Don Carlson '83 on Sustainable Investing

On January 13, 2017, Don Carlson spoke to the Log Lunch crowd about sustainable investing. With the incoming administration antagonistic toward environmental regulation, Carlson’s work—mobilizing the private sector to accomplish environmental good—has become more important than ever. Carlson, who went on to Harvard Law School after graduating from Williams in 1983, has worked for Goldman Sachs, has taught at Williams College, Bard College, and Harvard University, and is an associate at the family enterprise consulting firm Lansberg Gersick. He currently teaches the Winter Study course Sustainable Business Strategies.

During his Log Lunch talk, Carlson emphasized the need to “blow up” false assumptions about environmentalism. To him, the most harmful environmental myth is that sustainability precludes profit. According to Carlson, environmentalists “don’t have to make that tradeoff between doing well and doing good.” Sustainability and profit can be joined through impact investing, which actively targets projects that benefit society.

Environmental philanthropy, often through value-aligned investing, is also important. Carlson cited as an example the Rockefeller Foundation—an organization wielding a vast amount of capital built from the oil industry—which has now divested its portfolio from fossil fuels. Essential to value-aligned investing are ESG metrics—scores that allow investors to directly compare the environment, social, and governmental impacts of various companies.

Carlson is aware that his brand of “Wall Street” environmentalism may make purists squirm. According to Carlson, many consider environmentalism to be “the good fight”—righteous combat against The Man. However, he encourages environmentalists to “join hands with The Man” through green finance.

Carlson is optimistic about the profitability of a sustainable future. He reminded Log Lunchers that the “greatest fortunes” in history were made during times of extreme change, like the renewable energy revolution he anticipates. Carlson believes that the myth of sustainability versus profitability will soon be dispelled, since Millenials “get tremendous energy out of breaking tradeoffs.”

Carlson is even optimistic about opportunities under the Trump administration. He believes that the lack of governmental support for environmental regulation and initiatives will kickstart action within the private sector.

Learn more about these ideas at next week’s Sustainable Investing Symposium (January 18th and 19th), featuring twenty-five speakers from around the world. The symposium is free and open to the public.

– Sophia Schmidt ’17