What can investors learn from businesses in the world’s biggest democracy?
In a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times, investment manager David Gait describes a meeting in the office of the chief executive of one of India’s biggest banks. He concludes, “Indian companies have much to teach the rest of the world about sustainable finance.” And it’s not just the good companies, but also the bad companies, from which investors can stand to learn a lot.
“There are many for which sustainable business practices have always come naturally, but also some with particularly questionable practices,” writes Gait, a senior portfolio manager with Global Emerging Markets & Asia Pacific at First State Investments, part of the asset management division of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. “This combination of best and worst throws up lessons for investors willing to learn.” He notes three lessons in particular.
LESSON ONE: GET DHARMIC
The first lesson has to do with Dharma. This central Indian philosophical concept comes from the Pali word “dhamma,” which literally means “that which upholds, supports or maintains the regulatory order of the universe.” Dharma refers to those behaviors that are necessary for maintaining the natural order of things—another way of expressing the concept of “duty.” Many Buddhists consider Dharma to represent the body of teachings of the Buddha.
“The global financial industry is sorely lacking in dharma,” says Gait. “Perhaps more than any other profession, it has lost its sense of purpose. Arguably this led to a dramatic collapse in the time horizon with which we allocate society’s capital as we look to generate instant returns and instant rewards, and to the steady erosion of ethics from the industry.” Indeed, capitalist myopia seems to have taken over the reins of the global markets.
And while this myopic view played a large part in the financial crisis, as well as the “erosion of ethics” that continues to fuel the Occupy Movement, it has also negatively affected the Earth’s natural environment. In his book Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner on the UK Sustainable Development Commission who teaches sustainable development at the University of Surrey, writes, “Just because humans suffer from myopic choice and find it hard to make a sacrifice now even for the sake of something better later doesn’t justify taking a view of prosperity based on more or less instant gratification.” Jackson argues that while gross domestic product (GDP) may measure economic growth, it does not take into consideration the ecological ramifications of that growth and says that it is critical to find “a credible vision of what it means for human society to flourish in the context of ecological limits.” Certainly, a Dharmic view could help to rectify this situation.
LESSON TWO: DON’T CUT OUT ESG
Gait’s second lesson is that “cutting social, environmental or governance corners costs shareholders in the long run,” a link he argues is perhaps most clear in India, “due partly to the existence of both very good and very bad companies, but also to the huge sustainability challenges facing every Indian company that cannot be ducked.”
“Poor corporate governance has brought large Indian companies such as Satyam Computers to their knees,” he writes. “Allegations of corruption, bribery and improper practices have seen the share prices of many property and infrastructure companies plummet. Poor community relations have delayed multibillion-dollar projects for years. The reverse is also true. In almost every sector the companies that have delivered the best long-term returns are the companies that have taken their environmental, social and governance responsibilities most to heart.”
India ranks 95th among 182 countries on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. While the index ranks countries according to their perceived levels of public sector corruption, the link between public sector and private sector corruption is obviously a strong one, particularly when the state is a major shareholder in a company. To wit: The Indian government is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal involving Coal India, 90 percent of which is owned by the state.
India is near the bottom on Transparency International’s 2011 Bribe Payers Index, which ranks 28 of the world’s largest economies according to the perceived likelihood of companies from these countries to pay bribes abroad. India is ahead of only Mexico, China and Russia. Make no mistake: transparency and sustainability are to be found on the same path of enlightenment.
LESSON THREE: BROAD-BASED SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
Gait’s third lesson: The best Indian firms teach us “the need to position businesses to benefit from and contribute to broad-based sustainable development.”
“It was the Godrej Group, not Electrolux, which recently launched the world’s cheapest fridge, costing less than $100,” Gait notes. “The world’s most affordable clean water solution has been launched not by Nestlé or Coca-Cola, but by an Indian fertiliser company, Tata Chemical. In almost every sector, Indian companies are blazing a trail with affordable, low-energy, development-friendly products and solutions.”
For a country of India’s size (a population four times the size of the United States), it’s not surprising to see both the best and worst examples of sustainable finance and sustainable business practices. If corruption can be tackled, perhaps the emergent Indian exceptionalism will take root. As the Buddha said, “No one saves us but ourselves.” Now if we could only get out of our own way.
 Gait, David. Dazed and inspired by Indian duty concept. Financial Times. April 15, 2012. Accessed April 19, 2012.
 Jackson, Tim. Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Ibid., 1.
 Transparency International. Corruption Perceptions Index 2011. 2011.
 Transparency International. Bribe Payers Index 2011. 2011.
 Ibid., 1.
image: Center of a Garbhadhatu (Sanskrit) or Taizo-kai (jp.) – Mandala. Adibuddha Vairochana, surrounded by four further Adibuddhas (golden) and four Bodhisattvas (white); clockwise from top: Ratnaketu, Samantabhadra, Samkusumitaraja, Manjushri, Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, Divyadundhubhimeghanirghosa, Maitreya. (Wikimedia Commons)
Reynard Loki: Reynard is a Justmeans staff writer for Sustainable Finance and Corporate Social Responsibility. A former media executive with 15 years experience in the private and non-profit sectors, Reynard is the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio that explores transnational progressivism, neo-nomadism, post-humanism and futurism. He is also author of the blog 13.7 Billion Years, covering cosmology, biodiversity, animal welfare, conservation and ethical consumption. He is currently developing the Undergound Desert Living Unit (UDLU), a climate change adaptation habitat, and is the co-curator of “Data Deluge,” an international group exhibition featuring artists and designers who use digital data, open through July 2012 at Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas. Reynard is also a contributing author of “Biomes and Ecosystems,” a comprehensive reference encyclopedia of the Earth’s key biological and geographic classifications, to be published by Salem Press in 2013.
( Article published under 3BL Media-INDIACSR partnership)