You can be ethical and get decent returns

Green, not greed, is good when it comes to finances, reports Simon Read

When you care about the world around you, finding the right funds for your future investments or pensions, or even a current account with a bank that doesn't invest in bad things, can be a challenge. But this doesn't mean that it's impossible.

In fact you can find financial opportunities, however strongly you feel about issues.

However, many people – such as Eleanor Harries, featured below – are putting aside their race for profits, instead choosing to benefit from knowing that their money is doing good.

Evidence of a growing shift towards more responsible, socially useful finance comes from the Ecology Building Society. Savings balances at the ethical mutual have topped £100m for the first time, it is revealed today.

"The events of this year have shown that the financial crisis is far from over. As we learn more about the irresponsible behaviour of the big banks, ordinary people are looking for an alternative that fits with their values," says Ecology's chief executive Paul Ellis.

"Our savers trust us with their money because we're transparent about how we use it: to fund projects and properties that are good for people and the planet.

"They want the reassurance of knowing where their money goes."

The news comes ahead of National Ethical Investment Week, which starts tomorrow.

Research released today by YouGov to mark the start of the week reveals that 45 per cent of UK adults want at least some of their investments to take green and ethical considerations into account, with 15 per cent wanting all their investments to do this.

Further, almost one in four adults – 24 per cent – say they'd choose a green or ethical bank account if they had the right information. That's up 2 per cent from the same time last year.

Penny Shepherd, co-ordinator of National Ethical Investment Week, says: "2012 has seen the shareholder spring and a summer of banking scandals. It's therefore no surprise that demand for green and ethical investment and finance is so strong. There is now almost a trillion pounds under responsible management in the UK. The simple message is that people want to make money and make a difference with their savings and investments."

Jason Hollands, managing director of BestInvest, points out that ethical investment is still a tiny part of the UK funds industry, accounting for around £11.3bn of the £575bn invested in UK-authorised funds.

"Given how much ethical consumerism has gained ground that's surprising, but part of the problem is probably that many independent financial advisers only discuss the concept of ethical investment if a client specifically asks about it," says Mr Hollands.

"It's also down to little common understanding over what is included in the ethical universe and limited choice as well as some disappointing performance," he adds.

His surprise about the relatively small amount invested in ethical funds is backed up by new research from the ethical bank Triodos. It shows that more than half of private investors have no idea how their investment or pension funds are invested.

But when deciding on purchases, whether it's buying electronics or making investments, half of all UK adults are interested or very interested in the ethical records of the companies they buy from or invest in.

Further, almost two in five take time to research the company's ethical record, and four out of five believe that companies have a duty to behave ethically.

Despite the growing focus on ethical consumerism, just one in five investors is aware of the "unethical" activities undertaken by some of the companies in which they may invest.

Triodos has a rigorous screening process for its socially responsible investment funds which take a zero-tolerance approach on four sectors, completely excluding all investments in nuclear, oil tar sands, hazardous materials and weapons.

The process leaves around 350 companies available for investment in either its Pioneer fund or Sustainable Equity fund.

Huw Davies, head of personal banking at Triodos Bank, says: "We challenge UK investors to consider the impact of where they choose to invest, in the same way as thousands of savers have moved their money to more sustainable and ethical alternatives.

"The more money entrusted to our SRI funds, the more pressure we can apply on businesses to improve their sustainability performance and improve quality of life on a global scale."

Choosing ethical investment could actually prove a profitable move. Juliet Schooling Latter, head of fund research at Chelsea Financial Services, points out that one ethical bond actually has the highest yield in its sector. "Rathbone Ethical Bond is an interesting fund for ethically minded investors seeking an income in this low-interest rate world," she says.

The fund invests in social housing bonds, railways, infrastructure, and charities such as Scope, which, among other things, funds colleges for people with disabilities.

"Many ethical investments suffer performance-wise as they often do not have exposure to whole sectors and can miss out. But this fund has managed to be a consistent, second-quartile performer over one, three and five years.

"More crucial is the fact that it currently has the highest yield in the corporate bond sector at 6.5 per cent (the next best is 5.3 per cent) and is significantly higher than the average."

According to Barchester Green Investment, a specialist ethical independent financial adviser, the top ethical funds have delivered returns of 19.3 per cent over 12 months and 56.8 per cent over three years.

