Ethical Wife in cash giveaway shock
- 20 Feb 07, 03:30 PM
By Bee Rowlatt, Ethical Woman
I’ll admit that when it comes to money, like most of us, I have no idea what it’s doing when it’s not actually in my pocket. So I was more than a little nervous when Newsnight asked me to give my husband’s finances the ethical once-over.
So I’d got my hands on his filthy lucre. My first instinct was to sell the shares and give all the money to charity – not something Justin does very often. But this is supposed to be an exercise in ethical finance. So here’s the question: is it ok for an ethical man to hold shares in an oil company?
Justin’s shares - as a portion of the oil company – equate to over four tonnes of carbon. Add that to our family’s carbon footprint and it would increase it by a whopping 40% - from 10 to 14 tonnes. As Justin’s wife, this is my footprint too: I was ready to flog the shares there and then.
Then our carbon guru, Professor Tim Jackson, pointed out that it’s the people who pump Justin’s company’s product into their cars and factories who end up “owning” the carbon cost.
But surely by making a profit from the oil industry you must be held at least partially responsible for its consequences?
Justin argues that there is nothing inherently wrong with investing in an oil company. He pointed out that we all use oil in one form or another, and it has to come from somewhere. But I suspected that not all oil companies are the same.
My job was made more difficult because the oil company in question refused to participate. So I tried several other British oil companies instead. They wouldn’t take part either. Were they all feeling a little vulnerable about their activities?
This wasn’t to be the only rebuff I encountered. I went to a glamorous City event celebrating five years of the FTSE4Good, an index that encourages corporate social responsibility. And even here - despite the flowing champagne - the big business leaders refused to discuss their ethical credentials with me.
Naturally the anti-oil industry campaigners were all too happy to talk, and I also got some help from ethical fund managers and other city sources. Even the Environment Secretary, a man tipped to be the future prime minister, stepped into the fray to advise on what Justin should do.
Here’s what I told them: the company Justin has invested his money in shares in is a relatively small company specialising in oil exploration. As oil companies go it isn’t remarkably bad, but then it isn’t especially good either. (I found no records of the company even hinting at green technologies like carbon sequestration or bio-fuels.)
So should I keep the shares, or should I sell them? And if I sell them, what should I do with the profits...?
I turned to a very ethical man indeed - a Canon, no less. Canon Christopher Hall is a life-long environmental campaigner. He also has shares in Shell Oil. His advice was that the best way to deal with the ethical conundrums posed by the shares was… to keep them!
He argues that the best way to change companies is from within. At last year’s AGM, he lobbied Shell to change their corporate behaviour, and persuaded another £10-billion-worth of shareholders to defy the board.
I find this compelling, but would the shareholder in question, my husband Justin, feel the same? Justin is no campaigner. He didn’t seem to know much his company’s activities, and by his own admission he has never so much as been to an AGM.
My mind was made up – the shares had to go. Now I needed to find something ethical to do with the profits.
Ethical finance is a subjective business. There are some things you simply don’t do: nukes, tobacco and arms. But after that, it is a bit of a pick ‘n’ mix. You choose what matters to you – be it animal rights, religion, human rights, the environment – and then you select your investments accordingly.
I was told that as well as excluding companies that “behave badly”, I could also use my investment to encourage good: to put pressure on companies and keep them under scrutiny.
Not only that, you’ve got to decide how “good” you want the companies you invest in to be. Ethical investment indices for environmental investments range from so-called dark green (very ethical!) to light green (more mainstream).
Given that Justin has the weighty title of Ethical Man to live up to, I didn’t mess around. Only a dark green fund was good enough for us. I knew his first question would be “But will it make money?” but reassuringly the fund has consistently out-performed the FTSE average.
But I also held some money back. Because I’m with all the people who have written in to Ethical Man to say that being ethical isn’t just about being green – it’s about being good. I still wanted to give some of that oil money to charity.
Giving to charity is a private matter, but I was surprised to find out that around a third of the British public rarely or never gives at all. Sadly Ethical Man falls into this category, the extent of his charitable giving is limited to a direct debit to Oxfam for the princely sum of £2 a month (and I’m sorry to add that it was me who set this up for him).
Just for fun I let Justin believe that I was going to give away the whole lot. But ultimately it is his money. Realistically 20% of it struck me as a figure I thought he’d find hard to argue against. I chose to target somewhere I felt the money would have the best impact, and so have chosen two small charities in which I have a personal interest:
Not everyone has a share portfolio of course. But many of us have some savings or perhaps a baby bond to invest. So why let it languish in a bank when it could be out there doing some good, and maybe making you some money too!
Bee Rowlatt's film on Ethical investments will be shown on Newsnight at 2230GMT on BBC Two and on the Newsnight website on Tuesday 20 Feb.