Andrew Behar’s Guide to a Just, Safe, and Sustainable Future

In an interview with Till Investors, the CEO of As You Sow explains how you can take action with your investments.

headshot of Andrew Behar
“The board of every company you invest in reports to you. If they are not providing proper oversight, you can replace them.” — Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow

Andrew Behar isn’t fooling around.

Behar is the CEO of As You Sow, a leading nonprofit whose mission is to provide tools and resources for sustainable investors — or as he would define it, investors who want a just, safe, and sustainable future. He’s also the author of “The Shareholder Action Guide: Unleash Your Hidden Powers to Hold Corporations Accountable.” If it sounds like Andrew Behar is ready for action, that’s because he is.

“There’s a major power shift happening right now,” Behar said in an interview with us at Till Investors. The power he’s talking about is coming from individual shareholders. who are seeking to use their legal rights as beneficial owners of companies to have a voice in company decision making.

Everyday people want transparency from corporate leadership and more engagement on larger societal issues. Increasingly, investors are recognizing that what were once thought of as “non-financial” considerations, like climate change or corporate diversity, impact corporate profitability and the ability to compete.

Behar wants you to know that identifying and addressing material risks for all stakeholders is the key to success — for businesses and investors. With the help of As You Sow and other shareholder advocacy organizations, you can learn how to use your legal authority to bring ideas to the table for shareholders, company leadership, and the board to consider.

Charting Rising Shareholder Influence

Historically, large public companies weren’t necessarily expected to publicly disclose their plans related to climate, diversity, employment policies, community outreach, or other nonfinancial issues. But investor expectations are changing.

According to annual research conducted by Edelman, shareholders and the general public are increasingly focused on how company choices impact both the bottom line and the wider concerns of employees, consumers, and the community. Their data suggests that people expect company leadership to use their influence to benefit all stakeholders, and they want to be informed.

bar graph showing the want for more societal engagement from business, not less
Edelman data has shown a rising set of public expectations for corporate behavior.

Behar notes that there is a cognitive dissonance for many investors who are stuck in traditional types of investment plans. People who are concerned about climate change, for example, may be taken aback to see a large percentage of their retirement plans invested in fossil fuel and deforestation companies. People who care about racial justice might be shocked to see that they are profiting from owning private prisons. Broad-based index funds are popular, but they essentially require you to own the entire extractive economy.

As Behar puts it, “Our retirement investments are out of alignment with our values. In a sense, you could say that we are deeply invested in our own destruction.”

Power of the Proxy

Behar fits comfortably into what we call the Engaging “fighting style” — a Till term for an approach to sustainable investing that prioritizes research, communication, and dialogue. He wants corporate leadership to know that investors are doing their own analysis and are ready to discuss solutions. Professional investors and shareholder advocates do this by meeting with company leadership to share information. If necessary, they can escalate an issue by filing a shareholder resolution to be voted on at the company’s annual meeting.

By law, shareholders are given a vote every year on key corporate issues, such as electing the board of directors, determining executive compensation, and approving shareholder resolutions. Proxy ballots are provided to everyone who owns even a single share of a company’s stock.

Behar explains it like this: “The board of every company you invest in reports to you. If they are not providing proper oversight, you can replace them. There is power and responsibility to be exerted through the ballot box.”

Ways to Take Action

Voting your proxy as an individual investor can often seem challenging. When you receive a proxy ballot by email, or a paper ballot in the mail, the language can be technical, and it can be hard to know who is on the board, how to read a compensation package, or how to approach specific shareholder resolutions.

Behar and his As You Sow team are on the case. They have created tools to help you make your vote count, through their website As You Vote. They also annually publish a Proxy Preview and Proxy Voting Guidelines that are in March of each year, which provide analysis of meaningful shareholder resolutions and offer recommendations regarding how to vote.

As You Vote for individual shareholders (on the iconik platform) makes the proxy voting process automatic. You sign up online, and you will automatically vote all of your stock holdings according to the As You Vote guidelines. It’s a set it and forget it approach. If you prefer to do more research on your own, you can customize any ballot. You can also receive reports on your voting. If you have proxy ballots filling your inbox, you might be happy to see emails thanking you for voting instead.

screengrab from As You Vote ESG+ Proxy Voting

This system is for people who own shares of stock; those who own shares of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have assigned the right to vote their proxies to their asset manager(s). The vast majority of the time, companies like Vanguard, Fidelity, or Blackrock will with company management, which typically means voting against climate and justice-oriented shareholder resolutions.

Your asset managers aren’t terribly proactive about discussing these votes publicly, but they are required to disclose their votes. Major asset managers report their voting in a form called N-PX; they are generally published in late August and are available (somewhere) on the asset managers’ websites. They are also published by the SEC.

Moving forward, fund investors can also look for something called “pass-thru” voting. Some asset managers will allow you to submit an “expression of wish” regarding shareholder resolutions for your fractional shares. They then aggregate the stated wishes of their shareholder community and submit them via their proxy ballot.

New Thinking About Money and Its Purpose

Behar and As You Sow’s larger goal is to help you use the influence of your wealth and investments to incentivize a shift away from the extractive economy and toward a regenerative economy based on justice and sustainability.

“Do you think you have a right to a livable planet?” he asks in his characteristically deadpan way. “If you do, see yourself as an empowered person. There is so much you can do right now! Move your retirement plan assets to more sustainable options. Use the power of the proxy ballot box if you own stocks. Ask your retirement plan administrator to offer pass-thru voting. Ask yourself, ‘where do I bank? What credit card do I use? What message am I sending with every investment and every purchase I make?’”

Behar is quick to clarify that personal financial well-being — for today and for the future — is at the heart of his mission. “The actions we take today will shift capital toward a safe, just, and sustainable world. These are the baseline requirements for successful investing. It’s time to take back your power and invest aligned with your values to create a future that you want for yourself and your family.”