Investing ethically

by Jonathan Barrett

 

A zealous young salesman, who in a previous era might’ve sold encyclopedias door-to-door, recently told me everything I ever and never wanted to know about sandalwood.

It's the opposite of a get-rich-quick scheme. First you have to buy a plot of land, and then you plant sandalwood. Wait 15 years and, hey presto, export it to India and make a tidy profit.

It was pitched as a kind of set-and-forget investment, suitable for one’s retirement portfolio.

I asked what the Indian importers used sandalwood for, and the salesman told me the extracted oil was primarily turned into perfume and incense, used in Buddhist and Hindu religious ceremonies.

It may or may not be a good monetary investment — frankly, I wouldn’t have a clue — but as a Christian grappling with how the Scriptures apply to my daily life, there are some bigger questions.

For example, if I invest in sandalwood, am I:

  • specifically encouraging or enabling religious practices that I actually think promote false gods?
  • inadvertently hoping that Hindu and Buddhist numbers will rise, and hence sandalwood demand?

I think the answer to both those questions is “yes”. So, I won’t invest. Crisis averted. Or is it?

If I looked deep into my superannuation fund where I’ve given a fund manager free rein on the stocks they can choose, would I find a sandalwood company that exports for these purposes?

Or, perhaps it’s not sandalwood. Is it a tobacco company, or a chocolate producer that uses child labour, or a clothes manufacturer that uses substandard factories in Bangladesh?

Investing is suddenly fraught with ethical risks, isn’t it?

Thankfully, the Scriptures are overflowing with wisdom that we can apply to investing. For the purpose of this brief piece of writing, let’s just consider one Biblical principle: what we do with our money matters.

God’s people are repeatedly rebuked for making a profit at the expense of others. For instance, the book of Amos records the Israelites “selling the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 2:6) The behaviour of the Israelites is inconsistent with what God demands, and they’re to be judged accordingly.

Quite simply, any investment or purchase that demeans or degrades other people is unacceptable. I also think we should avoid investing in something that promotes or enables the worship of a god other than the God — such as supporting sandalwood producers who want to make money by providing incense for Hindu ceremonies.

Some investment decisions will be easier than others.

For example, can I buy shares in James Hardie — a company that has an abhorrent history when it comes to asbestos and asbestos claims, but, equally, now has different standards and is a large employer?

What about natural gas companies that are exploring for gas reserves or extracting gas from environmentally-sensitive areas while reducing society’s reliance on the much dirtier fuel source of coal?

Christians may well come to different answers to these questions (and conscience will play a part), but they should do so on the basis of serious thought and prayer. It can’t be a simple matter of selecting stocks that are financially promising.

We have to take some care with where our money goes. Of course, this isn’t limited to investing. How damaging and disheartening would it be if I, through sheer neglect, were buying chocolate and cotton that promoted slavery in the developing world?

The only way to avoid such a scenario is to become interested in ethical trade practices and to change our buying habits accordingly. A good place to start might be to buy an ethical shopping guide or app from www.ethical.org.au, which can help us learn about the ethical practices of the brands and products we buy.

Most avid investors will know precisely what they’re investing in, and they can adjust their investments to match their worldview. For example, when someone buys shares in a company, they generally know a fair bit about the company and what it does. (Or at least they should — otherwise it’s called gambling!)

For the rest of us, I think our superannuation funds will be the main area of concern when it comes to investing. That’s because superannuation is a bit of a black box: you usually hand your money to someone else, and they invest it for you.

Tackling this issue in depth would require some lengthy writing and debate, but there are two immediate questions we might want to ask ourselves:

  • Does my superannuation fund have any ethical filters to prohibit investments I might find distasteful?
  • Should I find one that does?

The Responsible Investment Association’s website (www.responsibleinvestment.org) is a good starting-point to help you understand ethical investing.

Those with more than a few bucks — generally over $200,000 in retirement savings — and with a keen interest in investing might even want to talk to their accountant about setting up a self-managed super fund so that they can be sure where the money is going.

Be it shares or property, micro-loans or mortgages, I wish you happy investing. Let’s be loving and wise in how we use our God-given resources.


Jonathan Barrett is a Perth-based journalist who also runs the OneSittingDuck.com blog.

Last year, he was awarded the National Press Club’s award for Excellence in Australian Financial Journalism and the WA Media Award for best columnist. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and a Graduate Diploma of Divinity.