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Partners in Advocacy: Trillium Asset Management
By Holly Testa, Director, Shareowner Engagement

First Affirmative’s shareowner advocacy program does not stand alone. Many of the asset managers we use in client accounts are also our partners in advocacy—and they have powerful stories to share. In this installment, we talk with Jonas Kron, Senior Vice President and Director of Shareholder Advocacy at Trillium Asset Management.

Trillium is an employee owned investment management firm that has been exclusively focused on sustainable and responsible investing since 1982. They manage $2+ billion in assets invested for good, but the Trillium footprint far exceeds their own efforts. The legacy of Trillium’s founder, Joan Bavaria, runs deep across the entire industry

The Legacy of the “Founding Mother”

The SRI industry lost Joan in 2008, but her legacy lives on—not just in Trillium, but in other crucial organizations. Joan played a central role in nurturing Ceres and US SIF, two key networks that serve as the underpinning for much advocacy and policy work that gets done by a wide range of institutional investors in the United States. First Affirmative, along with most of our activist managers, collaborates through these organizations.

Jonas Kron tells us that “Joan was a visionary for the larger role SRI had to play in global finance and corporate social responsibility. She saw the need to have us work together cooperatively, and to build institutions that would help us all in our work.”

“Joan was instrumental in the development of Ceres. In fact, the first three employees of Ceres had desks in Trillium’s office in the beginning, while they were building up the organization. Joan thought of Ceres as one of her children, and Trillium has a special relationship with Ceres to this day. She was equally influential as a cofounder of what is now US SIF [The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing], a key membership association for the SRI industry.”

Trillium Lives Up to the Legacy

Trillium’s deep commitment to their work has been tested by tough times. Kron tells us that “In 2008, Trillium faced losing their beloved founder in the same year as the challenging 2008 market downturn. Trillium never wavered from their heartfelt commitment to advocacy. Our leadership ensures that we have the resources to do it well. Four full-time staff are dedicated to advocacy, and all of us are passionate about our work. This commitment gives us an aggressive platform with which to engage companies on environmental and social issues. This is perhaps the best expression of Joan’s legacy. It rings as true today as it did when she was still with us.”

Do the Right Thing

Trillium’s commitment to advocacy allows them to engage effectively and take a leadership role on a wide range of issues. But while there are compelling financial reasons for managing environmental, social, and governance issues, Kron believes that one thing that sets Trillium apart is that “we don’t do engagement just for financial gain, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than when addressing the social issues facing communities impacted by corporate behavior.

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples worldwide are disproportionately impacted by corporate actions. Their land is often coveted for its abundant natural resources, their culture plundered for its stories and imagery, and their well-being compromised by predatory lending and other questionable practices.

Kron says that “Trillium Asset Management has a long history of making investments that directly benefit Native American and Indigenous People, as well as helping to bring the concerns of Indigenous People to corporate decision-makers. Much of our work is in collaboration with native communities and other investors of the Indigenous Peoples Working Group (IPWG) of US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing. The way indigenous communities are treated by corporations shows the overlap of many issues that are of concern to investors. It also highlights the collaboration that takes place between communities.”

Resource extraction is often a losing proposition for Native American communities, as corporate goals can conflict with indigenous people’s well-being. Kron shared Trillium’s efforts to help save a very special place.

Protecting Bristol Bay

"Bristol Bay Alaska is a breathtaking, pristine place precious to many stakeholders. It is home to thousands of Alaska Natives whose ancestors have lived in the region for millennia. Central to the rich culture they have developed over thousands of years are the salmon that have been harvested sustainably for generations. The icy waters of the bay yield roughly half of the global harvest of wild sockeye salmon. An estimated 40 million salmon return to the rivers of Bristol Bay every year and are essential to the native subsistence fishing tradition and are also responsible for millions of dollars of income and thousands of jobs.”

“Beginning in 2011, Trillium brought together investors representing over $170 billion in assets to submit comments to the U.S. EPA expressing concern about Pebble Mine, a colossal open-pit mine proposed for Bristol Bay, and requesting a scientific review of the possible impacts of the mine, including the feared devastation of one of the world’s largest sustainable salmon fisheries.”

“The mine affected many constituents—indigenous peoples, salmon fisheries, and companies who depend on the priceless resources provided by Bristol Bay. In the end commercial fishing, Native Americans, environmentalists, the $680 billion Food Marketing Institute, and companies including Tiffany’s and Target created a combined voice that led the EPA to announce that it would undertake a more thorough Clean Water Act 404(c) review process. Soon thereafter, mining company Rio Tinto withdrew from the project.”

Never Give up

Some battles are more easily won than others, and Kron answers the question, “What’s next?” with “What’s still left undone?” In this case, the Washington, DC football team is still known as the “Redskins.”

This controversy has simmered in native communities, garnered headlines and been aired on sports channels. The US Patent Office even canceled the federal trademark for the name, deeming it “disparaging to Native Americans.” Kron tells us that “Trillium, along with other members of IPWG, including the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, has been pressing FedEx to take a stand against the Washington, DC Football team name. FedEx is the sponsor of the team’s stadium and its CEO is a part owner in the team.”

“The coalition has been working on getting a resolution in front of shareholders since 2009, but FedEx so far has succeeded in keeping it off the ballot by successfully challenging it at the SEC. We firmly believe investors are entitled to debate this issue in the proxy and the FedEx board and management should not shy away from addressing the reputational risks linked to its sponsorship of the Washington NFL team franchise. Perceptions that FedEx is supporting disparaging and racist language must be addressed.”

At Trillium, persistence is a virtue, and the unglamorous behind the scenes work is what eventually gets the job done. Kron declares “We have been at the SEC year after year to get this resolution on the ballot-we are not giving up!”


NOTE: Mention of specific companies or securities should not be considered an endorsement or a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Posted: March 4, 2015