Sustainable Business and Impact Investing with Cliff Feigenbaum

October 21, 2020

Cliff Feigenbaum is the founder and publisher of the award-winning GreenMoney Journal, now in its 28th year of covering SRI/ESG Investing and Sustainable Business topics.  As a leading voice in Sustainability, Cliff is also the co-author of one of the first books on SRI back in 1999 entitled “Investing With Your Values” (Bloomberg Press, NYC).

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together land owners, electricity users, and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. For more information on how Trajectory is leading the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited and honored to have my good friend Cliff Feigenbaum on with us. He’s the founder and publisher of Green Money Journal, and you could find them at greenmoney.com. Welcome back to the Impact Podcast, Cliff.

Cliff Feigenbaum: Great to be here, John.

John: You know, Cliff, you’ve been on Green Is Good numerous times, and your journey and your story is spectacular. You were a visionary, but I don’t want to talk about it — I want you to talk about it. I want you to share with our new listeners your journey and how you even came up with Green Money Journal in 1992 when no one was talking about sustainability in United States, and ESG was an acronym that no one had heard about.

Cliff: You know, it’s funny because it actually started the year before when I was working at a hospital in the northwest, and I started looking around and seeing how much were waste, how much paper was being wasted, you know, through payroll. We were just throwing out tons of paper, and I thought, “No, they should be recycled. Can we recycle?” and I went around to all the offices in the office building and collected paper and got a recycling truck and got things to start evolving, and it was so impactful that I ended up winning a recycling award from the city of Spokane, where I was living, for this. So, it was kind of a ties and a little bit of what you guys do, but that was the start of it.

Cliff: Then, in 1992, I decided — I was still working at the hospital and decided to find out what I had signed up in my 401k plan a few years previous and, you know, come to find out the mutual funds that I had signed up for not really knowing what I was doing had tobacco stocks in them, and I thought, “Well, how inappropriate for a healthcare institution to have retirement investments in tobacco.” So, that was really the seed that launched Green Money. I wanted to make basic informed financial decisions, and I couldn’t find a resource around sustainable or socially responsible investing, as it was called back then.

Cliff: And so, you know, everything was based — financial planners had a few newsletters — but there wasn’t anything for just people to read, and so that’s how we started Green Money Journal. It was like, “Let’s help people make basic informed financial decisions aligning their money with their values,” and that’s how we began. It was a four-page newsletter.

John: And it was a four-page newsletter. And when did that evolve? I’m on your website now, and I love your website — it has so much great information. For our listeners out there, I highly recommend to learn about sustainability and sustainable and responsible and impact investing. You got to go to Cliff’s great website. Its www.greenmoney.com. It’s so simple: greenmoney.com. When did you evolve that to a web-based tool?

Cliff: Well, the newsletter continued for many years, and then, in fact, we were early on the internet in 1995. We launched greenmoney.com. That was really, you know, I was like, “Inter what? Internet,” you know? So, it was less than, you know, it’s clean a website as it is now — that’s for sure in the early days — but it was a way that we could really move our information out to a much bigger audience. So that happened. We launched in ’92. We went online in ’95. In ’97, I got a call, and I wasn’t sure that it was who they said it was, but it was Bloomberg Press in New York City, and they said, “We’ve heard about you. You’ve been around for five years. We’ve heard about this socially responsible investing. We know it’s coming, and we’d like you to write a book for us,” and I was like, “Are you sure?” and they said, “Yeah, but you really know it, so we won’t edit it much,” and I said, “I don’t know if we can work together because you believe in just profits, and we believe in principles and profits.” They said, “No, we see this coming. Go for it.”

Cliff: So, in 1999, I went to Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York City and launched a book called Investing with Your Values. So that was twenty-plus years ago. Now, we see Bloomberg, you know, really adopting ESG and having the conversation on their TV and on the radio and so much. So, it’s exciting to be part of and to see the evolution of, as you said, this term of ESG, of sustainable investing and how it has expanded over the years. It’s nonstop work now.

John: Yeah, and you know, first of all, to your point about Bloomberg, I have to say this out loud. I love the guy because when he was mayor of New York, he made things happen that everyone said would never happen — one being get electronic waste recycling program going in the city. People said, “No, no, no, that will never happen. It’s a vertical city. You can’t responsibly and, from a reverse logistics basis, recycle electronics in New York. It’s vertical, and it doesn’t work,” and he made it happen. He made composting work. The guy really, really lived his values when he was mayor and imposed his will and made the good things happen — and that, I appreciate about him.

