Targeting the ‘Sin Portfolio’

Students are working to stop mountaintop mining through local action

By Nell Durfee

Environmental activism is often associated with shower-needy young people sporting dreadlocks and tye-dye, with Priuses, with LEED-certified buildings and marches in the streets. But a recent trend in modern flower power is a little different: new campaigns across the country are asking citizens to use their money for social justice.

Divestment and socially-responsible investing are being used by local and national campaigns to call attention and get action from large corporations. Near Philadelphia, the most significant movements are with the EarthQuaker Action Team (EQAT) and the work of Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore College students. Both EQAT and Swarthmore students are coming at

A mountaintp mining site

divestment from the angle of mountaintop removal coal mining, an extractive industry used throughout the Appalachian region. Coal companies use explosives to break apart the rock to find coal seams; many have criticized the process as being ecologically devastating, with terrible health effects.

Though the connection between environmental action and socially responsible investing may seem blurry, both groups feel strongly that their work is an appropriate way for them to make change on the issue—locally.

“We wanted to act on a personal and a different scale,” Walter Sullivan, a former leader involved with the EarthQuaker Action Team, said on why they chose investment.

The EarthQuaker action team has focused its efforts on PNC bank, which is the top investor in mountaintop removal. Though MTR itself is often cheaper than traditional coal mining, it requires immense initial investments, which PNC lends to coal companies. EQAT’s goal is to prevent this support, which would make it very difficult for coal companies to profit.

Sullivan explained that EQAT chose PNC bank as the target as a way for them to connect to mountaintop removal in a local way. Though the coal strip mining sites are located hundreds of miles away, PNC bank has a more personal connection to the Quakers involved with the group. It is actually the merger of two separate banks, one of which had Quaker roots and was patronized by many Quaker meetings and individuals. EQAT works with people on a local level to withdraw their accounts with PNC.


Aimed at PNC Bank

“We’re not a divestment campaign,” Sullivan explained. “Divestment works by selling your stock in a company—which means that someone else has to buy it. It works on a large scale, where if many more people are selling than buying, the stock value of the company will plummet… Instead, we ask people to stop doing business with PNC, to remove their accounts.”

Divestment is more effective on the level of institutions—which is what both Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr students are attempting. Swarthmore students involved with efforts to halt mountaintop removal coal mining had a revelation similar to EQAT—while they could go to the mine sites in Appalachia, it would be more meaningful for them to work on a local level. In this case, that was their own school, which has a large investment portfolio that includes coal companies and other fossil fuels industries.

Students describe their efforts so far as a challenge, as Swarthmore guards its investments portfolio carefully.

“They were the only school to not lose money during the recession,” said junior Ben Bernard-Herman, a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice, due to their carefully monitored portfolio. Group members said that one method used in many successful divestment campaigns is the creation of socially responsible mutual funds, which allow institutions and people to invest in a host of socially responsible companies at once, without the concern that they contain morally problematic investments.

It was, in fact, the Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s divestment campaign that prompted prominent climate change activist Bill McKibben’s most recent campaign, “Do The Math,” which urges institutions and individuals to divest from fossil fuels.

The ‘Sin Portfolio’

This nation-wide campaign, as well as links to Swarthmore Mountain Justice itself, has led Bryn Mawr College to form its own divestment group. Unlike Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr’s administration has been much more open to the idea of divestment.

“The board of trustees really wants to make it into an academic argument so that we can learn about all the complicated sides to the issue,” says Lee McClenon, a student involved with the campaign. “[Bryn Mawr’s chief financial officer, John Griffith] said that historically the college has been super open to these kinds of conversations and he’s surprised they don’t come up more often.”

Haverford College, in a consortium with Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, has begun its own talks in hope of having divestment from fossil fuels within the Tri-College system. At the moment, Haverford has several student and administrative groups focused on socially responsible investing—with a very different strategy than divestment. The groups specifically invest in corporations and institutions that the College disagrees with in the hopes that consumer support and investor feedback will promote change.

“We call it the ‘sin’ portfolio,” Parker Snowe, the Executive Director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford.