Mayleah House is Senior Policy Analyst, at the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI)

What was your first job?

During high school I had a few jobs in hospitality and as a touch football referee (although my sports career never took off – shame!).

After high school I took a gap year to save some money for travel and was thrust into my first semi-professional job as a legal secretary. It was during that time that I decided to study my Bachelor of Laws and Psychology, which, through a series of fortunate events, has led me to now working in sustainable finance and completing my Masters of Environment and Sustainability.

When did you know you wanted to work in finance/business?

There was never a clear light bulb moment for me that I wanted to work in finance. For me, my career objectives have always been about what can I do to create a positive impact on society.

After completing my bachelors, I travelled to Central America where I ended up becoming a professional dive master in Utila, Honduras. Diving everyday was the closest I will get to being out in space – you float in the never-ending blue abyss with alien like plants and creatures floating past you.

However, although the diving was captivating, it was there I saw the first-hand effects of climate change and high temperatures bleaching coral, overfishing eliminating the reef life, and pollution from the great pacific garbage patch that completely destroyed a beautiful part of the world I had come to love.

When I returned to Australia, I worked as lawyer for a top tier law firm. There I had the opportunity to work on corporate governance issues. While I relished that experience, the impacts of the environmental degradation I saw in Honduras compelled me to apply my skills and knowledge towards addressing climate change and nature loss. I then ended up working for a few environmental advocacy NGOs. There my roles focused on both strengthening the Federal Government’s climate policies and financial institution’s governance and procedures around climate. I continue to use that experience now in my current role with the PRI.

When did you first discover the concept of impact investing?

Impact investing is a concept that I became familiar with as I was engaging with financial institutions around the climate impacts of their lending and investment portfolios. At the time (and arguably still), many financial institutions conduct impact investing through specialist funding arms and consider it to solely involve allocating capital towards positive environmental and social projects that would not otherwise exist without targeted capital. What has been interesting to me is to see how broader stakeholders in Australia and globally are seeing an evolution in the concept to consider how investors can shape sustainability outcomes and impacts across their entire portfolio.  

At the PRI, for example, we released a report in 2021 authored by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, in conjunction with the Generation Foundation and UNEP FI, that considered whether investors across 11 jurisdictions were permitted or required to invest for sustainability impact. The findings showed that investors are broadly permitted to set sustainability outcomes goals and pursue them not only through their investment decisions but through stewardship and policy activities as well.

Interestingly, we’re now seeing investors increasingly move beyond solely allocating capital to shape sustainability outcomes and impacts, to also utilise appropriate stewardship levers. Last year, for example, the PRI launched Advance, a new stewardship initiative on human rights. Two hundred and twenty investors with over $30 trillion USD in AUM have already joined Advance to collaboratively influence companies and decision makers to drive positive outcomes for workers, communities and society. This enthusiasm by institutional investors for collaborative stewardship is also reflected through other joint initiatives on climate change, such as Climate Action 100+ and the PRI’s collaborative sovereign engagement on climate change.

What’s one exciting development you and your team have in the pipeline?

Last year, we released an Australian focused Legal Framework for Impact policy report that built on the findings of the Freshfields report and made recommendations for how Australia’s legal and policy framework should be enhanced to be clarify when and how investors should shape sustainability outcomes and support them in doing so. We’re continuing to engage with policy makers, signatories, and other stakeholders on these recommendations.

One recommendation that I’m personally excited for is around the development of more effective frameworks to support outcomes-focused stewardship. We’re exploring this area further – so watch this space!

What’s the key sustainable finance issue that investors should keep their eye on in 2023?

This year is a pivotal moment for sustainable finance in Australia. The Treasurer is leading the development of a national sustainable finance strategy with a view to ensure Australia’s economy is sustainable and safeguards the environmental and social systems it relies upon. International markets, such as the EU and UK, are well-progressed with their own national sustainability strategies. Australia has the opportunity to learn from these international developments and deliver a strong, ambitious strategy.

Two key pillars of the Treasurer’s strategy will include the introduction of mandatory climate disclosures and the implementation of a sustainable finance taxonomy building on the work the Australian Sustainable Finance Institute is currently undertaking to develop guiding recommendations for an Australian taxonomy. Importantly, mandatory climate disclosures will provide investors with clear, comparable, and reliable information on the climate impacts of their assets to support both investors and companies to rapidly drive down emissions and transition their business models.

Excitingly, I see the development of a sustainable finance agenda as an opportunity for investors to consult with and work closely with the public sector to help develop the policy rules and guardrails to strengthen their current approaches. I’m hopeful that this strategy will remain an enduring agenda and, in due course, evolve to support investors to not only mitigate climate change but also broader system-level risks such as biodiversity loss and rising inequality.

What’s your vision for impact investing in 5 years time?

In the same way that ESG integration and other forms of responsible investment have rapidly accelerated to the mainstream in the past five years, I think we will see that impact investing and broader outcomes focused investment approaches will exponentially become a priority for Australian asset owners and managers.

I believe investors will increasingly recognise the need to shape sustainability outcomes to not only mitigate system-level risks but to also respond to member and clients’ sustainability preferences and support the achievement of national economic priorities.

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