‘Green defectors’ abandon top careers in business and finance

Six years ago, Samantha Cooper had a significant job in London’s Canary Wharf financial district and a tough life to live up to it.

At 42, she was leading a global sales team at BP Oil Group, waking up at dawn and heading straight to the gym, checking emails all the way for any new developments in the market. .

To recover from her arduous work weeks, she would book last-minute flights to the Maldives, in business class. Or fantasize about the plans for an underground swimming pool at his second home in Kent. It was an exhausting, yet addictive way of life.

“There was always this feeling that I needed another year,” she says. No matter how much money and how successful she was, she adds, “you can always convince yourself that you don’t have enough yet.”

By the end of 2015, however, it was Cooper who had had enough. After almost 20 years of trading at BP, making money seemed okay, but not great. She didn’t spend time with her aging parents. When she and her husband, a gardener, had friends to stay, she worried about when they would leave because she had so much work to do.

“I had lost who I was,” she said. “My values ​​did not match what I was doing. She decided to resign but, during a long handover, worked for Business in the Community, a Prince of Wales charity supported by BP. There she was confronted by young people who asked her “How can you work for a fossil fuel company?” Cooper, a chemistry graduate from Oxford, realized that what she really wanted to do was tackle climate change.

In 2016, she left BP. Today, she volunteers for several environmental and social causes and is the unpaid director of Business Declares, a nonprofit group that helps organizations trying to tackle climate change.

This places her in an unusual subset of the global green campaign movement: Executives are abandoning top jobs in business or finance, often at the peak of their earning years, to fight for a safer climate.

It is difficult to know precisely how many of these green defectors exist. Some who have taken the leap say they only know one or two outside of them. Some have gone back and forth. Cooper says she knows at least one person who left BP to work with ShareAction, a responsible investment campaign group, but was persuaded to go back by Bernard Looney, who has pledged a greener agenda since quitting. ‘he became CEO of BP in 2020.

Other dissidents believe they are part of an enlargement trend.

“I think the number is growing,” says Tariq Fancy, who until 2019 was global director of investments for sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

He denounced his old industry in a widely read essay this year that claimed sustainable investing was like “selling wheatgrass to a cancer patient” and a “deadly distraction” from the urgent need to fight. against climate change.

Fancy says he received “hundreds” of messages in response to the essay, and the number of those who praised him for speaking out suggests that many others share his point of view, although they do. did not quit their jobs.

“The number of people who are itchy doing this is significantly higher than the number we obviously see doing it,” he says.

One thing made it a little easier for Fancy to get out of a big job in finance: he had already done so, in 2012, when he left the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, where he was working on new credit strategies. He then created Rumie, a nonprofit digital learning group of which he is the CEO.

For others, giving up on a successful, high-paying professional career has been far from easy.

“It took me a while to figure out,” says Ben Tolhurst, who decided to jump ship after having had a revelation at Canary Wharf tube station.

It was a morning in February 2019 and Tolhurst, who had just turned 49, had arrived for another day of work at Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate group, where he was managing director of property and asset management. UK. It was one of a series of important jobs for Tolhurst, a management consultant to senior executive at companies such as telecommunications group BT and contractors Serco and Capita.

Like many others, he had noticed the unusually hot European summer 2018 and the Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking London bridges.

But climate change hadn’t been very much on his radar until he stepped off the subway at Canary Wharf in nearly 20C of heat on what was supposed to be a winter’s morning. The people looked happy. Newspapers reported that the beaches were busy and flowers were blooming early. But for Tolhurst, something broke.

“I stood there for a while and thought, ‘Is everyone crazy or am I crazy? “, He said.

The realization that a changing climate had likely brought on the unusually hot day plunged him into a research frenzy in climate science. He became a vegan; resolved to stop flying and decarbonized its pension fund.

But it was not enough. “Being directly employed in a company was no longer something I could do in a genuine way,” he says. “Therefore, I felt I had no choice but to leave. “

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By September 2020, he had quit and embarked on a very different, but still very busy life. In addition to being a director of Business Declares, alongside Cooper, he is a non-executive director of Greentech, a group that helps new green companies bring their products to market, and a business mentor at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He also advises his town hall on its climate emergency plan.

“I tell him to take care of himself and not say yes to everyone,” said Andrew Medhurst, another Green City dissident who ended a 30-year career with HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and other financial institutions almost two years before Tolhurst took the plunge.

The two met in 2019 after Medhurst started working on what became Business Declares. They have a half-hour virtual cafe every fourth Friday that Medhurst says he suggested helping Tolhurst avoid the pitfalls he encountered.

“I went from a busy job in financial services to being a busy climate activist and, looking back, I think that was a form of denial in and of itself,” he says.

Medhurst joined the finance team of the Extinction Rebellion protest movement after encountering difficulties in his London work at Nest, a professional retirement organization. “I couldn’t reconcile encouraging young people to save money for a future that I couldn’t believe exists any longer,” he says.

This year, he made another shift to work on Scholars Warning, a network of academics urging more discussion about the risk that climate change causes society to collapse.

Many have been influenced, as Medhurst has been, by Deep Adaptation, a 2018 article by British professor Jem Bendell, which suggested that climate change would cause such crises that people should consider quitting their jobs or careers for s ‘prepare for it.

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Bendell says he knows at least eight people who changed their professional lives after reading Deep Adaptation, including two from the European Commission, but few were from finance and business.

Those who have changed jobs recognize that they are fortunate to have the financial security that allows them to quit their jobs. To those who would like to follow suit, but fear the consequences, many say the change is ultimately worth it.

“I found this difficult for a while,” says Cat Jenkins, communications coordinator for the Deep Adaptation Forum, a global network inspired by Bendell’s article. Based in the Isle of Man, Jenkins has spent almost 30 years in the offshore finance industry and says his identity rested heavily on being “the kind of person who has a big house and a big car and a great title and respect “.

“Now I can honestly say that even though I earn a lot less and have a house a lot smaller, I feel more secure and secure,” she says.

Part of that is because she has better health, good friends, and strong relationships. “But actually,” she adds, “I found a goal.”

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