In trying to get the business community to participate in an economy which takes into account people and the environment, not just profit, Robert Rubinstein, founder of TBLI (Triple Bottom Line Investing), doesn’t put his faith in the sector’s idealism but in investors’ greed and the ability to inflict ‘excruciating pain’ on business. He explains to Caroline Hartnell how and why this works. He is optimistic about more money flowing into impact investing, as defined by TBLI, but not that hopeful that it will be in time for climate change mitigation. ‘Get your wellies out,’ he advises.
You founded TBLI in 1998. What did you hope to achieve?
I wanted to create an economy based on well-being by engaging with the business sector. I realized that to do that, the business sector has to buy into it, and they will only buy into it if they feel excruciating pain. I concluded they had three pain buttons: finance, personnel and reputation.
First, I looked at personnel. I tried teaching MBA students about sustainable finance, but most of the students were only worried about defaulting on their student loans. They didn’t follow their hearts and went to work for companies that didn’t share their values.
So then I looked at finance. I decided to focus on the financial sector. I worked out that the top hundred or so owners or managers in 1998 had direct or indirect control of 30-40 per cent of the money. So I hit on the idea of trying to convince those hundred CIOs [chief investment officers] through a conference. It sounds rather naive but it does work: if you show the financial sector over and over again the self-interest, opportunity and money flows in sustainable business, it’s not hard to change behaviour.
The hard part is access. I call it the Shawshank Redemption approach – that’s the prison movie where, after 15 years of chipping away at a wall, the guy broke through but no one knew about it. That’s what this work is, it’s chipping away over and over again, there’s no big ribbon-cutting ceremony. We’ve seen massive money flows and very large deals done at the TBLI Conference, so I know we’ve had an influence on the behaviour of the financial sector, and now I would like to scale up dramatically.