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The Financial Activist Toolkit



Keeping up with an ever changing and rapidly moving world requires updating our activism strategies. When parts of the globe started to digitise and generations were growing up tech-literate, we adjusted our action to include digital activism. With Millenials and Gen Z due to become the richest generation through the great wealth inheritance, it is time to seize power in the area of finance; to create the era of financial literacy and financial activists.


What is financial activism?

Financial activism is the use of economic tactics (big and small) to generate change and break the status quo. It’s about everyday people and everyday actions adding up to create a world that we want to live in. Everybody holds power in some way when it comes to money; understanding where you hold influence is imperative to sustainable development.


There are many tools to be a successful and influential financial activist. Some will be things familiar to most people, especially environmentalists, but others will be novel. Each works to either reduce your negative impact or increase your positive impact, and like all things, some tools will be more accessible to you than others. It’s okay! We are all starting from somewhere - just starting is the important part!


10 Tools of a Financial Activist

  1. Donate

  2. Swap & Borrow

  3. Second-Hand Economy

  4. Ethical spending

  5. Boycotts

  6. Divestment

  7. Financial Literacy

  8. Banking Matters

  9. Shareholder Advocacy

  10. Investing


Donate

A strong start to generating change with your money is to donate to causes you care about. It’s a pretty straightforward concept that we’re all familiar with; however, with philanthropy comes responsibility. Blindly donating to causes without proper due diligence can end up putting your hard earned cash to ineffective organisations, corrupt management, and for-profit fronts. Finding out all the details before making a donation is essential. What are they fundraising for? How is the money disseminated? Are they successful in their programs? Do the beneficiaries have a voice? Fortunately, organisations like Charity Navigator have asked these questions already for you. You can use their website to scout out the charity/non-profit you wish to donate to and see if their endeavours align with your values.


Swap & Borrow

Adopting the identity of a conscious consumer can look like many things including opting out of the traditional spending economy. Of course, opting out of consumerism on everything is not the answer or entirely possible, but switching to the swap & borrow economy where viable can help reduce overconsumption and the associated greenhouse gases. Consider borrowing from a friend or neighbours in your community if you only need to use something once or want to try before you buy. Lend out items too or utilise your local Library of Things. Perhaps even go as far as trading your time too. Timebanking is a cool concept that works well in small communities and often is unofficially practised anyway in the form of favours between friends. Trade your skills to increase positive social and environmental impact and reduce demand for one-time products.





Second-Hand Economy

Between the swap & borrow economy and the traditional consumer economy lies the second-hand economy. This is particularly strong for pre-loved clothes and some argue that the second-hand clothing industry exists solely on the fact we globally over consume textiles! Buying items that are already in circulation helps slow the journey to landfill and reduce demand in supply. The second-hand market is commonly linked as an antidote to the fast fashion industry which is infamous for its sustainability problems. The working conditions in garment factories (fast, moderate and even some slow-fashion labels) are notoriously poor. Sourcing clothes from the second-hand markets helps avoid funding sweatshops as the items are already off the original shelf. To learn more about getting justice for garment workers, checkout the amazing work at Labour Behind The Label.


Ethical Spending

So sometimes you do just have to buy things off the shelf. That’s okay, it doesn’t mean you can’t still do good! This is perhaps the most visible and every-day tool for a financial activist. We can be socially and environmentally responsible simply by starting to think - to be a conscious consumer. Conscious consumption can look like many things: buying from ethical businesses, purchasing locally, shopping with cooperatives etc. Spend money on products and services put out by businesses that live and breathe their brand values. If that sounds like a lot of effort, fear not. There are reams of research and numerous databases online to help you out: Ethical Consumer and Sustainable Jungle are just a couple examples. Want to check a company's involvement in lobbying too? Is your shoe company donating to a climate-denier? Goods Unite Us has an incredible tool to check your brands’ involvement in US politics.


