Millennials on Corporate Responsibility

Investing in the Impact Generation (Part 2 of 3)

The following is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Investing in the Impact Generation,” written by Bill Davis, CEO of Stance Capital. This is the second installment of a three-part series. Read part 1.

Millennials’ Take on the Responsibility of Corporations

In a 2017 Cone Communications Research Study, the authors point out that Millennials expect companies to play a significant role in creating positive social change. Put another way, they expect the companies they work for and buy products and services from to not only have strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices, but also values that align with their own. Millennials reward companies that show effort and positive results, and they punish companies that are socially tone-deaf and insincere. [1]

Consider Under Armour for a moment. The CEO was recently ranked by 24/7 Wall Street as one of the worst CEOs in America. To be sure, this ranking is driven by financials not social issues, and given its stock has lost four to five of its value over the past three years, it’s easy to see why the CEO is on the list (at number four). But a contributing factor was his endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016 and the resulting brand impact with its younger, more educated customers. Mismanaged social issues contributed to financial woes. [2]

Another example: Papa John’s. The founding CEO was forced to resign over poor performance, which he subsequently blamed on the impact of NFL players’ anthem protest on pizza sales. Despite wide criticism of his comments, a neo-Nazi media outlet then endorsed Papa John’s as the pizza company for the alt-right, which created still more problems. But despite mismanaging the NFL’s political crisis, this company has been facing social headwinds for years. Millennials care about healthy food and thus disfavor pizza companies such as Papa John’s. And further, the CEO had well-documented world views that align with far-right politics. Again, not something to be rewarded by Millennials.

While Papa John’s, Under Armour, and others have been making bad social responsibility decisions, Patagonia took a different path and in December of 2017 strongly advocated against the Trump Administration’s decision to scale back protection of several national monuments. They subsequently sued the Trump Administration, and were rewarded with increased sales from environmentally active (notably Millennial) consumers. Today, Patagonia’s website has a section called Patagonia Action Works. Essentially, it is a portal with an interactive map that connects consumers to local grantees funded by Patagonia, tackling problems in areas such as biodiversity, climate, communities, land and water. When you buy something from the website, the very last thing you see is a page showing that they are donating 1% of your sale to an environmentally-focused organization in your local area.

Which clothing company do you think Millennials want to work at, buy products from, or invest in: Under Armour or Patagonia? The contrast isn’t always this stark, but Millennials will do their homework get to the truth, and then reward or punish brands. And then they’ll use social media to spread the word. As you read this it may seem as though I am making a political argument, but actually I am talking about risk. Companies are people and people have values, so it’s hard to keep values away from Corporate America. When politics in America was mostly different shades of the same color, none of this really mattered. But when you combine divergent values with massive buying power, and the intent to link commerce with social justice, this poses significant risk to companies on the wrong side of this generation.

Authenticity matters. While most people view brands as an extension of themselves, younger Americans are willing to pay more for products and services from companies that earn their endorsement. And the cost to the companies is authenticity, as Cone’s CSR study also points out: “Americans expect companies to stand up for issues far outside their operational footprints – from immigration to LGBTQ rights. Companies should determine if they can authentically stand up for social justice issues and be prepared to step into the spotlight.” [3]

So what does this all have to do with investing? Everything, as Millennials will want their financial investments to reflect their core values. Before we dive into this topic, let’s first examine their wealth today.

Millennials’ Wealth

As already noted. Millennials don’t have much in the way of investable assets. When the youngest Millennials graduated from college in 2017, student debt averaged $37,000. No wonder so many members of this generation are still living with their parents and renting as opposed to owning. [4]

Interestingly, Millennials are often tagged as lazy with their money for paying more for products and services that line up with their values. It’s a misleading label at best and fails to capture what is really going on, which is that Millennials are savers (but not necessarily investors), and for good reason. They’ve witnessed the Great Recession and have a mutually distrustful employment relationship with Corporate America. They’ve experienced downsizing and flat wages, and generally expect to be in a job for only a few years before moving on. Is this about the money? Sometimes, but it is often for culture or social justice reasons. The point is that between debt and sometimes self-imposed job uncertainty, saving is more important than investing. More affluent Millennials tend to buy individual stocks of companies they endorse and respect, and more often than not these are tech stocks such as Apple, Netflix, and Amazon.

In a piece last year in U.S. News & World Report, Lou Carlozo cites AARP statistics that indicate Americans over 50 hold 80% of household wealth. This suggests $30 trillion will soon pass from Baby Boomers to Millennials. As it does it will have profound effects on many parts of our economy, and significantly, the financial services industry. This is a key point, as Millennials have an uneasy relationship with financial services companies. For one thing, they lived through the 2008 financial crisis and saw first-hand how excessive greed on Wall Street decimated jobs and wealth on Main Street. In a nutshell they don’t trust big banks and investment houses, and Wells Fargo repeatedly proves to them their wisdom in this regard. [5]

Secondly, and as outlined throughout this book, technology is their friend. They believe in their abilities to learn (ideally visually) without help from anyone. Especially financial advisors. Does this mean there isn’t a role for financial services firms? Of course not, as we are one tech crash away from some important life lessons for Millennial investors. But it does mean that financial firms need to embrace consumer-facing technology, combine the user experience of a robo-advisor with hands-on responsiveness of relationship managers, and deliver it all on a smart phone.

We know Millennials are passionate about social justice, and demand that corporations align with their own values. We’ve also established that this generation is up against a wall of debt and a host of climate-related challenges that represent existential threats to their lives and especially those of their children. Interestingly, the generation that lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II most closely represents Millennials in many ways. (The Great Depression v. The Great Recession) and, (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan v. climate risk and geo-political threats.) Just as their grandparents did before them, they will rise to these challenges without losing their core values, and as they acquire wealth, they will put this wealth to good use.

Sources

[1] “2017 Cone Communications CSR Study.” http://www.conecomm.com/Research-Blog/2017-Csr-Study, 17 May 2017, www.conecomm.com/research-blog/2017-csr-study.

[2] McIntyre, Douglas, and Jon Ogg. “20 Worst CEOs in America 2017.”Https://247wallst.Com/Special-Report/2017/12/26/Worst-Ceos-in-America-2017/2/, 26 Dec. 2017, 247wallst.com/special-report/2017/12/26/worst-ceos-in-america-2017/2/.

[3] “2017 Cone Communications CSR Study.”

[4] Friedman, Zack. “Student Loan Debt In 2017: A $1.3 Trillion Crisis.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 28 Mar. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2017/02/21/student-loan-debt-statistics-2017/#d7cbbc05daba.

[5] “The Longevity Economy.” AARP, 1 Sept. 2016, www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/home-and-family/personal-technology/2016/09/2016-Longevity-Economy-AARP.pdf.

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Stay tuned for the final installment of “Investing in the Impact Generation,” where we encourage investment advisors to embrace how Millennials look at the world and help them invest in solutions that meet their visions.

This chapter is part of a larger piece of work titled “Millennials Are Not Aliens: But They Are 80 Million People Who Are Changing the Way We Buy, Sell, Vacation, Invest, and Just About Everything Else” by Gui Costin. You can purchase the book at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon.