Photo | Hana Nikčević

Gertler’s shameless greenwashing

The cover shows the sun shining on a close-up of three green shoots, just beginning to open their leaves to the sun. This is the 2016 Responsible Investing Report, released this July by the University of Toronto Asset Management (UTAM), the corporation responsible for UofT’s investments. President Gertler directed the UTAM to make this report back in April 2016, after he rejected a petition to divest the university from its fossil fuel holdings, after years of campus campaigning.

The logic of divestment campaigns is straightforward; in order to build the necessary social pressure to transition away from fossil fuels, we need to break the power of the fossil fuel industry. This means refusing to invest in this industry, and making investing in it socially unacceptable—making it clear that institutions like universities, which receive public funding to lead students into the future, can no longer put their funds into corporations that are actively destroying that future.

Crucially, because the activity of extracting and burning fossil fuels inherently contributes to climate-related damage, these injuries could not be avoided by a shareholder, like the university, attempting to change the practices of companies in which it invests.

The UTAM report attempts to sweep all this under the rug; it is a blatant attempt to cover up the fact that the university has done nothing to address its continued relationship with the fossil fuel industry. The message the administration is sending is clear: there is no cause for alarm. We can put off making difficult decisions, like moving our money into other companies, as long as we want because the university is already environmentally conscious, already “green.”

In response to recommendations to divest, Gertler published a document titled “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change,” half of which is a detailed explanation on why divestment is imperative. One would think that an essential, if insufficient, part of “taking decisive action” would involve ceasing to feed money into the primary industry contributing to climate change. However, instead of committing to any degree of divestment, Gertler’s “decisive action” was to request the UTAM report.

Despite Gertler’s claims that the Responsible Investing Report was written in the same spirit as the divestment petition—to meet the “challenges posed by climate change”—all that the UTAM commits to under this scheme is gentle discussion.

The bulk of the report outlines principles of “Environmental, Social, and Governance” factors—how a company interacts with the physical environment, the people it affects, and how the corporation itself is managed. In theory, seriously taking these principles into account when making investment decisions would prevent UofT from supporting industries that fuel injustice or cause unnecessary harm.

When we look at the report’s description of how these principles are to be implemented, however, we realize that the UTAM could conceivably fill all the goals they outline without altering in the least where their investment money is going. It lists steps that the UTAM is supposed to take when selecting and monitoring investment managers. The language used, however, never gets any stronger than “review” and “discuss.” All language that might suggest genuine intention of “decisive action” is left out; the report does not “insist” that managers adhere to these principles or “divest” from those that don’t.

“Encourage managers to adopt [Environmental, Social, and Governance] focused voting policies, where relevant,” the report says.

But what if managers decide to ignore their gentle encouragement?  The report gives no indication as to what would make a manager injurious enough to warrant the UTAM cutting off business with them, or even what the UTAM’s standards might be for acceptable environmental, social, and governance factors in a company—or why these standards do not involve divesting from companies whose “interaction with the physical environment” involves enabling runaway climate change and whose “social impact” includes condemning low-lying island nations to drowning.

This report is nothing but deceptive. The goal was never to reach a sufficient solution; it would be naïve to call these measures anything other than a deliberate attempt to distract the university population from the fact that UofT is invested in destruction. The goal was just what those reassuring, leafy images suggest; greenwashing—advertising the university’s “greenness” without accepting the systemic change the climate crisis requires. Covering the oil pipelines through which money flows into this institution with a layer of green paint.

These are not the actions of someone trying to “take decisive action on climate change,” but of someone trying to avoid doing so at all costs. They are the actions of an institution that recognizes that actually addressing the climate crisis will involve challenging our economic and political status quo—an institution that is determined not to let that happen.

Calling this report “insufficient” is beyond an understatement. But if we do not challenge it, it could very well achieve its real purpose; to smooth over controversy and lull UofT’s population into complacency. It is our job, as students, not to fall for this attempt to smooth over controversy—to resist President Gertler’s and theUTAM’s attempt to greenwash an unacceptable portfolio.