Whether it’s eating organically grown food, avoiding fast fashion or divesting your financial investments from fossil fuels, tobacco or companies with a track record of modern slavery, conscious consumers and investors have long voted with their money and changed the world in the process.
Investing your money can be complex at the best of times. Investing your money ethically can be even more complicated, with social washing* and greenwashing* rife.
In this Eco Chat episode I’m joined by Christopher Zinn. Christopher is a personal finance expert and consumer campaigner at Life Sherpa. He is passionate about ethical investing and believes that empowering consumers with reliable and understandable advice and information they can implement now makes life’s goals more achievable.
Christopher will share the difference between ethical and conventional investing, how to get started with ethical investing and what to look for in an ESG superannuation fund.
*Social washing = a company making misleading claims about the social responsibility of its products or services to position itself in a better light for economic gains and public image.
*Greenwashing = a company making misleading claims about the sustainability credentials of its products or services to position itself in a better light for economic gains and public image.
Podcast: Play In New Window
CHRISTOPHER’S BACKGROUND AND WHY HE BECAME INVOLVED IN ETHICAL INVESTING
I wouldn’t say that I’m involved in ethical investing. I’m very interested in decisions that people make around money and how they see money in their lives. And if they actually taking financial advice, that it is being provided in their best interest and is going to help them. It distresses me no end to hear stories of people who listen to someone at a barbecue and put all their money in cryptocurrency and lost a lot. It disturbs me to hear that people put everything into property and don’t diversify and don’t understand some of the fundamentals of investment because it’s actually not difficult.
A kid playing Monopoly knows a lot of these things. They know if you just have everything on Mayfair and Park Lane, you might get a bigger return, but there’s risk because there’s only two of those properties. That’s actually how I got my financial grounding – playing Monopoly as a kid. And many of those lessons I believe still apply, we can be playful and we can use games to help us understand.
What is ethical investing?
Ethical investing is a comparatively new term, but actually consumers have used their spending to drive social and ethical use for some time. And there’s some great examples from the slavery era, where there were sugar boycots of plantation sugar in the United Kingdom, driven by pamphlets that were a new sort of communication technology.
Now we are in an era where there are all kinds of communication and I think that is has really driven a new era of ethical investment because information can be exchanged much more easily and in more detail. Unfortunately there is so much more detail, that it’s actually harder to make decisions.
Traditionally investment was about profit maximisation and return to shareholders. And perhaps there wasn’t too much thought or worry about how that return to the shareholder was actually done. But ethical investment takes this a lot wider and it actually goes beyond what was the traditionally known as ESG, which is environmental, social and governance issues. You know, people can be quite specific. It can be about religion. It could be about veganism. It can be about climate change. It can be about things that are either very big or very small and very specific. So the choice is yours but with any of choices around financial products, you’ve got to do your due diligence.
I think the first thing, when you are looking at ethical investing, it is not just to look at the financial products, which say they’re ethical, but actually asking yourself what do you want to achieve, what am I interested in? It might be climate change. It might be modern day slavery. It might be something else very specific.
what has prompted the growth in ethical investing and ESG superannuation funds in recent years?
There is a lot more product out there in a variety of sectors, be it cars, electric, bicycles, clothes, organic food, shoes, you name it. Suddenly these ESG principles are much more important and used much more in marketing. And It think its particularly interesting with financial products. One of the claims that is made and people will see, and I saw it in the newspaper just last week, is ethical funds have better returns than standard funds. And I’m sure you’ll tell me that. And other people will tell me that, but other people will say, well, actually it depends when you measure it. You know? So when there is a resources boom, those sort of balanced funds do better than the ethical funds, but when the resources aren’t as strong, that’s when the ethical ones can do better.
It’s like many things in life, it depends on who you listen to. Ethical funds certainly hold their own. You know, there’s so many funds, there’s a number of, I mean, the number of super, uh, as, you know, having just switched, there’s only a handful of superannuation funds who are listed as strictly ethical, according to the industry body. But then there are larger super funds which have more ethical/ ESG products within them. So you don’t actually have to switch your superannuation fund. You can actually just switch your allocation within it, although depending on how pure you are, and I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense, but how determined you are. It perhaps won’t have the kind end of reach either positive or negative, such as excluding the things that you don’t like or including the things that you do like, and you want to encourage that you might get from a purely ethical fund.
And that gets back to your point on ethical investments. It comes down to really what you value as well.
What are the financial and sustainability benefits of making the switch to an ethical superannuation fund? Are there any disadvantages?
I’ll start off with the disadvantages, first of all, as we’ve mentioned before, don’t switch to an ethical fund because you are chasing a greater return cause that may or may not happen. It may or may not happen with any fund. One of the issues around ethical funds is diversification. With a standard fund, there’s a whole lot of industries that you might be engaged with like resources, but ethical stocks can tend to be more heavily weighted to tech. Now that can be good because technology’s been very buoyant, but if there’s a bust and you have all your eggs in one basket that can be painful.
It’s also argued that the costs can be high because of high management fees due to these funds doing extra work because of the screening and perhaps, as more of a boutique product, the consumer is more willing to pay for that. From the end of March 2022, there will be a lot more transparency around what holdings super funds actually have.
So that will give us more information. But again, remember the problem with more information is how we understand or interpret it or how others interpret it on our behalf. So more doesn’t always help the consumer. You have to be able to understand it in terms of the advantages. One is the negative screen. That means that your money is not invested in businesses like oil or gambling, so you can be confident that you are not backing those up in any way. And the other side of that is the positive screen. So investing in renewable technologies like Tesla, which might make you feel positive about the investment.
What other ways can individuals make sustainable investments?
There are a number of different investment options that you can find that are not based on superannuation. I would suggest looking for ratings from industry associations. With investments, you can look at impact or social impact investing. So you put your money into renewal tech company or buy shares in a start up that is trying to raise capital that has or supports your ideals for ethical investing. Have a bit of fun with it!
About Christopher Zinn
Christopher Zinn is a personal finance expert and Consumer Campaigner, Life Sherpa.
He works to replace the myths and mysteries we can all feel around money with more constructive beliefs. He believes that empowering consumers with reliable and understandable advice and information they can implement now makes life’s goals more achievable. Due to his varied journalistic experience, Christopher is a media commentator and authority on consumer affairs. An in-demand creative, he writes regular blogs and op-eds and has lectured and published on young people and consumerism.
OVER TO YOU
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