A Catalyst for Enduring Prosperity
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” These words immortalized by 1987 fictional character Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street represent more than the line that earned Michael Douglas his first Oscar. They speak to an idea that has long ensnared capitalism: “good” business is greedy business. It concentrates on shareholder interests alone.
The theory – first introduced by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman in a 1970 essay – argued that a business has no social responsibility to the public or society; that its only responsibility is to essentially make money for its shareholders.
Things have shifted. While corporations and capitalism generally have been, without question, the largest source of global economic prosperity, creator of wealth, source of employment, deliverer of innovation, and provider of needs, public trust in them has been steadily eroding. By the time the financial crisis of 2008 hit, distrust had calcified to such an extent that “the corporation” had become synonymous with social and economic inequity, and environmental degradation. License to operate for shareholders alone was effectively lost. Now, to survive, companies have to consider the impact to multiple stakeholders, including, but not limited to, shareholders, their people, society, and the environment.
Like with most things that die, the failure of the Friedman paradigm has given rise to a reimagining – this time, in the very purpose of business itself. This is where we find ourselves today. Leaders questioning the moral responsibility, purpose, and social impact of business. The notion of “ESG” or the consideration of environmental, social, and governance factors alongside financial factors in the investment decision-making process has become a proxy for the way companies can “do good” while doing business.
In a world in which stakeholders matter and are vocal, a better way to conceptualize the relationship between doing “good” (the notion of contributing back to society) and doing “well” (the notion of financial success) is gravity. According to this mental model, companies are like masses in the universe, competing to attract goodwill, customers, capital, and talent: the greater their mass, the greater their attraction, the more they can pull desirable resources and assets to them. In this universe, being “good” is a source of mass. Building mass is about creating greater good not greater size. Bigger is not better. Better is better. It is easy to see why this would be the case. When an organization’s products and services reflect shared values, it has an easier time differentiating the brand, attracting and retaining talent, demanding price premiums, and generating sales. Finally, when companies possess attractive ESG traits (additional mass), they are also less likely to lose capital from concerned investors and more likely to earn it from impact-oriented ones.
According to the latest biennial report from the United States Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF), total US-domiciled assets under management employing ESG investing strategies increased 42 percent over the past two years, to $17 trillion in 2020 up from $12 trillion at the start of 2018. The figure represents 33% of all US assets under professional management, meaning that one in three investing dollars is invested in this manner. Perhaps the most visible example of this trend is Larry Fink, chief executive of the world's biggest asset manager BlackRock (with $10 trillion under management) who in 2020 successfully integrated 100% of their active and advisory portfolios to those companies that have integrated ESG principles.
ESG and Indigenous Communities in Canada
In January of 2021 the First Nations Major Project Coalition commissioned a paper on discussing opportunities in ESG. Therein the authors write, that in Canada, nearly every major development project of consequence will involve Indigenous rights in some manner, particularly if the project involves land or natural resources. Yet, their research revealed that there has been very little engagement of Indigenous People, Indigenous nations, or Indigenous viewpoints into the main ESG standard frameworks. This is simply unsustainable. Given that almost every major project development, particularly in the energy sector is built on Indigenous traditional territory how can there be true ESG incorporation without integrating Indigenous interests? As the authors note, omitting Indigenous interests and input in the development of existing ESG standards is simultaneously a significant unaddressed capital and project risk while undermining rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Podlasly, Lindley-Pert, and van der Porten contend the relationship between major project proponents, investors and Indigenous nations underlies all components of ESG. This of course is unquestionably true. I have seen this for many years on a first-hand basis as the CEO of Backwoods Energy. At is core, industry ignoring the “I” in ESG simply increases capital risk and decreases the probability of a successful project generally. If companies are truly concerned about strengthening a sustainable business model based on shared values and advancing economic reconciliation with Indigenous People a new paradigm is necessary, for major projects and associated operations activities.
