Rockefellers divest from their oily past

Rockefellers divest from their oily past

Is John D. Rockefeller rolling over in his grave? One can’t help but wonder how the founder of Standard Oil, who led America into the petroleum age, would feel about his descendants divesting themselves of fossil fuel investments. But the story that has sustainability circles abuzz is more than just an ironic headline. It’s a potential bellwether of things to come and reveals a valuable but seldom used motivator for sustainable corporate behaviors.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s decision to divest itself of fossil fuels is not an anomaly. Hundreds of investors have pledged to clean up their portfolios in similar fashion.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has taken part in DivestInvest Philanthropy, a group of investors committed to making fossil fuels prehistoric. So far, the group has accumulated assets of approximately $50 billion. In a quote addressing the irony of their decision, the Rockefeller Brothers stated, “We are quite convinced that if [John D. Rockefeller] were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.” Interesting statement.

Obviously, John D.’s perspective on this issue will never be known, but I can’t help but think the family’s estimation is correct. The future lies in renewable energy. It’s not a question of if – it’s a question of when. Standard Oil was a company born out of a vision and belief in emerging technologies. But this recent move was not a business decision alone.

Steven Rockefeller, a Rockefeller Brothers Fund trustee, said, “We see this as having both a moral and an economic dimension.” Rebecca Savastio, writing about their decision for Guardian Liberty Voice, concludes, “Organizations in favor of divestment do not want to be culpable in … climate change.”

Such environmental views from a group built on oil fortunes may come as a surprise to some, but they’re nothing new. According to the fund’s website, the Rockefellers have focused their environmental efforts exclusively on climate change since 2006, and prior to that, they had multiple investments in sustainability areas.

Thus the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announcement to cut ties to its oily past is largely a symbolic statement as opposed to a substantive change. They have been on a pro-environment trajectory for a while, and the oil industry is really not that dependent on outside investment to begin with.

That said, it’s hopefully a sign of things to come. Savastio’s use of the word “culpability” in regards to climate change was fascinating to me – in addition to moral responsibility and financial opportunity, “culpability” could be an additional motivator to accelerate corporate change.

If environmental predictions hold true, a whole lot of stuff is going to hit over the next few decades. Wise marketers will be rapidly moving themselves and the companies they represent away from the fan.

Sure, a few are motivated by moral obligation and many can be convinced of the financial opportunity, but avoiding blame, avoiding being assigned responsibility, may be a valuable new lever for those seeking to impact corporate behavior.

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Posted on

October 8, 2014

About the Author

Matt Brass

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing all campaigns and collateral. With nearly two decades of marketing design under his belt, Matt has extensive experience in design, photography and videography, as well as blogging about the latest and greatest (or worst) ad campaigns out there. He leads our team on kayaking trips, too.

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