Photo and editing by KK Ottesen.
Environmental leaders, impact investors, and wife-husband duo.
Lisa Renstrom is President and co-Founder of ValuesAdvisor, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the flow of money into values-aligned investing. With three decades in the environmental, social justice, investment, and philanthropy sectors, her previous leadership roles include Executive Director of Voice & Choices, President of the National Sierra Club, President of Rachel’s Network, and co-creator of DivestInvest Individual and Values Advisor. Lisa serves on the Boards of Bonwood Social Investments, ecoAmerica, and Fresh Farm Markets DC.
Bob Perkowitz has been President/CEO of several leading consumer products manufacturing and marketing corporations including VivaTerra, LLC, Cornerstone Brands, Inc., Smith+Noble LLC, Joanna Western Mills, Home Fashions, Inc., and Tempo Industries Inc. He has also served on the boards of SRAM, Inc., and SNAP A/V. In the non-profit world, Bob currently is President and Founder of ecoAmerica, and sits on the board of World Bicycle Relief. Prior board service includes the ClearPath Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club Foundation, and the Queens University Learning Society. More on Bob at perkowitz.com.
*Terra Alpha’s CIO, Tim Dunn, is a member of the Leadership Council of ecoAmerica.
How did you get involved, not only with Terra Alpha, but with sustainability issues?
Bob: I joke that every morning Lisa wakes up and she says, “How am I going to make the world a better place?” And then she rolls over and looks at me, and I know I have to do something. So she’s been pushing me.
Ten years ago, there were very, very few, almost no, sustainability funds out there. We had money invested with Bank of America and Lisa’s asking them, “Do you have a sustainability fund?” Largest bank in America: “No, sorry, we don’t have it.” And Lisa says, “Well, we’re not going to invest with you unless you do a sustainability fund.”
Lisa: And fossil-free.
Had you all been focusing on environmental issues for a while?
Lisa: I grew up in Nebraska and I have always appreciated nature, always wanted to be outside. I loved the seasons of the Midwest, loved the snow, loved fall. It never occurred to me that human beings could shift seasons. It was just mind-boggling and weird. I was also very aware of, and distraught by, how humans could ruin a place. I had worked in the hotel industry in Mexico. And in Mexico City, when you were there in the ’80s, your nails would get lots of black underneath them at the end of the day. I thought: This is just gross, I mean, how could we be doing this, Mexico City was a sacred space for the Aztec and the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Then I lived in LA, and LA was the same. So when Bob and I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1993, I was looking for what I was going to do, and I went to a new members’ party of the Sierra Club and became the local group chair.
Bob: When Lisa got involved with the Sierra Club, I started paying attention to the environmental movement. I’ve been an outdoor person – riding my bike across five continents, camping out a lot. So, as I wandered my way out of the corporate world, I followed in her slipstream and got involved with the Sierra Club and then Environmental Defense Fund and joined the board of EDF.
Lisa did a giant conference with the Sierra Club in 2005 when she was president – thousands of people – and that was when the Sierra Club voted to make climate change a priority. The largest environmental organization in America didn’t make climate a priority until that year. Nobody talked about climate change in the 1990s. I think McKibben’s book, [The End of Nature], came out in 1989.
And were there a-ha moments for you?
Bob: So, 2010 is the year where it became real. It was the biggest year for California wildfires, ever. And then you started paying attention to stuff that’s happening around the world, Bangladesh flooding and different things. The data just has been pouring in. You look at the graphs from the past 15 years and you’ve gone from having maybe four billion-dollar climate events a year to having one every three weeks.
Lisa: Nature will get the final word. Nature is not this beautiful thing to protect. Nature is a system that we are a part of – we, and our economy, are a wholly owned subsidiary of nature – and it is brutal. If a certain species gets too large, something will put it back into balance. Our economic system, our financial system, our health system, none of them are as resilient as nature.
Bob: Another big a-ha moment was in 2013 when our first grandchild was born. I flew to California and her mother hands me this little bundle that doesn’t even have her eyes open. I hugged her, and I just thought: How completely unfair could it possibly be for us to leave a world where she has to worry about everything else, plus the destruction of the planet?
Talking about holding your grandbaby – a lot of people think about leaving something to the next generation. Is that the easy sell when you make the case to investors for sustainable investing?
Bob: Well, the ultimate easy sell is that you make more money. People are investing. One argument that gets thrown to me when I talk about values investing is, ‘Hey, if I make more money, I can invest more money in sustainable solutions, but if I lose money, then I can’t go out and invest in wind farms.’ You used to have to apologize. Like in 2015, say you invest in solar, it’s non-economic, it’s not competitive. But now, they’re getting solar plus storage for less than 2 cents a kilowatt-hour. It’s just astonishing. And now you can go out and say, with the exception of this oil price spike in the past two or three years, that for the past 12, 15 years, fossil fuels have not been a good thing to invest in. If you would’ve said five years ago in America when we only were making a few hundred thousand electric cars, that in 2023 we’re going to sell over 1.2 million electric cars in one year, people would’ve said you’re nuts. All of a sudden, climate change and climate solutions are everywhere, all over the place, all the time.
