Five ways individuals can back community businesses to build back greener
Ordinary people can help ‘build back better’ by choosing to invest in those community-owned businesses putting social and environmental goals first. From London Climate Action Week, we picked up five places to start.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has said a ‘green recovery’ would be necessary for an economic recovery from the impact of Covid-19. But how can ordinary people put their cash to work for a fairer and greener future?
As part of London Climate Action Week earlier this month, representatives from ethical investment specialists Ethex, Best Intentions and Good With Money co-hosted a discussion to showcase some of the community organisations and social enterprises working to create a sustainable economy, and to explain how people can support them.
Here are some of tips we picked up from the conversation.
1. Support community-owned renewable energy projects
“Community projects have huge potential [in achieving decarbonisation],” said Robert Schrimpff, CEO and co-founder of Solar for Schools, which helps schools in the UK, Germany and India to install solar projects and to educate young people about climate change.
Currently, he said, energy companies and financial institutions are rooted in traditional models of investing in large projects which need a large amount of capital. Small community groups with renewable energy projects like Solar for Schools flip this model, allowing widely distributed energy generation in smaller units.
These smaller projects are more adaptable and allow a close relationship between investors and the project: people can visit the schools they want to support and invest in them directly.
Community shares and bonds
Solar for Schools has previously raised more than £2m via positive investment platform Ethex through a bond issue, while Co-Cars, London Community Land Trust and ELC have all raised money through Ethex by issuing community shares.
Community shares are only issued by UK community benefit societies or co-operatives. This type of share is non-transferable; instead, the organisation allows shareholders to withdraw share capital, subject to conditions that protect its financial security. The value of shares is fixed and not subject to speculation, although in some cases share value can be reduced. Shareholders have one vote, no matter the size of their shareholding. The organisation benefits from long-term (eg 20-25 years) patient capital. Bonds – a form of debt with a fixed interest rate and fixed term – tend to be shorter-term. They can be made transferable and traded on a secondary market, and they can be held in an Innovative Finance ISA, which means any interest paid will be tax-free.
2. Scale up sustainable and shared transport
Mark Hodgson, director of electric vehicle hire social enterprise Co-Cars, echoed the benefit of people being involved in the projects they put their money into and being able to shape the project to match their values. To change something in the world, he said, “you can either do the change or invest in the change you want to see”.
At the moment, 30% of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from transport. The lockdown during Covid-19, Hodgson said, gave a glimpse of what a world with drastically less congestion and less air pollution could look like.
Co-Cars aims to free up space by taking more cars off the road through its vehicle hiring scheme, funded by members and with profits reinvested directly into the project (its offer is currently listed on Ethex here). In this way, investors can help make public space less polluted while giving everyone affordable access to the latest low-carbon transport.
We’re at a place where our financial goals can coincide with what we want to see in the world
3. Create affordable housing
Creating the community you want extends to private space too. Bethan Lant lives in a London flat owned by one of the UK’s hundreds of community land trusts, which create permanently affordable housing owned or managed by local people. Housing in London is currently unaffordable for many workers who are also ineligible for social housing, said Lant, who is also a board member of her trust. This creates a significant gap in the market.
“Community share offers allow people to use money to serve their values,” she said. Investing in a CLT supports affordable housing which is democratically managed by the residents, putting the power back in their hands. As with Co-Cars and Solar for Schools, Lant said a key feature of the London Community Land Trust project is transparency with investors about the work they’re doing on the houses and the costs involved.
4. Reconnect with the source of your food
Sonia Sinanan, operations manager at the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC), highlighted that people can also invest in sustainable food production.
ELC develops affordable, small farms in the UK and supports new entrants into farming, raising the money through community shares. The project also reduces the climate effects of food production through low-impact farming techniques.
“To enable us to build back better, we need to help people reconnect with the source of their food,” Sinanan says. “Raising funds is a great way to get people involved.” Its supporters seem to agree: in March this year, ELC’s community share listing on Ethex easily surpassed its £400,000 target, raising £526,000.
5. Use your influence
All speakers agreed that, with increasing demand for divestment from fossil fuels and for a green recovery, it’s crucial to redeploy that divested money into sustainable community projects. That will help meet the UK’s green commitments, which include a net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050.
Customers are both more interested in where their investments are going, and more willing to move them away from mainstream banks and building societies into positive money schemes. “We’re at a place where our financial goals can coincide with what we want to see in the world,” said Becky O’Connor, co-founder of personal finance website Good With Money. She also suggested becoming more comfortable with diversifying funds to avoid the risk of putting all your money in one place.
Finally, the panellists reiterated that ordinary people have enormous influence in their local communities. While ultimately, effective change needs both individual action and government legislation, collective action can have a huge impact on policies.
As Bethan Lant summed up, “Power comes from organised money and organised people.”
Header image: Ecological Land Cooperative
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