Using Socially Responsible Investing to Combat Obesity

This article was first published on LinkedIn on June 24, 2019.

The latest news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is disturbing: the death rate from cardiovascular disease has fallen only 4% since 2011. In contrast, it dropped about 70% over the past 60 years. Decades-worth of anti-smoking campaigns and clinical steps to prevent heart disease, like the use of statins, are being undone because Americans are increasingly overweight. Seventy percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Forty percent of us are obese.

Obesity is doing more than contributing to a problem with heart disease. Millennials are developing cancer a much younger age than previous generations and obesity is the culprit. The condition correlates to practically every chronic disease, including hypertension, diabetes, depression, osteoarthritis and even sleep apnea. We keep getting heavier despite reports that being obese is literally killing us.

What is it going to take for Americans to reverse this deadly condition? No doubt we have to acknowledge the many challenges that contribute to it – like food deserts where it’s hard to get healthy food; income inequality which drives the purchase of super cheap food that’s not nutritious; low levels of education about what comprises a good diet; lifestyle challenges that limit how much time we have to shop for and cook our own meals; and maybe the biggest issue, which is the cultural acceptance of obesity. Because most of us are overweight, the condition is now normal. As a result, it is socially and politically toxic to criticize the condition.

But we can’t use these explanations as excuses. Accountability for health outcomes must be shifted back to the individual because for most Americans, obesity is a preventable condition. We must find ways to change our behavior so we can improve our quality of life, enhance our productivity and lower costs.

So here’s an idea. What about leveraging socially responsible investing to reduce obesity?

Socially responsible investors direct money to what they consider to be ethically positive companies, and they steer money away from those that aren’t. According to The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing, one out of every four dollars under professional investment in the U.S. has been directed to these strategies. That’s about $12 trillion. Socially responsible investors are willing to accept a lower return in their portfolios because they believe that supporting companies which share their personal vision provides them with incremental, unquantifiable value. Improving the environment and limiting funds available to tobacco companies or gun manufacturers are popular initiatives. What if these investors stopped investing in companies that they believed promoted obesity?

Consider this…last October, Cosmopolitan ran a cover featuring an obese model, Tess Holliday, in a bikini. Some people thought it was an empowering image. Other people, like Piers Morgan and me, considered it an inappropriate celebration of obesity used to drive up magazine sales. Cosmopolitan is owned by Hearst Communications, which is a private company. But it has partnerships and relationships around the world. There are many ways investors could block such relationships, like pulling money out of Walt Disney for partnering with Hearst. It might make Cosmopolitan, and other Hearst publications, like Elle, think twice about their cover girl choices in the future.

Taking the example even further, what if investors took action in response to images depicting obese people eating unhealthy snacks? Such images could be viewed as reinforcing negative behaviors that promote obesity. Maybe the advertising agency that came up with the campaign would lose investment dollars or potential clients. Maybe the food manufacturer’s stock would take a hit. Or both. The potential to use socially responsible investing to address the obesity crisis is enormous.

We have to embrace alternative means to combat obesity in America. Our physical and financial health depend on it.

If you’re interested in learning more about the obesity crisis, please listen to my podcast “America’s Tragic Normalization of Obesity” featured in The Powers Report Podcast.

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