Josh Zinner comes to ICCR with 25 years’ experience as a non-profit leader, coalition-builder and policy advocate. For the past eight years Zinner co-directed the New Economy Project, an organization that works with community groups on economic justice issues, and is at the forefront both locally and nationally in the fight against discriminatory financial practices. Having built and led organizations for nearly two decades, Zinner is an experienced executive skilled in non-profit management and effective collaboration with key stakeholders to advance organizational goals. Zinner is also a long-time public interest lawyer who has spent his career working to promote social and economic justice and corporate accountability. He is currently on the Community Advisory Board of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Christopher P. Skroupa: What are the common ideas and values that unite such a diverse coalition under the ICCR umbrella and how do you speak with one voice when approaching a company?
Josh Zinner: ICCR’s membership has evolved to include a wide variety of organizations over the 45 years since our founding. Faith-based and secular, asset owners and asset managers both large and small, we are bound together through a deep commitment to promote corporate practices that support economic, social, and environmental justice.
The diversity of our membership of 300-plus institutions, and the depth of our collective commitment, are our most valuable assets and our greatest strengths. By definition, a coalition works together toward a particular end, however our individual members may take different paths to get there. So, while we are fundamentally united in our goals to increase corporate accountability on a host of shared concerns, we often employ different levers which can be very effective.
There is tremendous potential in growing this collaborative model to further increase the impact of our engagements and truly hold corporations accountable, and we are always welcoming new organizations to our coalition. We are also very fortunate to work in concert with a large network of like-minded advocacy groups that bring their unique strengths to bear on these issues. As a community, we are very focused on finding new ways to bring the voices of impacted people into our corporate engagements, including by working through our own faith-based members with deep roots in communities.
Skroupa: How have the practices of responsible investment changed since the inception of the movement? What is ICCR’s role in the movement today?
Zinner: The role of faith-based investors in pressing large companies to be responsible and accountable corporate citizens is as relevant today as it was during ICCR’s founding during the time of apartheid in South Africa. One in six dollars that are professionally managed, is invested using socially responsible investment (SRI) strategies. ICCR members have always gone beyond the conventional strategies employed by most of the SRI community. We have developed a more hands-on approach to shareholder engagement that seeks a deeper and longer-lasting effect on the corporate ethos. As a result, many companies that are veterans of ICCR engagements out-perform their peers on social and environmental justice concerns, setting best practice examples that raise the performance of their respective sectors.
ICCR views its advocacy and organizing work through a social justice lens that is focused on addressing corporate actions that may exacerbate the root causes of inequality. For that reason, our members intentionally network with civil society and impacted community groups, to include their voices, as well as the voices of other relevant stakeholders at the engagement table. This bottom-up and more inclusive approach to stakeholder engagement focuses on long-term and measurable social outcomes that align with international norms such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Skroupa: What are the core issues that ICCR members work on?
Zinner: Our members like to say they never saw a social justice issue they weren’t moved by, and that is reflected in the wide variety of concerns that ICCR members are bringing to hundreds of companies on an annual basis. That said, we do have several institutional priorities with dedicated program staff and subject matter expertise. Human Rights themes, including trafficking and slavery in global supply chains, are a big engagement area for our members. Our “No Fees Recruitment” initiative seeks to protect vulnerable migrant workers from unethical recruitment practices that may entrap them in indentured labor.
Climate Change is another major engagement area, with an emphasis on climate justice, reducing demand for carbon-intensive fuels and promoting investment in—and a just transition to—renewable energy sources. Our members advocate for more sustainable food production seeking to curb practices such as antibiotics overuse, unethical treatment of animals including CAFOs, a concentrated animal feeding operation that confines animals, and gestation crates, as well as curbing deforestation that exacerbates climate change.
Our members also press for more equitable labor practices via participation in organizations like the Fair Food Program. This work-stream also includes our “Access to Nutrition” program focusing on both undernutrition and childhood obesity. Our water program focuses on mitigating the impact of corporate water usage, including pollution that threatens local water safety and sustainability, as well as the over-consumption that threatens the human right to water in water-stressed communities.
Consistent with the work of many of our faith-based members, engagements with healthcare and pharmaceutical companies seek to increase the access and affordability of life-saving medicines and health services for the world’s communities that are most in need. Our work with the financial services sector centers on excessive risk-taking by banks, as well as access to credit and affordable banking services in low income communities. Our members have long sought to curb excessive corporate influence over our political, legislative and regulatory systems. ICCR members endorse disclosure in corporate lobbying activities and political donations—both seek to influence agendas that may run counter to society’s interests.
Skroupa: How do you, as shareholders, reconcile your interest in maximizing returns in tandem with your concern that companies behave ethically toward communities, workers, and other key stakeholders?
Zinner: First, I would dispute the notion that financial performance and ethical behavior are separate interests in need of reconciliation. Responsible investors begin with the belief that positive, sustainable financial performance emerges from good environmental and social practices, including the ethical treatment of all stakeholders. This premise is the bedrock of sound corporate governance. A company that doesn’t have this code of ethics embedded in their business model is open to all sorts of legal, reputational and financial risks. As investors, we view those risks as fundamentally material, as they affect the long-term value and sustainability of the company and business model.
The corporate social contract isn’t an abstract concept; it is society’s unspoken license with corporations to operate in the public sphere. It presumes that corporations behave ethically and consider all stakeholders, including communities, workers, and the public in general. We have unfortunately gotten away from that model in too many instances. Instead, the shortsighted Milton Friedman model of prioritizing short-term returns to “maximize shareholder value”, at the expense of ethical behavior and long-term vision, has led too many companies to engage in practices that are contrary to the public interest. Our role as responsible investors is to keep companies mindful of the long-term value of ethical corporate behavior, and to show that there can be a clear alignment in the best interest of companies, shareholders and the public.
Skroupa: How do you track the effectiveness of your engagements with companies and how do you decide when they should be abrogated?
Zinner: The tracking of engagements has been a much discussed topic in our field of late. Apart from some obvious metrics, such as annual general meeting votes on shareholder-sponsored proxy resolutions, it can be challenging to capture the full influence of our many corporate engagements. There are a variety of reasons for this.
One challenge is the confidentiality of investors’ engagements with companies which normally take place under Chatham House Rules and prohibit any specific attribution of information to any of the participants. Investor-company confidence is a critical component of any productive dialogue and is intended to foster an open and candid engagement where real change can happen. Unfortunately that means we aren’t always able to take credit for the genuine influence we have; the many decisions that are taken as a direct result of investor engagement.
Also, when you are talking about between 250 and 300 resolutions and an equal number of dialogues annually, it requires extraordinary organization and rigor to track each engagement. We all recognize the importance of capturing the right data points so we can track company progress on our “asks” and benchmark that progress against industry peers. When a company is consistently meeting our expectations and goals on an environmental, social or governance concern, and has opened channels for all stakeholders—including impacted communities—we will conclude the dialogue and publicly credit the company for their achievements. Equally important for us is a better understanding of the evolving investor-corporate relationship and how best to exert our influence for maximum effects.
Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.