Like most people, Richard Curtis had never given much thought to what the money in his pension was doing. “I didn’t even know it was invested," lui dice. “I think I thought it was in a vault, growing like moss, and there’d be a bit more there when it came out.”
The film-maker now knows that in fact, much of the £2.6tn in British pensions is invested in various businesses across the world. E, unbeknown to many of us, vast amounts of those funds have been fuelling unsustainable and exploitative industries from tobacco to fossil fuels, arms manufacturing to deforestation.
“People aren’t aware of what’s being done with their money, and I think a lot would be shocked if they found out," lui dice.
Channelling this huge pot of pension cash into sustainable industries is the goal of his new campaign Make My Money Matter. It aims to get people really thinking where their money is being invested, and harness their power to demand “pensions to be proud of” – investments that do good instead of harm, and help with the transition towards a zero-carbon world.
Curtis, 64, has long been as famous for his efforts to create a better world as for his much-loved films, including Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. As a co-founder of Comic Relief, Red Nose Day and Make Poverty History, he’s no stranger to galvanising the public, raising seriously impressive sums of money (Comic Relief has raised more than £1bn) and putting pressure on governments.
“I’ve got more time now,” says Curtis. “People want to see Hugh Grant movies in which he’s murdering people, not kissing people, so my job is done on that score.”
It wasn’t until recently, tuttavia, that he realised the potential for positive change in our pensions. The idea began while he was watching a Ted Talk by Dr Bronwyn King, an Australian radiation oncologist. “She talked about finding out that through her pensions she’d unwittingly been investing money in tobacco – she thought, wait a minute, I’ve actually killed more people than I’ve helped, even though my job is to save people.” Her subsequent campaign to eliminate tobacco from investment portfolios lodged in his mind.
He started to think about how much was invested in pension schemes – $47tn (£34tn) around the world – “and what would happen if all that money was doing good”. He spoke to economists including Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, who is backing the Make My Money Matter campaign. Carney assured him that investing in sustainable businesses wasn’t just morally laudable, but also made sound financial sense.
“More money is flowing into sustainable funds, and consumers are increasingly going for companies they know are doing the right thing,” says Curtis. “Sustainable industries are growth industries, this is where the big economic opportunities are.”
As he delved deeper into the subject, he was fascinated to discover that there are many sustainable investment opportunities in British businesses and points to sustainable housing, healthcare, care homes, windfarms, projects in schools and with food. His own pension portfolio now includes eco-friendly “green cement’’, fuel cell technology and reverse vending machines, “where you put in a bottle and out comes a token for a reduction on something else, so there’s an immediate reward”. He was delighted by how “fun” many of the projects sounded – light years from what most people imagine when they think of pensions.
With young people more engaged in ethical issues than ever, he believes there’s never been a better moment to spark the conversation about what our money is doing. A passion for making the right choices is something he witnesses among his own four children. “My kids are asking: ‘What can I actually do to change things, outside of giving money to charity and voting every four years?’ They’re looking at where their clothes and food comes from, whether or not they should fly, and by informing themselves they’re able to make better decisions. Next up is where their pensions are invested. Because why should they be making all these critical steps in their everyday lives, but having that hard work undone by the impact of their money?"
Make My Money Matter has already made significant progress with pension companies. “Seventeen major providers who represent 28m pensions have committed to more sustainable investments – they’ve become what we’re calling net zero heroes," lui dice. But they’re not stopping there. The campaign is calling on all pension providers to join this race to the top, and commit to urgent emissions reductions targets. Make My Money Matter is also calling on the government to play its role by mandating for a net zero financial system.
Ultimately Curtis believes it’s really us who hold the power to force change. “My advice, particularly to a young person joining their company’s pension scheme, is to ask where the money’s invested and say categorically that they want a pension to be proud of. That way, no one will have to invest their money into industries that go against their values.
“Change is really happening. If enough people ask and push, we can ensure the trillions of pounds invested through our pensions help build a better world, and secure healthy returns. Now that really is the dream.”
Your pension is powerful, and so are you. Tell your provider you want them to invest more sustainably Qui, and make sure your money builds a better world.