What defines a people’s wealth? What comes to mind at first are material, monetary possessions; valuable resources; property that has an exchangeable value. These meanings have been embedded in the common understanding of wealth since well before Adam Smith’s treatise from 1776, and up until our modern days. There is, however, a growing sense that what makes us feel wealthy is not always easily expressed in simple monetary terms.
Companies have recognized that much of their intrinsic value is immaterial. The often-quoted Ocean Tomo study on the share of intangible capital in corporate valuation has been recently updated and seen the portion of intangibles rise again to a staggering 84%. Governments have started enquiring into more sophisticated ways of measuring national wealth, moving beyond the simplistic calculation of Gross Domestic Product. People in developed democracies venture into flexible and shorter working arrangements allowing them to invest their time into things that do not necessarily make them wealthier in the common sense of the term.
Why this generalized trend of seeking wealth beyond the simple pursuit of monetary profit? While money has drawn an incredible amount of time and power from people over many centuries, we have come to realize that the very foundations on which this pursuit relies are being threatened. The diversity of fauna and flora on our planet – commonly referred to as biodiversity – is being menaced by the 6th global extinction wave since our planet’s known life as a result of the overexploitation of natural resources. Its immense economic value has only been recently discovered and demonstrated. The diversity of human population in terms of gender and race is slowly being acknowledged as a true value on which we can build our economies. Investors have come to realize that it actually contributes to better financial results. Those two aspects are frequently in the spotlight of both policy makers and markets, and are being addressed by increasing regulations and innovative business practices (both positive and negative).
There is however one aspect of diversity, more ancient andmuch more distant from anything exchangeable and monetizable, that is facing extinction. Ethnodiversity, or as we can define it, the cultural diversity of the human population, is shrinking at an alarming pace, ever since globalization has reached the most remote areas of the planet. We rarely speak of it, and rarely think of why the very different cultures, traditions, languages and world views of different ethnicities would have any value to us, or to our children, worth preserving.
“The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy”. With this statement, Wade Davis, an anthropologist and National Geographic contributor, raised concerns over a decade ago on the threat facing our planet’s ethnodiversity. He warned that this silent extinction was occurring at a far greater rate than was commonly understood: 50% or more of all “species” or ethnicities in human society are at the brink of extinction, with the disappearance of languages the most prominent sign. While a few decades ago, there were roughly 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, today half of them are no longer taught to babies, leaving their remaining living speakers the last of their kind on Earth. Every two weeks, according to Davis, somewhere an elder dies, taking a language into history. We have lost so far 24% of the world’s language diversity, and this trend has accelerated since 1950. Languages are not only grammatical constructions, they are also a particular way of seeing and understanding the world, and their diversity has fueled progress and innovation over the centuries as we know it today. While their disappearance may go unnoticed by developed monolingual economies, it might mean a real loss of value for future generations.
What do the ethnosphere and ethnodiversity have to do with sustainable investing? Many of the discoveries behind some innovative and sustainable business models have been made thanks to the different kinds of knowledge embedded in different cultures across the globe. In the pages of our Journal of Sustainable Finance & Banking, we have featured some of the startups capitalizing on that knowledge such as Runa Tea, built upon an Ecuadorean indigenous people’s beverage recipe. Prominent cosmetics brands, like Natura, or Shiseido, also rely on this kind of knowledge, coming from the ability to see nature differently, to discover and benefit from the amazing resources available on our planet.
Ethnodiversity is therefore an important piece of the sustainability puzzle that responsible investors need to address. However, it is precisely in corporate “local development” plans that ethnocide might happen. When companies build facilities in remote regions where indigenous people live, they build roads, schools, modern housing, claiming that this contributes to local development. Ethnocide is not condemned, it is celebrated as a development strategy, says Davis. Rarely have companies tried to imagine a progress made to measure for local populations, integrating ethnodiversity in their impact investments, and not destroying it.
Protecting ethnodiversity does not equal conserving it as is. As Davis underlines, “the problem isn’t change or technology” – all cultures have experienced change and amassed their knowledge thanks to it. The NGO Survival, dedicated to protecting indigenous people, describes human rights of indigenous people as the right to decide what kind of “development” and “progress” they want. Even if in reality this can be difficult to accomplish, it merits inclusion as an explicit criterion of responsible investment. Many companies already invest in preservation of material cultural heritage – historic sites, artifacts etc. Investing to preserve the intellectual treasure of diverse cultures is equally important. If we do not integrate this into our search for sustainability, Margaret Mead’s greatest fear might come about, “as we drift towards this blindly amorphous generic world view not only would we see the entire range of human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought but that we would wake up from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities.”
On occasion in the Cornerstone Journal of Sustainable Finance & Banking (JSFB), we offer thoughts on a “Featured Domain,” which is selected from our proprietary “Sustainable Domain Bank.” The Cornerstone “Sustainable Domain Bank” contains hundreds of urls which are an articulation of business processes, business practices and aspirations for a more regenerative form of capitalism. Many of these domain names have the potential to be developed into business plans reflecting a robust interpretation of sustainable capitalism and finance. In particular, each “Sustainable Domain” captures a principle or reflects a value inherent in the systematic understanding of the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) imperatives facing businesses and the economy today. Each Domain is intended to facilitate dialogue across functions and sectors of the capital markets; and each is available for collaborative partnership, purchase or transfer should it have particular appeal to Cornerstone clients and colleagues.
Margarita Pirovska, PhD, is Cornerstone Capital Group’s Policy & Sustainability Analyst. Before joining Cornerstone, she was a Project Manager at GDF SUEZ in the Sustainable Development Division with a focus on sustainable business development, ESG rating analysis, and external outreach to organizations like the United Nations, OECD and B20/G20. Prior to this, she was an Economist & Policy Analyst at the International Energy Agency (OECD), an Advisor at the office of the CEO of GDF SUEZ Energy Europe, a Market Strategist at Gaz de France, and a Research Fellow at the Center of Geopolitics of Energy at the University Paris Dauphine. Margarita has a Ph.D. in Economic Science from University Paris Dauphine, a Master’s in Industrial Organization and a BA in Applied Economics.