Getting Religion on Sustainable Investing

Institutions from all segments of society need to answer the calls to find new ways to combat global climate change.


Alessia Pierdomenico

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, or Laudato Si’, calls on us to connect God’s love of creation to our responsibility to care for our common home. This pope is determined that his words not be relegated to Sunday sermons but will have a real impact now in the political and economic choices each of us makes. He is not satisfied with the status quo.

I was recently invited to the Vatican to participate in a two-day conference of 75 mayors and others from around the world to discuss modern slavery and climate change. The pope had picked people he believed could put his message into practice. I witnessed a leader who is determined to reach a wide variety of constituencies, from religious leaders to nonprofits, to world leaders and to mayors. He wants his message to be heard, despite the climate doubters and naysayers who are well financed.

As we discussed what could be done at the conference held by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which had its origins with Galileo, in the midst of gardens seldom seen by the traditional tourist, the setting lent a certain degree of gravitas to the occasion. We listened to the most popular person on earth tell us that each of us had a role to play in breaking our addiction to fossil fuels and standing as stewards of God’s creation.

Climate change has resulted in an increase in droughts, floods and wars that have forced families to flee their homes either in terror or in desperation as the land no longer yields crops. The tearing of family ties and erosion of steady income sources have led to desperate people taking desperate measures — selling their children, themselves or their organs in the hope of surviving. The mayors who are closest to the affected people shared practical answers to help those who have been harmed and to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

Mayors from Berlin, Bogotá, Johannesburg, New Orleans, New York, Oslo, Paris and Rio de Janeiro described their success in reducing reliance on fossil fuels by better home insulation; the increased use of biking, walking, public transport and electric cars; and waste reduction. They also focused on developing a fairer economy that would lead to the elimination of modern slavery and, specifically, women being forced to sell their bodies. Then there were others, like California Governor Jerry Brown, who eloquently warned against those who would deny the science of climate change, “What we sow, so shall we reap.” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked, “The meek may inherit the earth, but what kind of earth will it be?”

The pope talked to us about needing to create a conscience of the “periphery” in his worldwide campaign to raise our respect for the earth and the dignity of every human being. The pope was clear: He can’t do it alone.


The challenges of climate change are so massive and profound that every segment of society — from the church to government to the private sector — must play its part in building a sustainable global society that benefits all the world’s citizens.

In many respects, the role of the private sector may be the most important of all. I say this as someone who used to work in government; was chair of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which treated more than 1 million AIDS patients in Africa; and is now a senior adviser at Rock Creek Group. I recognize that businesses need to make profits. But the truth is, there’s no conflict between operating sustainably and operating profitably.

The case for investing in businesses that protect the environment and improve the lot of global populations is compelling. With the world expected to add 2 billion more people by 2050 and the current 7 billion global inhabitants looking to improve their standard of living, companies that learn to accomplish more with less will thrive. Companies that waste resources, pollute the environment or base their business model on the exploitation of the poor will quickly lose their competitiveness.

According to the “Global Trends 2030” report by the National Intelligence Council, a strategic advisory organization for the U.S. intelligence community, within 15 years the global demand for food, water and energy will grow by 35 percent, 40 percent and 50 percent, respectively. The need for infrastructure to address this demand is obvious. It will be up to the private sector to deploy innovative technologies and new business models to meet these changing circumstances. The companies that develop better solar panels, more efficient wind generators and other sustainable energy sources will become the Exxons and BPs of the future. Those who back them will reap the dividends.

For too long we have associated the concept of sustainability solely with social activism or philanthropy. Private sector investment in sustainable enterprises is also a prudent business strategy with tangible results. Morgan Stanley’s “Sustainable Reality” report, released in March 2015, found that, among the 10,000 stock mutual funds analyzed, sustainable equity funds outperformed traditional funds 64 percent of the time.

This should not be a surprise. In recent years some major corporations have led the way for progressive reform in a variety of social areas. In the approach to environmental issues, the concept of lean business operations has been in vogue for a couple of decades now. Companies that tackle the problem of environmental wastes, use energy efficiently, wean themselves from fossil fuels and work toward zero carbon impact models are among the most profitable companies. In other words, cutting carbon emissions has become critical for the bottom line.

What the Catholic Church and the best investors have in common is a long view. Pope Francis has rightly condemned capitalists who focus on the short term at the expense of the poor. But history has taught us that the smartest capitalists have understood that their own self-interests are bound up with improving the lives of their customers and society as a whole. This is never more true than when it comes to the future of our planet. Investors and business leaders will succeed if they focus on profitable sustainable practices that also happen to ameliorate climate change. Otherwise, they won’t have a prayer.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a managing director of Rock Creek Group , a Washington-based investment and advisory firm, and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.