How a giant of responsible investing agreed to an Israel exception

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The Morningstar website (credit: Louisa Svensson / Alamy Stock Photo)
After a multi-year campaign by Jewish groups, Morningstar—a major firm known for socially responsible investing—is softening its approach to Israeli human rights abuses.

By Mari Cohen | Jewish Currents | Jan 25, 2023

…human rights advocates warn that the policy changes are a blow to efforts to seek corporate accountability.

ON OCTOBER 31ST, the major investment research firm Morningstar, Inc. announced significant changes to the information-gathering practices of its subsidiary Sustainalytics, which gives companies social and environmental responsibility ratings. To arrive at these ratings, Sustainalytics takes account of businesses’ human rights records; accordingly, the firm has historically penalized companies that facilitate Israeli settlement construction or military aggression in the occupied Palestinian territories. Now, however, Sustainalytics was adjusting its approach to Israel/Palestine. It would cease to apply the term “occupied territories” to the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and would stop using data from prominent sources like the United Nations Human Rights Council. Morningstar promised to provide “documented guidance” to its employees stating that a company’s operations in occupied Palestinian territory should not automatically raise red flags—despite the international legal consensus, reflected in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, that companies working in conflict areas like the territories merit additional scrutiny.

To experts in what is known as socially responsible investing (SRI), these changes were troubling. The term encompasses a fast-growing set of financial practices and a ballooning industry of research firms like Sustainalytics that rate companies on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in order to determine whether they are a safe bet for investors. “This makes me doubt [Morningstar’s] competence across the entire range of social issues,” said Tara Van Ho, a senior lecturer in business and human rights at Essex Law School. “If I were an institutional investor, this kind of political manipulation of the assessment tools and frameworks would be deeply concerning to me.”

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