May 11, 2021
Melinda Head

Value or Values: A Delicate Balance

Sustainable and responsible business practices are increasingly important. Think you’re just an observer? Wrong, you’re in the driver’s seat

When all the trees have been cut down,

when all the animals have been hunted,

when all the waters are polluted,

when all the air is unsafe to breathe,

only then will you discover you cannot eat money.

This Cree prophecy says it all. Value can only come from values, the right values that create a sustainable ecosystem that ensures life on this planet for years to come.

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

Today, increasing emphasis is being put upon environmental, social and governance practices as a non-financial differentiator; the fancy new acronym for this is ESG. Gone are the days when earnings per share growth, dividend yield and return on capital determined performance. Diversity, wage gaps, health and safety, greenhouse gas emissions, land protections, water use, the financial well-being of one’s community, taxes paid, ethical behavior and more are in the spotlight. Transparency on these issues is being demanded by citizens and are considered when making choices.

Whether you buy a product/service or invest in the company that produces that product/service, it’s essentially the same thing: a choice. As the popular Iroquois proverb so humbly reminds us: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next 7 generations”. The average life span of a human being in 2021 is 78.99 years, 7 generations x 78.99 years means we must think ahead 552.93 years. That’s a lot of responsibility. Since we can’t eat money, we must embrace this principle.

Whether we like it or not, we all know that money makes the world go round, an expression that was popularized in the 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli.

So, if money makes the world go round, how can we make money work for the World, for the Earth, for Our Children’s Future?

Sustainable and responsible business practices are a big part of that equation and ESG scores (also known as “metrics”) are now being put out there, as pressure for corporations to be more transparent about their environmental, social and governance practices is heightening. Finally, we have information beyond classic financial differentiators which often appear to be just a bunch of malarkey or, as I like to say, gobbledygook. They’re just not comprehensible – perhaps on purpose, whereas values are easily understood by anyone who is able to ask basic human questions, such as: Do you have a diverse hiring policy? Are you helping the community in which your factory staff live with opportunities for a good education? Are you paying your fair share of taxes? Are you harvesting raw materials in a sustainable manner? Are you reducing your carbon footprint? These, and others, are questions we want answered. And the answers allow us to make choices.

“We are witnessing a tectonic shift in dialogues with clients. They are asking how to design more sustainable portfolios, is there a values-based portfolio (not just a growth product)?” (Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock)

Big brands are racing to publicly put forward their changed values – they know it is necessary for their success; now the big question is – will they deliver on their promises? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, highly paid ad agencies are certainly making some big bucks from this momentum.

Now you’re faced with a challenge. Should you buy a product/service? Do the Company’s values match yours?

Some companies have heard the people and have made substantial changes to their businesses to prioritize today’s values:

Lego has been clear about its values of sustainability, education and societal contributions.  It recently replaced plastic materials with plant-based plastics made from sugarcane

Netflix proved its stands behind its value of not tolerating sexual harassment when it dropped Kevin Spacey and, later, Danny Masterson from the Netflix shows they stared in after allegations were made against them

Ben & Jerry’s has a 3-part mission guiding the Company’s decision making

It has named new flavors to raise awareness about some of the campaigns it supports: Save our Swirled, One Sweet World, Home Sweet Honeycomb are a few examples

These new Lego pieces are made from sustainable plastics

There are other companies that have gotten in trouble publicly for standing behind values that are considered outdated, think Chick-fil-A and its reputation for being anti-LGTBQ or for seemingly having no values at all.  Nestle has seen a lot of public anger from the baby formula scandal of the ‘90s, to the more recent drain the well, bottled water scandals in areas suffering from draughts, such as California.

As a consumer, the choice is yours. Does your money back companies whose values you share? Do you choose to boycott brands doing things that you are opposed to? Are you willing to push back on companies whose values are not aligned with yours? Or what about against other governments? Do you think the US and its allies should boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics to take a stand against human rights violations? In some cases, boycotting will mean sacrificing an item you love, a service you enjoy, or a chance at an Olympic medal for which one of our athletes has been training his/her entire life.  Each of us needs to make that value calculation for ourselves, or we can choose to keep our heads in the sand and pretend the information is not available to us.  

The UK Sustainable Investment and Financial Association (UKSIF) has done a great job demystifying the strategies that are used to consider ESG issues, which they describe as wide-ranging and dependent on the level of positive impact desired. They explain the differences between ethical, ESG, impact and other common strategies in this excellent, easy-to-understand summary.

Each of these strategic considerations is important. They hold more weight than corporate advertising and free-for-all social media postings. Now you know roughly what to look out for. And, hopefully, both sustainable and responsible strategies, and your individual choices, are now more clear. The future is in your hands.

“Change is coming whether you like it or not.” (Greta Thunberg, UN Climate Action Summit)

“The true engine of our economy is nature.” (Marc Palahi, Bioeconomy Expert)

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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