Many of us social justice-minded, environmentally conscious folks spend a fair bit of time making choices that are in line with our beliefs. I know that if I say I care about these types of issues, my choices in life must reflect the things that are important to me. Often, it’s small choices, like sorting my garbage and recycling, or trying to consume less and shop more ethically.
In my early twenties, I tried to go a year not buying anything made in China because I didn’t like the Chinese government’s human rights record. I knew my tiny buying power wasn’t going to have any measurable impact at all, but it was important to me to try my best to literally put my money where my mouth was – if I said I human rights and environmental impact were important to me, I didn’t want my purchases supporting questionable practices.
The success of my experiment was questionable to say the least. It turns out that it’s pretty much impossible not to buy products that are somehow connected to the huge Chinese economy. And it seems that questionable human rights and environmental records are not limited to China…
Well-thought out purchasing is important, but there is another way that we can “put our money where our mouth is” – something that I wish I knew about in my early twenties when I started my first “career-type” job.
I remember sitting in the office of the Director of Support Services and being asked about my pension and benefits. At the time, I was living pay cheque to pay cheque, and so my employer putting money away from me AND taking money off my income every month to save for my retirement made being responsible easy at a time when I may have preferred to just take the money home! I checked a couple boxes and really paid no more attention for a number of years afterward.
Fast forward 17 years, and I was deciding what to do with my investments as part of transitioning to a new job. My knowledge of unjust economic systems had deepened, and my retirement savings had grown. I found myself with a chunk of change that I was responsible for — a larger amount of money than I’d ever spent at one time — and I could decide where to put it.
I talked to a couple financial advisors, and heard about TFSAs, and RRSPs, and LIRAs, and CSBs, and ETFs…. and a lot of other acronyms that skipped off their tongues as easily as my confused eyes glazed over. Something I did understand though, was that they all had one thing in common: they focused on investing in the current system to make me money. When I mentioned that I’m involved in social justice work, they would add that the more money I could make, the more of it I could give to charity – make more money to give more away.
But something about this just didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but think that either way, my money would still be bolstering injustice – an economic system built on endless extraction of natural and capital resources, and often at the expense of the most vulnerable. I would be contributing to the problem that my charity dollars were hoping to solve… it seemed kind of backwards to me. Why not choose to put my money in places that didn’t contribute to the problems in the first place?
And so, in my research to figure out where to put my money, I started asking different questions. Are there ways to invest my money so that it doesn’t contribute to inequality and injustice? Is it possible to invest in ways that actually contribute to well-being in the world rather than only my own financial well-being? And I choose to invest my money a little differently, in a way that I feel aligns with my values. I put my money where my mouth is.
The world of socially-conscious investing is not perfect, and, while the money I had to reinvest was significant to me, it really isn’t going to make a huge dent in economic systems of injustice. BUT, it may have more of an impact than most of my well-thought out purchases in any given year, and that’s not bad.