We had the pleasure of interviewing Camille Smith (name changed to keep anonymity), a true hero for climate action, about her experience getting her company to adopt a climate-friendly investment option in their 401(k) plan. Read on to find out why she decided to become an advocate for climate-friendly finance, what her experience was in requesting this option at her company, and what she learned in the process.
I work at a SaaS company that specializes in employee listening, people analytics, and leadership coaching for enterprise companies. People analytics and employee survey professionals work at my company.
I am interested in climate-friendly finance because I am committed to using my money to fund the causes that I care about. Climate-friendly finance allows me to create the world that I want to live in and take a stand for the environment with my money. I do not want one penny of my money to be invested in fossil fuels because fossil fuel supporting practices value profit over people. As a woman of color, I believe it is important to divest from fossil fuels and fund climate solutions because people who look like me will be the most impacted by the climate crisis. Last year, I took climate action by moving my cash holdings to a sustainable bank and moving my IRA accounts to a climate friendly investment advisor. The next step was to divest my 401(k) account from fossil fuels.
My company 401(k) line up consisted of a large well known family of index funds and a few mutual funds when I first started investing. There were no climate-friendly or socially responsible investment options available for plan participants. I researched all of the funds in my company 401(k) on fossilfreefunds.org. I was shocked when I learned that none of these funds were aligned with my values. Every single one of these funds had investments in fossil fuels, private prisons, deforestation, tobacco, etc.
When I originally reached out to the benefits team in August 2022 about adding the fund, the team seemed onboard with the idea. Our benefits manager reached out to our 401(k) broker about adding SPFFX and was told that it was not currently offered within our company plan but it could be added. I followed up once a month and each time I was told that they were still working on getting the fund added. In December, the benefits team told me that they loved the idea but they wanted to hold off on adding the fund until they conducted a review in 2023 of the company financial programs to evaluate other opportunities and offerings.
My company started a slack channel where employees could ask questions that our executive leadership team would answer live during our monthly town hall meetings. Employees were able to vote for questions by using emojis. I thought this would be a great way to see if other employees wanted to invest in their values like I did. I posted “Can [Company] add a climate friendly, and in particular fossil fuel-free option to our 401(k) lineup?”. My question was the first question answered during the townhall because it had the most emojis/votes out of all of the questions that were asked. The CFO answered my question during the townhall and said that our 401(k) provider suggested an ESG Vanguard fund instead of SPFFX. Fossil Free Funds revealed that this fund was invested in deforestation, private prisons, and had $25.75 million invested in fossil fuels. I posted this information to the chat and asked again if SPFFX could be added since SPFFX does not have any fossil fuel holdings. After this, my CFO contacted our 401(k) provider again and the fund was added to our line up. The fund will officially be available on March 15th. I can’t wait to move my funds into SPFFX and divest my 401 (k) out of fossil fuels.
The advice that I would give is to be persistent. I felt like giving up after months of following up and being told the same thing each time. I had to keep reminding myself why climate friendly investing was important to me. I also recommend getting other people involved. I believe seeing the reactions to my question in the slack channel showed the executive leadership team that climate friendly investing was important to employees and forced them to take my request seriously.
Thank you Camille for sharing your story with us - what an inspiration. It shows that anyone can make a difference within their sphere of influence, especially with a bit of persistence.
To learn more about how to add a climate-friendly option to your company's retirement plan, check out our overview of how retirement plans work, and our example email to HR to help get you started. Don't hesitate to reach out to us with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or schedule a time to talk to us here.