Concordia University Foundation juggles social and environmental responsibility with corporate profits
On Nov. 8, 2019, the Concordia University Foundation (CUF) committed to divesting all investments in coal, oil, and gas industries by 2025, in order to become 100 per cent sustainable. The CUF also added the goal of allocating 10 per cent of its long-term assets in impact investments towards its 2025 goal. Impact investments are made with the intention of bringing about positive social and environmental change together with a financial return. Concordia emphasizes that these steps ensure that the University is investing in socially and environmentally responsible ways. However, complaints from students claim a disconnect from community centred initiatives, as multinational service providers tout sustainability as a method for financial growth.
Lacey Boudreau, a Concordia youth activist and a member of Climate Justice Action Concordia (CJAC), believes that these are steps in the right direction. However, Boudreau is wary of how much space is left for the foundation to prioritize profits over community. “You can still be investing in a company that is making a transition to net-zero which means that you can still be investing in them [fossil fuels],” she said.
Boudreau also points out that there could be discrepancies between how both the student community and the finance world interpret the term sustainable.” Shylah Wolfe, the executive director of the Concordia Food Coalition, echoed the same concern. “One of our main critiques of the sustainability action plan, [is that] the recommendations are never going to be fulfilled if we continue with multinational service providers,” explained Wolfe.
Multinational portfolio managers
Currently, the portfolio managers for the CUF’s impact investments, which are claimed to generate impacts on people and the planet, include companies such as Wells Fargo and BlackRock. Wells Fargo has been identified as one of the major banks to invest in private prisons and the immigrant detention industry. Timothy Sloan, former Wells Fargo CEO, said that the bank was exiting the private prison industry in March 2019. But amid Sloan’s statement the bank had been the portfolio manager for the CUF’s impact investments.
BlackRock, another firm listed as a portfolio manager for impact investments in CUF’s 2020-21 Annual Report, faced backlash in 2018 for its ties with large American firearms makers, while maintaining support for the oil and gas industry as part of the solution alongside environmental investment policies.
Wolfe believes that investing with multinational service providers such as Wells Fargo and BlackRock does not fulfil the aims of being impactful and socially responsible. However, Marc Gauthier, the university treasurer and chief investment officer, believes that the University’s investments are in reality 100 per cent impactful and wide reaching.
Gauthier also explained that in the CUF’s new framework, capital allocation is driven by sustainability objectives that enable social equity, financial inclusion, discrimination reduction, affordable housing, and health improvement, among other impacts. However, moving away from multinational portfolio managers was not mentioned as part of the path to being socially or environmentally responsible in investments.
In 2014, Erik Chevrier, part-time instructor at Concordia, made recommendations for implementing a socially responsible investment plan at the University. One of the recommendations was negatively screening fossil fuels production.
Negative screening excludes companies that work in sectors that are harmful for the environment or society. While the foundation has adopted negative screening, Boudreau believes that steps need to be taken towards positive screening. Positive screening finds companies that score high on environmental and social issues, further weeding out low scoring companies.
From the balance sheet to the campus
Wolfe believes that commitment to sustainability needs to “leap from the balance sheet to the campus,” and that “continued commitment to mitigating climate change fundamentally requires investment in transforming the food system.”
Wolfe adds that investing in high impact solutions such as social enterprise funding and The New Food Enterprise need to be prime candidates for CUF’s support and investment. Concordia’s current investment in Aramark, which is a multinational food service with links to the US prison system, is another example of Concordia’s problematic partnerships with multinational corporations.
Boudreau adds that the tension between the student body and the administration regarding the definition of sustainability can have real consequences. This tension explains why students mostly rely on student-run fee levy groups such as the Sustainability Action Fund (SAF) to fund their projects, rather than relying on the University for support.
CUF and the community
The CUF asserts that its links with the community at Concordia are strong and that this communication is maintained through the Joint Sustainable Investment Advisory Committee (JSIAC). Denis Cossette, Concordia’s chief financial officer stated that “JSIAC is composed of both students and faculty members and is very useful to keep the discussion open”.
“These meetings are very infrequent and it’s whenever they [CUF] want to present something,” affirmed Boudreau. She described a recent JSIAC meeting where most of the meeting was spent on the presentation of the CUF’s plans with a short Q&A session.
“It wasn’t a space where they were interested in any of our thoughts. It was just a presentation. The plan was done,” Boudreau said.
Boudreau believes that because the students were not part of the initial conversation, it would be very difficult for their comments to be integrated at the next level.
The high turnover of students might make it difficult for them to retain the institutional knowledge that they gain from activism on campus and to be taken seriously by the administration.
“I think there’s a habit of the administration to have no faith and to not follow through on student projects and groups, but we have proven that we are capable,” said Wolfe.
Boudreau noted that Concordia students try to counter that weakness by keeping in touch with past Concordians to brainstorm creative solutions.
The board of directors
The CUF has a male-dominated board of directors with a visible lack of diversity and a number of incredibly wealthy individuals in charge of establishing the University’s portfolio-investment policies.
“It’s true, it’s not a board that is as diversified as the board of university but these people in their field are also applying this sustainable approach that we have included in the investment policy,” said Cossette.
“Where are the climate experts [on the board]?” Boudreau pointed out when asked about the composition of the CUF’s board of directors.
On the other hand, the grassroots groups at Concordia take a different approach to the composition of their board of directors. “The Concordia Food Coalition (CFC) has engaged consultants to overhaul our own recruitment policies because we absolutely believe that our leadership and their perspective will inform how comprehensive and holistic our programs are and how innovative our solutions to community needs are, because the campus is certainly not mostly white cis males,” explained Wolfe.
When it comes to the transparency of the CUF, Boudreau believes that it should go beyond the public financial reports. “Even if they are transparent with the information, [they use] all these financial terms and this is how they are getting away with these things because people don’t know what these words mean,” she said.
Boudreau added that the CUF should be transparent “in a way that students understand [the information] and have the space to ask questions and to be listened to.”
The CUF became part of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) in 2018. The organization was supposed to receive a grade for its investments in June 2022, but due to a change in reporting requirements by the PRI, there were delays in the grade reports.
“We’ll have our grades only in 2023,” said Gauthier. For Boudreau, seeing climate experts weighing in on the progress made by the CUF would also help the student body understand the reality of the progress made so far. “They only have finance people working on this and that does not address the root problems,” added Boudreau.
Financing and the future
Gauthier also added that the CUF looks at sustainability not only from an “investment perspective, but from a financing perspective.” Gauthier cited the University’s issuing of sustainable bonds in 2019 as part of this vision. The bonds were issued to help finance the new LEED-certified Science Hub. Therefore, apart from relying on investments, the CUF has also been trying to come up with other financing options such as the issuing of sustainable bonds. However, many community organizers at Concordia believe that responsible financing could go further and include divesting from multinational corporations.
“There’s a dynamic tension between people versus profits at Concordia,” said Wolfe. For Boudreau, “there are many radical projects on campus working against the profit narrative.”