Investing for a Better World

There is more to investment returns than money.

Imagine what we could accomplish if each one of us invested even a small amount of money towards making the world a better place to live now and in the future.

Before we get started, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that you invest any amount of money in any particular way. It is your money so you are the person best equipped to determine if and how you want to invest it.

My goal for this post is to you encourage you to think about your own investing philosophy and to evaluate whether it aligns with your values and the world in which you want to live.

Until the last ten years or so, I would say my investment focus was on growing my money (return) and trying to avoid losing it (risk). I am not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a rather narrow way of looking at financial investments.

I cannot pinpoint any particular event or even a year when my view of what constitutes an investment began expanding but I think it co-evolved with my desire to live more lightly on Earth.

For instance, in 2013, my spouse and I invested in a rooftop solar panel system for our home. Mostly we wanted to help build renewable energy capacity in our community; however, the free electricity down the road was also an enticement.

We joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op in 2014 because we wanted to buy and eat delicious organic food and support local and regional farmers and food businesses.

After talking about it for years, in 2015, my spouse and I finally rolled our IRAs out of traditional bond and equity mutual funds into fossil fuel-free socially responsible investments. In this case, our goal was to invest in companies and organizations that are screened for environmental, social, and governance performance as well as risk and return criteria.

Last year, we began looking for a small investment opportunity where we live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. Two weeks ago, this quest landed us in an all day Saturday workshop entitled Align Your Financial Portfolio with Your Values hosted by Slow Money San Luis Obispo.

That day I realized something that I think has been percolating in the back of mind for some time. There is an investment space between charitable giving and traditional investing.

Financial people refer to this as impact and/or regenerative investing. I like to think of it as making-the-world-a-better-place investing.

Before we talk about the workshop and regenerative investing, it will probably be helpful for you to have a bit of background about the Slow Money movement.

Slow Money Movement

The Slow Money movement is led by the nonprofit Slow Money Institute whose mission is catalyzing the flow of capital to local food systems, connecting investors to the places where they live and promoting new principles of fiduciary responsibility that “bring money back down to earth.”

They accomplish this through a variety of approaches including public meetings, on-farm events, pitch fests, peer-to-peer loans, investment clubs and, most recently, nonprofit clubs making 0% loans.

Slow Money SLO Farm to Buyer Mixer Event Sign

Slow Money groups are independent organizations that adhere to Slow Money principles and facilitate investments and loans within their community and region.

I met Slow Money San Luis Obispo founder, Jeff Wade, at a Central Coast Bioneers conference last November and signed up for the email newsletter list. When the workshop announcement landed in my email inbox, I knew I wanted to go so I talked my spouse into attending and signed us up.

Values-Based Investment Workshop

Marco Vangelisti

Our instructor for the day was Marco Vangelisti, a founding member of the Slow Money movement. For a mathematics whiz and former investment manager, he was a surprisingly down to earth and humorous speaker and kept me engaged throughout the day.

Some of the things we learned during the workshop included how in traditional investing a tree only has value once it becomes lumber, how banks create money using accounting entries, and how corporation stock prices are inflated because they benefit from free ecosystem services provided by Mother Nature.

Marco gave us a crash course in portfolio management and due diligence. He explained regenerative investing and gave us examples. We also talked about direct investing, which is where you make an investment directly with an entrepreneur or business.

Investment Compass

Just before lunch, Marco asked us to determine our personal investment compass. He handed out pieces of flip chart paper and colored markers. Using my limited artistic skills, I drew my investment lens (see featured image at top), which are things I consider now when making an investment.

The SLO Natural Foods Co-op prepared a delicious lunch for us and Jeff provided reusable coffee mugs, napkins, and tableware in the interest of making the workshop a low impact event.

Regenerative Investing

The word regenerate means reborn, renewed, restored, reformed, and reestablished. Regenerative systems keep going indefinitely.

When you make a regenerative investment, you are purposefully investing with the intention of generating a positive social and environmental impact.

The main return is not financial. It is things like bringing a grocery market to an inner city food desert, helping a young organic farmer obtain access to farmland, or enabling a school to install solar panels over their parking lot.

Regenerative investing is democratizing investing because it enables people to make small investments (as little as $25) or large ones and gives a wider range of entrepreneurs and businesses access to financial capital.

