As enthusiasm about ESG investing has been on the rise, so too has controversy. ESG is an acronym that refers to the environmental, social and governance considerations relating to investing. It’s an approach that, by some estimates, may become integrated into half of all U.S. managed accounts by 2025.
Why should investors and companies care about ESG? The argument is that in the long run, those risks will impact the business — companies that consider these non-financial, yet material, metrics in their strategy are best poised to mitigate risk and succeed. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rising prices for oil and gas, and spiraling discontent among workers provide early evidence of how environmental and social concerns will impact investors.
Where ESG Draws Criticism
Criticism about ESG generally falls into two broad categories. One view holds that ESG is systemic “greenwashing.” Companies publish glossy reports about their social and environmental engagement and hope that investors take interest or include them in sustainability indices. This view maintains that companies are rewarded for publishing a report that reveals some good practices, while ignoring the bad ones, and thus get a bump up in their third-party ESG ratings.
The second category of criticism is that if environmental and social challenges in business are so fundamental to long-term good management, and thus good financial performance, then the market will eventually price it into corporate valuations. This view believes that markets are efficient; it then follows that better social and environmental outcomes will prevail, if we keep the eye on the ball, which is financial performance.
A consistent assumption among the critics, however, is that ESG is designed to enable better ethical and social outcomes. But that's not necessarily the case — ESG is not the same as ethical, socially responsible or impact investing. And that’s OK, because we need all these strategies.
Impact investors seek measurable impacts on people, planet and profits with respect to how they allocate their money. A socially responsible or ethical investment strategy might seek to exclude from their funds companies that are deemed unethical. But an ESG strategy remains invested in the company, even if there are activities not aligned with their values, and will push for change.
For example, ESG investors might use their investment stewardship and proxy voting team to engage with the companies’ boards and CEOs about their plans to address climate risk, or even vote against the re-election of certain board members. The recent proxy battle victory by activist investor Engine No.1 at Exxon Mobil demonstrates this point (see my analysis here (opens in new tab)).
The Impact ESG Has on the Economy and Companies
Advocates for ESG investing indicate that their interest in climate and social factors stems from their view that poor management of those risks will impact financial portfolios and long-term business performance. The analytical focal point is impact on the economy and on the financial performance of companies, not the other way around.
Regulators also point to the risks that ESG considerations pose to the financial portfolios. The Department of Labor, for instance, recently proposed rules (opens in new tab) that, if passed, would permit fiduciary investment managers to take ESG risks into consideration, namely because they “may have a direct relationship to the economic value of the plan’s investment.” If there are any positive effects on people and the planet, it’s considered a “collateral benefit.”
The NY Department of Financial Services also provided guidance (opens in new tab) about climate change risks to the financial firms under its jurisdiction. They indicated that financial firms, particularly insurance companies, should integrate into their governance and risk-management processes how various climate change scenarios are likely to impact their business.
The frame of analysis, thus, is the impact on business and financial systems. The success of ESG depends on further expanding, measuring and defining the business case for ethics. This is one reason why making “the business case” for social challenges has become a feature of academic research and the business press (as I argue here (opens in new tab), sometimes it goes too far).
Maintaining Principles Is a Key to Success
A principled ESG fund will therefore present investments that are at the intersection of financial performance and social or environmental good, so that investors can align their values with those opportunities. As Tariq Fancy describes in The Secret Diary of a Sustainable Investor (opens in new tab), think of a Venn diagram where purpose and profit seek to intersect — that intersection constitutes the ESG integration approach for social and environmental good.
For ESG to continue to grow and succeed, the intersection in that Venn diagram needs to expand. Financial firms, companies, rating agencies and other intermediaries need to collaborate to improve the consistency of data (opens in new tab), the accuracy of marketing and continued standardizations in disclosures.
To be sure, there is greenwashing in ESG, and some companies take advantage of sustainability reports by, for example, highlighting only marginal efforts around stakeholder engagement without any change in their core operations. Governments and regulators should help define the space and provide oversight with respect to these practices.
We all need to speak, write and report more precisely around this topic. Conflating ESG, sustainability, impact and ethical investing can confuse the aims of adherents to each approach. The longevity of the movement depends on it.
Azish Filabi, JD, is Executive Director of the American College Center for Ethics in Financial Services (opens in new tab) and an Associate Professor of Ethics at the American College of Financial Services. She joined The College in 2020. Before that, Filabi worked at BlackRock as Vice President for Investment Stewardship, where she was involved with topics such as executive compensation, board quality, diversity and composition, and disclosure of environmental and social risks.
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