RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Think Locally, Invest Socially

Last year, at about this time, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), mid-Missouri chapter, sponsored a 4-part series on socially responsible investing (SRI). Scheduled for 3 o’clock on Friday afternoons, it drew a small but passionate crowd ... mostly the folks in the group were retirees or about-to-be retirees, figuring they would some day be able to cash in on IRAs and 401Ks purchased over the years.

This year, WILPF sponsored a similar series, but timed it for after-work on Tuesdays so that younger folks could join the conversation. And they did!

Turns out the next generation—are they called the millennials?—know a lot about money and corporate power. And, with job shortages and college loans a reality in their educated world, they are determined to make every dime count. So, as soon as they are lucky enough to get a job, they start saving.

At the same time, they understand that putting money into corporations that do bad will result in bad things happening. So they’re trying to figure out how to support the good stuff. That means, for example, investing in solar power instead of fossil fuels and in organic foods instead of, say, guns and military contractors. As young people, they are especially worried about global climate change and sustainability.

The principles of socially responsible investing are pretty simple. You make a list of the things you want to support in our money-centric society, then you screen out the things you hate and screen in the things you like. Your list may ask for diversity in a corporate board of directors, or screen out alcohol sales, or tobacco, gambling, fracking. You can make the list as long and specific as you like.

Then, you look for investments that meet your criteria. This is the hard part. Investments in retirement accounts can include stocks, bonds, funds and such. Most of these companies do some good stuff and some bad stuff, but don’t tell me that your boss won’t let you make changes in your company-sponsored retirement account. You CAN make changes, but you have to ask. Remember that the account managers in the main office are geared to do things the easy way, and they won’t want to do anything that requires extra key strokes, but I’ve known many folks who have demanded sustainable investments and have gotten their company-sponsored investing to accommodate them.

Also, don’t tell me that you’ll lose money in your IRA by investing in socially responsible stocks. That’s just flat wrong. These funds, fossil-free, slavery-free, GMO-free and even pork-free, are out-producing the old models. That’s because consumers have gotten on-board. Follow the money!

Last year, the big win for the WILPF group meetings was to get a local mid-Missouri broker interested in SRI investments and that was accomplished. Two folks who attended the meetings have moved their money to management by that fellow and are very happy with his work. This year, the big win was to bring more people into the conversation. That was accomplished when one member figured out how to get some of the presentations recorded. They will be shown on cable TV in Columbia and also on Youtube. More about that in another column.

But another big win was the beginning of conversations about investing locally ... in things that benefit our own community. This is one of the problems of all stock market investing, no matter how benign ... it takes money from our local places and puts the money in Wall Street. Then, we can’t see what happens or even where it goes. And that starves our local communities, especially the rural ones. Then we see perfectly good buildings crumble and perfectly good businesses lose their service to the community, replaced by quick shops and dusty antique malls.

Can local investing make a turnaround in a community? That’s a good question that the last presentation tried to address. It turns out that like-minded people can get together and invest in things that make a difference. In Columbia, Missouri, a group formed to buy a building for a movie theatre that shows independent films. This venue, which also houses an independent bakery, a video store and a vinyl record store, all run by young entrepreneurs, has revitalized its area in town.

Another example came from a St. Louis investment club that formed to help farmers in the sustainable agriculture sector. The club is limited to 12 members and they review applications for small loans—$2,000 to $5,000. Take it from me, that amount can be a farmer’s game-changer in many years!

This model could be applied to loaning to an entrepreneur of any kind, of course. And, investing locally may be the most important piece of the sustainability puzzle. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to get some of the billions OUT of the stock market altogether and INTO local land and businesses?

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015

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