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  • The ethical oligarchs

Jim Robinson takes issue with the 'undemocratic' nature of pension funds' involvement in SRI.

Kicking off the National Ethical Investment Week in London, pollster YouGov published the results of a survey measuring the British public's interest in green and ethical financial products.

Among other things, the survey found that a quarter of British adults with investments (23%) feel their pension funds are failing to inform them of their schemes' responsible ownership activities. And more than half of respondents (55%) say they do not clearly understand what their savings or investments support.

Penny Shepherd, chief executive at sustainable investment and finance association UKSIF, applauded the results. "People clearly want to know more about how pension investment managers are acting as responsible owners on their behalf," she said. "It is a real sign of the times that almost a third of 45-54 year olds with investments think they are told too little."

She obviously sees these figures in a positive light, as a sign of the growing interest in the subject. But mightn't the results also be seen as a grievance? There is an ambiguity in the result that may very well be framed within the survey's question itself, but for me, it nevertheless raises an important question about the involvement of pension funds in socially responsible investing.

More than 240 asset owners - including the likes of ABP, AustralianSuper, CalPERS, the FRR, the Korea National Pension Service, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund and USS, to name a few - have signed up to the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI). Although UNPRI has yet to estimate exactly how many people its signatories provide pensions for, it's safe to say it's in the millions.

It's also safe to say that each of those participants has an entirely different view on the environment, on social concerns and on corporate governance, as well as on the importance (or relative unimportance) of those topics.

For each of the asset owners signed up to UNPRI, there is a small group of people - and in some cases, a single person - who act as ‘responsible owners' on behalf of their many constituents, making calls on climate change, nuclear energy, human rights, consumer protection, employee relations and executive compensation - all highly important and highly sensitive decisions.

When more than half of the British public say they do not clearly understand what their savings are supporting, perhaps they are lamenting what might be considered a lack of democracy.

 

Jim Robinson is news editor at IPE

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