Monday 24th October 2016                 Change text size:

‘It’s not my job’ to be responsible

Photo: Nicole Shelby via stock.xchng

We hear the above all the time from business leaders, investors, advisers, institutions, asset managers and the financial press. Once you have accepted the lie that the only purpose of business and investment is profit maximisation, the concept of responsibility is an anathema.

This narrow thinking defended slavery, opposed restrictions on tobacco and sees selling weapons to our enemies as legitimate enterprise, while all the time destroying communities, burning down our forests, poisoning our seas and degrading every aspect of life on Earth.

Polite investor society doesn’t discuss these things. We wrap reckless and cruel activity into the language of diversified portfolios, defensive stocks, alpha and internal rates or return. We ignore the fact that a lot of investment and business means that someone somewhere is suffering as a result, or a little bit of our planet is being degraded forever.

It’s not my job as a business leader to do anything but maximise the return for my shareholders, even if it means causing real harm to people or planet.

It’s not my job as an investor to consider the real world effects of what I am investing in, be that cancer-causing tobacco sales to children, weapons used against our own country’s soldiers or air polluting, climate changing fossil fuels.

It’s not my job as an adviser to point out that what we invest creates the world we live in, more than any other activity we undertake. Don’t worry about the children’s future, they can fend for themselves in whatever dystopia you’ve created.

It’s not my job as an institutional investor to consider anything but the long-term return on my investments, be those immediately harmful to the investors whose funds I control, the country of which I am a resident or the planet on which we all live.

It’s not my job as an asset manager to ask the management of a company’s leadership about the environmental and social impacts of its activity or how it is governed, who it lobbies and bribes. Diversity, transparency, living wages? Meh.

It’s not my job as a journalist to do anything but spread the group-think that unfettered profit and growth is the only good. The myths of sustainable investment’s performance and volatility must be fanned – after all, it’s the unsustainable, irresponsible and unethical that pays the salaries through advertising. Bless those naive and idealistic investors and fund managers who choose to invest sustainably, responsibly or ethically. The smarter investor knows better. Cue smug wink and patronising smile.

It’s depressing that so many educated and otherwise pleasant people can take off their humanity with their coats at the office door and think that any of the above makes sense.

If you run a business or invest in something, then you are responsible, in part, for its actions. That our society will imprison some individuals for stealing a bottle of water, as an example to us all, but shower another group of individuals in glories and wealth for screwing over the developing world, wrecking our environment and crashing the global economy, shows how upended we have become.

At the tender age of 17, I was elected managing director of my sixth form’s young enterprise company. In giving a speech at the awards evening at the end of the process I said that “Killed by ‘it’s not my job’” would be engraved on my tombstone. Having worked in financial services and the media for my entire career since, it seems that it’s the same message, writ large for the planet.

RIP Earth: killed by “it’s not my job”.

Further reading:

Sustainable investment is about optimisation, not maximisation

From ethics to sustainability: shifting the investment debate for 2014

Do you know what your money is doing while you sleep?

Wisdom, ingenuity, morals and investing

Responsible investors need to let the light in

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