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Shake your money-maker

The Wireless logo The Wireless 27/06/2017

Young New Zealanders are showing they care, by pushing for change at the companies they invest in and support. Susan Strongman reports.  © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited

Students, staff and alumni of the University of Auckland are calling on the institution to divest from fossil fuel.

Photo: Izzie Gunn / supplied.

For 12 hours, at the end of last month, a group of 14 students staged a sit-in at the University of Auckland’s clock tower reception. 

They said they wanted the university to ditch its investments in coal, oil and gas companies. Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon, who was overseas at the time, ignored them.

Worldwide, university students have been leading the charge for fossil fuel “divestment” since the movement began on campuses in the United States about five years ago. 

Those involved in the movement argue the coal, oil and gas industries should not be supported by investors, as they contribute to climate change. 

In New Zealand, Victoria University was the first to ensure it had no direct or indirect investments in the industry, back in 2014. The University of Otago has also fully divested and Canterbury has partially divested.  

In December, Divest-Invest reported that 688 institutions and 58,399 individuals across 76 countries had committed to divest from fossil fuel companies. The total value was $5 trillion. 

But it’s not just divestment that young people are pushing for. 

Millennials who don't think they'll be able to purchase a house any time soon are instead to invest their money.

Young investors - particularly those who have savings, but not enough for property - are likely to flex their muscles more and more to influence how companies operate. 

This “shareholder activism” happens when a person or group attempts to use their rights as a shareholder of a publicly-traded corporation to bring about social change.

Law firm Chapman Tripp says shareholder activism by millennials is on the rise in New Zealand, driven by the growth of Kiwisaver and the rampant housing market.

"Millennials who don't think they'll be able to purchase a house any time soon are instead to invest their money,” Chapman Tripp partner Geof Shirtcliffe told RNZ.  

"That means that people are more likely to be taking an interest in an investment earlier than they might have been in previous generations."

Investing money early is smart, and young people should, and are doing it, according to financial adviser and Summer Kiwisaver chair Martin Hawes, who told The Wireless that a dollar that is saved now is a lot more valuable than a dollar saved in 20 years. 

“Time is the young person’s greatest ally.”

***

In August last year, RNZ’s Anusha Bradley and the NZ Herald’s Matt Nippert exposed extensive investment by KiwiSaver providers in cluster bombs, landmines and tobacco. 

By November, data held by Inland Revenue showed the number of people of all ages changing schemes had spiked.

At the time, the Herald reported 13,250 people changed schemes in August and 15,064 in September 2016 - a 23 percent increase compared with the average monthly scheme transfer figures in the preceding 10 months. 

One of those who changed providers was 35-year-old Alice Murray.

“I saw in the news that KiwiSaver schemes had money in cluster bombs and tobacco,” she says. 

The company Murray is now with, Simplicity, has low fees, and excludes tobacco, nuclear weapons and landmines manufacturers from its investments. 

“They had a graph to show how much more your fund would grow because of the lower fees and I liked the fact that they didn’t invest in dodgy funds. It was really easy to switch over, so I just did it.” 

Murray says though the lower fees played a big role in her decision to move her money elsewhere, she would have changed providers for ethical reasons anyway. 

***

After the 2016 exposé of unethical investments, banks and KiwiSaver providers rushed to make changes to mitigate the bad publicity associated with investing in bombs and tobacco. 

The Herald reported that within two months, $109m of identified controversial stocks had been dumped by KiwiSaver providers.

But as recently as March this year, some providers still retained investments in banned weapons, despite promises of divestment. RNZ reported that ANZ, Kiwibank, Westpac and Mercer still had passive investments in such companies through global index funds. 

As of this week, Westpac is yet to complete the process to exclude munitions and tobacco across all its KiwiSaver funds. 

Next month, Kiwibank sister company and KiwiSaver provider Gareth Morgan Investments will have its broad global shares fund up and running. The fund will allow the provider the flexibility to exclude any indirect investments that don’t comply with its responsible investment policy. 

***

A day after the University of Auckland students were removed from the clocktower by police, protesters marched on campus, demanding fossil fuel divestment. 

Up until this point it’s been very much just trying to convince the university to do the right thing through dialogue.

The movement at the university is backed by the students’ association and 350 Aotearoa - a global network focusing on climate issues and pushing for fossil fuel divestment. 

350 Aotearoa director Niamh O’Flynn says the campaign at the university has been going about two and a half years. “It’s only this year in the last couple of months or so that more of a direct action approach has been taken. 

“Up until this point it’s been very much just trying to convince the university to do the right thing through dialogue,” she says.

The group at the University of Auckland would like Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon to take a stand against climate change by divesting from fossil fuels. 

At present, the University of Auckland Foundation, a registered charity which distributes scholarships, is refusing to cooperate with the demands. 

This is despite an open letter requesting divestment signed by 240 university staff, including Dame Anne Salmond, Professor Jane Kelsey, Dr Niki Harre and Professor Peter Adams, being presented to the foundation’s board last Tuesday. 

A spokesman for the university told the Herald that the letter would be considered at a meeting of the foundation trustees. That meeting was held last Friday. 

Yesterday, the foundation’s manager Dr Richard Sorrenson told The Wireless the board had no comment to make on the letter, and the Vice-Chancellor was yet to speak to him about it. 

The letter states that the foundation holds $120 million, of which 1.5 percent is invested in companies with fossil fuel interests. 

Dr Sorrenson refused to give out a full list of companies in which the foundation invests, saying the information was “not public.” McCutcheon did not respond to The Wireless’ requests for information at all.

O’Flynn says this is not good enough. 

“Universities as institutions prepare students for the future. They’re preparing the scientists who are going to be leading us in that future. It seems so contradictory that they’re investing in the fossil fuel industry when they should be leaders in that space.” 

She says any money a university puts towards the fossil fuel industry has an impact, but a divestment would also be symbolic. 

“It’s not going to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry, but it’s about where you feel ethically comfortable having your money. I think a lot of young people are concerned about making the right decisions for the future. People are now looking at what impact their behaviour has on the planet,” O’Flynn says. 

“We have people emailing asking where to put their KiwiSaver and what banks to bank with. It’s very much led by young people.”

In 2014, when Victoria University announced its charitable trust would exclude all investments in fossil fuels, Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford said the move was an obvious one, given the university’s geosciences and climate change research and policy.

In 2015, Dunedin City Council voted to divest and in April this year, Auckland Council decided to pull its $15 million investment out of fossil fuel. 

I think a lot of young people are concerned about making the right decisions for the future. People are now looking at what impact their behaviour has on the planet.

Also in April, a University of Auckland spokesman told Stuff that the university had a strong commitment to sustainability and was seeking to reduce energy consumption, waste and carbon dioxide. 

"We are working hard to achieve these objectives and believe that they will make a direct, rather than token, contribution to environmental sustainability," the spokesman said.

But Fossil Free University of Auckland member Alex Johnston says that at this time in history, the University of Auckland "remaining a passive actor focused on individual energy use" is not acceptable.

“Everything we can do to take social and political power away from the fossil fuel industry is not just worthwhile, but crucial in this fight. 

“Divestment of fossil fuel company holdings, no matter how small an amount, sends a powerful signal that their business model is not compatible with our futures, undermines the political support for the industry, and helps to shift society with the urgency that is required,” Johnston says.

O’Flynn says New Zealanders need to keep demanding better more from businesses, as there are still limited options in investment and banking for those who care about fossil fuel divestment. 

“It’s really important that we do agitate and that we are putting pressure on our institutions to give us ethical options.

"I think that’s where our power is - to make sure we create options for the future.”

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