World’s religious leaders ‘go further’ in commitment to ethical investment

03 November 2017

ARC/Mike Shackleton

Committed: representatives of eight religions and 30 faith traditions, including Cardinal Turkson (seated, centre), and Martin Palmer (standing, second from right), gather in Zug, Switzerland, to commit to a “radical shift” in ethical investment

Committed: representatives of eight religions and 30 faith traditions, including Cardinal Turkson (seated, centre), and Martin Palmer (standing, secon...

LEADERS of eight world religions, representing more than $3 trillion in assets, met in Zug, Switzerland, during the 500th-anniversary celebrations of the Reformation this week to “radically shift” the agenda of ethical investment.

The three-day meeting between faith leaders, financial investors, and UN representatives, was hosted by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) from Monday. ARC was founded in 1995 to help faith groups to create environmental and conservation projects.

Its secretary general, Martin Palmers, a Reader in the Church of England and one of the keynote speakers at the meeting, said that, while the UN Sustainable Development Goals were an inspiring vision, “they cannot be achieved by government tax money alone, or by charity donations. They can only be achieved by investment in environmental and sustainable development projects and financial products.”

Religious institutional funds make up about $10 trillion of all invested funds, and make up at least the fourth largest investment group worldwide, the UN has estimated. A further $30 trillion is owned by members of the world faiths, both individuals and family foundations.

Rather than focus on how disinvestment from fossil fuels can help to alleviate climate change and protect the environment, representatives of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Shinto traditions resolved to invest positively in environmental and sustainable companies and projects.

This intention was set out in the Zug Guidelines on Faith-Consistent Investment, released on Tuesday, 500 years after Martin Luther was thought to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany. It asks: “What do you do with wealth to make a better planet?”

ARC/Mike ShackletonProcession of the faiths: the Zug guidelines are carried in a banner procession, led by a Swiss band, through the city streets

Mr Palmer said on Tuesday: “We hoped that some of the faith groups would respond and give us an indication of where the vast wealth of the faiths might be invested to fund a better world. We have been staggered both by the commitments made here in the Zug guidelines, and by the response of, for example, the UN and the Vatican.

“They want to go much further, and we want to do that in companionship with the major faiths of the world. This is not just a shift to do with finance: it is the next stage in the rise of civil society — and especially religions — as the driving force to make a better world.”

The UN Assistant Secretary-General, UN Environment Programme, Elliott Harris, was one of the guest speakers. The governments which committed to the sustainable development goals must be held to account, he said. “But we realise that this agenda is far too complicated to leave up to the governments. They cannot do it alone.”

The president of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Cardinal Peter Turkson, agreed. “We seek to respond to two cries: the cry of the poor and the cry of creation. We invite social-impact investment to help us to respond to those two cries.

“Good profit produces wealth not only for those who invest, but also for those who depend on it: all those whose lives are affected by the industry or by the business. Therefore, we talk not simply about shareholders but more about stakeholders.”

The guidelines were presented in Zug Casino (named after its history as a hospital for sick soldiers, not for any connection with gambling) after a banner procession through the medieval streets of Zug from the RC St Oswald-Kirche.

Mr Palmer concluded on Wednesday: “What excites people is the prospect of being stronger together than apart; what worries people is that they will lose some of their independence. We will now be finding a way in which we can manage both the hopes and the fears, but the main thing is that the faiths are now at the table with the major players — not just on investment, but on sustainability, the environment, on civil society.”

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