Triple Bottom Line Investing’s Prodigal Son Returns

Robert Rubinstein, a native New Yorker, is bringing his 15-year-old conference on “triple bottom-line” investing to Wall Street for the first time.

“For a long time, I was reluctant to do it in the U.S.,” says Rubinstein, 61 years old, who has made his home in Amsterdam for most of the last 40 years. “Whenever I met Americans in the financial sector, they didn’t want to hear about ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting. They said, ‘This is BS, fluffy, soft. It has nothing to do with professional investment.’ I didn’t feel comfortable having those kind of discussions.”

According to Wikipedia, the term “triple bottom-line”was coined in 1997 by John Elkington in his book “Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.” The next year, Rubinstein began  promoting the practice in Europe and later Asia, hosting an average of two well-regarded conferences each year.

Two months before the first TBLI-USA conference on June 17 and 18, Rubinstein says the mood change among U.S. investors “is like night and day.” (Disclosure: Impact IQ is a media sponsor of the TBLI conference.)

Extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy have pushed the risks of climate change to the forefront of financial analysis. Thousands of companies report their ESG performance, and investors are demanding even more. Both Bloomberg and Reuters are adding ESG reporting to their financial data services (See “Yellow Brick Road to the Impact Economy”).

For just one example, the Carbon Disclosure Project lists more than 700 institutional investors with more than $85 trillion in assets who are requesting that companies report their carbon emissions and climate strategies and, increasingly, water and forest practices as well

“People are doing the real math,” Rubinstein says. China’s growth, along with India’s and other emerging markets, is putting massive pressure on natural resources, he says. “The real opportunity for the investment community is resource efficiency — a factor of 10 times or 100 times more efficiency. If you’re doing that, you’re making more money.”

TBLI is not a money manager, but rather an educator. Rubinstein says he’s a farmer in a world of hunters, tending the gardens of impact investing  so the alpha investors can do their deals. Rubinstein seeks to brings together institutional investors with sustainable asset managers and others. The speakers and topics at the TBLI-USA conference cover all asset classes, going beyond public equities to include secondary and debt markets, fixed income, real assets, carbon markets and microfinance. For simplicity, Rubinstein groups the public equities under “ESG” and the private, or illiquid, assets as “impact investing.”

“Robert is a tireless crusader for positive investment with the edge and humor of a New Yorker in Amsterdam,” says Benjamin Bingham, managing director of 3Sisters Sustainable Investments, an impact fund advisor and manager. Rubinstein, he adds, “needles all of us to wake up and especially the sleeping giants who control trillions and could change the world for the better.”

Indeed, Rubenstein is promoting the New York conference as a place where deals will get done. At the 2010 conference, for example, the Japanese trade union pension fund, RENGO, made a public, 450 billion euro commitment to long-term, ESG-driven investment. At another conference, Developing World Markets Group secured a commitment to raise at least $236 million for microfinance from Daiwa Securities Group Inc., the Japanese bank.

Earlier, the interfaith investment group, 3iG, which was backing a $100 million reforestation project in Mozambique, secured additional financing from a pension fund manager after a connection at TBLI. So did the Acacia Social Investment Fund, which got a commitment of 75 million euros from the Dutch State Employees’ Fund APG, the largest European pension fund for its initiative to promote fair trade practices for the harvesting of gum arabic in Sudan and elsewhere.

Even if TBLI’s first foray in the U.S. is a success, Rubenstein has no plans to return to his native Brooklyn. He has Dutch citizenship and enjoys riding his bike along the canals and bike paths of his adopted home, where he lives with his wife and two sons. “I prefer the quality of life in Amsterdam,” he says.

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