Catherine Howarth joined ShareAction in July 2008, having previously been the founder and lead organiser of West London Citizens. Earlier in her career she was Senior Researcher at the New Policy Institute. Catherine is a board member of Green Alliance and of the Scott Trust, owner of The Guardian, serving on the Scott Trust’s investment committee. She was a Member Nominated Trustee of The Pensions Trust (the multi-employer pension scheme for the UK’s not-for-profit sector) for five years until Spring 2013. She served for four years on The Pensions Trust’s Investment Committee.
In 140 characters or less – what is ShareAction?
ShareAction is a charity leading a movement to promote Responsible Investment and give savers a voice in the investment system.
ShareAction started life as FairPensions which was born following People & Planet’s ‘Ethics for USS’ campaign. What was the driving thought behind founding the organisation – what gap did it fill?
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There was absolutely no civil society organisation acting as a watchdog on the pensions industry. It’s a huge industry in the UK, the second largest in the world after the USA in terms of assets under management, and millions of people have a stake in it. It’s crucial that an organisation like ShareAction exists to keep an eye on it, to make sure that it’s acting in the best interests of those millions of pension fund members and acting in a way that encourages sustainable business behaviour. So that’s the gap that we filled when we set up.
Who does ShareAction primarily work with?
ShareAction works with a broad array of stakeholders. This ranges from the relationships we have with pension funds and asset managers, and all kinds of people inside the investment system, to policymakers and regulators, to citizens and institutions whose retirement savings or assets are invested in the system. Part of our function is to create a better dialogue and more connections between people on the inside and the outside of the system.
What difference does ShareAction want to make?
We deeply believe in the possibility of an investment system that serves savers, society and the environment better than the current system does today. If we unlock the huge potential the investment system has to drive positive change, it could solve some of the deepest and most complicated problems that we collectively face, whilst also securing much better outcomes for people who are on modest incomes and put money into the system in the hope of retiring one day with a decent quality of life.
What have been the barriers to making that difference?
We face quite a few barriers – some from within the investment system and some from outside it. From inside the system, we continue to battle against a narrow interpretation of fiduciary duty, which has held back Responsible Investment from claiming a central place in the way the system works. There are also lots of vested interests and perverse incentives for people inside the system that hold back Responsible Investment; and we also think that the unaccountable governance of many pension funds and limited rights that savers have to ask questions are big barriers to change.
On the outside of the system, we have to acknowledge that our work is just one of many pressing issues that concern ordinary people; it is a challenge to get people enthusiastic and engaged with something that seems as technical and distant as the investment system. Creative, surprising communication is essential.
Who’s helping you overcome those barriers?
ShareAction is building a diverse movement of people demanding change from inside and outside the system. It’s only when we have a critical mass of people committed to change that we’ll have the power to overcome those barriers. So we’re building that movement and its stronger month by month, but we also work hard to come up with well researched and smart policy solutions to address failings in the system. A lot of that is in our Manifesto for Responsible Investment, which we published in 2014.
You recently came in the top three of the inaugural Blue & Green Marbles awards. We meet, interview and profile significantly more senior women in the sustainable sectors we cover, than we do in conventional sectors. From your own perspective does gender play a role in having an overriding commitment to sustainability? And if so, why?
As a woman I’m incredibly proud that women are so prominent in the field of Responsible and sustainable investment. Of course I’m a huge champion of breaking down some of the barriers that exist to women claiming a fair share of the roles in the senior echelons of the mainstream investment sector. An important stream of our work at ShareAction is exposing the gender balance inside pension firms and asset managers. These are the teams that make big decisions about how our savings are invested and it’s so important that they are diverse, not least because there’s so much accumulating evidence that organisations with diverse leadership teams deliver more for their customers and beneficiaries, and are more profitable. So I’d say: let’s keep the great profile of women in the sustainability sector, and fight for a better representation of women in the mainstream investment sector.
How can people – individuals and organisations – find out more about ShareAction?
On our beautiful new website soon to be launched – watch this space! You can also follw us on twitter @ShareActionUK and search ‘ShareAction’ on Facebook. You can get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can join a Pension Power team that’s fighting to make sure your provider is a truly accountable and responsible investor.
What’s on the agenda for this year at ShareAction?
This year we’re looking forward to another phenomenal season of holding boards accountable at company AGMs. We’ll be raising an array of different issues that we know companies have the power to address – from championing renewable electric power in the corporate sector to using the skills, creativity and logistics that companies have to support refugees.
We’re excited to be launching in June in Berlin our European network of civil society organisations that are interested in sustainable capital markets.
We will also continue to press UK and European policymakers for legislation and regulations that give people with pension savings a voice in the investment system and requires pension funds and other giant investors to invest sustainably with an eye to long-term success.