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Warwick Alumna Caroline Escott Leads the Way in Sustainable Finance

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Warwick Alumna Caroline Escott Leads the Way in Sustainable Finance

Over the past 25 years, sustainable finance has grown from a visionary concept discussed at UN climate conferences to a multi-billion dollar market. It’s an umbrella term used to refer to an investment approach that takes environmental, social and governance factors into account when deciding where to invest.

One of the biggest names in sustainable finance today is Warwick alumna Caroline Escott. Regularly cited in lists and surveys of the industry’s most influential figures, she’s taken a range of interesting and exciting roles since graduating in the class of 2006, and is now Senior Investment Manager for one of the UK's largest pension schemes, Railpen.

We caught up with Caroline to hear about her career choices, the skills she believes are essential to make a success in the financial markets, and why she believes sustainable investment is one of the most effective ways to achieve both good outcomes for pension savers and positive change in the world.

Caroline, you have been named as one of the Top 50 Most Influential in Sustainable Finance by FinancialNews - can you explain what sustainable finance is?

Sustainable investors are responsible for allocating capital to companies where they are either doing well on environmental, social and governance issues or where they can be influenced to do better. Sustainable finance can also help drive flows of capital to those companies and sectors that are most important for the ongoing sustainability and viability of the world around us, such as new carbon emission abatement technologies or low-carbon infrastructure projects. As investors, we can – and do – try to influence individual companies, but it can be especially powerful to help shape the regulatory environment that governs how these companies behave. This is particularly the case when it comes to big, system-wide issues like climate change, biodiversity or labour rights.

Over the last few years, you have come to specialise in sustainable finance, especially within the area of pension schemes. What has brought you to this focus? What impact would you like to have within this?

If you are interested in influence and effecting positive change, then you need to be at an organisation where the decisions which are made matter to people’s lives. Pension schemes are perfect for this in two main ways. Firstly, they have a privileged role as large capital allocators, sitting at the top of the investment chain. Secondly, people rely on their pension schemes for their retirement income. In the UK, there are huge numbers of people at risk of an inadequate income in retirement, making this one of the biggest challenges we face as a country – and a vital field to work in.

I hope that the contributions I make to this work – including setting up and leading large global initiatives like the Investor Coalition for Equal Votes (ICEV) and the Workforce Directors Coalition (WDC) – will help bring about much-needed change in the best interest of pension scheme members.

You have made a few different career changes, from Parliamentary political research to finance and investment, all within the general theme of public policy. What made you want to make these changes, and what gave you the confidence to do so?

Moving between different sectors has happened in large part because of my work to build industry networks. I enjoy meeting new people and learning new things. This has helped me build a high-quality and wide network of experts and I’ve been fortunate to have been recommended to interview for well over half of my roles by people who I’d worked with on projects in the past – even where I was, on paper, the ‘wildcard’ candidate. I’ve now moved sectors enough that I recognise for myself the huge importance of transferable skills and the right attitude in being able to adapt to, and then thrive in, a new role.

Public policy and advocacy have always been at least part of the roles I’ve taken up. While at Warwick, my studies quickly helped me understand the huge influence that flows of capital as well as the regulatory and policy framework can have on the world around us – and that the real potential for effecting change lies where these two intersect. Even now, heading up the investment stewardship programme at Railpen, I’m a keen advocate of investors learning about how to effect policy and regulatory change.

What skills did you learn during your degree at Warwick that you still use in your role at Railpen now?

Studying economics changed how I see the world and taught me to take time to consider and understand the assumptions underlying anything from a substantive piece of research to the way in which a question in a meeting has been structured. Being able to understand and then potentially question the assumptions used is fundamental to the critical thinking that has become even more important as I take on more senior and leadership positions in my career.

What is your best memory of the University of Warwick and the Department of Economics?

It’s hard to choose just one! When I think of Warwick, I think of all the times I spent sitting and chatting with my friends – or people watching, reading a book, or getting ready to go to Top Banana.

I also remember the keen thrill of anticipation at the sheer number of modules I could choose to take as part of my degree. I ended up plumping for Italian language and translation, and a few economic history modules during my time.

You were involved in a few different societies during your time at Warwick, including Latin and Ballroom Society, and Warwick Economics Society. How did your time with these societies impact you, and what skills did they develop?

First – and perhaps most importantly – I met great people, some of whom are still close friends today. However, I also found the leadership roles I took on in these societies vital to helping me get my first job without much ‘proper’ work experience. I had both learnt and was able to demonstrate an ability to think more strategically, to organise my time effectively and to motivate a diverse group of individuals to achieve a particular outcome.

Caroline Escott (BSc Economics, Politics and International Studies, 2006)

You can find Caroline's op-ed on sustainable finance in The Times here.