Task force runs into complexities of responsible investing

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Robert Boeckner (right), a member of the Responsible Investing Task Force, gives CoGS members an update of his group’s work. Photo: Marites Sison
Robert Boeckner (right), a member of the Responsible Investing Task Force, gives CoGS members an update of his group’s work. Photo: Marites Sison

Mississauga, Ont.
A task force charged with coming up with proposals for guiding the responsible investing of more than a billion dollars’ worth of Anglican Church of Canada investment funds by this past spring is going to need more time, Council of General Synod (CoGS) heard Friday, June 23.

The task force, created by CoGS last fall in response to the passing of a resolution  at General Synod the previous summer, was mandated to present an interim report with proposed responsible investing policy changes by May 2017.

“We are not presenting proposed policy changes tonight, because as we got into this issue we found that it’s a very complex one,” Robert Boeckner, a member of the Responsible Investing Task Force, told members of CoGS in an update on its work.

For example, he said, simply to divest from fossil fuel companies is “too simplistic” because it reduces the means the church might have to engage with these companies to effect change. A group of Exxon Mobil shareholders, including the Church of England, recently successfully put forth a resolution  at the company’s annual general meeting requiring the company to issue annual reports on the impact to its business of climate change. If the Church of England had not been a shareholder, it would not have been able to attend the meeting, Boeckner said.

Using broad categories as a basis to accept or reject investments, he suggested, could be problematic, because companies that are undesirable in some ways might be desirable in others. For example, he said, the Anglican Church of Canada’s pension fund includes holdings in Total, a French oil and gas giant, which also happens to be Europe’s second largest investor in renewable energy. The big companies at work in the Canadian oil sands, he said, are the largest private-sector employers of Indigenous people in Canada.

One of the areas the task force discussed was solar energy. Though solar energy itself is environmentally friendly, most of the solar panels now used, he said, are made in China, sometimes in factories employing people at very low wages in poor working conditions, and their manufacture releases pollutants into the environment.

A summary of Anglican Church of Canada investment funds put together by the task force, and released in a summary report at CoGS, found just under $1.2 billion invested in church pension funds, diocese investments, General Synod’s consolidated trust fund, the Anglican Foundation and the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund. The task force, Boeckner said, is eager to hear from the owners of these funds whether they currently use responsible investment practices and whether they would be interested in a responsible investing tool developed by General Synod. The task force plans to send out a questionnaire.

Some CoGS members, asked to comment on the questionnaire, similarly expressed concern about the complexity of responsible investing. Bishop John Chapman, of the diocese of Ottawa, said the diocese already has in place a “screen” or policy preventing it from investing in oil and gas, weapons, pornography and other industries. But at a recent investment committee meeting, someone proposed divesting from American technology behemoth Apple as well, on the grounds that it had questionable employment practices. The fund manager, Chapman said, resisted the idea, saying that further screening out of companies would jeopardize the fund’s rate of return.

Such problems, he said, point to the need to know the “line” beyond which responsible investing policies shouldn’t be pushed, given the responsibility fund owners have to the people the fund is meant to benefit.

“How do we handle the moral dilemma of the line?,” asked Chapman. He noted that “in most of the cases in our diocese we’re not managing so much diocesan money—we’re managing the consolidated trust, which is mostly parish money. There’s a responsibility to parishes to gain as large a return as possible.”

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Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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