“Messy and disappointing”: a journey into positive investment

Friends of the Earth have been running an innovation challenge focused on how to make it simpler for people to align their savings with their values and put their money to work tackling climate change. As part of the challenge, I was interviewed by Mary Stevens, the Programme Manager, about my experience of positive investment. I wanted to invest to be part of the solution, not the problem. But despite a relatively high level of awareness of the issues and opportunities the journey was far from simple…

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Tell me a bit about your personal situation. What were your aims?

I was looking to put away £5000 as a medium-term investment. I was happy to take a bit more of a financial risk, and was also looking for a bigger return than if I just put it in an ISA. But above all I was looking to put it in a fund that would build the world we want. I know a lot of ethical funds just do negative screening — no arms or tobacco for example — and I wanted something different. I wanted my money to be actively doing good.

Where did you start your research?

I started where a lot of people do, on moneysavingexpert.com. This was great for general investment advice but I only found two paragraphs on sustainable or ethical investment and nothing that could help me. I also talked to family and friends about my options — but again, no one was able to offer specific advice on positive investment.

So where did you go to try to find out about ethical funds?

One of the first things I found was the Ethical Consumer index. But the detail of the index is only available to subscribers. And I couldn’t tell exactly what they’d based the ratings on, and whether their priorities were aligned with mine.

I also looked at the opportunities for investment and savings accounts with the providers I was already familiar with: Triodos, Charity Bank, Nationwide, Ecology Building Society. The options were OK — but there was very little in the higher risk, positive investment space. Nothing felt exciting or pioneering. The fees also felt high and I was concerned about the way Triodos uses RBS as its clearing bank. It felt like their hands were tied. [ed. Triodos is explicit about this issue on its website, explaining how limited the options are for them].

I did ask Nationwide whether they could provide any financial advice, as I have a current account with them, but the next available appointment was in six weeks, and even then the advisor did not have ‘specialist’ expertise.

What did you do once you’d ruled out investments with mainstream savings providers?

I started to investigate individual funds. For example, I knew about Generation Investment Management, because of the Al Gore connection [ed. GIM LLP was founded by Al Gore in 2004, who is still the chair of the advisory board]. But I couldn’t figure out how to actually put any of my money into it. I also looked at WHEB Asset Management as I’d come across them in a professional context previously. I had the same issue here — and wherever I looked. I also came across Impax Asset Management, via a tip-off from a relative (they hadn’t appeared in web searches). I liked their Environmental Leaders Fund, but again, I couldn’t figure out how to get into it.

At this stage I started to try to figure out whether I could work backwards. Could I find the platforms that could help me place an investment? I went back to Moneysavingexpert.com. There were about five different platforms they recommended — Cavendish online, Aviva, AK Bell, a couple of others. They were all charging different amounts and the website really came into its own here. In the end I did work out how to place the investment with Impax via one of these.

I also looked at the newer app-based platforms (Nutmeg, Wealthify, Evestor) but all of these are just passive funds (i.e. index funds, that track the overall performance of e.g. the FTSE 250) and they don’t have any model to do the due diligence on the underlying funds.

What surprised you the most on this journey?

Just how difficult it was. And how complicated it was to put money in a fund, even if you found one you wanted. I can’t believe there isn’t a good specialist website that has a good ranking system and simple guidance for how to do it. Ethical Consumer didn’t feel expert enough, it didn’t seem appropriate to apply the same methodology to investments as to a toaster or a pair of jeans.

There are some rankings, and some specialist platforms out there such as Ethex, or the Good Egg mark. Did you come across any of these?

No. I did come across 3dinvesting, but I found the website tricky to use.

What would have helped you?

I didn’t want a financial advisor conversation. That would just have been another load of fees. But it would have been great if there was an organisation with some credibility putting something out there — some signposting. A detailed moneysavingexpert.com section on sustainable investment, for example. Doing for positive investment what it does for insurance, or savings or pensions.

What advice would you give someone wanting to do the same?

It’s hard to know. Obviously I can’t give financial advice. Starting at the end point didn’t really help; even if it did provide a solution in the end I don’t know if it was the best one. Some peer networking might have helped; blogs or friends who’d done the same thing. But overall the whole process felt messy and disappointing.

Was there anything else you learned from this experience?

It’s important to know the difference between the sustainable funds the big providers offer, and real positive investment. In most cases “sustainable” just means a few exclusions of guns, alcohol, tobacco — often not even fossil fuels! I’m also concerned about the growing dominance of passive funds, especially in the newer app-based services; it removes any leverage that individual investors may have. [ed. a point this FT article also makes].

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Michael Hilton, author of this blog!

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The UK’s First Plastic-Free Coffee Packaging – The Inside Story

Last week, Percol announced they were launching the UK’s first plastic-free coffee packaging, aiming to stop 1.3 million pieces of plastic ending up in landfill each year. Was it difficult to achieve? Is it good for business? What advice would they give to other trail-blazers who want to do the same? I had a coffee with Ollie Richmond, their Trade & NPD Manager, to percolate on some of these questions…

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Q. What’s the history of Percol Coffee?

