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  • Jake Herman

Tu BiShvat: How the Jewish community reduces corporate environmental impact


Wind turbines and solar panels

Today is Tu BiShvat, which the Rabbis established as the "new year for the trees", one of four new years in the Jewish calendar. The Torah states that a tree's fruit cannot be eaten in its first three years and thus there was a need to determine a tree's birthday. In modern times, Tu BiShvat has become a symbol of Jewish sensitivity to environmental sustainability. We are pleased to share with you highlights of JLens' environmental advocacy over the last decade and the ancient Jewish text, wisdom and tradition that has inspired our action on the most pressing environmental issues of our time.


Introduction

The mandate to cultivate, protect, and nurture the environment is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. The rabbis of the Talmud extended a prohibition from destroying fruit-bearing trees while in conflict to encompass a general prohibition against the wasteful consumption or destruction of any natural resource. Jewish tradition emphasizes that human dominion over nature does not provide a license to abuse the environment; rather we are called to “till and tend” God’s Earth (Genesis 2:15) and reminded that if we fail to do so, there will be nobody after us to repair our damage (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).


Modern interpretations of these texts apply both the prohibition on destruction and our responsibility of stewardship to the climate crisis. The unfettered burning of fossil fuels, warming of our climate, and destruction of natural habitats are in contradiction of these Jewish teachings. Inspired by this, in 2022 JLens joined 532 other investors representing $39 trillion in assets to sign the Global Investor Statement to Governments on the Climate Crisis, urging governments to implement policies consistent with a just transition limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. 


Deforestation

Starting with the Torah, Judaism has recognized the need for a communal effort to preserve our trees and green spaces. Ancient Israelite cities had a ‘green belt’ (migrash) around the outside, where trees could be planted but no construction could occur (Numbers 35:2). We can learn from this Biblical example the power of joint efforts to preserve forests and green space. 


In 2019, JLens joined an investor effort on deforestation in soybean supply chains, which represented $6.3 trillion. In 2016, JLens supported an investor coalition calling for more than twenty companies to create a joint action mechanism to fight deforestation in Latin America.


Food Waste and Justice

In its most literal interpretation, lo tashchit (Deuteronomy 20:19), the prohibition on wasteful destruction, explicitly forbids the destruction of edible fruit. Not only are we taught not to waste food, but the Torah centers food justice through the concept of pe’ah (Leviticus 19:9) whereby Biblical law instructs us to leave the corners of the wheat fields and fallen fruit of the vineyard for the poor to glean.


In 2020, JLens presented a shareholder resolution at Amazon’s annual general meeting, calling on the corporation to do more to address the issue of food waste. Amazon generates food waste in its Whole Foods operations as well as Amazon Fresh and other business lines. The resolution received 32% of votes cast, demonstrating strong support. In response, Amazon publicly committed to reduce food waste within its US operations by 50% by 2030, joined the EPA/USDA Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group, and committed to expanding existing donation programs, developing food waste reporting, and sharing progress on the company’s website.


In 2016, JLens co-filed a shareholder resolution at Costco to encourage the company to make strides in its diversion of food waste from landfills. Today, Costco aims to divert 80% of its waste, and has implemented innovative initiatives to reduce unsold food products; for example, the company turns unsold rotisserie chicken into chicken noodle soup.


Fruit at the market

Clean Water

Jewish tradition has long recognized the need to maintain sanitary living conditions (Deuteronomy 23:13-15) and prevent water pollution (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 155:21). In 2017, JLens co-filed a shareholder proposal calling on Tyson Foods to develop a water stewardship policy to address rampant water pollution at its facilities. Our proposal received 16% approval at Tyson Foods’s annual shareholder meeting, or 62% excluding votes of shares owned by the Tyson family. Tyson Foods separately agreed to significant investments in sustainable grain production and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. 


In 2022, JLens signed on to Ceres’ Valuing Water Finance Initiative which is driving large-scale change in corporate water practices through key partnerships and institutional investor engagement. JLens is a lead for engagement with beverage company Molson Coors.


Plastic Pollution

The Mishnah likens particulate pollution from agriculture to the harm caused by one’s arrows (Mishneh Torah, Neighbors 11:1). In 2017, JLens co-filed a shareholder proposal with McDonald’s Corporation calling on the board to eliminate polystyrene foam-based food service ware, which poses significant health and environmental risks. In response, McDonald’s agreed to phase out all foam packaging globally by the end of 2018.


JLens has also worked with the Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance over a number of years on efforts to reduce plastic pollution.


Carbon Emissions

Inspired by the Rabbis’ awareness of limitations on the consumption of natural resources (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 67b:14), JLens takes multiple steps to address climate change and support clean energy investments. In 2017, JLens co-filed a shareholder proposal with AES Corporation, a global energy distributor. As a result, AES agreed to assess how climate change impacts future business operations.


Since 2017, JLens has been an active participant in the Climate Action 100+ investor campaign to ensure the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters curb emissions and improve governance on climate change risks.


In 2016, JLens joined a coalition of investors with $3.6 trillion in assets under management to encourage the EPA to adopt strong regulation of methane from the oil and gas industry. This advocacy effort contributed to the successful strengthening of the EPA’s standards around methane emission.


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