How I turned my boring savings account into an ethical investment portfolio

“In The Green” is a series of interviews with all types of green investors, from those who are starting small with a fossil-free ETF, to those who have dived in head-first to create a 100% earth-and human-friendly portfolio, to find out how they’re doing it.


Bronwyn Oatley shares her journey to becoming a sustainable investor

Bronwyn Oatley
, 28, is an independent social enterprise consultant. She’s worked with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, as well as the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Growth Social Enterprise Branch.

I’ve been working in the social enterprise and impact investing space for over four years. It’s an area I’m passionate about – using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

So it was somewhat ironic that I didn’t own any impact investments myself–actually, I didn’t own any investments at all.

I could point to any number of barriers to getting started. General inertia and a busy schedule were certainly key factors, but there were others too. For example, having worked with impact investors, I knew that most impact investment opportunities were only available to the ultra-wealthy.

This gave me an all or nothing mindset: if I couldn’t do all the good, then I wouldn’t invest at all.

Even harder to get over were the negative feelings I’ve attached to money. Coming from a well-off family, I felt quite conflicted about the privileges I’d been afforded, and uncomfortable with the knowledge that wealth and privilege have a compounding effect over time. Moreover, I didn’t want to make investments that would support the systems I don’t believe in. So, I left my earnings sitting in a boring 0.1% interest savings account, thinking that they weren’t doing any harm there.

Then, three things happened that turned my entire relationship to money – and investing – around.

The first turning point happened last fall when I got introduced to the Canadian arm of Resource Generation. RG is an organization that supports young people who have class or financial privilege to take action toward the more equitable redistribution of land, wealth and power.  I joined the Canadian chapter, and through RG, developed strategies to use my assets and privilege for good through investing and philanthropy.

Second was the realization that I couldn’t claim that my “boring” savings account was doing no harm. Banks use our deposits to make loans, and they do so with very little transparency. This meant that my savings were almost certainly being lent to companies engaged in practices I disagree with.

Third was connecting with Tim Nash, a Toronto-based financial planner who teaches individuals how to invest sustainably. I didn’t know there were financial planners who specialized in that area, or that they could be as awesome as Tim.

Tim taught me a lot and helped me get over that all or nothing mindset. While I still couldn’t access all impact investment opportunities, he showed me that there are sectors of the economy I can invest in that don’t run counter to my values. Also, he introduced me to a growing number of high-impact products available to investors of my size.

Fast forward one year, and I’m managing my money pretty differently.

I now have a portfolio of about $20,000 invested in a few different things. I have one socially responsible mutual fund that eliminates the worst offenders like fossil fuels, weapons and tobacco. I also have six different ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) that I purchased through a self-directed account with Questrade. (For those who don’t know, an ETF is a fund that basically tracks the performance of an entire sector of the economy eg. cleantech or agricultural commodities).

It was a revelation to learn that I could choose which sectors of the economy I invested in. Of course, there was homework: I had to ask myself questions like how do I feel about water infrastructure? How do I feel about water infrastructure in comparison to consumer discretionary goods? In comparison to cleantech? In comparison to telecommunications? Do I feel OK with publicly traded companies?

I learned that I had options. I could invest in wind, solar, clean technology. My portfolio could reflect my personal values.

Making ethical investments does take some time and consideration. It is not like investing through a retail bank, where you’re presented with few options. But it’s easier than you think. Plus, I like having control and making active decisions. For example, I chose the water infrastructure ETF, made up of companies that produce pipes and toilets, etc., over the consumer discretionary ETF, which to me contained companies that just promote general unsustainable consumerism. I like the idea of my money supporting the growth of initiatives that can improve people’s’ lives. 

I now have what I would call a “reasonably responsible” portfolio. Not one cent of my money is supporting weapons, fossil fuels or tobacco–and that feels better. 

The next step is to add more good to my portfolio, and I plan to do that by investing in clean energy bonds. The fact that organizations like CoPower and SolarShare exist means that investors of my size now have options. 

One of my original goals when I started out on this journey was to be able to talk to others about ethical investing. I had to go through the steps myself so that when I wanted to educate people, especially those with more wealth, I could point to my own experience. I’ve now broached the conversation with close friends and family. It’s awkward, but I’m doing it. A year ago, I didn’t even think any of this was possible.

As told to Lauryn Drainie in an interview, January 2017. Since then Bronwyn has invested in a 5 year, compounding, CoPower Green Bond. 

This article first appeared on the CoPower website
Lauryn Drainie is the Manager of Marketing & Engagement at CoPower. You can follow Lauryn on twitter at @LaurynDraine.