are leaders in this movement and for the congregation treasurers who continue to support us.   

Here is a summary of MCRI's actions in 2010-2011 and what we plan to address in 2011-2012:

AMERENMissouri: We filed a resolution asking Ameren to report on its efforts to identify and reduce the health and environmental hazards of coal combustion waste or coal ash, especially in wet ponds. The shareholders' vote was 46.3 percent. We received good press in the St. Louis Post Dispatch and in investment journals. We heard Ameren's report on September 28 and were not completely satisfied; the report was vague, lacked specific goals and dollar amounts. The report glossed over the fact that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources ("our local EPA") does not monitor coal ash landfills or ponds beyond the initial permit. So Ameren has been getting by for many years with leaks from their landfills and ponds into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The revised report was released to us on October 20 and is still not satisfactory; we filed again on November 10.     Ameren ranks  494 in Newsweek Green Rankings, published October 16, 2011.   

Boeing: We filed a resolution on ethical standards for military contracts, an issue MCRI has addressed many times in the past. Boeing challenged our resolution and it was omitted from the Proxy Book. However, three vice presidents initiated a dialogue with us on ethical standards and human rights in their supply chain. Boeing does not require non-government subcontractors to follow International Labor Organization rules, nor does Boeing monitor their supply chain beyond present requirements. We will decided not to file since we are still in the dialogue, a teaching moment for the company.  Boeing ranks 37/500 in the Newsweek Green Rankings; however, we still have much to discuss with them regarding human rights.  

Monsanto (MON): MON will begin to develop a policy that recognizes the human right to water. MON, along with other agricultural companies and trade organizations, remains committed to the Mississippi River Initiative at $5 million a year for the Nature Conservancy efforts to lessen the amounts of fertilizer and herbicides entering the river tributaries. MON agreed to record and report specific amounts of water used in research and development and in fields in India, Brazil, Mexico and the United States. We continue to work for greater disclosure and forward-looking practices.  Monsanto ranks 498/500 in the Newsweek Green Rankings, 2012. 

Peabody Energy: The largest coal company in the world is talking to us twice a year. They sent us their Surface Water Quality Report and have improved their water measurements. They hired a corporate social responsibility (CSR) director and agreed to participate in Newsweek's Green Rankings, an assessment of the environmental performance of the largest publicly traded companies in America and around the world. However their status is still very low in the Green Rankings..... 492/500.   We will continue to press them towards better practices and disclosure in water sustainability and management and will meet with them on December 6, 2011. 

Arch Coal, Inc: We are opening a dialogue and possible resolution with this company on water management, especially in regards to mountain top removal. Arch Coal ranks 0/500 in the Green Rankings; they have apparently not bothered to respond to the questionnaire.  

You can see we have plenty of work to do with our "locally grown" corporations!   

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