Elo’s responsible investment chief: together with other investors we have ‘more power’
Responsible investment head Anna Varpula at Finland's Elo opens up about the firm's engagement and stewardship approach
Nearly half of all self-employed professionals across Finland and one in three businesses in the Nordic country have parked their pensions with Elo Mutual Pension Insurance, born in 2014 from the merger between LocalTapiola Pension and Pension Fennia and which now has more than €28 billion in assets.
To make sure all that money is invested and managed in a net zero-friendly manner is partly the responsibility of Anna Varpula, the firm's new director of responsible investments since October 2021.
Varpula has been working in finance for more than 20 years, both in Finland and London. After spending more than a decade in the UK, where she completed her MBA and was part of hedge fund Lentikia Capital, she returned to her home country over a decade ago.
“When I moved back from London, I started working at the State Pension Fund of Finland on responsible investment, and that was my first proper touch to the field,” she tells Net Zero Investor in an interview.
Varpula then spent about three years on the asset manager side of Sp-Fund Management Company, a Finnish investment firm owned by The Savings Banks, before heading Elo Mutual Pension Insurance Company’s responsible investment strategy.
A signatory of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) since 2008, it has committed to promote environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in its investment analyses, decisions and ownership policies across its entire portfolio.
For Elo, responsible investment is about managing the risks, ensuring good returns and identifying systemic risks, Varpula shares.
“The environment is changing quite fast and we are getting new data, definitions and tools,” she continues.
“When it all started, it was mainly screening, divestments and disclosures,” Varpula notes, citing a “huge” change in the way asset owners take ESG criteria into consideration.
“Now, it's also measuring the impacts and outcomes of our investments.”
As such, Elo relies on various sources of information to follow how the companies it owns comply with ESG standards, including an external international service provider, but also corporate disclosures, other public resources and media.
“For example, on norm-based screening, we get daily alerts from our service provider if there are alleged violations on ‘E,’ ‘S’ or ‘G’,” Varpula explains.
As part of this process, the Finnish pension fund follows the UN Global Compact, which supports companies’ responsible business practices in the human rights, labour, environment and corruption areas, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the International Labour Organization (ILO) standards and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
“When we notice an alleged or verified significant violation, companies are added to the exclusion, engagement or monitoring list according to our processes,” Varpula adds.
“For example, if a company is on the engagement list, we have either a direct dialogue with it or engage in collaboration with other investors.”
Last year, Elo also sent a questionnaire to its fund managers regarding Science Based Targets (SBT), their alignment with the Paris Agreement and other climate-related issues.
“We got answers from almost all,” the investment expert stresses. “About half of them were committed to Paris-aligned or other net-zero targets. But at the moment, only 10% are SBT-approved and over 60% are disclosing their carbon footprint.”
Like other asset owners, Elo uses divestment as a last resort tool.
“We engage to enhance the changes towards more sustainable practices first,” Varpula points out.
“We prefer collaborative engagement processes because we see that with other investors, we get more ‘power’,” she states, as the pension fund finds it generally more effective to engage a dialogue with investee companies in collaboration with asset owners, stakeholders or other investors to influence their practices.
Elo writes in its ownership policy that “goal-oriented cooperation can significantly increase the weight and possibilities of successful engagement in practice.”
The pension fund exercises its shareholder rights by attending the annual general meetings (AGMs) of the companies which it has invested in, which means all the Finnish firms that it owns – about 100.
Globally, it took part in the meetings of around 300 companies last year – an attendance rate that it plans to increase.
Among other alliances, Elo is a member of Paris-Aligned Asset Owners, a group of asset owners with over $3.3tn in assets that are committed to achieving net-zero portfolio greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 or sooner.
“In addition to risks, climate change provides new business opportunities,” Elo notes in its principles of responsible investing.
The company does not take part in direct investments in companies that are involved in the tobacco industry, manufacturers of controversial weapons, and corporations that generate over 15% of their net sales from business concerning coal production or the use of coal in energy production and have no clear strategy to reduce coal use.
“We encourage companies to create solutions for sustainable development, either to mitigate the impacts of climate change or adapt to its impacts,” Elo adds.
“We need all the sectors for the transition towards a low-carbon future,” Varpula concludes.