Our sustainable investment work allows us to better fulfill our fiduciary responsibilities and reinforce our commitment to the values of The United Methodist Church (UMC). This is especially true when we focus on specific issues affecting companies and people around the world—including human rights. Our perspective is guided by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Guiding Principles), which set forth expectations for how governments and businesses should act to ensure human rights are upheld. The Guiding Principles are based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which spell out 30 rights and freedoms, including the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education. The Invest—Engage—Avoid framework helps guide our longstanding human rights-focused sustainable investment activities.
Positive Social Purpose (PSP) Lending Program
Wespath’s PSP Lending Program works to promote affordable housing and community development facilities that provide access to basic necessities for underserved areas in the U.S. Wespath has invested more than $1.9 billion in U.S. affordable housing since the PSP Lending Program launched in 1990.
HarbourVest Private Market Impact Strategy
In June 2021, Wespath launched a new impact strategy in partnership with HarbourVest Partners,1 a private market-focused asset manager. The new impact strategy seeks opportunities in the private markets throughout North America and Europe. More specifically, HarbourVest looks for impact investment opportunities across five primary themes, including health and education.
External Asset Manager Oversight
Wespath closely monitors the external asset managers who invest on our behalf. As part of this ongoing assessment, Wespath conducts an annual assessment of how each of our external managers integrates sustainability analysis into their investment processes. Our annual assessment is informed by a questionnaire of every external manager, which includes questions about their alignment with the Guiding Principles. The Guiding Principles also serve as the foundation for our engagement efforts on human rights.
1 The HarbourVest Private Markets Impact strategy is held within the Special Opportunities Fund – P Series (SOF-P). Certain of the defined benefit plan assets managed by Wespath are invested in SOF-P and therefore gain exposure to the strategy. SOF-P is not available for direct investment.
Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas
Heartland Initiative provides technical support to Wespath when it seeks to engage companies and develop solutions that prevent and mitigate human rights risks in conflict-affected and high-risk areas (CAHRAs).
Wespath had directly engaged German building materials giant HeidelbergCement about human rights risks, but when talks broke down, we turned to a different form of engagement. Wespath, with help from Heartland Initiative, filed a countermotion at the company, the equivalent of filing a shareholder resolution with a U.S. company. Since the countermotion was filed, HeidelbergCement resumed discussions, hired an experienced human rights program officer and showed more openness to talking about its supply chains.
Worker Safety – Dollar Stores
One key engagement partner focused on worker well-being is the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a coalition of faith-based institutions and supporters from the asset management and advocacy industries. A recent engagement focus area within ICCR is the dollar store industry.
While companies like Dollar General and Dollar Tree play an important role in providing affordable products—particularly to low-income communities—they have faced issues related to store safety and employee well-being, resulting in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issuing fines.1
Wespath helped lead an engagement with Dollar General about workplace safety policies. A collaborating investor subsequently filed a shareholder resolution in 2023 calling for an independent auditor to evaluate the company’s policies, which passed with majority support on the first attempt.
Worker Safety – Meatpacking Plants
Meatpacking plants were an especially dangerous place to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 COVID-19 outbreaks were attributed to unsafe working conditions in the plants.
The FAIRR Initiative—an investor network that works with institutional investors, including Wespath, to help manage sustainability risks and opportunities in the global food sector— responded by creating a campaign to engage seven of the world’s largest meat processors on their working conditions. Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms and Smithfield Foods parent company WH Group were among the companies.
FAIRR and its member investors, including Wespath, focused their engagement on three topics that each serve to elevate workers’ voices: health and safety, fair working conditions, and worker representation.
Human Rights Exclusion Guideline
To assist in identifying and managing financial risks related to climate change and human rights, Wespath’s Board of Directors adopted policies on the Management of Excessive Sustainability Risk (MESR).
On the issue of human rights, Wespath partners with Heartland Initiative to assess all the companies in our investment portfolio for human rights risks. Heartland Initiative’s research, insights and experience— along with other proprietary analysis and data from industry-leading providers—help Wespath identify investments facing excessive human rights risk. We may exclude these companies, as well as the sovereign debt of countries demonstrating a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights abuses, from investment.
As of August 31, 2023, we excluded 43 companies and the debt of 12 countries under the human rights guideline.