Sustainable investing has grown rapidly over the last couple of decades. Investors are increasingly committed to the social and environmental impact of where they put their hard- earned money. Getting good financial returns and having a positive impact on the world are not mutually exclusive. Impact investing and ESG investments allow investors to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, as they say
American financial association SIFMA estimates the market size of sustainable investments to be $8.72 trillion. That figure was calculated in 2016, so it’s likely to be substantially larger than this now.
ESG and impact investing are two terms frequently confused in the world of sustainable investing. They’re often used interchangeably, which is a shame because it risks obscuring what the different terms actually mean; they are quite different. ESG is a framework for determining the impact of an investment whereas impact investing is an approach.
ESG stands for environmental, social and governmental. It’s a framework that can be integrated in the risk-return analysis of different investment opportunities. By drawing from a variety of data, some gathered from company and government disclosures among other sources, it allows investors to examine how companies manage risk and opportunities in three key areas:
This refers to a company’s impact on the environment. It looks at certain aspects of a company’s operations, such as how they dispose of their hazardous waste or how they manage carbon emissions.
Does the company take measures to have a good social impact? This can include philanthropic and community focused activities or any measures the leadership takes to promote diversity in the workplace.
This deals with the leadership and strategy of a company. It addresses aspects such as staff pay and communication with shareholders.
An ESG framework is a valuable tool that may be used to evaluate how certain behaviours can affect a company’s performance. However, it’s not an investment strategy in and of itself. With ESG, the wider impacts of investments are considered but financial performance still takes precedence.
Impact investing means using investments to cause positive social or environmental change. Examples include supporting access to clean energy or working to improve social mobility by investing in companies operating in underprivileged areas. In contrast to ESGs, in impact investing financial performance is secondary to the overall social or environmental impact.
The financial return of impact investments varies between cases. Some investors intentionally invest for below market rate returns in line with their strategic objectives. Others pursue competitive, market-rate returns. According to GIIN’s 2017 Annual Impact Investor Survey, these account for the majority, with 66% of impact investors aiming for market rate returns.
Because maximum returns are sacrificed in favour of investing for a particular social or environmental agenda, there’s the possibility that certain opportunities may underperform relative to other widely available options. When maximum profit isn’t the goal, sometimes the financial returns can suffer.
This said, impact investing shouldn’t be confused with charity. The objectives of impact investing are financial as well as social and environmental. There are many companies whose operations have a positive impact on the world and investing in these is an effective way of contributing towards long term social and environmental progress.
The shift towards impact investing and ESG highlights a growing desire among investors to do well by doing good. They are increasingly a core offering, rather than something that is ‘nice to have’. However, as with any investment decision, it’s a good idea to do plenty of your own research and seek financial advice to see how ESG and impact investing could fit with the rest of your portfolio.