From Café de Ceuvel, a sustainable restaurant in Amsterdam-Noord, Joey Hodde (30) transferred around a thousand euros a month to Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering. “Where does all that money actually go?” he wondered five years ago. After much research online and several phone calls, he had the answer. The fund invested a significant part of the pension money of catering employees in the fossil industry, companies in the oil, gas and coal sector. “Money intended for our safe old age turned out to be invested directly in companies that endanger precisely that same future.”
De Ceuvel lobbied for a ‘fossil-free’ pension for five years, with success. This month, Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering, which manages assets of approximately 15 billion euros, was the first Dutch pension fund to indicate that it would continue fossil-free.
“This is where it started,” says Toon Maassen (29) on the terrace of De Ceuvel. In 2014, together with Joey Hodde, Esmee Jiskoot, Bart van Overbeek and Wouter Valkenier, he started a sustainable café on a vacant piece of land in Amsterdam. “We turned every euro, so that we could invest in, for example, a greenhouse on the roof – all in an attempt to be as sustainable as possible, but also remain affordable.”
There was never enough money to implement all sustainable ideas. Hodde: “And then we found out that, while the climate is getting closer and closer to dangerous tipping points, our pension money was invested in the biggest polluters, among other things.”
Hodde started calling and e-mailing, was spoken to and turned away. Finally, a representative of the fund paid a visit to Café de Ceuvel. Still, Hodde didn’t feel taken seriously. “The account manager made it clear to me that I should be very happy that he made time for me, because he usually sat with the big boys like McDonald’s.”
Hodde had the feeling of being brushed off “along with my hippie fantasies about a fossil-free world.” “They would never get out of fossil fuel companies because they had to be able to guarantee the pensions of their members. That would be impossible without investing in fossil energy.” And above all, he shouldn’t worry too much about these things. In addition, they did not invest in nuclear weapons and land mines, the account manager said.
Apparently it’s impossible, Hodde thought, but he couldn’t resign himself to it either. He posted a vacancy for an intern under the title: “Will you join the fight?” With that help, he wanted to find out exactly how pension funds work.
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Katrien Eisenloeffel (26), environmental economist in training, responded to this. An interesting issue, she thought. But she soon learned that she needed to know more than she could figure out from the outside. That is why she also applied for an internship at Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering – and was hired. “That way I could get to know the fund from the inside.” Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering was initially not aware of Eisenloeffel’s internship at De Ceuvel. When they found out, they didn’t necessarily appreciate the ‘double role’, but they understood it after a conversation.
The starting point of the investment policy of Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering, as Eisenloeffel became clear during her internship, was to allocate the pension contributions of catering employees as efficiently as possible. In other words, with a view to maximum return. Because incomes in the industry are low and pension contributions are based on those wages, only little risk can be taken with the investment returns. “And there is money in fossil energy, they said.”
Eisenloeffel enjoyed discovering how the fund works – “the pension system in the Netherlands is very well put together”, she now knows. However, the goal of her internship at De Ceuvel, a cleaner pension, shifted somewhat to the background.
In the meantime, a turnaround had started at Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering. The Dutch pension funds had developed a policy for socially responsible investment, says director Paul Braams. On the basis of this, work has been carried out from 2018 on reducing the carbon footprint of the investment portfolio – reduction of interests in companies that are responsible for CO2emissions. The fossil energy sector plays a major role in this.
The fund was initially not known to what extent Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering invested in this. Eisenloeffel did venture a calculation: depending on precise data and definitions, she arrived at 5.4 to 10.9 percent in her research on the figures for 2018. In any case, according to Braams, investments in the fossil sector were only 2 percent of the portfolio from 2020 onwards.
While Eisenloeffel was doing an internship, Toon Maassen decided to increase the pressure on the pension fund. Together with Esmee Jiskoot, co-founder of De Ceuvel, he made preparations for a campaign to mobilize the catering industry throughout the country against the ‘dirty pension fund’. Eisenloeffel stepped on the brakes: “I thought we should write the fund a letter first. I wanted to approach it constructively.”
