One of the first questions financial advisers ask when working out a plan for your money is this:
‘What are your goals and hopes for the future?’
This would cover all sorts of dreams and ambitions. Would you like to own your home? Would you like to be able to send your children to private schools? Is your vision one of retirement cruise ships and sundowners, or day trips to the seaside and nice cups of tea?
One technique they use is to then work backwards – to figure out what you need to be doing with your money now to make your aims achievable.
But there are two aspects to investing for the future you want – the second of which I think can be overlooked.
Oops: There’s something that can be overlooked in investing, that’s arguably worth thinking about
Sure, one is coming up with a plan to make sure your money will stretch to the things you want when you want them.
But, the other is investing in the things that will help make that future possible.
For example, do you want to live in a country with thriving smaller businesses? Support some by investing in them.
Do you want to live in a world with cleaner air? Invest in renewable technology.
Do you want your children to have access to job security? Screen out companies that do not prioritise workers’ rights.
I can’t see that there is any distinction between investing in my own future and the future of the place I hope I will be living in.
I know that I’m hardly going to change the world with the few hundred quid I have to invest.
But collectively, we have trillions in investments, and the decision over what we all choose to put our money in is one of the greatest powers that we have.
As consumers we make decisions every day about where we put our money – where to shop, what to buy – and there are standards from the Red Tractor logo to ‘Made in Britain’ to free range and Fairtrade to give us the information we need to make our own choices.
As investors we have the same powers over how our money is used. Any of us with a pension, stocks and shares Isa or other investments are making decisions about what are money does, even if we do nothing.
Of course aligning money with values is not all straightforward. For a start, our notions of ethical or socially responsible or ‘green’ are subjective.
For example, a fund may screen out so-called ‘sin stocks’ – which may include firms that sell tobacco, alcohol, gambling or arms – but invest heavily in fossil fuel companies. This would suit some people’s values, while others may have no problem profiting from drinking and smoking but have concerns about burning more carbon.
Some may screen out things they consider unethical, others actively invest in things that create social good.
There may also be investments that are not dressed up as ethical, but that fit your own values, for example funds that invest in small businesses.
You can’t just ask to invest ethically and leave it up to the experts and hope that your values match up with theirs. It also requires you to consider your stance on different issues that are often far from black and white.
Then there are other layers of complexity.
Some argue that by not investing in ‘sin stocks’ you are helping to make them cheaper and therefore more attractive to other investors.
Growing your funds: Is there a way to do it to help support other things that matter to you too?
Others suggest that you could do more good by just targeting the highest returns you can and then giving money to the causes close to your heart.
Another group believes you should invest in companies you have concerns about and then put pressure on the board as a shareholder to make changes.
These are all things to consider, but to me none of them warrant throwing in the towel and giving up on trying to help shape the future you’d like to see.
Now what about returns? Surely by restricting the scope of your investments you can’t possibly make so much?
There are plenty of studies that claim to prove you can. There are also those that say you can’t. At this juncture I could just spout either. That feels pointless.
Call me naïve, but I like to think that over the long term, sticking to a few values pays off.
Investing in staff leads to lower turnover and better performance, for example. Slack corporate governance increases the risk of an expensive scandal.
To me, investing in companies that dig up resources that governments have pledged to phase out by the end of the century can’t make sense over the longer term.
But as I say, values are nuanced.
I’m not saying for a minute that you’ll agree, nor claim that there are not flaws and contradictions to my own approach.
But I think it’s worth trying. Ethical investments account for only around 1.1 per cent of total funds under management. And yet in a study by online social and environmental investing platform Abundance, around 70 per cent of those polled said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘I would be unhappy if I found out my money was being used to fund unethical activities’. Surely that’s a mismatch.
It’s easy to get started, just by asking a few questions: of others, to find out where your money is, and of yourself, to see if you’re investing in the world you want to see.
It doesn’t have to make investing more complicated. If anything, it can make it far more interesting thinking about what your money can help achieve as well as simply eking out the best returns.