glass is half full for upbeat SRI evangelistNovember 2006
EP talks to Robert Rubinstein, founder of this month’s Triple Bottom Line
Investing conference, about the progress of socially responsible investment
There are very few must-attend events in the CSR/SRI calendar but TBLI Europe, to be held for the first time in Paris this month, is one of them. The brainchild of the engaging entrepreneur Robert Rubinstein, it began eight years ago with fewer than 200 delegates in Rotterdam. This year it will boast more than 800 attendees. While numbers at most regular conferences in the field appear to have stabilized at best, TBLI continues to grow.
Rubinstein cites the success of the annual TBLI event – and the changing profile of those who attend it – as evidence to back up his conviction that socially responsible investment, the main focus of TBLI, is now mainstream.
‘In the beginning the interest was mainly from the well-known characters on the ethical investment scene, but now we have HSBC as a lead sponsor, and Mitsubishi UFJ, one of the biggest banks in the world, sending a large party. I could fill another building with the people who want to present, many of them very senior people in mainstream companies. I wouldn’t say we are there yet, but if you see SRI and CSR as a big party, then some of the main guests have got there early. We’re getting the food ready for when the big crowd turns up. That’s where I see it now. It’s certainly no longer a niche area.’
Rubinstein, a talkative 54-year-old American who lives with his family in Amsterdam, says the main consideration for most mainstream financial companies is now not whether they should accept the concept of the triple bottom line, but how they can incorporate it into their investment decisions. ‘I talk to the big institutional investors all the time, and this is definitely becoming important to them. All the financial institutions are positioning themselves in this area. But the challenge they have right now is how to integrate it within their investment processes, and how much of their assets they can apply it to.’
Rubinstein believes that institutional investor interest is at a tipping point. Certainly there has been rapid growth: in the UK, where institutional investors – primarily insurance companies and pension funds – collectively own more than 80 per cent of UK assets by value, mostly equities and bonds, the institutional SRI market grew from £23billion ($43bn) in 1997 to £225bn in 2001, according to the UK Social Investment Forum. Other countries are showing a similar trend and interest is growing in Asia: in May, the first TBLI Asia took place in Bangkok, Thailand.
‘You can cite the business case all you want. In the end though, it’s not an issue of profit but a question of belief,’ says Rubinstein. ‘I can give you 1000 research reports that prove it works, but if you don’t want to believe it, then you’ll only read the one report that says it doesn’t. It’s when your peers start doing things in this area that you look up. That’s the most effective way to convince someone. When the likes of HSBC start talking, it has more impact than anything.’
After some isolated moments of despair at slow progress in the past, Rubinstein finds the present situation ‘very refreshing’, even if he feels things are still moving too slowly. ‘Of course it’s always a matter of time. There have been periods when it’s been very frustrating, but now it’s a lot easier because the herd is moving in our direction. The major players used to live in psychologically gated communities, but no longer. The biggest banks, pension funds and venture capitalists are all looking at creating sustainable investment products.’
It’s a typically glass half-full assessment from a man who combines a a positive outlook with a folksy approach. From a Jewish family that made a new life in the US after fleeing Poland in the Second World War, Rubinstein is a lover of inspirational quotations (some of his own, even) and has never shied away from putting distinctly new-age presentations in front of the dark suits and ties at TBLI. After leaving the US in 1974 to work on oil rigs in Iran and the North Sea, he tested his business acumen by founding a ‘financially and spiritually successful’ cycling magazine in the Netherlands, which he sold to the publishing company VNU. But he lost his money on two further publications, and then the backers for a magazine on sustainability he set up in 1995 pulled the plug. By now he’d become interested in the financial sector, and his preoccupation with SRI led him to set up TBLI, which in turn has led to spin-offs such as training and consultancy.
His career, which now involves teaching MBAs, ‘has been like a pinball machine’. But it has, above all, taught him that good things come to those who wait.
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