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A whole new way to invest — think small to think big.

Joanna Rotenberg, Group Head, BMO Wealth Management, shares her advice.

Joanna Rotenberg

By Joanna Rotenberg

Over and over this year, I’ve asked myself: What can I do?

The global pandemic made it clear: We may all be in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. 

Social and racial injustice, gender inequality, the climate crisis, inequality between countries and people that “have” and “have not” — and the intersection between these systemic issues — have long existed. However, if we’re honest, for many of us it wasn’t as visible — not a swell of inequity playing out right before us in the media, and certainly not up close and personal, in our own main streets and backyards. 

The pandemic revealed these blind spots, and our collective will for change is higher than ever.

So perhaps the better question is: What can I do to help change the system? And if you are feeling like I do, I’d like to propose one possible answer: Rethink and redefine investment.  

Sometimes this can be investment in the most traditional sense. For example, selecting environmental, social and governance (ESG) options that align your values with what you put in your portfolio. Generating returns without violating your social conscience is a rapidly growing practice that can certainly make a difference.

Yet, if we stop and think about it, there is a whole other angle to the investments we make — our dozens of “here and now” spend decisions made every week — and they add up. Think about the last restaurant you ordered a meal from. That store in your neighbourhood that supplied you with a quirky, just-right find for your new work-from-home space. The charity you donated to around the holidays when you were looking for a virtual gift for a person on your list that has everything. 

When we support local, small businesses, we are investing in our future and theirs. When we support a diverse group of business owners — some who perhaps have been underfunded in the past — we are pushing for progress. When we give through philanthropy or volunteering, we are investing in community building. When we start to see each of these purchases less as credit or debit card line items and more as investments, we see the multitude of ways we can make an impact.

“Reassessing our regular spending as “investments” may make us search a little harder, wait a little longer, or pay a little more for a product or service that makes a positive impact.” 

And that’s what a rethink takes. Investments require awareness, thought, and often expert advice. You think about return on your hard-earned money. Investments give you the promise of a better future. Reassessing our regular spending as “investments” may make us search a little harder, wait a little longer, or pay a little more for a product or service that makes a positive impact. And a consistent change in habit has a ripple effect on both individual and collective futures.

I’ve tried to walk the talk here wherever I can. For the 2020 holiday season, I decided that all the gifts on my list would be sourced from local businesses. It was a fun challenge and resulted in some fantastic finds. For the very few catering occasions I’ve had in isolation, I’ve given the business to a local woman business owner, who does a fantastic job! I haven’t been perfectly consistent, but I’m trying to make a conscious effort to align my “spend-vestment” with stronger outcomes.

And I’m not alone. More consumers than ever are making choices with a social and environmental lens, and they expect companies to do the same. According to a recent study, almost two-thirds of Canadians say they’ve “made an effort” to buy local or Canadian-made products in the past year. A Shopify survey of buyers in North America found that this trend increased during the pandemic, and keeps picking up speed. 

Globally, 73% of consumers say they would change their consumption habits to reduce their environmental impact, and sustainability is being heralded as the next “disrupt or be disrupted” revolution. According to research from Accenture, 42% of customers will walk away from a brand that doesn’t align with their personal values. They’re looking for authenticity, transparency and action demonstrating a commitment to people and the planet. I’m gratified that many of my favorite brands in apparel, beauty and home are taking this to heart and are increasingly focused on their social and environmental footprint, not just aesthetics or functionality.

I’m proud that BMO is actively working in this regard. For example, our bank has committed to making $3 billion in capital available to women-owned businesses in Canada over three years. It also has expanded efforts to advance progress for women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) employees, clients and communities, such as with the Black Opportunity Fund offering long-term capital to black-owned businesses. On the sustainability side, we’ve introduced the BMO Climate Institute, bringing academia, the private sector and experts to help companies adapt and transition to a lower-carbon world. This also comes with a doubling of our sustainable finance commitment, deploying $300 billion in sustainable lending and underwriting by 2025, and mobilizing $700 billion via responsible advisory and investment management services. 

Do we still need large-scale interventions? Of course! We need corporations, governments and leaders to shift their focus to creating broad and lasting change. Systemic issues won’t be fixed without this intervention. 

Yet the small steps we make individually — including where to spend our hard-earned dollars — add up in a meaningful way if more of us are focused on it. The last year, despite all the hard lessons, has shown that the actions of individuals can inspire societal change. That’s a silver lining we can all take away.   

So, what are you investing in today? And where will you invest tomorrow for lasting change?

Joanna Rotenberg is Group Head, BMO Wealth Management, a global manager providing over 1 million retail and institutional clients with a range of wealth management, asset management and insurance protection solutions.