Did Al Gore 'Invent' Sustainable Capitalism?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
An “it’s about time!” welcome to Al Gore and David Blood, on the Resilient Investor site.


In early responses to my article in the current issue about the surprisingly profitable track record of Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management firm, Felix Salmon and other commentators have given variants of what I’m calling the “$20 bill on the sidewalk” argument. The $20 argument goes: if an economics professor sees some money on the sidewalk, he thinks, That can’t really be a $20 bill, because if it were someone would already have picked it up. The analogue when viewing sustainable investment would be, This approach can’t really be so profitable, because if it were other people would already be doing it.

For this installment, a sample of responses that say: As a matter of fact, it is that profitable! And lots of other people have been doing it. And, even if Al Gore and David Blood didn’t “invent” this approach, perhaps their prominence and their recent success will help it become better known.

First and most extensive is a long report by Jim Cummings at the Resilient Investor site, which essentially says: Welcome aboard, Mr. Gore! And it’s about time! It’s worth reading in detail, but here is a sample:

Convincing quotes from [various experts I cite in the article] all seem to agree [that Generation’s profitability] flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  Where have they been?  

When we wrote Investing With Your Values in 1999 (published by Bloomberg, not exactly a fringe outfit), there was already a solid track record of clear parity and frequently out-performance by SRI funds; our own Jack Brill had completed a 5-year New York Times mock-management quarterly feature, running a strong second with the only SRI portfolio.  Indeed, the co-authors of our new book were in the audience at the annual SRI Conference in 2005 when David Blood, who had recently launched Generation Investment Management with Gore, told the gathered crowd, “You were right. You’ve been right for 25 years. Incorporating social, environmental, and corporate governance considerations into the stock selection process adds value.”  

We were happy to welcome Blood to the club in 2005, and we’re surely excited that Generation’s first ten years of results can be added to the steady stream of mainstream reports confirming and expanding on the message that socially and environmentally responsible firms outperform their values-neutral peers.

After the “welcome aboard!” joshing, Cummings goes on to emphasize why the Generation story might be significant:

But we don’t mean to dismiss the power of what Blood and Gore (!) have accomplished.  In two ways, they are making a statement that few others are in the position to do.  First, they’re showing that sustainable capitalism can do more than just slightly outperform the norm (which is impressive enough; over time, the increased returns really add up)….

Secondly, their target client audience is the extremely rich, with most of the assets they manage being held by institutional investors.  Though most laymen aren’t aware of the fact, institutional investors (pension funds, universities, foundations) hold a large proportion of the world’s market equity.  If capitalism really is going to evolve into a force for good, as argued by SRI pioneers John Fullerton and Hunter Lovins, then getting institutional investors and the uber-wealthy on board is going to be key.

I should clarify that, even more than I mentioned in the piece, everyone at Generation whom I interviewed stressed that they were part of a long tradition — but that they hoped that their recent results might add more oomph to an ongoing, international effort.

***

Several other readers pointed me to a site called Investing for the Soul, run by a Canadian investor named Ron Robins. Robins himself sent in a note pointing me to his essay “How Ethics Benefits Corporate Profits,” and adding:

I’ve been following ethical investing for over forty years and independently founded Investing for the Soul in 2002 to help investors everywhere apply their personal values to investing. The site covers SR-ethical investing news and research from around the world, plus related insightful commentary and services for investors, investment professionals and organizations.  

I believe that if everyone invests according to their personal values, then, since so many of our core values are alike—and are supportive of higher ideals—that in the long run, only companies employing these higher values will truly prosper.

***

In his note Felix Salmon asked if I had talked with any of Generation’s investors. The answer is yes, but none of those I spoke with wanted to be quoted by name. I have followed up with one of them, asking whether he would be willing to join the on-line discussion. He said:

I found Felix Salmon’s piece depressing for its being infused with a skepticism so severe it borders on denialism. You had already answered many of his objections in the main piece, thought he chose not to mind, and you dealt with the rest of them in your follow-up note.  I have nothing to add.

***

And just to round this out on a “many readers, many perspectives” note, here is one more note from a person drawing the opposite inference:

I'm inclined to think well of Al Gore, and my reaction to hearing about his investment approach is "I hope he succeeds"!  Reading the persuasive response by Felix Salmon pulls me back from this bias.

It's not the inherent contradiction of what Al Gore proposes (live sustainably and be rich!).  It's the fallacy of his investment philosophy - that his firm will consistently pick winners.  Yes, some seem to be able to do that, but for everyone who picks a winner, there is someone who picks a loser.  Investment as practiced, or should I say "sold" by Al Gore is a zero-sum game.  If I buy low and sell high, there is someone else selling low and buying high.  For every firm that claims above average returns, there is a firm that has below average returns.  And, an approach of picking winners leads to active trading and high expenses, reducing investment returns, but making the brokers rich.

Investing in companies that reflect your values is a good thing, but as I infer from Felix Salmon's commentary, there is nothing magical about it.