When I got an invitation to the AGM of my bank, I was a bit surprised. No other bank that I have ever banked with as a customer has ever sent me one. I signed up to attend, expecting an hour or so of PowerPoint graphs presented by men in suits and ties.
Longer than the average AGM
But the three hours of the AGM of Triodos was very different, as I should have realised from the bank that consistently tops the ratings in the Ethical Consumer. It was three hours of panels, guests and excellent video clips, all on the theme of how to shift the finance system away from harming the planet and into supporting nature.
It took place in the Old Vic theatre, Bristol, with a hybrid audience, some in the room and the rest of us online. It was hosted by Gillian Burke, a biologist and one of the presenters of BBC Springwatch. For those online, it started with a brief film by WildIsles about our nature-depleted planet and how the financial system needs to change, not just to stop the harm but to start to repair and regenerate nature.
There was a Q&A with a panel of Triodos managers. The topics varied between those of interest to the private customers (eg progress with the smart phone app); ethical concerns about the companies Triodos invests in (living wage, organic farms, gender pay-gap) and ethical leadership among other banks: “often we are the only challenging voice in the room.”
Then there was another short film which presented quick facts in text along with (sometimes familiar) nature clips:
- “the degradation of the planet is fuelled by the finance system”
- “natural capital – look after nature’s assets and the dividends are there for the future”
- “2% of GDP goes on harmful subsidies to fossil fuels and intensive agriculture”
- “69% of species have crashed since 1970s”
In the UK we have lost 90% of wetlands, 97% of flower meadows, 70% of woodlands.
Loss of nature a threat to our environment
There is now not enough nature to purify our rivers or act as buffers against climate change, yet scientists estimate that 37% of climate-change mitigation could come from natural processes. The world needs to invest some $11tn in nature up to 2050. This compares with the world’s total financial assets of $400tn.
This was then discussed in financial terms, of risks and assets, and how to encourage business to align with the Paris climate targets. Investment needs to shift away from processes that harm the planet and towards nature-friendly enterprises. This means business boards must have different incentives.
Standards must be global
Global standards matter too, as the guard rails that help investment flows. (Tell that to the UK politicians who want to substitute UK-specific regulations for EU regulations that protect our standards in the current REUL bill.) Deborah Meaden said in her closing remarks that she is confident that humans have this amazing ability to find solutions, but she is worried that we will not do so in time! In other words, it is not our science that is failing, but our ethical and political decision-making.
The next speaker, Hans Stegeman, is the chief economist at Triodos, and he picked up this theme by declaring firmly that economics is not just about money but about values. There were then various guests brought to the sofa in pairs, the customer that Triodos is lending money to, alongside the Triodos staffer who manages that loan or relationship.
Recipients of loans
The first was the enterprise ‘Heal rewilding’ which plans to buy a plot in every county for rewilding. They have just made their first purchase of 460 acres [186 hectares] in Somerset. The next was a company from S. Wales that assists adults with learning difficulties into jobs and independent living. Then there was ‘Human Forest’ which manages e-bikes in London. This is an example not just of how to reduce a personal carbon footprint, but, as Stegeman pointed out, an enterprise to shift a transport system away from private cars and toward bikes with public transport.
The next guest was Mary Portas. In the early part of her career, she became wealthy at the high end of sales, with luxury goods. Now she is known as the champion of charity shops and pre-owned clothing. She realised that the insane profits made by the big business men like Philip Green (£2.2bn in dividends) show a lack of moral imagination (claps from the live audience).
She told the story of how she arrived in New York in time for Black Friday, when all the shops are in a consumer frenzy. But Patagonia, a leading firm for outdoor wear, had just one jacket in the window with the label, ‘Repair, Re-use’. The owner, Yvon Chounard, has now sold this firm because he wants to focus on investment to save the planet.
Mary Portas realised that charity shops in the UK had a bad reputation – just junk donations of unwanted stuff in black bags, faithfully sorted by aged volunteers. She changed this by promoting the fashion for vintage clothing, and it is now fast-growing, as the image of status and modernity has been put behind pre-owned clothing rather than wasteful fast fashion.
‘Work like a woman’
She also got some claps for her remarks about patriarchy, and for dubbing the male leaders in the business world as ‘dinosaurs’. I shall read her book ‘Work like a Woman’ to see why she thinks women can do better in business.
Gillian Burke summed up at the end by referring to all the stories we had heard during the afternoon and saying how we need to continue to look for these stories and be part of them. So, readers, what about shifting your money to Triodos to make sure it is used for ethical investment? Next year I look forward to another invitation to the Triodos Annual meeting.