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What does it mean to be an ethical investor and where do you draw the line?

Published on 02/11/2016

Dumping tobacco, landmines, cluster weapons and nuclear weapons manufacturers from our investment portfolio was a big step forward for ethically minded investors.

We won't go into the complexity of establishing a fund like this, but suffice it to say that it was designed and announced in six weeks, and we will be fully invested in it by the December. This is a very short time from idea to execution. Remember that this is peoples' retirement savings we are investing, so it's crucial to get it right and make sure all aspects of legal structures, custody, supervision, pricing, trading etc. etc. are 100% correct.

Removing these investments in a manner which is robust and cost effective isn't easy. But Vanguard, with our help, have done it anyway, because it's the right thing to do.

It's also a wonderful example of the press, and the public, asking for change, and the industry delivering it. It's a nice example of democracy in action, and a very Kiwi solution. Hooray.

The debate on ethical change will not go away, and it shouldn't. There should be an ongoing discussion on what is right and wrong to invest in, and the debate will evolve. It will never be fast enough for some, but it's clear that investors are becoming more aware of what they invest in, and they should be.

In the case of the investments we have eliminated, there are no 'rights' about them. But in other areas, the argument is much more complex.

Take fossil fuels as an example. We have been asked a few times why fossil fuels weren't included in the exclusion list, and it's a very legitimate question. There are several reasons why. 

Primarily, it's not what the vast majority of our members want. Demands to remove fossil fuel companies is low, because it would also remove investment in a large number of global companies which also produce things like plastics, food, electronic components, roading materials, and many other things now considered essential to modern living.

Secondly, it would have resulted in a much smaller, and more expensive, fund. Other managers would have likely shunned it, making it more expensive to run. To reduce fees, KiwiSaver managers need economies of scale too. Our primary goal is to increase your retirement savings via the lowest fees. If we can eliminate sin stocks in the process, we will do so, because it's the right thing to do. However, most of our members would resent us passing judgement on fossil fuels, and charging them more for doing so. That's also democracy in action.

No one wants global warming, but it is an altogether more complex argument than land mines, tobacco etc. where no good comes from them.

The ethical debate is a good and right one, and we should always consider the pros and cons of investing in controversial sectors. But we will remain very mindful of effecting change in a very cost effective manner, and doing what the majority of our members want.

Meanwhile, we continue to do other right and ethical things, like give all profits back to members, donate 15% of management fees to charity and minimise our carbon footprint. 

We are all about making Kiwi's richer in retirement, and the dignity and choice that comes from that.