In 2016, I spent some time traveling throughout the Indonesian island of Bali. While hiking in the Northern mountains of Munduk with Wayan, a local guide, we rounded a corner and he paused to motion toward the black smoke lifting out of the valleys. “The farmers,” he explained, “burn their trash because they don’t know what else to do.” He threw up his opened palms and titled his head back to mimic total hopelessness, a gesture understood in all languages. Heartbroken, we stood silently, watching dark clouds plume over the deep greens below, obscuring the blue sky and golden sun.
The farmers and local villagers in Bali have been overwhelmed by the garbage problem for some time. With a limited number of legal trash dumps on the island, only about 25% of Bali’s waste is collected through official channels. The rest is burned or left by roadsides, mountains, and waterways. Burnt trash, the hazards of single-use plastics, and lack of viable resources and education on waste management were all Wayan and I chatted about for the rest of the afternoon as we made our way down the mountain.
Later, I saw more evidence of the garbage issue as I traveled throughout the island: shorelines littered with yellowing plastic bottles, empty bags of chips crumpled along riverbanks, crushed cigarette packs and broken beer bottles strewn under palm trees. A beautiful oasis slowly being buried beneath mounds of trash.
The Indonesian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is the world's second-biggest contributor to marine debris, after China, due in large part to its mass influx of tourism. According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, there are an estimated 200,000 tons of plastic flowing into its oceans by way of rivers and streams each year. In fact, the issue is so extreme that not long after my visit to Bali, the government declared a “garbage emergency” for a 3.6-mile stretch of beach that includes popular tourist destinations like Jimbaran, Kuta, and Seminyak.
Returning home from that trip, I felt unsettled about what I had seen on the island and anxious to do something, anything, to help. I wanted to move to Bali and organize daily beach cleanups with local villagers. But how could I relocate to the other side of the world? I wanted to make a difference that went beyond my reusable aluminum water bottle and canvas grocery bags. But what? My hands felt tied as I sat down to my computer and googled ‘ways to take action on Bali’s garbage problem and water contamination’. It seemed impossible to make a difference from my home on the East Coast of the United States.
Digging deeper, I discovered the many and varied organizations tackling big environmental issues and making a substantial impact. I also learned that there are actually companies directly addressing these challenges and I could help by investing in them and creating a symbiotic relationship where these organizations and I benefit each other. Choosing to invest in socially responsible companies means that I’m able to contribute to projects like recycling plants, water treatment facilities, and repurposing companies.
I had for many years been investing for my future, but I never thought very much about who or what I was backing with my investment portfolio, whether those companies were single-use plastic manufacturers or oil refineries. I was focused solely on the financial return and not what it meant for communities around the world – those same communities piled under garbage with surfers paddling through plastics in the Pacific. The automatic investments simply came out of my bank account each month and funded stocks, bonds, and money markets chosen by a faceless investor on the other side of my computer screen.
Once I learned that I could use my money to support socially and environmentally responsible companies (while also earning a return), it took the lead as one of the best ways to participate in matters that I care about. Investing this way allows me to maximize the positive effect of every dollar withdrawn from my account and invested in my portfolio. Making money doesn’t have to come at anyone else’s expense. By choosing to consciously invest, I’m able to align my money with my values.
Investing for impact allows me to invest my money with the intention to create positive change while generating both a positive social and a positive financial return. This approach supports companies addressing the world’s most crucial challenges in areas like sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, water pollution, and accessibility to basic services like housing, healthcare, and education. It allows me to apply my hard-earned money to projects that address societal issues close to my heart, like contaminated water and a lack of basic resources in underserved communities.
Maybe I couldn't move to Bali and invest all of my time to cleaning up the island, but I could invest my money in companies who can. Or, at least, I can choose to not invest in ones that are working against the issues so close to my heart.
Check out the other pieces featured in The Current here: This giant battery saved Australia $40 million, How skateboards are changing our oceans, and Is your brain tricking you into making a bad investment?