Fri 23-Nov-2018

The first time I heard the abbreviation “ESG” was about a decade ago at Bloomberg. It was part of a test for a specialist role in the Analytics department (the <help><help> guys). I had no idea what it meant, which meant that for a little while longer I remained a generalist. I would say that my knowledge of ESG was fairly representative of financial services at the time.

Fast forward to present day, and it’s practically a brave new world. The financial crisis is over, the AI is coming (for our jobs…), and ESG leapt from something you’d put on a glossy (non-recyclable…) annual statement as a “nice-to-have” to a “business-as-usual-goes-without-saying”.


While the term itself doesn’t have an unambiguous definition, most people (finance professionals and general public alike) seem to have a good, organic understanding thereof: broadly defined ethical, environmentally-friendly investing. The width of the spectrum will differ among individuals: some will exclude industrial animal farming, some will not; some will exclude tobacco and alcohol, some will not; many will exclude hydrocarbons; and everyone will exclude assault weapons or landmines.

Change begins with awareness. 30 years ecology was either unheard of entirely or – at best – considered a fad. Today most people have a level of environmental awareness. There have always been activists who tried to raise awareness of inconvenient truths, but it took the explosion of social media to democratize previously unwelcome content (with the obvious flipside being fake news) and gave general public the opportunity to educate themselves on the environment, sustainability, corporate governance, animal welfare etc.

The next step from awareness is action, which isn’t always easy. Consumers in the developed world are not taking very kindly to the idea of “do without” (author included). Instead, they (we…) want ever more stuff – but this time environmentally-friendly, sustainable, ethical stuff (the prodigy architect Bjarke Ingels called this philosophy “hedonistic sustainability”). With our natural-born, neoliberal, capitalist awareness, we – the consumers – know all too well that brands and corporates depend on us for their survival. It is therefore unsurprising that different shades of consumer activism erupted in recent years: we want the manufacturers of our trainers to pay their labour force in South-East Asia living wages; we want cobalt in our consumer electronics to come from conflict-free mines; we want our coffee to be Fairtrade and the milk we add to it to be organic. Alongside all this activism there is also naming and shaming: of corrupt defence contractors; of polluting coal mines; of clothing manufacturers ignoring health and safety of their seamstresses etc. etc.

Financial services (especially banks; asset managers have reputationally fared much, much better) are not always synonymous with high ethical conduct (and I’m being really charitable here…). The list of prosecuted cases, no contest settlements, and plain lack of ethics of the past decade alone will feature many of the largest players in the industry (some of them included on multiple counts). On the upside, the broad social/regulatory climate has also changed in recent years and (unabashed) greed is no longer good. One hopes that increasingly high costs of misconduct will turn out to be the best, the most effective nudge financial services could ask for.

There’s a well-known saying that no man is an island; likewise, no business is an island which can exist ignoring changes in their customers’ lifestyles, values, and preferences (at least not for very long). Consequently, financial services had to start taking notice of pressures, trends, and opportunities in the ESG space. On the banking side that comes down to good, old-fashioned lending and project finance; and when a wind or solar farm begins to look competitively (or even favourably) compared to another mine or oil rig, then financing is a matter of common business sense, with huge intangible benefits in the shape of PR, publicity, investor relations, etc. etc. On the investment side certain assetscan – over a relatively short period of time – become highly unfashionable. Big Tobacco was first, around 1980’s / 1990’s, followed in more recent years by cases of high-profile (albeit sometimes delayed, and not always full) gradual divestment from fossil fuels (Norwegian sovereign wealth fund being the best-known example).