She also had good arguments for moving the pension fund to withdraw from fossil investments. It was just smarter, she’d found, more cost effective. Because the transition to less polluting, green energy is inevitable, she says. “If you are the last to leave fossil energy, your shares are worth nothing. That’s what they call the carbon bubble.”
The letter that was sent to the pension fund at the beginning of 2020 was a research report and campaign speech in one. “The joke is: if they had gone from fossil fuels ten years ago, their coverage would have been better now.”
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Two days after the letter came an invitation from the pension fund. Maessen’s initial fear that they would be brushed aside again turned out to be misplaced. Director Braams made it clear that he had to take his board into account, but was also enthusiastic about the initiative. “It was really a tipping point. Paul Braams listened to us and said: I get it, I hope your campaign will be a success.”
Maassen and Jiskoot, who now had help from five volunteers through Milieudefensie and FossielvrijNL, launched the campaign. Under the motto ‘You have a dirty pension’, a website was launched and a petition was set up – Braams would later receive the signatures on De Ceuvel. Pub crawls were also organized to inform catering staff. The campaign started at Horecava catering trade fair, the first pub information evening was to follow on March 12, 2020. And then the Netherlands had to deal with corona.
Vies Pensioen called off the pub crawls, but good contacts had been made with Pensioenfonds Horeca & Catering, trade union FNV Horeca and Koninklijke Horeca Nederland. A policy officer from that employers’ club asked Maassen if they could nominate him for the accountability body of the pension fund. Maassen: “I was shocked by the question, but also thought: if I get this chance, I should take it too.”
For example, he could ask the board every quarter whether something had already been done about the fossil investments. He was also allowed to give a presentation to the entire pension board about climate change and the unsustainability of ‘fossils’. “In this I not only talked about the urgency and the financial risks, but also tried to refute an important argument in favor of fossil-free investing; commitment.” This concerns the idea that as a shareholder you should stay in the fossil sector in order to push a company in a more sustainable direction.
Maassen argued to the fund board that ‘engagement’ for the fossil sector is not realistic. For example, a company like Shell has untapped oil reserves on its balance sheet. To become more sustainable, Shell would have to leave those stocks in the ground and write them off.
“Then you ask as a shareholder whether your own shares may decrease in value; you will never get a majority for that”, explains Maassen. “That’s why it’s better as a fund to put pressure on it by getting out.”
At the beginning of this year, the board informed the accountability body that it had unanimously opted for this step. Maassen: “First see, then believe, I thought.” But a month ago things went fast. Have a press release ready, he was told. The Financial Times reported on September 2: “Pensioenfonds Horeca wants to get out of fossil energy.”
Maassen, Hodde and Eisenloeffel beam as they tell their story. Hodde: “In the end it was only about the last 2 percent of the total share package, but with that we have obtained about a quarter of a billion euros from the fossil industry.” Incidentally, the pension fund is not yet completely out of fossil energy; the sale of ‘contaminated’ debt securities is not settled overnight.
A day after the hospitality pension fund, PME, the pension fund for the metal and electrical engineering sector, also announced that it was withdrawing from fossil energy. And at other funds, participants are now also asking for fossil-free pensions, such as ABP, which is the largest pension fund in the Netherlands with 1.1 million participants in government and education.
“This shows that campaigning works,” says Maassen. “And that you can sometimes find a solution with good research and constructive consultation.” Paul Braams looks back on ‘meaningful and enjoyable’ working together. “Vies Pensioen has certainly contributed to awareness and emphasized the urgency,” he says in a response to this piece.
Maassen: “I have great respect for the fact that the pension fund has chosen to embrace us instead of divesting us, and that it was the first fund in the country to dare to take this step. I am very concerned about the future of our planet, but this gives me hope.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 28, 2021
Café de Ceuvel in Amsterdam wanted to save the planet, and the pension fund eventually joined in
Source link Café de Ceuvel in Amsterdam wanted to save the planet, and the pension fund eventually joined in