You might get your money back. You might get your money back with a small amount of interest. You might not get your money back at all. This is true for other kinds of investments, too.

As we were wrapping up the final Q&A session of the workshop, Marco asked each one of us to tell the group one thing that we learned or got out of the workshop.

Colorful Handprints Surrounding Earth
Shutterstock/Holmes Su

The idea that stuck in my mind is that when you make regenerative investments you are investing in “livable future insurance” for you, your children, and people of the future.

I hope reading this post challenged your view of what constitutes an investment return and inspires you to create your own personal investment compass.

Featured Image at Top: This is my investment lens drawing from the workshop.

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Are High-Efficiency Toilets Worth It?

You can choose to conserve water.

What if conserving water was as easy as flushing a toilet? It is if you replace your old water hogging probably leaky toilet with a high-efficiency model.

A toilet replacement project may not be high on your list of priorities, but perhaps it should be.

The first day of spring is just behind us and here on the California Central Coast, a green blanket of grass covers the hillsides and the wildflowers are just beginning to show their colorful faces. It was a good rainy season for us meaning we received about the historical average rainfall for our area.

Yet, I am aware that another drought will occur in the future and that global warming will continue to make many regions like ours hotter and drier putting even more stress on already depleted water supplies.

This may sound weird but I usually have water on my mind more during the rainy season than the dry summer. Last March I wrote a series of posts about water conservation entitled Why is Now a Good Time to Implement Water Saving Ideas?, Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Indoors, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

This March I decided to tackle the unglamorous topic of high-efficiency toilets because toilets are notorious water wasters. Old toilet models use a whopping 3-8 gallons per flush (GPF) and they are prone to leaking. Also, in the United States, we mostly use potable water, which is water that has been treated to drinking water quality, for flushing toilets.

Toilet efficiency did get a boost when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Most of the law relates to energy but there is a provision to establish the first-ever federal water efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures like toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets. Toilets manufactured after 1994 are required to use 1.6 GPF or less.

Some of the early low flow toilets had performance problems that resulted in people flushing toilets twice defeating the purpose of using a water-efficient toilet. Fortunately, toilet designers unleashed their creativity and now 25 years later, high-efficiency toilets get the job done consistently with even less water.

Residential Indoor Water End Uses Pie Chart (Percentages and Gallons)

A 2016 Water Resource Foundation study found that each person flushes the toilet on average 5 times a day at home, which represents about 24% of residential indoor water use. (Image showing percentages and gallons – DziegielewskiBA – Wikipedia.)

By replacing your old leaky toilets with high-efficiency models you can reduce the amount of drinking water your household flushes down the toilet, conserve water, and save money on your water/sewer bill.

The balance of this post covers my family’s experience with high-efficiency toilets and provides a list of things to think about before you start your own toilet replacement project.

Deciding to Invest in High-Efficiency Toilets

Our mission to conserve water in our household began shortly after we moved here from Southern California in 2007. Originally, we focused on creating a drought-resistant yard and as our aging appliances needed replacing, we purchased water and energy-efficient models.

In 2013, when our water district banned outdoor watering with potable water, my spouse and I realized we needed to ramp up our water conservation measures.

One of the things we did was to implement an “if it is yellow, let it mellow” toilet flushing policy. This saved water but it did not seem like a good long-term strategy. Putting bricks in our toilet tanks or installing retrofit kits did not seem like ideal solutions. We also discovered that our toilets were leaking (see below for instructions on how to check for leaks).

My family strongly objected to my suggestion that we consider switching to composting toilets and to be honest I was not ready to make that leap either.

After I had thoroughly researched high-efficiency toilets, we decided to replace our three old leaky toilets. It was a considerable financial investment but the water savings over the past 4 years and 4 months have been and will continue to be significant for years to come.

Our High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Project

We opted for a Toto Connelly dual flush model with a lever versus a button. The toilet user pushes the lever one way to flush with 0.9 gallons of water and the other way to flush with 1.28 gallons of water (there is a label on top of the toilet tank). The lever design prevents over flushing.

Our cost per toilet in 2014 was $808 less a $25 rebate from our water company for a net cost of $783. This included the toilet, a toilet seat, small parts needed for installation, sales tax, installation, and disposing of the old toilet.

Performance

High-efficiency toilets use gravity-assisted technology to flush the contents down the toilet with substantially less water than older models. Our toilets perform adequately and consistently. It does help to toss toilet paper in the deepest part of the bowl but this is an easy habit to learn.