The Case for Indigenous Asset Ownership
"What moves people out of poverty are assets, not income. Income can change when a company decides to move somewhere else or when an emergency hits a family. The thing that makes the difference is that cushion to fall back on."
- Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee,
Founder of the First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide
While there is no singular path to economic reconciliation, Indigenous asset ownership is no doubt vital irrespective of the path chosen. Building assets is fundamental in building and maintaining wealth. However, beyond the benefit of assets ownership itself, the echo effect of ownership extends to increased employment and job creation, governance opportunities, increased educational opportunity, and the psychological benefit that comes with pride of ownership. Indigenous communities in Canada have been disproportionally denied access to capital and the financial substructures in order to level the playing field of achieving major asset ownership.
In his ground-breaking work on poverty, Michael Sherraden noted the social and psychological impacts of asset ownership for the poor. He stated that “…people think and behave differently when they are accumulating assets, and the world responds to them differently as well. More specifically, assets improve economic stability; connect people with a viable, hopeful future and stimulates the development of human and other capital”. Ownership is also important in that assets are long-term in nature which is consistent with Indigenous values of taking care of future generations. However, most importantly asset ownership allows Indigenous communities to promote empowerment and self-determination, it allows them to connect their economic goals to the social goals that matter to them most. It allows communities to build their economic futures in a method consistent with their individual culture. Perhaps Alicia Dubois CEO of the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC) and co-chair of the board of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) clarified the issue best in a recent interview when she said “I view financial sustainability and pride in owned-source wealth and revenue generation as a means for Indigenous Peoples and communities to enhance their quality of life and be empowered to realize their right to self-determination,”
Indigenous Asset Ownership and Benefits to Canada
This issue is also of vital importance to our country and there are clear benefits to Canada in increasing Indigenous participation in major asset ownership. Mark Podlasly and Kim Baird clearly identified these benefits in their paper The Opportunity for Indigenous Infrastructure A Central Economic Recovery Activity wherein they outline the following:
Significant benefits for Canada would flow from accelerating the adoption of Indigenous equity-ownership arrangements:
Economic – Government, business, labour, and academic leaders across the political spectrum recognize the vitally important need for land-use certainty for First Nations to enable economic opportunities for all. Stalled progress on a variety of troubled energy projects attests to the growing urgency of fully including Indigenous People in the planning, execution, and management of projects on their traditional territories.
Legal – Economic certainty stemming from Indigenous equity arrangements will help reduce litigation costs and complexity and ensure greater legal clarity and progress in concluding land-use agreements.
Environmental – International investors, lenders, and regulators are increasing their rigour and scrutiny of environmental, sustainable, and governance (ESG) guidelines. By actively incorporating First Nation communities in project planning and execution on their traditional territories, ESG compliance is enhanced.
Political – Reconciliation, diversity, and inclusion are key enablers of broader political and public policy priorities.
Why It Matters
Assets are the building blocks of wealth, a ladder out of poverty and inequity, and a necessary tenet of the desire for self-determination. In his book, the Economic Dependency Gap, Calvin Helin writes “we must tailor solutions that move society forward with policies that do not undermine self-reliance”. What is required is an innovative and creative approach to Indigenous asset ownership that includes an array of options to support access to financial and tangible assets over the life cycle. The Axxcelus approach is rooted in an understanding of the need for an unconventional range of options and the need for meaningful community engagement in order to create the intergenerational impacts only possible through ownership efforts made today.
This is not an argument based on mutualism, conscious capitalism, or wealth redistribution. It is an argument based on the need for the development and innovation around a set of solutions based on shared values that level the playing field. It allows for industry, government, and Indigenous communities to work collaboratively to improve mutually beneficial outcomes. It is about how we can all contribute together to build a better world for the benefit of future generations.
"Axxcelus Capital Advisory Partners was conceived to be a catalyst for enduring prosperity for Indigenous communities, industry, and government"
- Our Why: Paul Poscente
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