What if investors could make the same or even better returns from the stock market index funds by focusing on companies doing social good? When I learned that a group of multimillionaires—from Deepak Chopra to Ariana Huffington—had developed a stock fund with Goldman Sachs called Just Capital to do just that, I was about to celebrate until I looked at the top holdings: polluting chipmakers like Intel and Texas Instruments, obesity enablers from Pepsi to Yum Brands, surveillance firms like Alphabet, and propagandists including NewsCorp.
It’s not a list of socially good companies at all, but simply a list of the biggest companies in the world, with a filter that weeds out the ones that refuse—in one way or another—to nod to labor, community responsibility, green production, or reduced slavery footprints. (Yes, slaves still make our stuff, but that’s another topic.) It’s a laudable direction to encourage, but these companies hardly count as socially responsible investments. So what if they let their employees volunteer a day a month to build playgrounds? Or if they offer free power outlets for electric cars in the parking lot? That doesn’t make up for the company’s primary impact or the greater damage to the economy and planet caused by capital pouring into shareholder value.
This is just the same old S&P 500—with a few of the most egregious perpetrators of crimes against humanity removed—ranked by an algorithm for appropriate behavior. Viewed in the best light, an algorithm like this, which ranks companies’ social impact, could gamify corporate behavior. If everyone is competing for the top spot on the list of “America’s most Just Companies”—now occupied by Intel—then theoretically we’ll be seeing increasingly great behavior.
But the Just Capital list is less an impetus for good behavior than an excuse for bad behavior. There’s a difference between compensatory good—like Mark Zuckerberg one day donating 99% of his shares to charity, or Pepsi building a zero emissions potato chip factory—and intrinsic good, where the actual business the company is involved in is a positive force.
I wanted to think of Just Capital as a start, but is it? Or is it just a way of enabling the same old bad behavior—not just from the companies themselves, but from people with hordes of capital who want to invest in ways that make it grow, even though they’re providing no value to anyone. Remember, when you buy a company’s stock, you’re not investing in that company. You’re not giving it capital to go make things or help people. You’re simply giving money to the person who had those shares before you.
Using money in this way simply fuels the ownership of our world by fewer people. It increases the power of capital, while taking it away from the land and labor that everyone’s supposedly trying to save. It exacerbates the division of wealth—not simply because investors are getting rich but because of the way that shareholding of this kind amasses power at the top.
What else could we expect from billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, who made his money shorting the markets before the 1987 Black Monday crash? Like his investors, he needs to prove to himself that the model of investing in mega-corporations is not fundamentally flawed and that it can be gently coaxed back toward social good, without any billionaires having to give up their fortunes or the passive way they keep growing them.
The real way to use capital for social good is not simply to further inflate the valuations of Fortune 500 companies, but to find individual enterprises whose actual activities benefit humanity. That’s harder to do because most of these companies are not on the stock exchange. They are the companies reclaiming water, empowering small farmers, trying to educate people, or promoting economic and social resilience. If Chopra, Huffington, and Goldman Sachs really want to change something, they should find ways to help the smallest investors capitalize the local bottom-up companies that stand a chance of distributing wealth to the many instead of keeping it monopolized by the few.
Perhaps the most positive thing that Just Capital has proven is that companies that treat their workers and communities with a modicum of respect end up showing better returns. That’s their pitch to investors anyway: You will make more money, long term, investing in companies that do less harm than those that pollute and exploit more indiscriminately. So here are some companies that have managed to hack and leverage the social good effect—but without doing anything so truly good as to change the underlying power structure between the wealthy and the poor. Best of all, it doesn’t require the investment class to question the integrity of the game they’ve been using to maintain their disproportionate share of the world’s wealth.
This is not social good. As the name of the whole operation betrays, this is just capital.