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Let’s make our money matter

The most powerful weapon in our armoury for change is what our money is doing, and pensions hold the key

Illustration by Sam Island

It’s as much of a surprise to me to be writing about pensions as it probably is to you to be reading it. In my other life, I’m the writer of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, but these days my real passion is pensions to be proud of. I’m working on a campaign I helped launch called Make My Money Matter.

Here’s my whistle-stop tour: I started a charity called Red Nose Day 30 years ago that has so far raised about US$1.5 billion for children in need. In 2005, I worked on the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live 8 concerts, trying to encourage the G7 nations to give billions more in aid and to cancel debt. But when the UN Sustainable Development Goals were launched in 2015, one question haunted me: where are the trillions going to come from to make these goals happen?

Then one day someone told me that the pension pot of the U.K. alone is £3.1 trillion – and that money could be fuelling all the best, most innovative, sustainable businesses (worldwide pensions have more than US$47 trillion). It suddenly became clear that to fix our carbon footprint – and create good jobs and fight for gender equality – we should all be paying attention to our financial footprint. It’s excellent to recycle more and give up meat on Mondays, but the most powerful weapon in our armoury for change is what our money is doing. Research shows that most people hardly know where their pensions are invested, but when they do find out, 70% would prefer that they be invested sustainably. Because after all, there’s no point inheriting a pension in a world on fire.

It’s been a gripping year. There were all sorts of doubts in my mind when we started: Was this a case of money versus morals, value versus values? Would the pension companies fight it like crazy? Would the U.K. government be onside? But it seems as though this is a real moment in history, and the people who control our pensions, pushed by the public, could just turn out to be necessary heroes of the moment. Returns on ESG-aligned pensions (measured against environmental, social and governance criteria) have been thriving, the British government wants pension funds to report seriously on their sustainability, and, most important of all, there’s a real consumer revolution happening.

I still believe strongly in charity and government aid, but the public, especially young people, are asking more and more, “What can I actually do in my own life to make a change?” They are watching where their food comes from, if their clothes are produced with principle, how they travel. But I believe ensuring that our pensions fund renewable energy, affordable housing, vaccine research and all the thousands of businesses that contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals is the single most powerful personal action.

The time for hesitation is through – everyone with a pension should check that it’s not doing the exact opposite of what they are working for in the rest of their lives. My friend Bronwyn King, a cancer doctor in Australia, found out that three of her top six pension investments were in tobacco companies. Her pension had contributed to more deaths than she’d saved. She decided to found Tobacco Free Portfolios.

It’s sometimes complicated to shift a pension, but we shouldn’t be accidental investors in an unsustainable future when every day our pensions could be moving the world toward achieving the SDGs and the Paris Agreement’s climate goals.

That’s why we believe it’s time for everybody, every company, every pension holder, to Make Our Money Matter.

Richard Curtis is a British screenwriter, producer, film director and the founder of the U.K.’s Make My Money Matter campaign

This article is part of a series of stories from our Winter Issue cover package: What it will take for us to get the climate message before it’s too late.

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