Sustainable investing in unprecedented times

By Doug Watt | June 5, 2009 | Last updated on June 5, 2009
3 min read

Two years ago, Canada’s socially responsible investing (SRI) community was in a cheerful, even celebratory mood. Many of the country’s major pension funds, particularly in the public sector, had reversed their position on sustainable investing, embracing the concept that environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues do have an impact on a company’s bottom line and that including ESG in the investment process was, in fact, a fiduciary responsibility for fund managers. Many felt that a trickle-down effect from the pension world would provide a much-needed boost to the SRI retail sector.

In fact, there was already evidence of a retail breakthrough. At the 2007 Canadian Responsible Investment conference in Montreal, Michael Jantzi of Jantzi Research announced a groundbreaking agreement with RBC to sell co-branded SRI mutual funds in the retail space, a first for Canada’s big banks.

Things were looking up for SRI in Canada. But change was in the air. In August 2007, the market for non-bank asset-backed commercial paper froze, the bottom fell out on the house of cards known as U.S. sub-prime mortgages and the credit crunch was on.

Fast forward to today. Canada’s SRI community is gathering in Winnipeg next week (June 7-9) in the midst of economic uncertainty. Pundits seem to agree that the worst is over, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Can SRI point the way the forward?

From climate change to community investment, this year’s conference, Sustainable Investing in Unprecedented Times, features a number of high-profile keynote speakers and an array of workshops.

Mark Jaccard, a professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University will tackle climate change. The trend towards compulsory policy changes, such as carbon taxes, emission caps and fuel regulations is inevitable, he argues. “The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we replace emissions reduction talk with emissions reduction action.”

Former Ontario Securities Commission chair Ed Waitzer will discuss financial re-regulation in Canada and around the world, focusing on what went wrong and whether the current crisis will lead to a “teachable” moment. If so, Waitzer says, financial leaders will need to extend their horizons “beyond regulation, into other international processes and widen the circle.”

Other highlights include the results of a survey of Canadians’ attitudes on sustainability, presented by Nancy McHarg of the Strategic Counsel. Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign affairs minister and now president of the University of Winnipeg will speak on community investment and revitalization. David Martin, the president of Bromart Holdings, which owns and controls the CSL Group and Horizon Capital Holdings, will focus his speech on aboriginal development and the role of the investment community.

The conference also includes workshops on green real estate, clean technology, renewable energy, shareholder advocacy, academic research on SRI in Canada and microfinance.

A special advisor-only workshop, moderated by Toronto-based SRI specialist Sucheta Rajagopal, will tackle the difficult question: Is the market downturn shaking investor commitment to SRI?

A two-day course on the Global Reporting Initiative, touted as the most widely-used framework for sustainability reporting, will be available following the conference. Deloitte, which will be hosting the course, will also present a module on assurance related to sustainability reporting.

Doug Watt is an Ottawa-based writer and editor and co-founder of SRI Monitor, a blog on socially responsible investing.


Doug Watt