If you’re reading this, chances are you are one of the many who are waking up and beginning to consider how your decisions affect not just you or your family but the world around you. You may be buying more organic food, shopping at green businesses, and supporting a range of worthy causes. But while you’re paying attention to the money you spend, do you know what the rest of it is up to?
The idea of conscious investing might make you think of oddball mutual funds or troubled solar companies. If so, it’s time to think a little more deeply. Only when you’re truly and fully conscious of your money – how you earn, spend, and invest it, and how it’s connected to the rest of the world – can you align it with the beliefs and priorities that guide the rest of your life.
Let’s back up a bit and ask: what do I mean by consciousness? A dictionary would say something like “the state of being awake and able to understand what is happening around you.” That’s actually not too far off. Being truly awake and aware is the first step, and it’s a big one. When we are fully conscious we inhabit and come to terms with the present, the moment, the all-important now. Great spiritual traditions agree that this is the only true reality. It may be challenging, but it’s only place where we can experience our authentic selves.
So far, so good. But a funny thing happens when we embrace the present. Touching the very core of our being, we realize that it’s not about us at all. It’s about everything. Everything in the universe is all connected, undifferentiated, one – ancient wisdom tells us this is “waking up”. As a practicing shaman I’m blessed to have this infinite view often, by leaving the five senses and shifting to another kind of perception. But most people have barely glimpsed this reality, and if they do they often dismiss it as something crazy. So whether they get there intentionally through meditation, or by through a moment of inspiration or crisis, it can be unsettling – so the conscious mind reasons it away as something crazy or just ignores it altogether.
Believe it or not, your money works much the same way, at least in some respects. Sure, it’s just something humans have made up, not part of the universe’s life force, and it hasn’t been backed by gold since the early seventies. But here on this planet it’s a powerful force nonetheless. It’s as much a part of you as anything else in this material world. And most of us are barely aware of how it connects us to everyone and everything else. We are asleep.
The first big step in conscious investing is simply to be aware of where we’re putting that money. That may sound obvious, but many of us don’t really know. Some invest based on recommendations from friends or family, or simple pie charts or calculators from financial providers. Other use formal models of risk-based asset allocation and diversification through some sort of advisor. But either way, our money gets lumped in with billions of other dollars, then scattered throughout the global economy.
Fully appreciating how our money touches everything, everywhere, is a lot like the more familiar kind of enlightenment. Once we become aware, everything looks and feels a little different. Why is my money trashing the planet’s environments, polluting our food, and altering our climate? Subsidizing corporations that rule by fear and greed, where top execs take home 400 times the pay of average employees? And on the flip side, what is it doing to support sustainable practices, human development, American jobs, and all the other things I care about?
The final realization is what a big deal this is. Choosing organic, fair-trade coffee this morning was a conscious investment of two or three dollars. How much bigger is your retirement fund?
Chances are that I’m preaching to the choir here. You get it. But if you’re not a financial professional, what can you do, really? Won’t investing in do-good, low-performing companies and mutual funds cost a lot more than that cup of coffee?
The good news is that much has changed since early days of ethical investing. Back then you were lucky just to find a socially responsible fund or advisor. Handing over your money felt a bit like the collection plate – giving up some financial returns for the sake of feeling good about where your money goes. These days the good guys in both investment and business are much more numerous and prominent. Many are also outperforming their peers.
A little financial analysis of some of today’s best purpose-driven companies reveals something even more exciting. A growing number of companies pay their people more, treat their suppliers well, deliver top-notch customer service, make consistent, substantial investments in their communities and the environment, and in some cases even pay more taxes. Yet a 15-year study of some of these firms demonstrated that they outperformed their peers by as much as 14 to one.
It’s nothing new. Centuries ago, a tiny minority of Quakers in England and America created business empires based on “honesty, fair dealing, and quality products.” Their success, combined with a deep commitment to doing good in the world, gave them an impact on society – from slavery to poverty to mental health – that was enormous considering their numbers.
Today there’s even more good news: we’re not a tiny minority anymore – we’re a movement. Just as the organic and fair-trade movements have gone mainstream, people are becoming concerned about the impact of their money. Bank of America research found that 45% of investors considered investing as “a way to express my social, political and environmental values.” Just as many would accept higher risks to create greater positive impacts, and nearly two-thirds would not invest in companies they consider harmful. Those numbers are even higher among women and younger people.
Unfortunately, fewer of these conscientious folks have actually reviewed their investments, much less made changes. Moving from intention to action is as challenging in financial matters as in spiritual ones. Likewise, the path is made up of small, practical steps. Here are some that you can start taking, right now:
Know the purpose of your money.
It’s a lot easier than knowing your own purpose in life, and almost as important. What do you care about? If you could control the awesome power of capitalism (and you can, in part), which problems would you aim it at?
Consider all your resources.
For example, retirement savings is often overlooked because it’s somehow considered special. To the universe, every dollar looks pretty much the same.
Find out what investments might meet your ethical and financial needs – keeping in mind that you don’t have to settle for one or the other. Do some research. Talk to a financial advisor. If you don’t like what you hear, find another one.
Divide and conquer.
Break your finances down into purpose-based “buckets.” You may have many priorities, and this is never an all-or-nothing proposition.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed or imprudent, start with just a small slice of your portfolio. See how your investments perform – and how they make you feel. Then dial it up as you get more comfortable. Keep in mind that there’s no “right” way that works for everyone.
Investing can be a fearful, stressful business for many people. There’s so much that could go wrong, and so little reassurance. Conscious investing should make you feel good – about your impact on the world as an individual, about strengthening a growing movement, and about bringing your finances into line with the purpose of your life. It’s good for the planet, and good for your soul. All you have to do is start putting your money where your heart is. Waking up is worth it!
Connecticut resident Lawrence Ford was dubbed the “Shaman of Wall Street”by the Washington Post – he lives in “both worlds”, the modern world of business and the ancient world of wisdom. Conscious Capital Wealth Management (formerly Ford Financial Group) has helped over 5,000 people with their investment and insurance needs since 1989.