Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business! — Charles Dickens
Tax time means looking over the year's financial records, and deciding what—if any—new strategies to undertake in the future. Granted, investing in one's future assumes that there's a future to invest in. In 2008, for the first time in a long time, mainstream consumers took a long look at the global economy and what makes it work. Like Dorothy having peeked behind the curtain, they're understandably disillusioned. But at WorldChanging, humanity is our business—and so, therefore, is the future.
This year, my husband and I decided to investigate green, ethical investments. For us, that meant looking at companies like Ethical Funds, which uses shareholder power to hold companies responsible for sustainability goals. This, they argue, is better than "social screening" portfolios, which organizations like the Jantzi Social Index do by establishing sustainability and ethics benchmarks for publicly-shared companies. Both these services offer their own mutual funds, which are RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan) available. For Americans interested in green mutual funds, there's Pax World, a company featured on The Colbert Report who dumped their shares in Starbucks because of the coffee giant's alliance with the Jim Beam group to produce a liqueur line.
Of course, not all these funds are equal. Like any investment, socially responsible investment (a trend so hot, it now has its own acronym—SRI) requires that you educate yourself on what exactly is in the fund, and what criteria each fund uses to decide on the contents of a portfolio. And it's important that you make priorities before making a decision. Some "green" or SRI funds still hold shares in the Alberta oil sands. Is that a dealbreaker for you? If not, what is? Having these priorities will make choosing a fund much easier. Of course, for many Canadians it's probably too late this year to make significant changes to an RRSP. But familiarizing yourself now with these funds (and finding the vendors who will sell them to you) will prevent headache later, and will also give you an opportunity to chart the growth of various funds over the next year. For more information, check out these four books on responsible investment.
Then again, you might not want to change your investment strategy at all. You might not have the disposable income, or you might be nearing retirement (or about to be forced into it). You might be utterly frustrated by your schizophrenic 401K. If so, it might be time to take a more holistic approach to investment.
Canadians can contribute to RESP's or CESP's, which take the retirement fund strategy to education planning. In the States, these are called 529 plans. The market may plummet, but investing in a student's future now lessens their vulnerability later by increasing access to education, sheltering parental income, and reducing the debt load a student carries in the form of student loans.
If you're thoroughly unconvinced of value of money, then it's time to invest in yourself. Alternative currencies are growing in popularity, but they rely on skills for exchange. If you don't have any, it's time to learn some. Start with practises that directly impact your health and your community: learn to garden, and involve your friends. The American Community Gardening Association will give you some pointers on how to start. Extend this principle to exercise, home and auto repair, and cooking in bulk: they are all long-term investments in both community cohesion and collective intelligence.
All successful movements, from pirate bays to political protests, rely on supportive communities which, as Gottfrid Warg says, have "a life without us." Similarly, the discourse surrounding stock markets consistently characterizes them as having a life of their own. But that life is informed and shaped by individual participants—protesters, pirates, and even pensioners. Though your investments may be "but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean" of global business, they still represent your speculation regarding the future. And the future is everybody's business.