Lisa: And what I love is that it’s coming from all the sectors. So sustainable agriculture, regenerative food, health, doctors, faith, finance – I’ve been focusing the last five, six years on finance – on finding the levers within all of those categories to create climate solutions. It’s pretty cool and very exciting to see this convergence. So we can make the financial argument now that investing with a sustainability lens or a values lens does not need to sacrifice financial return.
And if someone has amassed a lot of capital in their lifetime and they think that the best thing to do for their children or grandchildren is to pass that capital along, I’m here to tell you that I know a lot of individuals who come from oil companies, wealth that they have inherited, and they’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make up for, deal with the damage that the ancestral money did – that’s one. Number two, is we need to stop expecting the get-rich-quick returns. Certain levels of returns mean that that company has externalized the cost of something that they’re doing on the commons. I mean, some companies can do that without externalizing their costs, but many have and do. Whether it’s externalizing it through labor practices or dumping practices or pollution.
Bob: They’re stealing from the commons and they plunder as fast as they can, whether it’s a forest or whatever, and then stand back and let somebody else clean up the mess.
How do you talk with people who might see it in a different way?
Bob: It’s so fun to watch people, I call it “passing through the veil,” when all of a sudden, they get it. All of a sudden, they realize: This is real, it’s a real problem, I haven’t been paying enough attention. It has changed from being 30, 50, 70 years off to impacting everything today. And when they pass through the veil, the first thing is they say, “I just have to tell people about this.” And they tell people about it and people don’t listen. Then the second thing that they say is, “We’re not using the right words, we have to get better messaging and better communication.” With climate, you have to find the right words; there are words that will shut down things. “ESG” right now, is kind of like saying “death tax.”
Lisa: ESG is environmental, social, and governance data. And it’s super important for people to recognize that that is just beautiful, wonderful data that helps you reduce your risks and understand what you’re investing in. But it’s become a political bullseye.
Bob: At ecoAmerica, we [say]: describe, don’t label. If you say, “I’m for clean energy,” and just use words to describe it, they can’t come back and say, “I’m against clean energy.”
Lisa: A lot of people like metrics. I’m not big on numbers, metrics as my guide, but when we first moved to Charlotte, Bob had a Porsche and it was so much fun to watch him after we bought a Prius compete with the same level of intensity that he used to do with speed on the Porsche with miles per gallon. It was like, “Don’t drive it! You’re going to ruin my miles per gallon.” And that’s what I want to see in the world. I want the competition between those who are very competitive to be about: My social impact was this, what was yours? Not: My return on investment is 25%. What’s yours?
How much return do you need? Would you rather say on your deathbed: Oh, I gave each of my kids a hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars or a bajillion dollars – or, I’ve left my kids with a nest egg so that they can send their kids to college and live without fear and live a healthy life, and I’ve left them with a legacy of a world that’s livable and that they’re proud of?
Bob: Four or five years ago, my life was trying to talk you into saying that climate change was real, and that it’s mission-centric for you to do something about it. Now, if you’re a leader of any significant organization and awake, aware, and alive, you know that climate change is real. And you want to do something about it just to remain relevant to young people, to anybody who cares about it, and just because it’s the right thing to do.
I’m sure you think about greenwashing – how much do you worry about any detrimental effects of lip service versus actually doing something?
Bob: It sucks, because going into COP28 Sultan Al Jaber, who ran the COP conference and also runs the UAE National Oil Company, was saying, We have to do this. And then, he just came out and said, We’re not going to cut back any of our investments on fossil fuel. So greenwashing is massive, huge, insidious. And lots of things that you don’t think are greenwashing are actually greenwashing to disempower you, distract you. Like the plastics people tell you: Recycle your bottle. They will spend bajillions of dollars to make sure you don’t put a 5-cent tax on a plastic bottle and have to return it and get your nickel back.
But everything you do every day pretty much is making a difference. And the more visible of a difference you make, the bigger difference, whether you drive an electric car, whether or not you have solar panels on your house…
Lisa: And doing the little things yourself are so gratifying and mentally keep you sane. They really do.
Bob: We have the comfort of being financially secure right now. So Lisa and I say, We need this much money to take care of our kids and our family, so every extra dollar we make, we give back to the environment. Every dollar that Tim makes me goes back into saving the world.
Lisa: That money is being put to work in companies that can build a future rather than companies that are destroying our future.
Bob: One thing people say is that you have to stop your emissions, that you personally should go net-zero because then you’re living your values. I think you need to go a step farther. I think you need to eliminate all of your emissions in your life. From when you were born, you should take a look and do that. The way I do that is I go out and I figure out my emissions for all my plane flights, everything, and every year I buy five years’ worth of offsets. So it’s costing me a few thousand dollars a year to do that.
So you’re working backwards.
Bob: I’m going to die knowing that I have not contributed any carbon. And indirectly – no, very directly – I might have taken gigatons of carbon out because we’ve helped all these large national organizations engage their millions of members.
What advice do you give people interested in being effective, making change?
Lisa: Follow your heart. Invest in the world you want to see. And my new favorite quote by Maya Angelou: “Do the best that you know how to do now. And when you know how to do better, do it then.” Because perfection is the enemy of the good.