John: With regards to your website, it has evolved tremendously. What I’m so excited about is you and I — you know the old adage, “Great minds think alike.” When I met you years ago, this was all about green. That’s why I had this show called Green Is Good. It was all about sustainability. But the fun part now is when I’m on your website, greenmoney.com, when you read left to right, you have a button there called Impact Investing, and that’s why I renamed Green Is Good “Impact” because I wanted to just more than just strict green, you know? “Impact” is really where the world was going, and ironically you and I hadn’t even spoken about it. You have a whole button here about impact investing. Can you share a little bit, parse that out a little bit — how you think about it? Because you weren’t only a part of the evolution. You really led the revolution in this, Cliff, so talk a little bit about, for our listeners out there that are interested in learning about impact investing and sustainable businesses — how do you parse it and see them as separate categories, but where there’s also crossover?

Cliff: Well, really, the way to think about this is a chance to look at it in four different aspects, and that is when people look at their money, we’re going to ask, “What do you want to profit from, and what don’t you want to profit from? What business activity do you want to make money from, and what don’t you want to make money from?” So, that’s part of the screening-in companies and the screening-out companies that happens in sustainable and impact investing. The other aspect is engagement with companies because companies aren’t static. They’re evolving. We see companies responding to shareholders and stakeholders and making changes because maybe the board doesn’t quite get ESG at this point or corporate responsibility, but they’re willing to hear about it because the truth is that these are bottom-line issues — and we’ll get back to that.

Cliff: The fourth aspect is impact investing, which is a smaller subset of sustainable investing in the fact that you can invest locally in your local banks or credit unions or money that stays in your community. For example, here in Santa Fe where I live, there’s a community loan fund called Homewise, which is all about financial literacy and homeownership for low-income people, a lot of women of color. Here in New Mexico, their first house, they buy through home liaising, and they have to clean up their credit. They have all kinds of financial literacy, and they build homes. So I literally can drive through town and see my investment building a house, and I’m like, “That is what I call impact.” That’s where the money hits the palm — it changes people’s lives. We’re not just sending money off to Wall Street necessarily — that’s part of what people do — but we also invest in our communities, and that’s a growing, growing aspect of this.

Cliff: But let me just touch on one thing. You know, that’s the impact investing part. The sustainable business part and the different categories that we look at, we do look at four categories of sustainable business — energy and climate, as well as food and farming. All of those things are key — and I’m sure we’ll touch on that as we talk — but we see an unstoppable movement because these are bottom-line issues that are affecting companies. So, in the way that they handle their waste, the way they handle pollution — pollution is expensive. Waste is expensive. These are reputational issues because even if it gets down to the point where if you’re a good company, employee retention. People want to stay there. I spoke to somebody at SAP a few years ago, and they told me that if they lose an employee because it’s not a good place to work, they’re watching a hundred thousand dollars worth of training walking out the door. So why not invest in making a better company where people do want to work? There’s good gender diversity. There’s good upper-management opportunities. It’s a fascinating evolution towards how companies are becoming more responsive to ESG issues and sustainability.

John: Now, put your entrepreneurship hat on. You’re an entrepreneur. You’re a publisher of this very important journal in an independent publisher. How has your business model evolved since we’ve spoken last? Are you busier than ever? Is this like all the stars lining up for you? When I talk to leaders at companies — whether they’re in Europe, Asia, United States, or South America — everybody seems to now care. Everybody gets it, Cliff, about ESG, board rooms, Wall Street, and constituencies — both young and old. Circular economy is part of our vernacular. What does all of that mean — all this energy, all this media attention, and all these wonderful startups such as Tesla and solar companies and everything else — what does that mean for you as an entrepreneur?

Cliff: It means that my email is a tidal wave every day, and so our constant challenge is filtering to the relevant. We choose a topic every month. So, it can be sustainable agriculture. It can be women and investing. It can be millennials and money. It can be renewable energy or clean water. We choose a topic, and we go out and try and find some really, really top-notch people that we know, or don’t know, directly, but somebody does know them, to get us the best information and really unique aspect because we don’t put a lot of editorial control on writers. We just tell them, you know, “Tell us your story. Take us on your journey, because I can interpret what you’re saying, or you can tell us.”

