Ethical investment pioneer: Paul Ellis, Ecology Building Society



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

Following UKSIF chief executive Simon Howard and Sebastian Parsons of Stockwood Community Benefit Society is Paul Ellis, chief executive of Ecology Building Society.

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

Ecology mobilises the power of people’s money to move towards a more sustainable future, supporting positive environmental and social change.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I have an overwhelming desire to make a difference for people and the planet. It’s hard to say where it comes from; I’ve felt a sense of connection with nature all my life.

When I was younger, I used to walk to college every day – it was quite a few miles – and I spent the time thinking about life and my attitudes towards the world. I realised that everybody has a place in society and should be rewarded accordingly. This sense of social justice and fair reward is very much a part of my concept of sustainability.

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

We need to radically increase the visibility of actors in the ethical finance world. As a sector, we need to give people confidence that social business isn’t second class business and that investing in the social economy doesn’t bring undue risk.

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

At this time, more than ever in the 32 years that Ecology has existed, we’re seeing ethical finance organisations come together to promote the sector. We have a newfound confidence that our propositions aren’t inferior or niche, but essential for a sustainable economy.

We have a unique window of opportunity to spread the word. Five years on from the financial crisis, the problems of our economy are clear for all to see, and digital communications channels are enabling us to articulate the alternative loudly and well, to a wider audience.

Our ideas have power, people are passionate about them and we can mobilise this enthusiasm to bring about a better system for everyone.

What one thing could change the future of finance?

Regulation – by which I mean the whole spectrum of those who dictate the context in which we work. The government and regulators need a wider, long-term vision of what’s required for a genuinely sustainable economy, rather than being driven by short-term aims.

We need to reengineer the infrastructure of the financial system away from excessive risk and towards social and ecological value.

Where do you want to take Ecology next?

I’m confident that our growth will continue: we are strong at the core. We can draw on deep reserves of passion from our members and a clear view of what needs addressing in the world.

Our task is to ensure our housing doesn’t exacerbate the problems we face as a result of climate change, and to support community ventures and businesses that create the building blocks of a sustainable economy.

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

Two things. First, we all need to make the conscious choice to change our lifestyles, so that we’re not using more than our fair share of resources. Second, we need to understand that we have the power to make change at any time, through the way we use our money.

It’s simple: avoid the bad and support the good. And we should proudly proclaim ourselves as bleeding heart dogooders – what’s wrong with that?

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

I’d create a cross-ministerial unit with real power to pull together a national plan for sustainability.

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

I hugely admire the work of SIDI (Solidarité Internationale pour le Développement et l’Investissement www.sidi.fr), a microfinance organisation based in France.

SIDI uses finance to build the capacity of organisations in developing countries to address their particular social and environmental challenges. They engage directly with people on the ground, acting in a truly social way. I’d like to see something similar in the UK – it must be possible.

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

Seeing Green by Jonathan Porritt. It has stood the test of time since 1984 and lays out clearly what we need to do to secure our future.

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

Don’t take yourself too seriously. (I don’t!)

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

The provision of renewables in developing countries – it can make an immense difference to resource-poor societies and low-carbon development benefits everyone.

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

For me it has to be David Pedley, the solicitor who initiated the creation of Ecology at a Green party (then Ecology Party) conference in 1981. He saw a problem and made something happen, when virtually nothing was happening in ethical and sustainable finance in this country. And what he set up has stood the test of time.

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

Further reading:

It’s banking, but not as we know it! Ecology Building Society’s AGM

Saving the world or getting healthy returns is a false choice in finance

‘A small bit of knowledge can help empower you around your own finances’

Swimming against the tide: ethical banks as countermovement

The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2013


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