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What world are your savings building?

For most of us, the money we’re putting into our pensions isn’t sitting in a vault. Monthly payments into workplace or private pensions are being invested in the wider economy, having a huge impact on the world we’ll be living in when retirement comes.

By Sam Coates, Senior Digital Campaigns Officer, ShareAction

Following the COP26 climate summit, public concern over climate change is higher than ever. Recent polling revealingly pointed to environmental issues as the leading cause of worry for the British public in November.

The scale and urgency of the issue can be anxiety-inducing and overwhelming. But there are practical choices we can all make to help address the climate crisis in meaningful ways. One of these is to start looking into the kind of world your pension savings are helping to build.

For most of us, the money we’re putting into our pensions isn’t sitting in a vault.

While state pensions are paid directly out of workers’ national insurance contributions, monthly payments into workplace or private pensions are being invested in the wider economy.

And where our hard-earned savings end up has a huge impact on the world we’ll be living in when retirement day finally comes.

If, like many of us, you pay into one of the big private pension providers, your money is usually handed over to asset managers to invest in corporate bonds, government debt and the stock market. Those asset managers work on your behalf to increase the value of the money you’ve invested.

So where exactly do these investments end up?

Well, they mostly go into shares of large global companies. If your provider is anything like the usual, it’s ploughing most of your funds into big players on the global stock market like Facebook or ExxonMobil.

Just as you can’t buy a home without a bank loan, an energy company can’t build a wind farm or an oil well without getting finance from somewhere. Even the largest corporations don’t have enough cash sitting around to fund these projects.

Companies are ultimately accountable to their shareholders, including your pension fund.

When pension funds invest, they become a shareholder with a seat at the table and the ability to influence corporate decisions. A lot of the time, investors don’t use this power, but when they do, it can make a world of difference.

ExxonMobil, for example, has long been considered a climate laggard. As other oil companies were diversifying into renewables, Exxon was ploughing more resources into developing new oil reserves that would be disastrous for our climate.

So this year, a group of shareholders voted three members of Exxon’s directors off the company board, replacing them with new directors with greater climate expertise.

It’s not just about climate change, either. Earlier this year, a consortium of investors including Aviva and Legal & General staged an investment boycott of Deliveroo, based on the firm’s poor treatment of workers. A predicted gold-plated first day on the stock market turned out instead to be a costly flop for the gig economy giant.

Banks and insurers have similar influence over the companies they support. And campaigners are increasingly calling on them to use this influence wisely. In Australia, the Adani mining project has hit the buffers thanks in part to a refusal of banks and other institutions to provide insurance.

This means we all have a stake in the financial system, from our pension provider to who we bank with.

So, you can have an impact on how these institutions shape the world around us.

The first thing you can do is to consider choosing a pension that suits you. Many people can move to other funds including ones with an ethical badge that usually pull your savings out of destructive industries like weapons manufacturing and coal mining.

But you can also intervene directly in the finance system to influence some of the biggest players in the global economy.

You could borrow a share in a company, allowing you to ask a question at their AGM about workers’ rights. Or you could join hundreds of other people to co-file a ‘resolution’ with a company – where all shareholders get to vote on a new, legally binding company policy.

This is how hundreds of ordinary shareholders forced HSBC to set a deadline for ending financing for the coal industry. Another resolution we co-filed resulted in Tesco setting targets to sell more healthy food.

So if you’re spend some time planning for your financial future, why not also think about how you can help build a brighter future for your children, community and planet?

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