As you sit back and think, ‘What does the man who brought me Hugh Grant at his floppy-haired best know about what I should do with my pension?’, it might be worth listening to. As co-founder of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day, a founding member of the Make Poverty History campaign, and a UN Advocate for the SDGs, he’s more qualified than most when it comes to tackling the world’s most difficult issues. His latest campaign – Make My Money Matter – promises to be the single most powerful thing you could do to save the planet. Simply put, it’s about making sure your pension is invested ethically in sustainable businesses.
So, it might be an idea to check where your money is going. After all, what would be the point in working your whole life to find out on the day of your retirement that your home has gone up in flames (and that your life’s work contributed to it)?
A ‘Road to Damascus’ moment for all pension-holders
Bronwyn King inspired this ‘road to Damascus moment’. Ten years into her career as a radiation oncologist, she describes her first meeting with a representative from her pension fund in a TedTalk watched by Curtis. She realised that four of her top five investments were in tobacco companies and that she had been unknowingly complicit in fuelling an industry she spent her entire career fighting against — one whose products were responsible for killing more than eight million people a year.
Before this, Curtis didn’t realise that his pension money was invested: ‘I thought it just sat in Gringotts and then you got a bit extra when you took it out at the end.’ If you aren’t a Potterhead, Gringotts is the bank situated in Diagon Alley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise. And from previous encounters with ‘men in suits and ties’ during the days of the Make Poverty History campaign, he had the impression that businesses were closed off from social issues – much like the goblins that fiercely protected the money in Gringotts.
Yet, suddenly he’d found that there were trillions in pensions ‘and the trillions belonged to us.’ When invested sustainably, Make My Money Matter claims that greening your pension can cut your carbon emissions 21 times more than going veggie, giving up flying and switching your energy provider. This alluring message doesn’t herald the end of eating more plant-based foods or switching off the lights, but it does highlight how making one single decision about your pension can potentially do more for the planet than decades of consistent behaviours that also intend to help the environment.
Collectively, this has had quite the impact: ‘It strikes me as being the most extraordinary thing that I’ve been involved in…In my [37 years] at Comic Relief we’ve raised £1.6 billion and I’m profoundly proud of that. But during the two years of Make My Money Matter, £1.3 trillion has been moved into sustainable pension investment [schemes]’, the likes of which include ‘green cement and reverse vending machines’, affordable housing, offshore wind and solar energy farms.
Deborah Meaden, Dragon’s Den entrepreneur and host of the BBC’s The Big Green Money Show, explains that it makes little business sense to invest in ‘something you fundamentally know in 25 years’ time is going to be off the agenda’.
She concludes that, whether your reason for moving to a sustainable pension is purely commercial or because of care for the planet, it doesn’t matter so long as we end up with more invested in sustainable pensions. The campaign has also been backed by Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, EY, Oxfam, and the WWF alongside 80 other leading organisations.
Time to define ‘sustainable’ and rebrand pensions?
As pointed out by Meaden, this is partly because ‘sustainability’ operates within a loose framework: ‘A really common thread when I talk to businesses in terms of sustainability is that they would like a level playing field because…what actually does ‘sustainable’ mean? And that gets sustainability a really bad name. That’s how greenwashing happens.’ In its absence, ‘businesses need to be transparent about what they mean by sustainability’.
Maybe the fact that some millennials are yet to read the long, excessive, make-me-want-to-gouge-my-eyes-out documents introducing them to pensions for the first time is a blessing; a rebrand to something like ‘future fund’ – as suggested by a Financial Times journalist at The Conduit event – could make them more accessible. And this idea of saving the planet while making money – ‘conscious capitalism’ – is popular given that 70% of the UK public wants it.
When Bridget Jones sees her baby scan for the first time she says, ‘I promise I’ll try and do my best. So just stay safe and snug in there while I try and sort out this mess’. Admittedly, she is referring to finding out who the father of her baby is. More broadly though, she brings home the universal instinct of self-preservation and protecting one’s own.
The climate crisis is a ‘war that is going on now’, as described by Curtis, and with ‘every tragedy that happens, every flood and fire’, we’re all the soldiers in ‘the battle [that] is being fought’. Pensions are a battleground where we can make a difference to the outcome of the war.
He leaves with a clear message – you can’t act on what you don’t know. Your pension is your money. You should be able to ask your employer or financial advisor about where your money is being invested. If it turns out that it’s destroying the planet and you ask to change that, what’s the worst they can say? No? And if they do, what arguments reallystand in their favour?
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