Responsible Investing

Deb Abbey

Deb Abbey, CEO, Responsible Investment Association (RIA), is a pioneer in the responsible investment (RI) industry in Canada. She created the first investment-management firm to focus exclusively on RI.

Advisors and their clients stand to benefit when corporate leaders focus on building socially and environmentally responsible enterprises

By Deb Abbey |

Responsible investors have long argued that companies with sustainable supply chains have some of the greatest opportunities to create and preserve long-term value. Now, it's company leaders themselves who are also coming to the realization of the risk mitigation benefits of having sustainable supply chains.

For many of the world's largest companies, concern over the operational, financial and reputational risks in their supply chain remain high. In fact, according to the results of a survey that Ernst & Young LLP conducted for the United Nations Global Compact Initiative released this past August, three-quarters of global companies that participated in the survey said avoiding reputational risk was a key driver for building sustainability into their supply chains.

To see the terrible impact of poor supply chain management, you need only to recall the tragic deaths of more than 1,100 garment workers due to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013. The tragedy ultimately led to the creation of the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, both of which aim to improve the safety and working conditions of ready-made garment workers in the country.

"The sheer volume of safety issues identified by the Accord and the Alliance inspections suggests that no company is immune from the risk of yet another terrible disaster occurring in a Bangladeshi supplier factory, especially for companies that are not taking part in either inspection program," noted a report from the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE).

As a heartbreaking result of the limited progress made thus far in Bangladesh, factory accidents have continued to lead to preventable deaths. In September, at least 30 people were killed and dozens injured when a boiler exploded and caused a huge fire in a Bangladeshi packaging factory.

For retail investors, it can seem impossible to be fully apprised of the full range of supply chain issues that can arise in an investment, let alone an entire portfolio. But that's where investment advisors, fund companies and asset-management firms with the experience and accreditation to seek out and evaluate responsible investments can — and do — play a role.

For example, as active investors working on their clients behalf, firms such as NEI Investments, Vancity Investment Management Ltd., Bâtirente and BMO Global Asset Management are among at least 32 investor groups representing US$1.6 trillion in assets that support the Investor Expectations on Labour Practices in Agricultural Supply Chains. The statement declares that signatories will seek to engage the companies they invest in and encourage activity in seven different areas. These range from encouraging companies to establish a supplier code of conduct that reflects international standards to mapping a company's entire supply chain and collaborating with stakeholders to address systemic labour issues.

This kind of engagement is not only applicable to the agricultural industry. Ultimately, any industry — from resources to the high-tech sector — will benefit from the call among responsible investors and their advisors to mitigate the impact of supply chain risks. Organizations such as SHARE and active shareholders, including firms such as OceanRock Investments Inc., play a key role in spurring companies to make a difference. For example, both SHARE and OceanRock were involved in filing a shareholder proposal in 2016 asking Potash Corp. to conduct and publish a human rights assessment of phosphate rock used in its fertilizer that was sourced by a Moroccan state-owned company in the disputed Western Sahara.

Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) research firms such as Sustainalytics are also involved in helping investors understand and benchmark the level of forced labour that exists in various industries. This year, the firm — through its work in the KnowTheChain partnership with Humanity United, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Verité — has contributed to reports about forced labour in the food and beverage and the information and communications technology sectors and ranked the largest companies' performance in both sectors.

As awareness of supply chain risks grow, progress remains limited, according to a June 2016 report from Vigeo-Eiris, an ESG research agency, which said that "only a minority of companies are able to demonstrate responsible management of their supply chain [and lead to potentially] significant legal implications." In fact, , almost two thirds of companies in the MSCI ACWI index will be affected from a regulatory perspective by new labour laws, including the U.K..'s Modern Slavery Act, California's Transparency in Supply Chains Act, or the proposed Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act in the U.S., according to MSCI.

The rise of new legislation to address some of the worst forms of exploitation suggests progress requires effort at all levels to ensure the well-being of workers across the supply chain around the world. Responsible investors, advisors, and asset managers all play a role in making a difference for people in both developed and developing countries. Ultimately, the good of our communities and the health of our society depends on it.