Making sustainability mainstream
27 April 2023 at 9:23 am
Chair of the UN Global Compact Network Australia, Fiona Reynolds, has been advocating for responsible investing, sustainability and ESG in business for over 25 years. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Aligning finance with sustainability has been Fiona Reynolds’ goal for almost three decades.
The experienced CEO has spearheaded change in the private sector locally and globally, leading the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees for seven years and the UK’s Principles for Responsible Investment for nine years.
Guided by a passion for responsible investing and ESG in business practices, Reynolds was a founding board member of Climate Action 100+ and a driving force behind the establishment of The Investor Agenda and Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance. Each of these initiatives advocate for action on climate change and the acceleration of the transition to net-zero emissions in the investor community.
Among several other green-finance-focused board positions, Reynolds also notably chaired the global Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, which responded to calls from the G7, G20, UN General Assembly and UN Security Council to partner with the private sector to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
These efforts led to Reynolds being named one of the 20 most influential people in sustainability globally by Barron’s magazine, as well as one of Australia’s 100 women of influence by the Australian Financial Review – not once, but twice.
After serving on the board of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) in New York for almost a decade, Reynolds is now chair of the Australian Network, supporting leading businesses to create a sustainable future and contribute to worldwide social impact.
In this week’s Changemaker, Reynolds discusses why Australia needs to better signal its commitment to the SDGs; unpacks her proudest achievements; and explains why she always leads from the front.
What does this job mean to you?
I believe the private sector – both investors and business – have a key role to play in achieving a sustainable world. This includes a sustainable financial system, where there is a balance between people, profit and planet. The UNGC is an expression of this.
I like to think of the SDGs as the world’s business plan and if we could meet these goals, we would solve the world’s problems. This requires the government, private sector, and civil society to work together.
What do you value as a leader?
Integrity and transparency, but most of all authenticity. With me, what you see is what you get.
Identify a hurdle you’ve faced in your career and how you overcame it.
When I started working in the sustainability space within the investment community, it was viewed as a fad, a fringe issue. It wasn’t seen as a mainstream investor matter, so many people wanted to ignore our work and not take us seriously.
To overcome this, I had to believe in my convictions and build the academic evidence needed. It taught me to not be afraid to lead from the front, because that’s where the action is – or soon will be.
But while taking action is critical, so is supporting others, as this helps bring together stakeholders, coalitions and ultimately, momentum.
How does Australia perform in areas of sustainability when compared to other countries around the world?
I think Australia is far behind where it needs to be. We have to catch up with many of our peers if we want to be a global leader in sustainability. This is in part due to more than a decade of inaction at the government level, but the private sector also needs to step up and be bolder in its demand for action.
I believe Australia needs clear policy and roadmaps from the government. This will create a certainty of direction, so that investment can flow and new markets can be created. As a G20 and OECD nation, Australia is already seen as a force for good on the international stage. Let’s leverage that further.
A greater signalling of Australia’s commitment to the SDGs is needed. This includes highlighting the positive impact the goals have on the lives of many millions of people, particularly women and girls in lesser developed countries, as well as creating better and more meaningful data.
The opportunity is there in Australia. Some of the work the Australian Sustainable Finance Institute and others have done points to this, but we need to get moving even faster.
What is your proudest achievement in your career so far?
I believe our financial system needs to work for the many, not for the few, and this is what I have focused my career on. I am proud of:
- Being part of making sustainability a mainstream issue for investors and business.
- Helping move climate up the agenda for both international finance and national policy makers, as well as putting the S in ESG – the social issues – on the agenda.
- Being involved in launching a number of critical climate initiatives for the investment community. This includes Climate Action 100+, the largest investor to corporate climate engagement in history.
What motivates you to work in this field?
I found my interest in the power of finance and investment for both good and bad as Australia’s retirement funds grew rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was constantly involved in corporate governance, policy and investor engagement issues, with sustainability principles still in its infant stages.
Post the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), it became even clearer that finance, investment and business needed to be on a much firmer footing in relation to all stakeholders and the wider impact of poor governance and misplaced priorities. The increased exploration and new emphasis on ESG were partly a reaction, I think, to the GFC.
I have witnessed a global shift towards driving ESG-focused investment that protects long-term profitability. I am confident that this theme will continue to influence the Australian business landscape as we work together towards a sustainable, net zero future.
How do you relax after work?
I love eating out, wine with friends, a good book and a Netflix binge. Most of all, I love to travel and just be with people who are important to me.
What do you want your legacy to look like?
To have contributed to a financial system internationally that works for all stakeholders. A system that has sustainability as its basic foundation, and is net positive in its role in modern society in creating, sustaining and sharing prosperity and opportunity.
I look forward to continuing to help shape the way Australian private businesses understand and utilise responsible investing.