Stockhokm (NordSIP) – Robert Rubinstein didn’t mince his words at the 20th anniversary of the TBLI (Triple Bottom Line Investing) Conference at the Stockholm Nasdaq last Thursday.
Introducing this year’s Nordic segment of the traveling ESG road show – this was the 33rd such event across four continents – dedicated to educating asset owners about ESG investment opportunities with social returns, TBLI founder, Chairman and organiser Rubinstein recounted the numerous challenges TBLI has faced since inception. In summation, a “barren wasteland full of naysayers.”
Since Rubinstein’s visionary promotion of ESG as a magazine publisher in the Netherlands in the pre-“environmentalist Al Gore” ‘90’s, TBLI, his brainchild, and ESG more broadly have faced, he said, arrogant asset managers, severe communication challenges in pre-social media times within an overwhelmingly sceptical financial sector, the lack of the types of frameworks and conventions that today are driving industry norms (e.g. the UN PRI, GRI, the Montréal Pledge), a lack of investment and spending on capacity from business leaders, and, today, the menace of U.S. President Donald Trump’s retrograde anti-environment agenda, among other things.
He was jovial in so recounting, but remained faithful to the spirit that gave birth to TBLI in the first place: focusing on educational and more provocative content that would challenge asset owners to think beyond their personal interests and immediate financial returns. As American Homeowner Preservation fund CEO Jorge Newbery wrote in a Huffington Post profile on the eve of the conference, and as Rubinstein reiterated in person, the essence of Rubinstein’s quest is to “teach farming to hunters” – to teach asset managers to think beyond market-rate returns, short-term behaviour and the ingrained fear of their clients’ expectations to provide investment solutions and impact investing reflecting the true cost of products in terms of their environmental effects.
To do so, TBLI Nordic featured an array of panellists and presenters from different sectors, regions and considerably variegated investment experience to challenge participants and preconceived notions of investment, alongside investors and sustainable business owners from all over the world. Newbery himself, for example, showcased innovation in alternative investments via his experience running the American Homeowner Preservation fund, which provides help to American families facing foreclosure by buying distressed mortgages at deep discounts with fund investments, working directly with homeowners to keep their homes.
Panel presentations covered everything from analysing carbon footprint assets, decarbonising portfolios via green bonds, the sustainable financing possibilities of blockchain technology, disagreements in methodology among low carbon indexes, financial approaches to impact investing strategies, sustainability in alternative investments, shared value in private equity, the (real and imagined) impediments to mobilizing capital to the global south, and much more.
The element of the conference that really marked the success of the TBLI imprint, though, and arguably the jewel in Rubinstein’s crown, was the critical attitude on display from some of the speakers, and not a few of the participants in the audience (Carbon Wealth co-founder Carl Pendragon comes to mind). Re-Define Director Sony Kapoor gave a rousing keynote speech denouncing the “artificial silo” between the sustainability and investment crowds, a construct he proceeded to critically deconstruct immanently to his extensive experience with some of the largest businesses, pension funds and government institutions in the world, while ex-AP4 CEO Mats Andersson gave a deeply personal account of his journey from sceptic to ESG believer by, among other things, challenging standard notions of risk and volatility – for, as he suggested, what could be a better measure of permanent capital loss than climate change?
Consequently, the word among some of those present who had also attended the PRIinPerson conference in Berlin earlier in the week was that this was by far the more critical gathering, less beholden to presenting individual company achievements in decarbonisation and other measures (though this was also, inevitably, a dominant element) than trying to provoke and stimulate reaction with scientific, philosophical and sound financial argument.
This TBLI Nordic conference was rumoured to be Rubinstein’s last, but the TBLI organisation is set to continue its quest, not least given its achievements but also in the face of current affairs, the daunting task of meeting the SDGs and estimations that the extent of climate change may be far worse than already feared. If so, he will have played an invaluable role moving the money to where his mouth has been, well ahead of the curve, and paving a way forward for the next generations who will shoulder the burden with even more urgency than the current one.
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