Brigid Benson: ‘The public are more aware of money, morality and the environment’

In the last 20 years, ethical and green investment in the UK has trebled to more than £11bn. Brigid Benson, from ethical financial advice service Gaeia, talks about moving money in a more moral and environmentally effective direction

Positive News: When Gaeia was founded in 1993, can you recall the vision you had back then and how the company was born?

Brigid Benson: I’ve had an interest in human rights from very early on and as a French and Spanish graduate I worked as a volunteer for various human rights charities and groups during the 70s and 80s, seeing first-hand the consequences of the exploitation and abuses of the developing world.

During the 80s, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and Margaret Thatcher was still in power. People everywhere, including myself, were campaigning against apartheid. I thought then, if a lot of people I knew realised where their money was being invested, they would be horrified. I realised that once more people knew where their money was going, they too would want to avoid the worst companies and invest more ethically. I wanted to raise awareness about this, about where people’s money was going and I knew there was a future in it. So I started working for a firm in London and trained as an Independent Financial Advisor before moving to Manchester and founding Gaeia.

What have been Gaeia’s biggest achievements to date?

Seeing the growth of people’s awareness of ethical investment and how money and what you do with it can really make a difference to the world. I see it as being a part of consumerism, and the wider ethical consumerism movement where people are paying much more attention to everything they consume. The Fairtrade movement in the UK has grown every year – even in the years following start of the financial crisis. In 2012 it grew by 19%. People now realise they have the right to decide where their money is being invested and the more of us that do so, the more power and voice we have.

Amid news of leading banks being involved in the arms trade and tax evasion, how important is the role of ethical investment?

There are many people who are still unaware of where their money is being spent, so we still have a lot of work to do. If more people moved to ethical investment, such as banking with The Co-operative Bank, Triodos and the Ecology Building Society, we could be on our way to stamping out the obscene bonuses of bank directors and help tackle the conflicts and land grabs that their money is being used to fund. The government and the mainstream banks wouldn’t know what hit them, and who knows, they might have to change their ways. Move Your Money is a national campaign encouraging consumers to switch accounts to more responsible banks in order to build a better banking system. I encourage all my clients to switch.

What companies have you advised clients to invest in?

Most clients are saving or investing for income in retirement, so they will need to invest in mainstream companies and portfolios so that they can generate an income. Our task is to research then invest in a mix of progressive as well as mainstream companies who are genuinely committed to becoming more environmentally and socially responsible. Many clients would prefer to invest in the most useful and innovative investments, but these may be new, small and very high risk. We will therefore only recommend that clients invest in more innovative investments once their basic needs have been met. For instance, some of our clients have invested in Cafe Direct. Others have made loans, large and small to Oiko Credit – a not-for-profit cooperative, which provides funding worldwide to cooperatives and the micro finance sector.

What is the meaning in the name?

Gaeia is an acronym for ‘global and ethical investment advice’, but Gaia is also the goddess or personification of Mother Earth in Greek mythology.

What does the future hold for Gaeia and ethical investment?

Although there is still a long way to go, we must be positive about how far we have come and celebrate the fact that the public are much more aware of money, morality and the environment. People are better placed to understand large corporations and tax evasion and are able to see that the wider public in general doesn’t have control over how their investments are used. Even bigger companies like Marks & Spencer, Vodafone and British Telecom now pay much more attention to sustainability and environmental impact and are aware that the public want more than a greenwash. They want companies that are good employers and play a positive role in the community.

How are Gaeia’s ethics and values reflected in your personal life?

I am interested in music, including world music and especially reggae after living in Jamaica. I love literature, poetry and art, being a patron of Manchester City Art Gallery and a Friend of the Royal Academy. I collect art and try to buy from local artists whether in Africa or Latin America, where money spent goes back into the local community.  I’m still involved in a range of different human right and environmental campaigns, which have informed my work and enriched my personal life.

What would be your ultimate dream and achievement?

I have no ultimate dream, but a world where the stock exchange considered the wellbeing of all in their trading policies would be a good place to start. Our clients are all people who care about the world and want their money to make a difference for the better.