Cliff: And so, you know, probably the most interesting part of this would have been for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We were able to secure Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. You write her vision of the next twenty-years of transportation — wow — and just an incredibly good article to really say that, though that was written three years ago, it really lines up to what they’re doing today. I mean, she really laid out their true vision, of where they want to go, and she was more excited. She said there’s going to be more change in transportation industry in the next five years, and there has been in the last fifty years, that it’s moving so very quickly.

Cliff: So, for us, the challenge is to manage what we’re doing well. We’ve gone from a quarterly newsletter in print, then we were doing both the newsletter and print and newsletter online, and after 20 years, we decided, “What can we manage, and how do people get information more these days? And so, we let the print go, and when it moved up to a monthly e-journal, and then, just the start of this year, pre-COVID, we went to twice a month. So, our e-journal, which is free, and people can sign up for it on the website, it’s free information because we’re advertiser-supported, and we have great, great partners that advertise with us over the last decades. So, it’s a really ongoing every-two-weeks publishing, and we could be weekly, because there’s so much good news out there, and people often ask me, you know, “Am I optimistic with everything that’s going on,” and I have to say, “The truth is, you know, yes, I am. I know there’s a lot of problems, and we’ve seen them, you know, exacerbate this year even more, but the amount of solutions that are coming through my email every day leaves me just wowed and excited about those. But yeah, yeah, we’ve got a really challenging but positive future ahead.”

John: You know, Cliff, I’m on your calendar for the rest of this year and early next year, and I’m fascinated by some of the topics that you’re going to be covering, such as faith and finances. Can you walk us through a little bit of what about what’s coming in November, and how do you interrelate faith and finances as with regards to the Green Money Journal?

Cliff: It’s actually where socially responsible investing started — it was in the churches. In the 1850s, Quakers did not want to invest in companies that used slave labor, and that’s where this whole thing began. And so, then, you know, it moved through the faith community, and then there was avoiding “sin stocks,” as they were called — tobacco, alcohol, gambling, weapons. Then, the environmental movement came in the ’70s, and that launched a bunch of new funds like Pax World — and even Dreyfus had one — so that was really a new beginning to add. Then, we saw more of the evolution of social issues have been added into the different types of funds that are out there and the different issues and different screens that are out there.

Cliff: So, there’s a constant evolution, but the faith part of it, for me, is the honoring of where it came from but also that there’s several faith-based investors out there — billions of dollars that are screening in different ways for their different aspects of their faith. And so, to us, we really like to have that as a conversation every year or eighteen months because it is still a big part of sustainable investing for people. Because the truth is that we’re here, you know, if we’re called to stewardship — and isn’t that what this is all about? This stewardship to the planet, stewardship of each other — and stewardship is a biblical term — and so, how do we align our faith and our finances? And so, I don’t tell people how to do this. I introduced a whole lot of ideas about how to have a discussion around those, and so, that what we’re going to be doing in November. Today, somebody just signed up to — I’ve been asking a few different people to write — and just today, we got our fourth or fifth writer for the issue.

John: You know, for our listeners out there who just joined us, we have my friend Cliff Feigenbaum on with us. He’s the founder and publisher of Green Money Journal. You can find Cliff and his great website and journal at www.greenmoney.com. Cliff, we have a lot of millennial listeners around the world — young people who want to be the next Impact entrepreneur. They want to change the world, or they want to invest in companies that are changing the world and live their values. I see a topic in February that you’re going to be covering, Millennials and Money, and we’ve seen the rise of Robin Hood and all these startups where millennials can get in and no longer have to go down to Merrill Lynch or all the type of institutions that you and I did as young people in America. It’s much different now — online, on their cell phone, or whatever is in the palm of their hand. Talk a little bit about what you’re going to be covering and what’s your take on millennials and money when it comes to green, sustainable, ESG, and impact investing.

Cliff: It’s really part of what’s called the wealth transfer. So, over the next twenty years, there’s supposed to be thirty trillion dollars that is going to move from probably older people to women and millennials, which are two groups that really embrace sustainable investing and really push it — and the truth is that the asset growth, even during this COVID year, has not stopped at all. Morningstar just announced that twenty billion dollars has moved into sustainable investing in the first half of this year — of this year — and that ties the record of 2019, when everything was going full-blast. So, even during a COVID year, the assets are moving towards sustainable companies and sustainable funds and impact investing, and so it’s a very, very exciting time.

