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2013 Winter Issue 7 (March 1, 2013)

A Defense of Divestment

March 3, 2013
By Patrick Burke, Zachary Levonian, Isaama Stoll

These are facts, displayed in abbreviated form on posters hanging in Sayles:

Nestle aggressively markets its baby formula to women in countries in the Global South by telling them formula is healthier for their children than breast milk. However, women in many of these places have neither clean water to mix the formula nor the means of affording enough formula. As a result, millions of infants have died of diseases and malnutrition. Even though this scandal first broke in the 1970s, Nestle continues its practice of targeting women in developing countries for its formula sales.
(http://www.businessinsider.com/nestles-infant-formula-scandal-2012-6?op=1)

“Heavy on emotional impact”? As empathetic beings, we hope so. 

Inflammatory? Perhaps.  Honestly, no one would pay attention to a poster with this paragraph written on it. However, when “Carleton Invests in Nestle, Therefore Carleton Kills Babies” is written on a poster, it gets featured on the front page of The Carletonian, noticed by trustees, and even gets compared (hilariously) to Fox News in The Clap.

The goal of the posters was to ask questions and start potentially uncomfortable conversations, not to initiate any immediate action. Before any action is taken on divestment, we as a community need to have a conversation and decide if Carleton is comfortable investing in corporations that engage in practices that we do not support. We feel it is important for all members of the Carleton community to think critically about the potential for ethical investment and to hold the school accountable to its commitment to ethical action. To quote the Carleton Mission Statement: “The College works to embody the values of freedom of inquiry and expression and is vigilant in protecting these values within a culture of academic integrity, civil deliberation, and ethical action.”

The type of rhetoric employed by Griffin Johnson in a Viewpoint article two weeks ago, dismisses the individual action that creates social movements. This action arises from forgetting old lessons, a toleration of complacency, and the insidious sort of apathy that we, as individuals, feel obligated to stand against.  We take issue with Griffin’s assertion that the emotional content of the message conceals the nuance of human-rights abuses, and seek here to dispel a few misunderstandings about divestment and Carleton as an institution. 

Make no mistake, investment in a corporation certainly operates as implicit support of that organization. Griffin declares that Carleton is “not supporting a company when it invests, it is buying influence in that company”.  This is both an overestimation of Carleton’s purchasing power and fundamental misunderstanding of investment. 

One critical issue is transparency: Carleton students and faculty can only view the top ten corporations in which Carleton directly invests, Carleton itself only know where about 30 percent of its funds are invested. Surely “influence” begins with knowing the name of your business partner. 

Even when Carleton directly and openly invests in specific companies, it has no problem supporting corporations like Nestle and PhilipMorris International, both of whom have a history of on-going business practices that should make Carleton students uncomfortable. While in a perfect world, we would influence these corporations through our investment, the small scope of our financial engagement gives us virtually no voice. Even our largest holdings, worth millions of dollars, are still miniscule in comparison to the overall investments in the corporations with whom we deal.

While this fact may make it seem inconsequential for Carleton to remove our funds from a company, the power of divestment lies in the culture it helps create. By publically pulling out our funds from a company, we are making the political statement that we disapprove of their environmental or labor practices. We may lose our voice in the boardroom, but as of right now our voice is virtually irrelevant. When it’s clear that transparency and ethical investing come second to profits, even among Carleton’s investment team, we have only lost out on supporting a corporate culture of antipathy and violence. 

This idea may seem somewhat radical: we argue that the voices of Carls as students and an institution create change in the business practices of multinational corporations far more than the investment of funds. By changing the culture, by setting a standard at Carleton and among our peer-institutions, we could become a leader in creating a community of awareness and respect; it would certainly be the first time, at least since Carleton’s refusal to divest from a racist, apartheid regime in the late 1980s. 

While it is often easier to promote inaction in the guise of seeking nuance, students and organizations interested in forcing a conversation about divestment mean to create accountability for our choices as an institution, and for our tacit support of these investment choices. Unethical investment is the product of the greater corrupt, capitalist system, deeply rooted in some of the ideals of the United States. Making a profit is valued over the welfare of easily overlooked people. However, ideals can be changed.

It would be much easier to simply do nothing and accept the world as it is. Maybe we could even enjoy it. We understand this mindset and we choose to reject it. Ultimately if we want to live ethically, then we can’t simply accept the status quo. We are struck by the forest fire which Griffin invoked in his piece to describe the recurring divestment movement, and we propose exactly that: a controlled, conscious burn, clearing out decaying trunks and choking ivy, daring to imagine a new forest with green buds building up from the ash. Change has to come from somewhere, and if not us, then whom?

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