Woody Tasch: Socialist? Terroir-ist? Celebratory Slowpoke?

A year ago, investor Woody Tasch’s book Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money might have seemed way out there. Slow money? Isn’t that like a slow race car or a slow rocket? An oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp? Suddenly, with Wall Street in shambles (the victim of too much too fast), Tasch’s vision for a more patient and holistic investment philosophy that values relationships (between people and other people, between people and the natural world) doesn’t seem so strange after all.

I sat down with Tasch and asked him to explain a bit more about his book.

Civil Eats: In the book you say “Slow Food gives us a way to engage that is proactive, even celebratory.” What does celebratory investing look like?

Woody Tasch: Let’s just say that when that answer is clear to the world then…it will be a beautiful thing! It’s funny you should ask that because I just shared a day dream with a bunch of investors in Vermont, that at the end of a Slow Money investors conference we would all be dancing together in the aisles like attendees were at the end of Terra Madre.

Right now there is no such thing as celebratory investing; there’s no such thing as investors sharing the joy of building something together and celebrating community like Amish people building a barn. May of us are, in fact, building a new, restorative economy, one bit at a time but we don’t know how to celebrate the process. No, celebratory investing is still a ways off in the distance.

CE: You discuss the economic terms “internal” and “external accounting,” with external accounting being that which takes into account “multiple stakeholders and qualitative distinctions.” Do you think that now, after the collapse of our financial system that investors are finally ready/willing to look at external accounting?

WT: The whole question of externalities, it is both aspirational and pragmatic, meaning there are a whole bunch of people right now who have been working on statistically relevant, defensible metrics that can add social and environmental metrics to financial metrics. I consider this very important incremental change, but it’s only incremental because where were trying to get to is an economy where investors are close enough to that which they are investing in that they can make qualitative judgments about it. If you were living down the street, in enough proximity to that which you were investing in, or even just knew enough about that which you were investing in, if you knew the managers of the business personally and trusted their values completely, you wouldn’t need to rely solely on quantitative metrics.

Where we need to head is away from bigger and bigger and more and more complicated enterprises, to an economy that celebrates—there’s that word again—enterprises that are smaller, less centralized, more comprehensible. We need to return to a world where people make qualitative judgments and aren’t afraid to.

CE: The word socialism comes up more than once in the book. As witnessed during the recent presidential election, “socialist” is a slur these days. What’s your take on it? Is socialist a bad word for an investor? Can capitalism and socialism be bosom buddies?

WT: You know, the phrase “social investing” is already widely used. It’s not called “socialist investing” and there’s a reason. We are reasserting the value of relationships between people and the environment as equal to economic transactions.

We don’t need to be talking about your grandfather’s socialism, we’re not trying to turn the US into Sweden but we are working hard to reintroduce social and environmental relationships into investing decisions and to say that they are essential to long term economic health.

CE: You are the chairman of Investors Circle, which has invested over 130 million dollars into early stage businesses that promote sustainability, and $25 million into organic food companies. It seems like there are two parts to slow investing –choosing slow companies but also readjusting ones expectations about the kind of growth they –and thereby you as an investor—will go through. Am I understanding that correctly?

WT: Yes, except you are throwing everyone into the same basket –there are a wide rage of approaches. On the slow end you have people who are willing to take unusually creative approaches to their returns. Financial returns are all about time; the longer you wait, the lower the return. Some people enter the fray willing to be more patient, understanding that the speed of capital is tied directly to the overall problem of economic growth, consumerism, globalization. Others want to find the next fuel cell deal and make competitive rates of return. Now, given recent events, the whole question of what kind of returns will be competitive in the coming decade is an open question.

There may well be a whole new, wider role for the investor as earthworm, rather than the investor as master of the universe.

CE: Who is your target audience for this book?

WT: I think there are several—there are social investment people who have already taken steps to do different things with their money and are looking for the next stage. There are a whole group of people involved in food and organics whether as entrepeneurs or consumers who might find the subject useful; and then, I’m hoping, there is a broader readership—either the people who read “Small is Beautiful” in the 1970s, or people who weren’t around then who can enjoy this as a continuation of that dialogue.

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