Boycotts

Using your money for good can also be about where you remove you your funds from. You can send a message to companies or practices that you disagree with by boycotting. That is, cancelling subscriptions or refusing to buy their products and to level up even sending a letter or social media tag explaining why. Boycotting taps into business logic. If the data shows that a packaging choice, influencer sponsorship or controversial charity donation is bad for sales, it sends a clear message to businesses what they need to change in order to keep customers (and therefore continue making profit). Research suggests that in fact it might be the reputational damage more than revenue damage that makes boycotting so effective - one bad year or profit is easier to come back from that long-term reputational damage. Consumers have power, there is no doubt about it.



Divestment

If boycotting is taking your money away from companies and brands that don’t align with your values, divestment is this on an even bigger scale. You can remove your money from entire industries that cause social and environmental harm. Divesting has significant long-term impacts beyond that first act of removing funds; it makes waves. It immediately freezes your ties to that industry but you have to stay on it to prevent any new ties bringing you back in. The biggest divestment movement of today is clearly fossil fuels but there’s increasing momentum for other harmful industries to get booted from portfolios including tobacco, private prisons, and the arms trade. For students in particular there are plenty of campaigns to get behind including People & Planet’s Fossil Free Careers and dED (demilitarise education).


Financial Literacy

Understanding how your money works in the world is imperative to making a difference. It’s the very basis of financial activism. Increasing financial literacy can start with basic money management, setting financial goals and so forth and then move into understanding wider reach matters like pensions, endowments, lobbying. The taboo around money keeps the rich, rich, and the poor, poor. It keeps the spotlight off wealth gaps and reinforces privilege whilst also limiting the scope of individual and collective financial activism. Get money savvy with free reliable resources like Harvard’s Financial Literacy Guide and the Corporate Finance Institute’s Financial Literacy Course. This activist tool unlocks higher levels of impact potential in all areas of life. Understand your situation and you’ll be able to position yourself better to make a difference.


Banking Matters

Keeping those payday earnings in a digital or real piggy bank is not the way - financially it is not sensible but also you are missing out on potential changemaking. When you store your money with ethical banks, you and all the other customers form collective capital that enables banks to fund projects that benefit society. This is just one way in which your money matters - decisions on where to store your money can drive positive change. Some of the world’s most prominent financial institutions have been key financiers of fossil fuels and yet most customers have no idea. Do you know what your bank is using your money for? You can source reputable banks at Global Alliance for Banking on Values or even check your bank’s rating at Rainforest Action Network. It’s not a simple process and due diligence takes time but rest assured you are never the first person to look for this information. There’s a world of impact data out there ready to serve you!



Shareholder Advocacy

Consider an organisation you don’t agree with or a project you think is doing things wrong or a course that is not serving its students well. You can boycott, opt out, divest and walk away. You can stop contributing your time, energy, and money. That can be your action. But this isn’t always effective action in isolation. Taking a seat at the table and making changes from the inside can also have huge positive consequences - shareholder advocacy is just that. To be a shareholder is to own a piece of a company, even if that’s super tiny. This tool is an opportunity to advocate for yourself or for others by utilising the power that you hold. A classic case and absolute win for environmentalists everywhere was when climate activists secured 2 seats on Exxon Mobil’s board. This is certainly a more advanced tool and has numerous routes to influence; if you’re ready to make an impact here check out As You Sow’s work, the largest shareholder advocacy non-profit in the US.


Investing

Finally, we reach investing. As I wrote about in An Introduction to Sustainable Investing, sustainable investing has a range of forms. This is a long-term high-impact activism tool but is something that students can start as early as today! You can invest in companies that support your values or are performing well according to particular sustainability frameworks - it all depends on what you care about. Compared to divesting, the challenge here is that positive through investment (i.e. impact investing) relies on transparency and availability of data. Financial institutions must be transparent about the work they fund, companies need to produce authentic sustainability reports, and the data for both of these needs to be available. Whilst every tool has its uses, investing as a form of financial activism in sustainability is arguably the one with the largest impact. By shifting our money with intention we can drive systemic change from the inside out.


Collective action works; if we all adopt just a couple tools of financial activism a more just, equitable, and sustainable future is achievable. Whether it’s a one time action with long term impact, or an every day small action with repeated immediate impact, there’s something for everyone. Students have endless untapped potential to make a change - let’s change that!


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Disclaimer: Content is for informational and educational purposes only. This is not financial or investment advice.


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