Cliff: Our “Millennials and Money” issue, which we’ve done for, I think, five years —this will be our sixth issue, and we have all of our back issues on the website. People can go to the Past Issues tab and find all of these. Every February is our “Millennials and Money” issue, and what’s key about this is it’s all written by millennials. So, it’s like our Women and Investing issues — the whole thing is written by women — and so the Millennials is the same way. So, we get some really interesting perspective of some young up-and-comers in sustainable finance, in business, and in all kinds of different aspects. So, we really try and look for who should we be covering, who haven’t we covered, who have hasn’t been in there, who’s the new Young Star out there that is impressing us with what they’re doing or what they’re talking about or who they work for and are being given a really great platform through Green Money.

Cliff: So, for us, cash — what did I hear just this morning that Financial Times of London mentioned, so I mentioned twenty billion dollars from Morningstar reported, but that was just in the U.S. Meanwhile, worldwide, seventy billion dollars has been moving into it — because this is a worldwide movement, not just U.S. Sustainability or sustainable funds or impact funds, green bonds, all kinds of different things — so there’s a lot of money. This is why when you say companies are talking about, there’s a lot. It’s because money is really flowing towards ESG, which, I think, in some sense, we should Define what that means for your audience.

John: I love it. As an entrepreneur, Cliff, you’re doing so well, and you were so far ahead, but the world has caught up with you, really — what do you foresee when you map out and keep envisioning your brand, Green Money? Where do you see this going in the years ahead, and where do you want it to go? Where do you want to take it?

Cliff: Sure. Well, you know, I’ll compete with you by launching a podcast. How’s that?

John: That’s okay. It’s not a zero-sum world. That’s the way I want. There’s so much room.

Cliff: So, Green Money Talks actually launched earlier this year. One of the COVID impacts was to put that on hold for a little while, but we had a really interesting conversation with the head of Beyond — yeah, Beyond Meat — and so, we talked about that at a conference, and we put that as part of a podcast. We’ve had Native American leaders because in March, we did a whole month on indigenous people and impact investing, and so we had the head of the Standing Rock tribe talking on our podcast so people can see the that as well. So, that, we did about five episodes, and we’ll continue that, coming up probably in 2021, but I see much an ever-increasing because the ESG conversation is not going to stop on Wall Street. We see it on the financial channels, on CNBC. We see it in the Wall Street Journal. We see it, and what that means when we see ESG is looking at the environmental, the social, and the government factors and impacts of a company. So, we’ve seen, you know, California fires — that’s an environmental conversation. We see racial inequality — that’s a social conversation. We see companies being held to account — that’s a governance conversation. And so, all of these are bottom-line impacting conversations that companies need to have and be responsive to their consumers and their different stakeholders that are out there.

Cliff: So, I don’t see this stopping. I really do see this as an unstoppable movement towards people wanting to align their money with their values and having that questioning where do they want to profit from? What kind of world do they want to retire into? So, what companies are they investing in now? Are they providing the kind of world you want to retire into? So, for us, it’s really about answering important questions of aligning your money with your values — from the way you shop to the way you invest. For me, one of the things that I invest in is natural foods and organic products. So, I like stores to invest in a stock or two or a mutual fund that focuses on those areas because that, to me — I’m not as knowledgeable about clean tech as some people, and so my knowledge is really in where I care about is what I eat and farming and food — and so, that’s an area where I put some of my own assets as well as the local impact investing as well as a few of the mutual funds. Yes, advertisers are with us, but they also do a really good job and have really good reputations like Pax World, Domini, Calvert and several others that people can find information on our website about.

John: That is so great. And for our listeners out there, again, to sign up to Cliff’s great bi-weekly e-journal and his latest edition on Impact Capital, you go to www.greenmoney.com. It’s easy to sign up. You should sign up because he covers so many fascinating topics that we typically don’t hear about every day in the media, that we need to all learn more about, so we can be responsible and good investors. Cliff, I’ll give you the last word before we go. We still have to sign off today, but I always want you back to keep sharing the journey with the Green Money Journal.

Cliff: Well, thanks so much for your time, John, and just encourage people to head over to greenmoney.com, and all the information is free — and one thing that we really try and do is make bring the wall in Wall Street down. So, everything is very readable and very understandable. It has to pass through a lot of editors before we put it out there because we want to help people create the kind of world they want to live in using their money. We believe money is a Force for good in the world, and so, that’s why we call it Green Money.

John: Cliff, you’re a force for good in the world. You’re the reason I do the Impact Podcast. It’s just part of our mission here, and I just want to say thank you for making the world a better place.

Cliff: Thanks, John.