John Ditchfield, managing partner, says: "The strong financial returns haven't gone unnoticed, and we're seeing an increase in inquiries, especially from those savers who have lost faith in the activities of the banks and the pitiful savings returns that they offer.

"Increasingly people are realising that they can invest in something they believe in, as well as making a financial return.

"We are urging people to make a 'conscious' decision about where to invest their money."

Another ethical investment specialist is Ecclesiastical, which has four screened funds.

Sue Round, head of investments at the firm, says: "Ethical investing not only provides a good return, but also contributes much to society, encouraging more-sustainable business practices and better living and working conditions throughout the world."

People fed up with the unethical behaviour – or even angry at the continuing computer cock-ups – have led a charge to find a more ethical alternative to the mainstream banks. The Co-operative Bank says it attracted more than 100,000 new customers during the summer months of June and July, for instance.

Robin Taylor, head of banking at the Co-op, says: "This is further evidence of how we're recognised as a genuine and trusted alternative for banking on the high street. Feedback from customers who have recently switched has shown that the instigator for them was a desire to have a bank they could trust, with many wanting to make an ethical stance.

"Unlike other banks which are owned by their shareholders, we are member-owned and customer-led."

Meanwhile, an emerging form of ethical investment is community projects. Such schemes allow people to use their savings to support local enterprises which are set up, run and controlled for the benefit of the community.

Shareholders become members of the society and everyone gets an equal vote in how it is run. They receive a social, environmental and financial return on their investment.

There are a number of impressive examples across the country, ranging from retail outlets and renewable energy projects to pubs and post offices.

Bristol Energy's community share issue in April 2012, for example, raised more than £120,000 from 130 investors. The funds enabled it to install photovoltaic panels on two community buildings in the city, which will generate an estimated 27,600 kWh of green energy a year. There was even enough money left over to put towards another installation.

Over at Clevedon in Somerset, a group of local residents decided to fight back after hearing that the last bookshop in the town was to close. They launched a successful share offer which attracted nearly 600 investors, raising just under £20,000.

The Clevedon Bookshop reopened last December, and now holds a range of community events such as book groups, writing classes, children's literature groups and poetry sessions.

Other community projects seeking investment are more focused on green energy, such as hydroelectric projects on the river Don and in Sheffield.

"The co-operative business model offers an alternative approach to enterprise that can restore community cohesion, give people a voice, and overcome some of the unprecedented challenges facing our society, environment and economy," says Michael Fairclough, the Co-op's head of community.

"Communities across the country, driven by needs other than profit, are turning to co-operatively owned solutions for the provision of businesses and services. These enterprises are operated by a general public increasingly concerned for accountability, transparency and sustainability and, they can make a significant contribution to rebalancing the UK economy."

Meanwhile, a new, not-for-profit website was launched last month to link people with an interest in sustainable energy with communities that are developing micro-generation projects. It simplifies the process of finding and purchasing community shares in renewable energy projects,

The founder of the site at www.microgenius.org.uk is Emily Mackay. "When I was looking to invest in renewable energy I found it really difficult to find the community projects, " she says. "So I set up Microgenius to simplify the process for both projects and investors."

You can find out more about National Ethical Investment Week at its website, www.neiw.org

Case study: I want my savings used for good purposes, not bad

Musician Eleanor Harries has transferred her "rainy day" money to the ethical bank Triodos.

"It's the cash I've put aside just in case," says the 29-year-old who lives in London.

"I did have a savings account elsewhere but decided I wanted my money to be put to a good use, rather than risk it being used to fund the arms trade or be used to support companies that are involved in environmentally damaging activities."

She opened a tax-free, individual savings account (Isa) with Bristol-based Triodos.

"I applied for the Isa online and transferred the money electronically," she says. "I know I could possibly get slightly better returns elsewhere, but the rate the account pays compares to most standard savings accounts."

More important to Eleanor is that she knows the cash is being used positively.

"The thing that made me move my money is that I'm more interested in helping to make the world a better place than getting the best-available return on my savings. I know I might lose a little bit of interest on the few thousand pounds in my Triodos Isa, but I gain by knowing that my money is being used for beneficial purposes and has a positive impact on society."

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