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Ethical investment pioneer: James Vaccaro, Triodos Bank



National Ethical Investment Week (NEIW) is underway, and we’re publishing daily interviews, conducted by Greenhouse PR, with a different ethical investment pioneer each day until Friday.

UKSIF chief executive Simon Howard kicked things off on Friday, with Sebastian Parsons of Stockwood Community Benefit Society and Paul Ellis of Ecology Building Society at the weekend.

Next up is James Vaccaro, head of market and corporate development at sustainable bank Triodos.

Tell us, in 20 words or fewer, about Triodos Bank. What’s your mission?

Triodos Bank helps people’s savings make the world a better place by financing organisations making a positive difference to society and the environment.

What motivates you to do what you do?  

Seeing good ideas turn into reality. I love working with people with big dreams and it can be frustrating to see organisations with good intentions not succeeding in making them a reality.

My motivation comes from helping to bring an entrepreneur’s vision down to earth; and it’s through this connection that sustainable finance can really have an impact.

What are the biggest challenges in building momentum for ethical finance? 

Habits are hard to change – especially in the context of people feeling anxious about their understanding of finance. Sustainable finance has to feel like an everyday activity; that will only come with practice and experience.

What trends or developments are you most excited about in sustainable and ethical investment? 

Individuals are gaining the confidence to engage with and understand investment proposals directly – through share and bond issues. Like the new bond for Greenwich Leisure – it’s the biggest social enterprise in community sport and leisure, and now people can invest in it directly.

What one thing could change the future of finance?

More diversity. Having a small number of huge financial institutions is very unhealthy for a system. We need more institutions – but we also need more types of institutions who bring their own approach, whether impact investing or social investing, crowdfunding or community finance.

Where do you want to take Triodos Bank next?

My role at Triodos Bank is to help us to stay as relevant as we can be within our sustainability sectors. We’re currently looking to see how we can better support finance for energy efficiency, community energy and social care projects.

In the long-term, through our partners in the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV), I’d like to see us take a more proactive role in financial education and enable people to discuss and understand the financial system.

What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

There is no one who can’t make a difference: whether it’s opening a sustainable deposit account, transferring your fund portfolio or investing directly in an impact-driven investment such as a Social Investment Bond, it will all count.

And it makes much more of an impact if you feel able to talk to other people, like your friends and family, about your experience, your decision process and what you learned.

If you were prime minister for a day, what would be the first thing you’d do?

I’d adopt a cross-government approach to early-intervention. There’s been some fantastic work set in motion by the Early Intervention Foundation, looking at ways in which vulnerable families can be supported while children are young. The logic is that it makes for a very good long-term investment: preventing problems with higher costs down the line.

And there are social investment opportunities that could spring from that. But it is also an approach that could be applicable to all sorts of other policy areas – like energy and agriculture.

What’s the coolest project or product you’ve come across, and inspired you?

My favourite investment offer that we worked with was the UK Together Group (Bristol Together, and now Midlands Together) which trains and employs ex-offenders to refurbish housing stock. It’s a really inspiring yet down-to-earth business model which we’ve been lucky enough to work with from the very beginning and it’s great to see it thriving.

Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book for our readers?

Dorothy Rowe’s The Real Meaning of Money. It’s a must read for anyone who feels anxiety about thinking about role of money in their life.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Someone told me, “It’s amazing what you can achieve if you’re prepared to not take the credit for it”. It’s been credited to Harry Truman, but probably many others have claimed the credit for it since (and he probably didn’t say it first). Either way, it’s really useful if you want to be effective.

If you could encourage people to invest in one thing, what would it be and why?

Technically I can’t advise people to invest in one specific thing – but I would encourage that they do look into and invest a small amount into one thing directly. The process can be quite liberating and is likely to stir up all kind of other interesting and useful thoughts.

Can you leave us with who’d be your ethical investment hero?

Deborah Meaden. She’s not only a huge supporter of many sustainability issues and ideas but also a very professional, rational and down-to-Earth investor. As a public figure, she is a great role model for marrying up sustainability and sound investment principles.

National Ethical Investment Week 2013 runs from October 13-19. Join the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #moneydoinggood.

Further reading:

Triodos unveils £3m social investment bond to help ex-offenders in Midlands

Triodos survey says 3m may consider social investment in next year

70% of investors don’t know if their investments are ethical

Triodos Bank AGM: profits or philanthropy is a false choice

The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2013