One of my personal struggles is with being an “all-or-nothing” human being. I’d rather not do something if I can’t commit to it fully and without reservation. But as most of us know, that’s not an easy way to live in the modern world where time is always limited and judgement calls are often a shade of gray rather than strictly black or white.
For most of my career, impact investing, also known as ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing or SRI (socially-responsible investing), fell on the “nothing” side for me because I couldn’t fully commit to it, despite what seemed to be a natural fit for an environmental science major turned financial planner. I had two main reservations about impact investing: 1. People have different values and causes that are important to them. How do you create investment portfolios that will appease everyone? 2. Companies, like people, are rarely angels or devils. Some things they get right, and others they get wrong. How do you determine whether a company makes the cut if they score well in one area and poorly in another? All things considered, it just felt too ill-defined and imperfect for me to embrace.
And then something happened that changed my outlook almost instantly. At our monthly study group meeting of financial services professionals, my then colleague / now business partner, Scott, stated that impact investing is not a perfect science; rather, it’s about moving the needle incrementally towards positive change. As someone who naturally prefers to see the needle pegged at one end of the gauge or the other, that statement surprisingly resonated with me. In fact, it freed me to embrace impact investing despite the lack of perfect answers to my questions. The other point he made was that it’s about sending a message to companies that they are being judged by more than just their bottom line and financial return to investors. Those things still matter of course, but they are not the only things that do.
The philosophy of moving the needle incrementally is beautiful because it can promote improvement in many aspects of life: relationships, physical fitness, debt reduction, you name it. I’ve used it recently for one of my personal goals: reducing my consumption of single-use plastic. As Americans, we consume ungodly amounts of single-use plastic that will never degrade and quite often ends up in landfills and oceans despite our personal efforts to recycle. I didn’t set the goal of eliminating all usage overnight, as would have been my natural inclination and which would have ended in failure because single-use plastic is EVERYWHERE. Rather, I started by bringing more awareness to habits and purchases, accepting that it’s an imperfect effort right from the start. And once my habits started to change, the change accelerated. My consumption of single-use plastic has dropped substantially, and it was faster and easier than expected.
Yes, I am just one person whose dent in a gigantic problem is relatively miniscule, but miniscule is still better than nothing. It’s still an incremental step in the right direction. I prefer to think of it in the comfortingly black and white nature of math: .00000000000001 is indeed greater than zero. It’s quite freeing to give yourself permission to improve our world in baby steps, teetering and often small, but usually forward nonetheless.
Rebecca Kennedy, CFP®, has been in the financial services industry since 1999. She is a co-founder of IMPACTfolio, a wealth management firm that specializes in IMPACT investing and holistic financial planning for one flat-fee.