David Prosser: The cost of staying true to your principles

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The Independent Online

Outlook To lose one ethical investor is unfortunate. To lose two looks like carelessness. After the Church of England sold its Vedanta holding a fortnight ago, citing the mining giant's approach to human rights and the environment in India, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust did exactly the same thing yesterday.

Still, both stakes were relatively small and Vedanta, embarrassed though it may be by some unpleasant headlines, is unlikely to lose too much sleep over the departures of these shareholders. Indeed, the debate may now be about the practises of socially responsible investors than the behaviour of Vedanta itself.

By selling out of Vedanta, Joseph Rowntree and the Church of England have conceded that engagement with the company has not worked. For many years, shareholders with a mandate to consider ethical issues when making investment decisions, have justified taking stakes in companies such as Vedanta on the grounds that you stand more chance of achieving change from within.

By contrast, the most hardline ethical investors completely avoid businesses involved in activities of which they disapprove. The engagement camp, though, is much larger.

Joseph Rowntree says it has spent nine months trying to convince Vedanta of the error of its ways. Yet it never had the clout to achieve much – most other Vedanta shareholders have no ethical investment brief.

Having seen its attempts at engagement result in little change at Vedanta, Joseph Rowntree will have to think hard about whether other investments are also failing to deliver change in line with its principles. And many other investors will question whether their decision to engage with troublesome companies is worthwhile.