A unique problem of ESG is the difficulty of monitoring and scoring entities and investments, especially multinationals operating in multiple markets. Glock and Kalashnikov are fairly unambiguous, but what about EADS and Boeing with their defence and missile arms? Coca-cola seems rather neutral in terms of its environmental or social impact, but what about the impact of corn (for corn syrup) plantations or contribution to the obesity epidemic? Environmental and social impacts can at least be *somewhat* quantified, but what about governance? What defines good governance? Consistently beating quarterly EPS expectations? Low employee turnover? Paying high taxes? Avoiding high taxes? That problem isn’t new, it’s just becoming increasingly prominent – and with an investment decision being binary (you either invest in something or not; you can’t half- or three quarters-invest) there is no immediate solution in sight. London Business School’s Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship Ioannis Ioannou eloquently captured this conundrum during a recent sustainability event: “I’m an academic researching sustainability and governance, I can see my pension portfolio on my mobile, but I can’t see its ESG breakdown”.

There are competing analytics vendors in purely commercial space, but there is also one alternative, more “grassroot’y” approach: B Corp. Awarded by non-profit B Lab organization, B Corp certification (B standing for “beneficial”) is a quantitative (score-based) measure of given company’s accountability, sustainability, and value added to the society. As of 2018, it’s still a somewhat niche designation, but it’s highly recognised in the ESG circles. It also carries a certain cachet which organisations increasingly see as an exclusive and prestigious differentiator. Furthermore, certification is inexpensive, which means low barrier for small organisations and reduced conflict of interest for large ones (they can’t be accused of buying a B Corp certification – with the cost being low, it’s more a matter of earning than buying it). Another interesting initiative is Natural Capital Coalition, which is a business management framework taking into account both impacts and dependencies on nature. For a small organisation NCC has been really successful at signing up large corporates such as Burberry, EY, Deloitte, Credit Suisse, (part of) university of Cambridge, Nestle or – somewhat unobviously – Royal Dutch Shell (in all fairness, it’s just implementation of the framework, which may or may not inform future actions, but still, it’s a promising start).

Still, despite certain “fuzzy logic” issues, many investment decisions can be made with a degree of confidence based on company profile, its core activities, its industry, and lastly its reputation. Overall business environment also seems to be moving, fairly quickly, towards increased adoption of ESG metrics and/or principles.

Earlier this year European Commission released first proposals of EU-wide framework facilitating sustainable investment (with a proposal to develop a clear ESG taxonomy being an added bonus and proposal to link remuneration to sustainability targets a literal one) while Bank of England issued recommendation for climate risks to be factored into broader credit risk framework. On the business side, there are almost daily developments, with: UBS Asset Management recently rolling ESG data for all its funds (May-2018), Nutmeg (UK’s largest robo-advisor) doing the same in Nov-2018, or fund giant BlackRock adding 6 UCITS funds to its growing family of sustainable iShares (Oct-2018).

The push for wider adoption of ESG investments and metrics is not going without some hurdles. A number of industry bodies (Alternative Investment Management Association [AIMA], ICI Global, European Fund and Asset Management Association) pushed back on European Commission’s recommendations. The pushback focuses on competitiveness, demand and materiality and relevance of ESG disclosures. It’s a slightly peculiar situation where many firms openly advocate and push ESG agenda while trade bodies speaking on their behalf are much less enthusiastic. It may be that industry-wide consensus is not exactly here yet; it may also be that some asset managers feel that they have no choice but to be (officially) ESG advocates, while in private they do not necessarily share the sentiment quite as much. Secondly, there is no clear conclusion as to whether ESG funds outperform, underperform, or perform at par with their non-ESG counterparts; there simply isn’t enough historical data to make a conclusive and statistically meaningful determination.

My little foray into ESG ended on an unexpectedly profound and emotional note. London’s Science Museum (alongside Royal Institution and Patisserie Valerie one of my happy places) held a special one-off screening of Anote’s Ark, a documentary chronicling titular character (Anote Tong, then-president of Kiribati) crisscrossing the globe and walking the corridors of power looking for practical solutions for Kiribati and its 110,000 nationals as their small island state is being gradually submerged and deprived of fresh water by not-so-gradually rising ocean levels. Seeing this spectacularly beautiful, benign and extremely vulnerable island paradise – and, more importantly, a home to its inhabitants – literally disappearing underwater was profoundly upsetting and put all things ESG in a completely different perspective.