Millennials: you’re socially and environmentally conscious – so why isn’t your retirement fund?

By Marshall Geck in Washington DC, Manager, Climate Action 100+, the PRI

There is no shortage of headlines about how the preferences of millennials are altering the global economy in everything from big department stores to avocado toast. It’s also no secret that ESG investing belongs on the seemingly-endless list of items that millennial preferences are shaping. A 2017 Morgan Stanley study, for example, found that millennials are twice as likely as the general population to invest in entities with social or environmental targets.

And yet, while the broad trends might indicate that ESG investing is set for exponential growth thanks to values-oriented millennials, whenever I bring up sustainable investing with my fellow millennial friends I tend to receive a response to the effect of: “I’m all for it, but I have no idea where to start”.

I can hardly blame them. Even as a millennial who is intimately involved with sustainable finance, I too often have trouble understanding exactly what my 401(k) retirement fund is (and isn’t) invested in. I’m willing to bet that even some of the most socially and environmentally conscious individuals might be surprised—or even shocked—if they took a hard look at the type of things included in their investment portfolios.

Similarly, I’m willing to bet that even some of the most socially and environmentally conscious organizations could have the same reaction if they were to closely analyze their retirement and benefit plans that they offer their employees. Too many of them are likely to find that their plans don’t provide a single fund with an ESG mandate, meaning their employees couldn’t invest sustainably even if they wanted to.

Case in point: in 2015, the World Bank was subject to a slew of embarrassing headlines about how a substantial portion of the equity holdings in its pension plan were actively or passively invested against equity index funds that included companies in industries associated with environmental and health problems. For a supranational organization whose goals include improving public health and tackling global environmental challenges like climate change, it doesn’t make you look too good if the pension plan for your employees is invested in coal producers and tobacco companies. The silver lining from this saga is that it prompted the World Bank to review its corporate sustainability policies and later become a PRI signatory.

So what is a socially and environmentally-conscious millennial (or values-driven organization that they work for) supposed to do in order to ensure that the money they put away for retirement and other purposes isn’t actually contributing to problems that endanger the very future they are saving for?

Fortunately, I’ve found that you don’t have to become an expert of finance to invest sustainably. Rather, the change can come by asking questions.

I learned this lesson the first time in graduate school. I had an individual retirement account (IRA) from a previous job, but really had no idea what it was invested in. So, I decided to reach out to my fund manager and ask if any part of my IRA was invested in socially and/or environmentally conscious funds. He said no but offered to have a call with me to discuss some options if I wanted to go that route. I ended up doing so.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to become an expert in finance to invest sustainably. I just had to make the finance experts do the work for me. Investment managers and HR departments have an obligation to listen and engage with you. After all, it’s your money, and you have a right to know where it is being invested. Taking the time to write to your occupational pension provider or investment manager and simply ask about your holdings can be the starting point towards investing more consistently with your values. These trustees shouldn’t be surprised by such inquiries, because integrating ESG criteria into their investment processes is part of their fiduciary duty (though this is an issue for another post).

What’s more, if I didn’t feel like taking their word for it, today there are arguably more tools than ever before to help the average person do basic assessments of the ESG performance of any given fund they are invested in. These include everything from Morningstar’s Sustainability Ratings to As You Sow’s Invest Your Values tools.

With a growing body of research showing that ESG criteria is linked to stronger financial performance and an estimated US$30 trillion in wealth expected to be handed down to younger generations from their baby boomer parents, millennials have an incredible opportunity to shift the world of finance (and therefore, the economic activities they fund) for the better. To seize the opportunity, however, the first step is to start asking questions.

Change will come in response to demand.

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