ESG Investing: Our Guide to Socially Responsible Investing

In the ‘70s, American economist Milton Friedman pioneered the idea that a company’s sole responsibility was to maximize shareholder value — if your shareholders are happy, your company is doing well. This value maximization approach worked for a while, and perhaps this is why big businesses get a bad rap for being “money-grabbing machines”.

But today society has moved away from this concept somewhat. It’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with working for profit, since it’s essential for companies to continue operating, but fixating on value maximization as the sole objective is a short-sighted view for any corporation in this day and age.

As society moves towards a more socially conscious one, investors are also looking to invest in companies that do more than just generate profits.

What is ESG investing?

ESG investing (a.k.a sustainable investing, socially responsible investing, or mission-related investing) is gaining traction recently with more investors interested in investing with companies that incorporate sustainable practices within their business operations.

According to a report produced by Standard Chartered Bank, 4 in 10 of Singapore investors were looking to allocate 5 to 15 percent of their funds into sustainable investments in the next 3 years.

Additionally, UBS recently identified the top 10 trends for sustainable investing in 2021, with the first trend being more investors are requesting for companies to provide better sustainability data reports, as well as clear and measurable plans.

As businesses grow and adapt, there has also been increased worry towards the climate crisis and social issues. Now more than ever, investors want to know what they are really investing in.

ESG Investing takes into account three factors: environmental, social, and governance, on top of the usual investment factors:

Environmental factors 

  • Climate change
  • Carbon footprint or Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions
  • Impact on wildlife
  • Waste management
  • Air and water pollution
  • Energy efficiency
  • Deforestation

What is the company doing to reduce their carbon footprint? Are they actively trying to find new, innovative ways in which they can operate more sustainably?

These are some factors that you might want to consider when evaluating a company.

Social factors

  • Labour policies
  • Gender and diversity
  • Human rights (child and forced labour)
  • Product safety
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
  • Relations with the local communities

Sustainability isn’t just about the environment; it takes into account social factors too. For a company to succeed, they need to understand the importance of their relationship with the community and people surrounding them.

Are they taking care of the local communities? Do they provide fair pay practice and have high workplace standards? Are these companies only focused on cutting costs or are they showing that they care for social welfare too?

Governance factors 

  • Board composition
  • Board diversity and structure
  • Transparency and disclosure
  • Conflict of interests and Corruption
  • Shareholder rights
  • Political lobbying and donations

Governance deals with standards of how the company is run. Evaluating these factors lets investors know whether the company is being run ethically, and whether the company’s stakeholders are being treated fairly by the board of trustees and the top management.

Beware of “greenwashing”

Many businesses understand the importance of being socially responsible but beware of “greenwashing” — they may look good on the outside, but nothing has really changed.

One way you can evaluate a company’s true efforts is by looking at their sustainability reports which should adhere to standards set by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)  and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).

ESG investing strategies: It’s positive and negative

To put it simply, there are two main ways of ESG investing — positive and negative screening.

Positive screening 

Positive Screening involves investing with companies that believe in doing good, and not just striving for profit maximization. Some common objectives under this strategy includes:

  • Mitigating ESG risks
  • Supporting a business model that tackles ESG problems
  • Achieving higher returns

Negative screening

Negative screening deals with filtering out companies that show poor ESG performance, specifically those that don’t comply with the ESG factors listed above. For instance, consider funds that don’t include companies that produce alcohol, tobacco, or gambling products, otherwise known as “sin stocks”.

Additionally, there are other related approaches that might be helpful if you’re considering ESG investments such as socially responsible investing, impact investing, shareholder activism, and conscious capitalism.

Why invest this way?

Wait a minute, would taking into account such ESG factors lower my potential returns? Not necessarily.

There are many funds that already factor in ESG as a risk management enhancement, which means that your ESG investments not only reduce your risk, but you still have the chance to earn a better return.

It’s been found that companies with a reliable ESG track record were more resilient than their non-ESG counterparts. Let’s refer to studies from JUST Capital, Arabesque Partners, among others, which have have illustrated that ESG investments perform better as compared to non-ESG investments.

In 2019, a white paper from the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing looked into comparing ESG funds and traditional funds from 2004-2018. Results demonstrated that ESG funds consistently showed lower risk compared to traditional funds. Not only that, relatively newer ESG funds were able to perform well in both good and bad market conditions. Impressive right?

This does make sense, actually — corporations who take into account ESG factors are putting themselves in a better position for growth, especially with the greater interest in doing good for the planet, people and investors alike are more likely to want to support these companies.

On the flipside, corporations falling behind are less likely to gain the same type of support and hence, aren’t able to perform as well.

The risks of ESG investing

As with most things, there’s risk involved. Unfortunately, as ESG investing is a relatively new way of investing, there’s a lack of any official ESG standards that have been widely agreed upon by official authorities.

This setback could lead to the possibility of investment firms taking the guise of being ESG-focused to ring in more clients, and with no official ESG standardization, it may be hard to decipher which company is truly here for the right reasons. Due to that, we would need to dig a little deeper on our end. We need to look beyond a company’s sustainability and annual reports, figure out what they really care about. Do they really care about ESG, or are they just for show?

Likewise with any other investment, one needs to manage their expectations. Despite the positive support and research on ESG investments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these companies will be successful all the time, nor does it mean that ESG investments are the ticket to higher returns.

It’s still possible for ESG stocks to perform badly or lower than expected, but that doesn’t mean the ESG investment strategy is a bust. It’s a give-and-take situation. You’re investing towards a better future, and dealing with lower returns now is a small price to pay in the long run.

Okay, I’m in. Where do I start?

First, it’s imperative to invest with companies that you believe in, and they must also believe in what they’re doing too! Companies that are driven in doing good are more likely to invest in the research and development of tools that can help them achieve their sustainability objectives. On top of that, these companies are eager to operate their businesses in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

Secondly, if you’re new to all this or just want to dip your toe in the water, you can start with sustainability indices. The Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) lists the following indices that you might be interested in:

Other than those, here are other funds and ETFs you can also consider:

  • Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund Admiral
  • iShares MSCI Global Impact ETF
  • iShares ESG MSCI USA ETF
  • Parnassus Core Equity Fund Investor
  • Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Leadership Fund
  • Allianz Global Sustainability Fund
  • First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy Index Fun (FAN)

Research, research, research

As with everything, always research your options and pick the one you feel most aligned with and comfortable investing in.

It’s a great sight to see more attention being placed on the importance of ESG factors. This goes to show how investors are able to exercise their right to influence companies’ behaviours, and push them to tackle real world issues.

ESG investing invites more hope for a livable future, one in which we were able to build.

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