Socially Responsible Investment for NC State Employees

At a time when NC offers little incentives for state employees… providing more sustainable & socially responsible options for supplemental investment (401ks, etc.) packages for state employees seems like an affordable way to deliver more opportunities & support sustainability. Many people in NC & across the country are sick & tired of indirectly supporting companies that don’t align w/ our own ethics & morals. There are many SRI (socially responsible investment) options already on the market & NC state employees would like the opportunity to invest in sustainable & humane businesses… Also, an NC bond fund option could help keep more of our hard earned dollars in NC.

The Sustainability Committee at A-B Tech is undertaking the initiative to advocate that the State Treasurer’s office provide North Carolina state employees with some SRI supplemental investment packages & perhaps an NC bond fund option to help support education & infrastructure in our state.   We recently talked to the NC State Treasury’s office that acknowledges many others also interested in this initiative. The state 401-K program bypasses mutual funds to create their own portfolio so while adopting existing SRI mutual funds isn’t feasible at this point, the request of an SRI rating system is being brought to the State Treasury board soon. If adopted, a system would be developed to lets employees know how socially/environmentally ethical current options are. The rating system could lead to more systemic change & evolve the supplemental retirement investment package to incorporate several social and eco-ethical options for employees. In 2014, The Vermont State Employees’ Retirement System Board of Trustees approved the addition of a fossil-free mutual fund investment option for employees contributing to the State’s deferred compensation plan. If higher education isn’t going to take alarming science around issues such as climate change seriously, who will?

At a time when political conflicts of interests seem to be the norm, we watch NC politicians like NC governor Pat McCrory slash education budgets while taking incentives away from the job creating & carbon reducing NC solar industry.   We see Mr. McCrory, a former Duke Energy employer, ensure that it’s harder to hold his former place of employment accountable for their coal ash spills & pollution. Many in NC are sick & tired of the nepotism & corruption that unfolds as we have industry cronies become politicians that then always seem to subsidize & funnel our tax dollars into the same industries they’re beholden to.   NPR reported on two polls as part of a recent study. Groups of people were polled 10 yrs. ago & then more recently. Of the people polled 10yrs. ago, 10% said that investing in companies that share their ethics & values was just as important as making money with their investments. The more recent poll, found that 90% of the people polled said that investing in businesses that share their ethics & values is just as important as making money with their investments. In a modern world where corporations are legally defined as ‘people’ and money legally defined as ‘speech’, people understand that stopping the total corporate takeover of our government & public assets requires us to not only vote in elections but to vote w/ our dollars as well. The corporate political puppets aren’t going to regulate or hold these companies responsible, it’s up to the people of NC, the country, and the world to divest from businesses that don’t have our best interests at heart. You can boycott Exxon at the pumps but may be supporting them through your 401K without even realizing it (although some SRI mutual funds will still have a big bank or oil company in their portfolio occasionally so it does take some diligence). A few years back, I looked into what little money in my 401-K was investing in and was shocked at the companies I had unknowingly been supporting. The only other option as a state employee was government bonds. Currently, that’s where my supplemental investments go. I couldn’t stomach investing (& losing money) in some of the same “too big to fail” banks, who’s deregulated & reckless behavior helped create a global recession. These same banks not only were NOT held accountable but they then got billions in taxpayers bale-outs… it’s absolutely absurd.   I cringed at investments in my 401K with some of the same oil giants that stall action on climate change in order to protect their short-sighted profits & greed.

I urge anyone who cares about Democracy, sustainability, and social justice to ask the NC Treasury Dept. to not only create an SRI rating system for current options, but to incorporate some SRI options and/or fossil-free options for state employees. The State Treasury should also adopt an NC bond fund that would help keep money in our state. Just think of the message it would send to businesses & the difference it could make if 20%, 40%, or perhaps 80% of state employees decided to put supplemental investment funds into responsible businesses… The more money we invest in good businesses, the less money is invested in the businesses that contribute to problems, not solutions. Many SRIs are solid investments, so this isn’t charity but could help provide a good nest egg while being stewards for a quality and sustainable future. In 2015, solar accounted for 29.5% of new electric generating capacity in the U.S… more than natural gas! Also in 2015, solar PV deployments climbed to an all-time high of 7.26 gigawatts, a 16% gain over 2014 numbers… many NC residents, me included, took advantage of the NC solar tax credits before going extinct under NC Republican watch. Instead of getting the new car, going on vacations, or building the new deck… many North Carolinians dug deep in their pockets for PV systems. The tax credits, of course, may come back under different leadership but the solar market is here regardless. In 2015, the residential PV market appreciated its largest annual growth rate ever, marking the fifth consecutive year of annual growth in excess of 50%.

Furthermore, as society starts to deal more with the effects of climate change, many feel that we will embrace sustainable & renewable energy resources more & start actually penalizing polluters who currently are seldom charged for their waste.  If I own a business and need to dump waste, there are guidelines and fees applied yet some of the biggest polluters in the world use our atmosphere as their personal dumping ground for free & w/ little to no incentives for cleaner and healthier processes. Many feel that carbon taxes, etc. are inevitable & solution oriented ways to discourage big polluters. Some traditional investments will become less attractive financially once we factor in the true cost & the fossil fuel industry is held accountable for their waste. A carbon tax would also allow solar to become the more profitable source of energy sooner, therefore increasing the speed of its authority.   We’ve already seen solar prices drop dramatically in the last decade & despite NC Republican attacks on solar in our state & throughout the country, clean energy technology will continue to get cheaper & more efficient. Help us demand more socially & environmentally responsible investment options for not only state employees but from the private sector as well… the consumers can really drive the shift to the green economy…   Investing in our personal future while investing in the future of humanity & the planet are the most tangible & responsible investments we can make.

Heath Moody serves as Dept. Chair for the Sustainability Technologies, Construction Management, and Building Construction Science programs & is current chair of the Sustainability Committee at A-B Tech Community College in Asheville, NC.