The extremely hard water our household receives is tough on plumbing fixtures including faucets and toilet guts. One of our toilets required a replacement part a few months ago. Even without hard water, you should expect that any kind of toilet might need maintenance from time to time.

Cleaning

A special material coats the toilet bowls to keep them clean with less water but skid marks do occur occasionally. Toilet cleaner manufacturers have programmed us to believe that our toilets should always be sparkling clean so if you feel uncomfortable with skid marks you can easily clean them off with toilet paper, a water spray bottle, or a sponge.

To protect the special finish in the toilet bowl manufacturers recommend that you do not use abrasive cleaners or toilet brushes (plastic is okay) and do not put automatic toilet bowl cleaning disks inside the bowl.

For cleaning the toilets, I don rubber gloves, squirt toilet bowl cleaner in the bowl, and use our designated toilet cleaning sponge to clean it. I find this is easier and quicker than using a toilet brush.

Payback Period

A payback period is the length of time it takes an investment to recover its initial cost either in profits or savings.

For reasons, I do not fully understand there seems to be an expectation of a payback period for some home improvement projects like installing solar panels or high-efficiency toilets but not for others such as remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.

I am willing to play along if it helps you with making a decision to replace your old toilets. My family of four refused to participate in a toilet flushing study so I used five flushes per day in my analysis. Here are our results for replacing three old leaky toilets with high-efficiency toilets.

The total cost of the toilet installation was $2,349 divided by an estimated annual water savings of 502 gallons = a payback period of 4.7 years.

Our toilets are dual flush models that use less water overall so we have probably already passed the payback threshold.

You can do your own analysis using the Excel spreadsheet I created for our project.

Tips for High-Efficiency Toilet Replacement Projects

Whether you have one toilet to replace or several, buying and installing a high-efficiency toilet is not an inexpensive project so you will want a toilet that works and will last for many years. Here are a few things to consider for your own project.

  • Do your homework so you can select a model that is suitable for your household. Read reviews and watch videos made by manufacturers and high-efficiency toilet fans.
  • Beware of unnecessary bells and whistles. Do you really need a toilet with a sensor that flushes the toilet when you pass your hand over it?
  • Do not buy a cheap model. In the world of toilets, you get what you pay for. There is a wide range of high-quality toilets on the market so chances are you can find one that fits in your budget.
  • Do not buy a toilet online. Toilets are made of vitreous china and are prone to getting hairline cracks during shipping. Imagine the hassle of shipping a toilet back to the manufacturer or even worse not realizing that it will leak.
  • Unless you are a plumber, hire a professional with experience installing high-efficiency toilets.
  • Contact your water company to find out if they are offering rebates (every little bit helps).

Pay It Forward

When you sell your home, include your high-efficiency toilets as a selling point.

If you live in a municipality (I do) that requires new homeowners to certify that their home is retrofitted with high-efficiency plumbing fixtures you will have saved potential buyers the inconvenience of doing it themselves while they are trying to move into their new home.

High Efficiency Dual Flush Toilet Top Flush Label
The handy label on the left side shows toilet users which way to push the vertical lever mounted on the left side of the toilet (backward for 0.9 GPF and forward for 1.28 GPF).

After reading this post, I hope you feel more informed about high-efficiency toilets and are at least considering replacing your old water guzzling and possibly leaky toilets. Once you do, you will be conserving water every time you flush your toilet.

I realize that this may not be a good time for you to embark on a high-efficiency toilet replacement project for a variety of reasons. If that is the case, there are plenty of other actions you can take to conserve water at home. The posts below in the resources section provide a variety of ideas including actions that are easy and low or no cost.

Featured Image at Top: Low water levels at Lake Mead, which is a man-made lake on the Colorado River – photo credit John Locher/Associated Press. When full, Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States. Click here to read the article that accompanies the photo.

How to Check Your Toilet for Leaks

Leaking toilets waste water and money. Here are two easy methods for determining if a toilet is leaking.

  1. Turn off the water valve behind the toilet. After an hour or so, check the level of the water in the toilet bowl. If it is lower or the bowl is empty your toilet leaks.
  2. Put 10-15 drops of food coloring in the toilet tank. After 20 or 30 minutes, if you see color in the toilet bowl your toilet leaks.

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