Gore Offers 'Sustainable Capitalism' as Night-Vision Goggles for Investors

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during an interview at the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills on April 30, 2013. American democracy has been "hacked" by the influence of money in politics and that he hopes activist investors will continue to exert influence on corporations globally to act in civically responsible ways. Close

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during an interview at the annual Milken... Read More

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Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during an interview at the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills on April 30, 2013. American democracy has been "hacked" by the influence of money in politics and that he hopes activist investors will continue to exert influence on corporations globally to act in civically responsible ways.

"Bear with me,” Al Gore said to a rapt crowd of about 200 last Monday night at the fourth annual U.S.-India Energy Partnership Summit in Washington. He was asking the audience’s indulgence as he offered a scientific analogy to describe his investment philosophy.

Traditional investors focus on a narrow part of the spectrum of value that any company, or economy, produces, he said. Mainstream accounting in that way is like visible light. It’s all that eyes can see but makes up just 2 percent of the complete electromagnetic spectrum, the band of radiation that extends from high-powered gamma and x-rays to microwave and radio frequencies.

Generation Investment Management, the firm Gore founded 10 years ago with former Goldman Sachs Asset Management Chief Executive Officer David Blood, tries to widen the bands of light that it sees by incorporating sustainability analysis. It’s an approach that values environmental, social and governance criteria (“ESG”) and long-term time horizons. There’s a lot of information that’s material today — water, carbon, working conditions in far-flung suppliers — that hasn’t always been important to investors before.

“If you take the rest of the sustainability factors into account, you can get a fuller and more realistic image, and that’s what we try to do,” he said.

Generation Investment Management beta-tested its approach to what Gore and Blood call sustainable capitalism before the firm started investing client money. It’s worked so far. “Knock on wood, we have done extremely well,” Gore said.

Bloomberg News estimated Gore’s wealth last week at $200 million, in a 3,700-word investigation by Ken Wells and Ari Levy. Public filings show that in 2008 through 2011 London-based Generation racked up almost 140 million pounds ($218 million) in profits to be split among its 26 partners, Wells and Levy wrote. As founders, Gore and Blood are thought to have the largest equity stakes; the firm doesn’t disclose partnership equity or how the partners split profits, a spokesman told Bloomberg News.

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Gore cited Generation’s analysis of BP Plc as an example of their approach. “We were invested in British Petroleum, BP, when we started,” he said. The company’s CEO from 1995 to 2007, Lord John Browne, was an early climate hawk and made sustainability a rhetorical and marketing focus. After BP’s 2005 Texas refinery fire and its 2006 pipeline spill in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, Generation “looked at the safety culture and found that it had not been pushed into the American acquisitions. So we got out of BP -- before the Deepwater Horizon,” he said.

To refine Gore's metaphor, sustainable investing is more akin to donning night-vision goggles, which extend human vision into the infrared band. That’s the part of the electromagnetic dial at which bodies radiate heat. It’s the same emission band as that other invisible thing Gore is known for trying to get people to see: atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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