When Bevis Watts, who was formerly chief executive of a wildlife charity, took over the reins as managing director at Triodos Bank in April, it was the first time a UK bank had appointed an environmentalist to a lead executive role. Watts says he doesn’t simply want to run a bank, but lead a ‘movement for change’. We ask him how banks can be better
You describe yourself as an environmentalist; why the move to banking?
I have spent 20 years working in sustainability in different guises, but a common thread has been using the power of money to influence change. My career began in corporate environment management, but I became quite concerned with the reality that CSR tended to be an add-on to business strategy, rather than at the core.
When I was working at WRAP [the Waste and Resources Action Programme charity] I saw first-hand how money could be used creatively to build solutions. This led me into the finance sector. The role of money in designing our society and our impact has never been more relevant. Where individuals choose to save and invest is a vote for their values. Where your bank or pension fund uses that money really can create positive social and environmental change.
The role of money in designing our society and our impact has never been more relevant
You say you don’t simply want to run a bank, but lead a ‘movement for change’. How so?
Banks have an essential intermediary role in society; they are not a purpose in themselves. In my view, that role comes with two key responsibilities. First, banks look after people’s money and keep it safe. Second, they use those deposits to serve society by investing in the things society needs in the longer term that improve our quality of life.
Frankly, most banks in the UK has been failing on both of these responsibilities for a long time and have made their primary purpose profit-maximisation. By focussing on these two priorities, Triodos isn’t just another bank; we’re setting out to change the way banking is done.
In the last few years, the interest in banking has changed from seeking to avoid repeating the financial crisis to questioning whether banks are really serving society. This is the movement that we want to galvanise.
Why does banking need to change?
The financial crisis of 2008 was a real low point for the industry. The culture of banking had turned from financial responsibility to greed and self-interest – which resulted in disaster around the globe. Because of this, the need for transparent and prudent behaviour from banks has been highlighted, which can only be a good thing.
I’m excited that people are starting to look into the ethical implications of banking and thinking about aligning their financial lives with their values. Moreover, it’s happening globally. We’re a founding member of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, an independent network of banks using finance to deliver sustainable impact. It’s only eight years old, but already represents 36 banks and 24 million customers. This shift will have a huge impact on the future of our society.
People are starting to look into the ethical implications of banking and thinking about aligning their financial lives with their values
How can finance benefit people and planet?
I think many people still believe the myth that says you can focus on financial performance or you can pursue social and environmental goals, but you can’t do both. We know that this is not the case. Take Socially Responsible Investment funds, for example. When fund managers combine investments in sustainable companies and use their shareholder status to influence these companies to go further in their sustainable practices, the gap is being closed.
People want to see more of this. Our new research shows that 60 per cent of investors want to invest in positive outcomes, but most have not been offered that option by their financial service provider. We want to change this. Our Sustainable Pioneer Fund invests in small- and medium-sized listed companies focussed on the sustainable themes of climate protection, healthy living, clean planet or pioneers in corporate social responsibility.
We’re helping people funnel their investments into vehicles that impact our day-to-day lives by benefiting society and the environment. Money is a great form of democracy, and every pound we invest is a vote for our values.
How do you define ‘positive impact’?
Our vision is to make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change. Impact means having a positive effect in these spheres for the purpose of improving the quality of life. The people who bank with us are interested in more than just financial services – they want to see their money have this type of impact in the world. This means not just focussing on our financial performance or corporate growth, but also environmental sustainability, human dignity and economic resilience. Impact is about looking at our financial lives holistically.
Who are your customers?
Our customers are anyone who wants to see their money used in a positive way. Right now, we’re a savings and investment bank. However, mid-2017 will see us launch a current account for personal customers. That’s hugely exciting as we will be able to look after the day-to-day banking needs of both existing and, hopefully, many new customers, who want to use money for good.
Money is a great form of democracy, and every pound we invest is a vote for our values
Of all the people, projects and organisations Triodos works with, which are most special to you?
There are so many of our customers that are doing amazing and creative things – it’s hard to give you just one. The housing crisis has been in the news a lot lately, and I love what one of our customers, Abolish Empty Office Buildings, House People, is doing to combat that. They have sought out unused commercial property to transform into affordable tenant-managed housing. It’s an innovative solution when both the traditional market is struggling to provide an answer.
What has been most challenging since taking on the role at Triodos?
There are so many people wanting to engage with Triodos, and there are high expectations of the influence that we can have. We are so excited by this step-change in the industry and society, yet sometimes it’s a challenge to manage that demand. I really do feel that society is changing, but the financial sector just doesn’t seem to be listening to these changes in attitudes or reflecting upon its true role in society. But I’m looking forward to us tackling both of these issues head on.
Image: Triodos Bank