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MRTI webinar provides overview of its role in responsible investing

Online program also addresses business to be taken up by the upcoming General Assembly

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Last week’s webinar included a discussion of MRTI’s shareholder engagement process.

LOUISVILLE — The Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) held a webinar Friday to provide an overview of its role in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to highlight the business that it will be bringing to the 226th General Assembly later this month.

MRTI acts as “ambassadors of Presbyterian values to publicly traded corporations,” said the Rev. Dr. Lindley DeGarmo, MRTI’s Vice Chair and a representative from the Board of Pensions. It engages with companies where the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation and its New Covenant Trust Company subsidiary are invested.

The Rev. Dr. Lindley DeGarmo (Screenshot)

As part of its corporate engagement over the years, MRTI has been active on a number of issues, from racial justice to the advancement of rights for women. But, at the behest of recent General Assemblies, it has spent much of its efforts on environmental responsibility. That has included working with other faith-based and values-based investors to bring corporate actions in line with Presbyterian values when possible.

When corporations aren’t responsive or fail to make enough progress, MRTI may recommend “selective divestment.” That most recently happened during the 225th General Assembly (2022) when MRTI’s recommendation resulted in five fossil fuel companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero) being added to PC(USA)’s Divestment/Proscription list.

“It’s important to note we’re not a divestment committee,” MRTI Chair the Rev. Kerri Allen said during the webinar. “We’re not going into engagements and trying to get to divestment. We’re going into engagements and trying to get some meaningful change.”

The Rev. Kerri Allen

Allen, a representative from the Advocacy Committee for Women and Gender Justice, also noted   that MRTI’s “role is to be guided by the Holy Spirit. We emphasize the power of communal discernment, and MRTI recognizes the urgency of environmental and social issues like the climate crisis.”

During the online program, viewers were presented with a pre-recorded presentation by members of MRTI and watched a video produced in partnership with the Presbyterian Foundation. The webinar also included a question-and-answer session with viewers that provided an opportunity for lead staff to explain the balancing act that goes into divestment recommendations, which are guided by a seven-point investment strategy from 1984.

“We have to balance the social witness policy of the church and the General Assembly with what is implementable by the investment agencies,” said Katie Carter, Director of Faith-Based Investing and Shareholder Engagement for the PC(USA). In previous years, for example, “there was the categorical divestment call for tobacco products,” but later that had to be amended because “it was not really implementable as it was created.”

Currently, MRTI has a process prior to divestment that includes not only corporate engagement but consulting with communities that might be impacted by climate change or a company’s actions. It also scores companies based on a set of GA-approved metrics.

Corporate engagement may include writing letters, making phone calls and extending invitations to meet with businesses in hopes of influencing their actions. Most of the process and conversations are handled by MRTI’s staff, and challenges do arise.

Katie Carter

“The process can go back and forth and repeat itself each year, often going from research to correspondence to dialogue and back again, depending on our goals for each company,” Carter said during the webinar.

However, “it is always our hope to influence corporations to be better actors, for people and for the planet,” the video noted. “When we walk away, we lose that influence. This may be warranted if companies make inadequate effort to change, but it is always our goal to cause lasting change in business practices that make a positive impact on people and planet.”

In the video, it was noted that MRTI “helped bring pressure to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.” Also, hotel chains and airlines have trained staff at all levels on how to spot and prevent human trafficking, and “companies are committing to more transparency of their lobbying efforts related to climate change issues.”

Carter brought additional examples such as AIG, a large insurer, committing to achieve net zero gas emissions across its investment portfolios. Also, Southwest Airlines agreed to set greenhouse gas reduction targets and to outline a plan for achieving those targets.

Despite such successes, one of the overtures (ENV-02) to be considered by the General Assembly’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee seeks to persuade the General Assembly to declare that all publicly traded companies whose primary source of income is derived from the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels be placed on the list of prohibited securities.

However, MRTI, which evaluates specifically named companies identified by the General Assembly and not whole categories, is recommending (via ENV-06) continued engagement with Climate Action 100+ companies that meet its criteria. It also is requesting to add two more entities, Ameren and the fossil fuel company EOG Resources, for “focused engagement.” Climate Action100+ is an investor-led initiative to ensure the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters take necessary action on climate change.

Also at the upcoming General Assembly, MRTI is recommending the establishment of a task force to review and update the church’s 1984 divestment policy. Currently, that policy lays out seven criteria that must be met for MRTI to make a selective divestment recommendation.

“We’ve heard calls from across the denomination that the 1984 policy, which is turning 40 this year, needs to be reviewed and possibly updated and take into account new global and theological contexts,” DeGarmo said. “The task force would include representatives from the investing agencies, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and at- large members to ensure that the new policy can be implemented by the investing agencies.”

A recording of the webinar is available to General Assembly commissioners in their MyGA portal and upon request by contacting MRTI Associate Simon Doong.

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