Doing right Joan Bavaria

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” is an axiom often cited by environmentalists and social activists. One woman standing squarely on the solution side of things is investment advisor and environmentalist Joan Bavaria, a pioneer in the worldwide movement for sustainable business.

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“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” is an axiom often cited by environmentalists and social activists. One woman standing squarely on the solution side of things is investment advisor and environmentalist Joan Bavaria, a pioneer in the worldwide movement for sustainable business.

Joan Bavaria knows how to make a difference.It was a lesson she learned in the 1970s, when she bucked the powers-that-be to start an onsite lunchtime exercise programme at the bank where she worked in Boston, USA. Despite opposition from corporate management, the programme became a reality, generating a groundswell of media attention, commendations from the US President’s Council on Physical Fitness and, most importantly, the gratitude of her fellow workers.

“I knew it was the right thing to do,” she says now. “People loved it. They would come up to me and say, ‘This is the only rest I get all day.’ I realized then that the only way to do things is, sometimes, if you can’t
get it through the front door, to get it through anyway you can.”

Bavaria has continued, through her career, to keep a firm eye on the right thing to do. She has been a pioneer in the movement for socially responsible investing and a strong advocate of sustainable business, helping to found, among other things, Trillium Asset Management in 1982. Bavaria, who remains president and CEO of Trillium, says the idea was “not just to populate the world with another investment company, but to look at capitalism in a multidimensional way. Everybody in the company is interested in looking at the economy and the investment world in particular and how we might integrate environmental and social goals into the process.”

Today, Trillium has 33 employees (some of whom are its owners) and 800 million US dollars (about 630 million euros) under management. It publishes research on social issues and investments, works with clients and companies on their social and environmental management issues, contributes significant
resources to social activism and community work, and donates five percent of its pre-tax profits to charitable causes.

Looking back, Bavaria says, “It wasn’t a straight line from the bank to Trillium, but my experiences at the bank changed my ideas about companies. The realization for me was that sometimes to make changes you have to find pressure points that are not always in the rules as defined by the establishment that’s in place.”

Today, much of Bavaria’s work centres on issues of sustainability (the name Trillium embodies three elements intrinsic to sustainability – ecology, economy and equity), but she is quick to say her understanding of the word is different than that of many economic analysts. “It hinges on that word ‘growth,’” she says. “I’m not sure that there is an inherent need for growth. The industry I’m in, the investment industry, forces companies to say ‘sustainable growth,’ because if they don’t, their stock goes down, but a lot of companies don’t care so much about those quarterly earnings. They care about a viable and robust company, they care about serving their clients and their employees, and they care about conducting their business and being competitive, but they don’t necessarily want to be slave to those earnings comparisons quarter by quarter.


“So for us, sustainability would bea system that thinks about the environmental and social costs of economic activity and that thinks about the health of the economic institutions, but that might change the time horizons and drop this idea that there has to be growth and economic activity regardless of the underlying population and resources.

“Companies will always grow by taking other people’s business or by creating new businesses,” she says, “so there is growth there, but I don’t know whether you have to think about everything needing to grow.”

This is a view shared by Trillium’s clients, whom Bavaria characterizes as “very progressive.”

“We’re very female-dominated,” she says. “There are some who come to us more because women dominate the company, but environment is probably the dominant issue for most people.” It’s also the area “that has been the most significant for me personally,” she says.

“When we started this work in 1982, there was almost no intersection between the investment community and environmental issues, and we’ve really kind of pulled them together, isolated the issues. Now there is just enormous activity on the part of investors and companies around the environment. The principles that came out of the formation of CERES [Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies] have given companies a framework. It is a whole different world.”


Bavaria was a founding memberof CERES, which was formed in 1989 as a partnership between leading environmental groups and institutional investors seeking ways to align investment dollars with social and environmental responsibility. She was chairman from 1989 to 2001. The need for accurate corporate disclosure led to the development of the CERES Principles, 10 guidelines for environmental management.

The 10 guidelines include measures for protection of the biosphere, sustainable use of natural resources, reduction and disposal of wastes, energy conservation, risk reduction, safe products and services, environmental restoration, informing the public, management commitment and audit and reports.

“Right from the start we knew we weren’t going to get anywhere unless there was good information,” Bavaria says. “You’d have stuff coming out of the government, out of green groups, out of companies, but you couldn’t necessarily trust any of it to be objective and right. So we pushed the idea of a corporate mission statement around the environment, around the idea of getting information from the companies directly. The Global Reporting Initiative came out of that, and the GRI is now a guideline for sustainability reporting.”

In the end, Bavaria says, it comes down to people. “Companies are not faceless entities, they are a collection of people,” she says. “And people love to make a difference. I think the message I want to give when I get around corporate people is just, ‘Hey, do the right thing, do what you think is right.’ People have always made the difference for us, individual people. Sometimes it’s the CEO, sometimes it’s a senior manager. But fundamentally most people are good, and they want a chance to do the right thing, so I just give them that chance.”

Award-winning environmentalist

Investment advisor and environmentalist Joan Bavaria has received considerable recognition for her work throughout her career. Among her many awards, she was the co-recipient (with Tessa Tennant of the UK) of the City of Gothenburg’s International Environment Prize 2004 for her efforts “to stimulate continued positive development and draw attention to implemented and strategically interesting environmental projects.” In 2000 she was given the Millennium Award for Corporate Environmental Leadership by Green Cross International in conjunction with Global Green USA, and in 1999 she was named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time magazine, which called her an “ardent campaigner and activist” for socially responsible investing and the environment

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