Percol is a brand with a great story. We are proud to have been pioneering ethics and sustainability since we started back in 1987. We were the first ground coffee to earn the Fairtrade mark and the first to offer organic arabica. We’ve got a long history of making sure the people and environments that grow our coffee are supported, respected and protected. We’re now proud to launch the world’s first plastic-free packaging for ground coffee and beans.  

Q. How much plastic waste do coffee drinkers produce?

The takeaway coffee market has received a lot of negative press recently over the amount of non-recyclable waste it creates, and rightly so. People in the UK throw away 2.5 billion coffee cups a year, of which less than 1% get recycled! So, how is the coffee industry responding to an ever increasing drive to be sustainable, not only in coffee shops but in consumers’ kitchens? 

Over 100 million non-recyclable coffee packs are produced and used each year – you’ll notice the ‘not yet widely recycled’ OPRL symbol on the back of ground or beans coffee packs. As a UK retail coffee brand which sells more than 4 million products a year in supermarkets, we have an important role to play in reducing the impact we are making on the planet, and providing customers with more sustainable choices – without compromising on taste, quality or our ethical sourcing.

Q. Why is Percol Coffee going plastic-free now? Does it make business sense?

Like many, we want to do more to reduce the amount of packaging (and particularly plastic) that we’re using. So we’ve looked at all our products and have taken bold steps to find sustainable packaging alternatives, starting with our ground and beans. Ultimately our aim is to give customers a plastic-free option.

Being the first has meant taking risks and the new plastic-free ground and beans packaging is significantly more expensive than what we used previously. However, we were passionate that this was the right decision to take in order to reduce our impact on the planet.

Q. What were the biggest challenges to going plastic-free? What advice would you give to others who want to do the same?

There is no silver bullet. There will always be pros and cons to any alternative solution so it’s important to understand these and make an informed decision that you think is right for your business. The best solution to one type of packaging issue may not necessarily be the same for another. With that in mind, technology and innovation are constantly improving the options available – we’ve made a decision which we think is best at this point in time but we’re open to change if a better solution comes on to the market.

Q. Did you consider a circular economy model, where packaging could be returned to you and reused?

Our new plastic-free ground and beans packaging is certified home compostable. This means the customer can throw it in their local council food waste bin where it will be industrially composted and break down in 12 weeks. Alternatively, in their home compost bin it will break down in 26 weeks.  

We feel this is the best alternative to the multi-layer, non-recyclable plastic packs on the market. Composting is nature’s circular economy and compostable packaging, when organically recycled, is a true cradle to cradle solution. Our packaging – once broken down – can be used as a soil improver.

Q. What about all the people who don’t have food waste bins? What happens to your packaging if it ends up in landfill?

We would always strongly encourage our customers to put our new home compostable packaging in their local council food bin or home compost bin. If neither are available, we’d encourage you to speak to your local council about having a food waste bin put in place for your home. The UK sent 7.7million tonnes of Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW) to landfill in 2016* – this could be avoided through increased food waste collection.

If our home compostable packaging is put in your regular refuse bin, it will go through the local waste system where it’s likely to enter a landfill or an anaerobic digester. If landfilled, the packaging will act like organic waste – such as a banana peel – which may slowly break down but is likely to remain inert due to the lack of oxygen and moisture required to start bio-degradation. 

Q. Is the aim to differentiate Percol from its competitors, or would you like them to follow your lead?

By being the first in the market to launch compostable packaging, we expect this will differentiate us from our competitors. However, we hope others will ultimately follow or innovate in this area. We would encourage others in the coffee industry to be brave and invest in sustainable packaging solutions.

Q. How much plastic will this change save?

This move will strip out over 1.3 million pieces of plastic from our business, which equates to 2-3 tonnes of plastic a year. 

*(UK Statistics on Waste Statistical Notice October 2018)

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Thanks to Ollie for answering all my questions!

Can this small start-up convince Britain to go green?

Bulb Energy was named UK Business Of The Year at the 2017 Start-up Awards. Its offering is simple; one tariff — 100% renewable electricity and 10% renewable gas — at a lower price than fossil fuel alternatives.

It has doubled in size since August and now has over 300,000 members, who rate it the top electricity supplier on Trust Pilot. Its 85 employees (up from 20 in May 2017) now occupy the top floor of Second Home in Spitalfields.

I’m a big fan of Bulb and have persuaded lots of my friends to sign up. I was keen to understand what it is like to run a fast-growing, purpose-driven start-up, so I met Hayden Wood, co-founder and CEO, to ask…

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Can OLIO become the Facebook for food waste?

The concept of the OLIO app is beautifully simple — it allows you to exchange food and other items that would otherwise have gone to waste with others in your local area who want them.

It now has over 325,000 active users, 15,000 volunteers and is available globally. Since its launch across the UK in January 2016, strangers have met over 100,000 times on their doorsteps to exchange food that would have gone to waste.

I interview Sasha Celestial-One, the co-founder and COO, to find out all about it.

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Would anyone in their right mind get the bus from Belfast to London?

It’s 2.50am in the morning on the 4th January and I’m at Manchester bus station. My journey began in Belfast 13 hours earlier and it has got another 3 hours to run. The novelty of listening to a Stuart MacBride thriller while actually being able to see the dark Scottish rain wore off long ago. It’s cold, wet and all I want to do is crawl into bed.

What on earth led me here? And am I mad?

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