GEFI's 32nd Ethical Finance Round Table was hosted by Martin Currie and focussed on the often overlooked ‘s’ in ESG and heard from Lauran Halpin, Martin Currie and Thom Kenrick, NatWest Group.

Ethical Finance Round Table

Based in Edinburgh, the award-winning Ethical Finance Round Table series is the longest-running platform in ethical finance, bringing together the leaders in the field to enable learning and build community. Since establishing the series in 2010, we have seen opportunities flourish amongst the participants in the Round Tables. The Ethical Finance Round Table Series is currently being held virtually.

The session highlighted our host Martin Currie’s approach to responsible investing and NatWest Group’s structured approach to prioritising social issues. With senior representatives from organisations such as Green Investment Group, Mercer, Phoenix Group, Scottish Government, Scottish National Investment Bank, and UNEP FI in attendance, the engaging discussion explored the key social dilemmas, and the utility of the SDGs in finance.

Improving Society

The session opened with a presentation by Lauran Halpin, who offered a comprehensive overview of Martin Currie’s innovative approach to driving impact across its investments. As well as integrating stewardship and sustainability within investment teams, Martin Currie has a focus on SDG alignment and impact. Lauran then went into detail on the Improving Society fund strategy that seeks to generate financial returns at the same time as driving social change by addressing some of today’s most pressing social challenges.

Lauran explained that portfolio companies generally respond positively to KPI expectations as they align with their business goals, and where KPIs are not met, Martin Currie actively engages with them to understand and address any underlying issues while maintaining transparency and consistency in their reporting.

Measuring Impact and Dealing with the Unexpected

Thom Kenrick then provided a banking perspective emphasising the importance of identifying relevant social issues through a structured and scientific approach. NatWest Group, Thom explained, prioritises issues based on regulation, materiality, and real-world impacts, leveraging the UN Principles for Responsible Banking’s impact tool to understand its lending portfolio’s impact on the SDGs. The COVID-19 pandemic, regional conflicts and cost of living crisis were cited as examples of unexpected issues that were not included in the materiality processes but nonetheless consumed significant time and resources.

By proactively addressing emerging social concerns, NatWest Group sets an example for the finance industry and reinforces its position as a trusted partner in building a sustainable future.

Engagement and Social Dilemmas

Following the opening remarks from Lauran and Thom, a wider discussion ensued, exploring the role of finance in society. As noted below gambling, animal welfare, and arms manufacturing emerged as key social challenges for financial institutions:

  • In balancing the gambling sector’s revenue of £3.3bn with the issue of 160,000 to 340,000 problem gamblers in England [i], NatWest Group gave the example of its collaboration with GamCare to improve company practices to meet the bank’s criteria.
  • While ethical considerations and challenges of balancing necessary animal testing with ethical concerns in investment processes still exists, there was consensus that there is increasing regulatory momentum and client engagement regarding animal welfare, which is influencing investment decisions.
  • In addition to the investment challenges and ethical complexities around defence, the fluctuating discourse influenced by geopolitical contexts was highlighted, emphasising the need for consistent, informed discussions to navigate these issues responsibly.

It was apparent from the discussion that addressing such social dilemmas is not easy and it requires financial institutions to navigate complex ethical landscapes.

The Utility of the SDGs

The discussion then moved on to measurement and reporting. The consensus was that evaluating the social impact and performance of companies can be challenging to quantify due to its broad scope. As a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity, the spotlight was placed on the UN SDGs.

Whilst it was acknowledged that the SDGs provide a useful framework for global conversations and alignment, it has its limitations. The SDGs do not cover issues such as cancer research, obesity, cultural heritage, indigenous peoples, and animal welfare. They are perceived as being more state-focused, thus necessitating a flexible interpretation for effective private sector engagement in diverse local contexts like addressing child poverty in Scotland.

Private sector involvement is crucial for achieving the SDGs, but efforts need to be scaled up significantly. Current business engagement is limited by geopolitical and economic challenges, with many companies not meeting their SDG commitments [ii]. To address this, actions include standardising corporate accountability measures, leveraging investments in innovation and collaborative platforms, and advocating for supportive policies. Increased accountability, strategic investment, and policy advocacy are essential for amplifying private sector contributions to the SDGs.​

Summary

The Round Table provided a collaborative space for experts to discuss the role of finance in driving social change at scale, fostering transparency and accountability in reporting, and the crucial need for increased strategic investment, and policy advocacy to amplify private sector contributions to the SDGs.

The key takeaways from this wide-ranging discussion were:

  • Martin Currie’s innovative approach to responsible investing, demonstrates that delivering SDG impact can be profitable.
  • NatWest Group’s structured approach to identifying issues and impacts illustrates how proactive engagement with emerging social concerns can position financial institutions as leaders in sustainability.
  • The recognition of key social dilemmas for finance such as gambling, animal welfare, and defence present a complex risk challenge to the finance sector.
  • The SDGs is a useful global framework, but increased accountability, strategic investment, and policy advocacy is needed to amplify private sector contributions.

If you are interested in the ‘S’ in ESG, Lauran Halpin joined Carmen Cheng, NatWest Group for a discussion on the Just Transition, during London Climate Action Week. The episode is part of the GEFI Insights Series and will be uploaded soon.

Footnotes