At a time when environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing seems to be making major strides, skepticism about whether sustainable or socially responsible investing will soon be —or ever be—mainstream still persists.
One of those skeptics (or realists, as he might argue) is David Blitzer, managing director and the chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. As he told Quartz recently, even though new stock indexes are being created, like the MSCI World ESG Leaders Index and the Equileap Global Gender Equality Index, which take ESG into account, ““I think it will take a long time before the official benchmark will get completely adjusted.”
It’s true that ESG investing isn’t about to replace traditional investing. Significant obstacles do remain, such as a lack of agreement about the best approach and an absence of international standards or rules governing sustainable investing.
Among the optimists are traditional firms such as State Street Global Advisors, BlackRock, Inc. and Putnam Investments. Chris McKnett, head ESG strategist at State Street Global Advisors, told InvestmentNews, “ESG is rooted in improving the investment outcome, rather than some other goal which may not be investment-oriented, and that's where we're seeing some convergence."
According to the Robb Report, estimates from the impact investing firm Swell Investing show that these women investors have the potential to add as much as $22 trillion to investments in conscious capitalism. That would greatly increase the existing pool of nearly $9 trillion.
The proof is in the numbers. Statistics show that investments that factor in ESG deliver profits and long-term liability. The MSCI KLD 400 Social Index, a capitalization-weighted index of 400 U.S. securities that provides exposure to companies with outstanding ESG, reports that its annualized returns (over a 20-year period ending January 31, 2018) were 5.46 percent, slightly better than the S&P 500’s 5.43 percent over the same period.
As Jessica Huang, director of sustainable investing at BlackRock in San Francisco, told Robb Report, “Eventually, it won’t be called sustainable investing. It will just be called investing, with ESG as a material driver of risk and returns.”
Savita Subramanian, head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, is another proponent who sees the ESG train picking up steam. As she told Robb Report, “It’s not just for tree-huggers….An investor who only held stocks with above-average ranks on both environmental and social scores would have avoided 15 of the 17 bankruptcies we have seen since 2008.”
And not least, the urgent need for action around climate change, underscored by the recent sobering UN report on climate change, is not only a wake-up call for CEOs but is driving sustainable investment portfolios and more disclosure of climate-related financial risks.
The ESG revolution may have been quietly taking place over the past decade, but now it’s making some real noise. Those financial institutions not yet compelled into action may soon be pushed into it.
In fact, earlier this year, the United Kingdom’s pension fund association encouraged its members to vote against the chair of a company if they feel the company is not doing enough to ensure its business model is compatible with efforts to limit global temperature increases.
That kind of activism may be as much a driver of change in how companies disclose—and how investors account for—ESG as anything else.
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.