Q&A with Chris Selth and Kirstin Hunter
Brands taking positive action is a three-part webinar series hosted by Frost*collective to showcase and share next generation sustainable thinking. We spoke to experts across industries to see what steps, as people and businesses, they’re taking – and we can take – to contribute to a more sustainable future.
Former solicitor and financial services strategist, Kirstin Hunter is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of Future Super, where she is leading the movement to use the power of money to invest, advocate and campaign for a future free from climate change and inequality. Award-winning fund manager and economist, Chris Selth, is focused on empowerment as a means to achieving economic and social wellbeing. His understanding of complex financial models coupled with his collaborative approach working with communities and investors enabled his ethical management fund, Five Oceans Asset Management, to weather the GFC and remain a high-performing fund in the challenging economic climate that followed.
In our third episode, Kirstin and Chris talk about the importance of transparency in finance and empowering people to ask questions, agitate and not surrender to the status quo.
What does sustainability mean to you?
KH: Sustainability means the people who come after us having the same opportunities we’ve had, so leaving an environment they can exist within. It’s thinking about not just what we need to be successful today, but what my daughter will need to be successful in her endeavours in 30 years’ time and her children after that.
CS: In the mid 90s, I was the first person at BT Investments to have a PC, which meant that for the first time we had the information and the technology to understand sustainable returns. We understood that if big companies pollute their own ecosystems, they can’t sustain their profit growth. So, companies have to be aware of what they’re doing to stakeholders and their broad impact on the world in order to sustain profits and be worth more. All of this was revealed through technology.
“Sustainability is more than just changing your logo to green or how sustainable you are for money, it’s about who you are every day and how sustainable you are when the doors are closed. ”
How have discussions around sustainability changed for you?
KH: There are so many more voices in the sustainability conversation, which is a positive change. It’s a challenging time for those of us leading the charge and thinking about it in a long-term sense, because what we’re seeing in superannuation, finance, gas, mining etc, is the greenwashing of the brands. This is driven by more consumers and regulators asking questions and businesses responding through their marketing messages, but these messages aren’t being translated into action. For those of us in impact investing or B Corp companies, we’re trying to think about how we can demonstrate that sustainability is more than just changing your logo to green or how sustainable you are for money, it’s about who you are every day and how sustainable you are when the doors are closed.
Who’s leading the way at showing people, companies or brands how to be sustainable?
CS: At a marketing level, it’s clearly understood that this shift has to take place. In traditional corporate structures, sustainability and risk management are overlapping concepts and risk management is a good business practice, so you’ll see sustainability talk at the big end of town. The question is, operationally and how they run, how deep do these ethics go? To get this revolution happening, we’ve got to actually work together at a localised level to make it happen. We need to stop thinking about sustainability as a trendy dinner party topic and actually talk about what we’re doing and what it means to the people you’re working with, or the community around you. Then we can have a real sustainability conversation.
“Ask the question: what’s the ratio of my investment in renewables to coal or fossil fuels? The more people that start asking their money managers these sorts of questions, the more quickly we’re going to see change.”
What measures are there that can help us makes choices to work with sustainable brands or organisations?
CS: The actual measurement engine is not the solution. It’s about the individual leader or stakeholder’s vision on how they’re going to make a difference. We need to give people access to data across a range of measures, allow leaders in their businesses to annunciate their vision and allow investors to align with that if that’s what matters to them. A big centralised standard measure is what got us into this mess in the first place.
KH: I agree. There are a lot of challenges in getting a single measure or metric when it comes to sustainability, but the first step is definitely transparency. In superannuation for example, funds aren’t required to disclose to members what they invest their money in. Funds might talk about ‘Impact Investing’ or the fact that they hold renewables assets, but that will be 0.03% of the portfolio and 30% is in fossil fuels. Consumers need to be empowered to see not just the marketing messaging, but what sits behind that. Ask the question: what’s the ratio of my investment in renewables to coal or fossil fuels? The more people that start asking their money managers these sorts of questions, the more quickly we’re going to see change.
“Not accepting the system as it is and instead asking what it could look like is an incredibly powerful tool.”
What’s stopping more brands for designing with sustainability in mind?
KH: I think it’s the status quo. I see a lot of handwringing when it comes to gender pay gaps and diversity on boards – there’s a real lack of vision among leaders and employers around what the world could look like. Once you have a view of what the world could look like, you can look at the gaps today and start thinking how you can make a difference within the scope that you have. Not accepting the system as it is and instead asking what it could look like is an incredibly powerful tool. If you take all the small opportunities to move in that direction, over time you’ll notice that they really do add up. All it takes is someone who’s willing to speak up and push for the right to try.
CS: We’ve gotten cynical and become disempowered. One of the biggest things we can achieve is knowing that we actually can make a difference and not to surrender. Step up, ask questions and act. If you don’t, no one else is going to do it.
“One of the biggest things we can achieve is knowing that we actually can make a difference and not to surrender. Step up, ask questions and act. If you don’t, no one else is going to do it.”
What role has brand played in your sustainability journey?
CS: Our research shows one fundamental thing: no one trusts the banker. Even if you’re using your financial expertise to help, the immediate response is distrust. So, from a branding point of view, it speaks to something fundamental about people’s relationship with money. We need to put values back into money because at the moment, money is without value. We also know people that have huge comprehension gaps around finance, so how you communicate and get people comfortable and empowered about their own money, which is so fundamental to their identities, is one of our biggest challenges. We need to move from the ‘banker bad guy’ box to the ‘it’s your money and you should understand how it works and what you can do with it’ box to make a difference in your own life and that of your community. It’s a huge task and we’re all still working on it.
KH: My understanding of the role of a brand has changed so much in the last three years. I used to have a narrow understanding and think that a brand was a logo and a set of design principles, but what’s become clear to me through our own journey at Future Super is that a brand is what you say, what you look like and what you do – it’s the space that you occupy in people’s minds. The role of our brand is telling stories to engage people with their money and empower them to use the power of their money to create the world that they want to see. And that’s super exciting.
“The status quo in Australia used to be that you can’t have a balanced portfolio that delivers returns to members for the long term without investing in coal. Well, in six years, we’ve proved that you can do that.”
Is change coming?
KH: Change is happening – not fast enough, but it is happening and the more of us who speak in favour of it, the more likely it is to happen in time. The status quo in Australia used to be that you can’t have a balanced portfolio that delivers returns to members for the long term without investing in coal. Well, in six years, we’ve proved that you can do that. That’s the privilege that we have as a small fund – we can apply very strict ethical criteria and follow them. It is a big challenge for the larger funds, but that’s where vision comes in.
Kirstin & Chris’ top tips for individuals and businesses:
Think about the world you want to see, in and outside of work, and start taking positive steps in shaping that world for yourself. If you do this:
Don’t surrender to the status quo: it only takes one person to make a difference.
Speak up, ask questions and act.
Know your super’s position on investment in fossil fuels.
Push for the right to try – if it’s not happening now, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t start happening.