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How sustainable investing is like climbing a mountain

Envestnet co-founder and executive vice president James Lumberg reflects on why investing with the intention of saving the world is no different from ascending its biggest summits

Jan 26, 2017 @ 10:58 am

By James Lumberg

When I climbed Mount Everest, the best moment wasn't actually on the summit itself — it was well below the summit, when I first realized that my fellow climbers and I would indeed reach the top.

When climbing a mountain, progress is a matter of innumerable small steps in tandem with your companions on the journey — and being certain you are on the right path to your ultimate goal is an important goal of its own. Simply moving forward and helping those with whom you share the climb move forward as well is the best way to get up a mountain, I believe — and perhaps the best way to save the world, too.

I run a sustainable investing business for Envestnet Inc., trying to make progress against a fairly bold goal: re-directing investment flows against some of the world's toughest issues, like climate change, access to clean water, worker safety, affordable housing and many others.

James Lumberg at the top of Mount Everest
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James Lumberg at the top of Mount Everest

The time I've spent on and around the world's biggest mountains has convinced me that directing some of the world's wealth at making a positive impact is one of the best levers we have to solve our world's biggest problems.

About 10 years ago, I set a personal goal of climbing the Seven Summits — the highest peak on each of the seven continents. I first climbed (and have climbed three times) Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa. I've also climbed Denali (North America); Aconcagua (South America); Mount Elbrus (Europe) and number five, Everest (Asia), in spring 2016. Still to come: Mount Kosciuszko (Australia) and Mt. Vinson (Antarctica).

On the biggest and most dangerous mountains, you are literally tied to your fellows, an act known as the brotherhood of the rope. It always reminds me of just how reliant and interdependent we are with our fellow human beings and of the responsibility that we share for the world's well-being. On and around these mountains, I've seen too just how fragile our globe's diverse natural and cultural environments are.

I've seen how dramatically Kilimanjaro's iconic glaciers are receding, and how African children will devote an entire day to securing and bringing home a five-gallon pail of water only slightly less tainted than what's available closer to home. I've seen the residents of Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, wearing masks to ward off the effects of their polluted air, as environmental degradation touches even remote corners of the world. I've seen the indigenous people of Russia's Caucasus region displaced by the Russian-Chechen conflict, and the viability of the centuries-old way of life of the Sherpa of the Himalaya region pressured by an increasing flood of visitors.

Solutions are at work, too. Targeted micro-finance projects in the Khumbu Valley, the Sherpa's traditional home, are revitalizing that region's indigenous clothing design, manufacturing and export operations, helping the Sherpa to better sustain their mercantile culture. Fair trade initiatives are empowering a growing export market in Tanzania for coffee and cocoa, boosting that region's economic prospects. Investment approaches encouraging divestiture of global arms manufacturers are signaling the world's growing rejection of armed conflict in the Caucasus and elsewhere. And, preparing for my Antarctica climb, I've been reminded of just how beneficial an impact investment in alternative energy sources — and reduced carbon emissions — will have in safeguarding that continent's unique landscape.

The best moment on Everest was the morning we reached its South Summit, a smaller rise short of the actual summit itself. As first light bathed surrounding peaks, all my uncertainty melted away — I knew that we would make it.

Every summit is uncertain when a climb begins. Saving the world is no different. No one can say when — or if — humankind will make it. But we can all redouble our concern for our common home and redirect some of our wealth, to strive for moments when uncertainty fades and we can see that all of our efforts indeed have pointed us in the right direction, one step at a time.

James Lumberg is co-founder and executive vice president of Envestnet Inc.

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