How to make your savings work harder


We’re all looking for ways to “do our bit” with less effort, hence the popularity of such simple actions like taking your own bags, buying organic, eating less meat, cycling more and so on.

If you have any financial savings, here’s a few simple things you can do which only take 20 minutes to do but can reward you with the warm glow of ethical contentment every single day.

1. Switch to an ethical bank

Firstly you don’t need me to tell you that most banks aren’t what you or I would think of as ‘ethical’. If you’re with any of the players you see in the newspaper every few days threatening to leave the country or being investigated for foul play, you can be sure they don’t share your interests.

There is only really one high street bank in the UK with an ethical policy, and that’s the Co-operative Bank. The bank has its roots in the co-operative movement that started in the 19th century as a way of creating a fairer model of capitalism through shared ownership. The bank remains committed to those ideals, and members all receive a share of the profits. A strict ethical policy means no investment goes to companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, animal testing, and so on. Because customers vote every year on how their money is used, new concerns are regularly included, such as genetic modification or climate change. Because the Co-operative is not on the stock market, it is much more stable than other banks, and has actually grown during the credit crisis.

Smile is an online subsidiary of the Co-op, so all of the above is true of Smile accounts too. Smile was the first internet bank launched in the UK. Because it doesn’t support a network of branches, it has lower running costs, and these are passed on to customers in lower charges and higher rates.

2. Put your savings in a Mutual Credit Union

A credit union is a financial co-operative that is owned, controlled, and run for the benefit of its savers. There are 49 of these ‘credit unions’, ‘mutuals’, or ‘building societies’ in the UK. Unlike normal high-street banks, mutuals redistribute their profits to members – members being the savers and borrowers. So rather than the interest you pay going towards the £7billion bonus round, or to the Qatari royal family (in the case of Barclays), it’ll be going back to other members of the public who share your bank. They are prohibited by law from engaging in commodities or foreign exchange trading. Your savings won’t be instrumental in pushing up the price of food to the point where people in developing countries starve.

The more local the mutual, the more local the benefits.

The biggest in the UK are Nationwide and Coventry. Both offer current accounts with debit cards (like any normal bank) and will transfer your direct debits and other payments from your other account automatically. Both generate employment in the UK by hosting their call centres here.

The more local the mutual, the more local the benefits you’ll see, since the money is loaned in your community. A list of more localised mutuals is available at Wikipedia. Have a look for one close to you.

Where I live, Norfolk Credit Union has a branch in our local market town, which might be of particular interest to Transition Swaffham members.

3. Lend it to people who really appreciate it – and show it in their interest payments

Zopa is a person-to-person money lending service that allows lenders and borrowers to deal directly with one another, cutting out the banks who act as middlemen. People post their profile, why they’re looking for money, and how much they’re willing to pay for it. Borrowers are credit-checked and risk-assessed, and you can spread your money across many borrowers

4. Longer term investment

Triodos declare every loan they make – a uniquely transparent measure. Rather than doing as little harm as possible, Triodos set out to use money for good, and will only finance businesses that “add cultural value and benefit people and the environment”. They are best known for investing in wind power in the 1980s, long before it was a fashionable cause.

Shared Interest have pooled the savings of their 8,500 members and used the money to provide capital for the Fairtrade movement. This is very much a social investment as well as a financial one, putting your savings at the disposal of those working to alleviate poverty.

Ecology Building Society was created to serve those who were having trouble getting mortgages on properties that needed extensive renovation, or those seeking to fund self-build or low-impact housing. It’s mission remains the same, issuing mortgages for building projects that will improve the environment.

The Ecological Land Co-operative purchases degraded agricultural land and applies for planning permission for low-impact small-holdings with temporary residences. We develop business plans for the small-holdings, provide a water supply and road access. If we can we also provide a shared barn made of natural and local materials, a telephone line, and a micro-generator and an electric delivery vehicle. We then sell 999-year leasehold agreements for the small-holdings at an affordable rate, passing on just costs plus a target return to investors of 6%.


Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


  1. Wonderful, useful article/post – thank you. The lady that runs Zero Credit has some useful things to say about credit etc too which I suspect would be of use to a larger proportion of the UK population than care to admit. Wouldn’t it be ace if everyone switched to ethical banking AND got themselves to a point where they weren’t taking out loans and credit cards in order to fund unsustainable lifestyles?

    Anyway here’s the link:

  2. No plans to do this explicitly yet, I’m afraid. There are far more blogs covering the US, and Europe is linguistically split, which makes it a tad harder.

    All the same principles apply, however. Just follow the money chains: the ones which end up trickling out to Jersey or Grand Cayman are evidently inefficient; the ones which go to your local solar installer are better.

    Foreign alternatives most certainly exist and a quick google should bring up some results (eg Please post anything you find useful in the comments here and I’ll try to do a wrap up summary later. Or see Josef’s link above.

    One of the most interesting places to look at the evolution of money is Africa where money and utility meet in the trading of mobile phone minutes as currency, bypassing pretty much every systemic chokepoint we have to labour against.

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