The ESG landscape continues to evolve as stakeholders continue to make efforts to address concerns revolving around transparency, standardization, and data quality
The last decade has seen a spectacular rise in interest in ESG (a framework for assessing an investment or company’s sustainability and ethical impact based on environmental, social, and governance factors). Recent industry and academic studies suggest that ESG investing can, under certain conditions, help improve risk management and lead to returns equal to those from traditional financial investments.
Growing societal attention on climate change risk, the benefits of globally-accepted standards of responsible business conduct, and the need for diversity in the workplace suggest that societal values will increasingly influence investor and consumer decisions, with subsequent impacts on corporate performance.
These are the primary ESG practices that stakeholders should take into account:
Climate change: This refers to long-term changes in temperature, precipitation, and other weather patterns caused by human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change can significantly impact businesses through an increased risk of extreme weather events, changes in resource availability, and regulatory pressure to reduce carbon emissions.
Human rights violations: This includes any action by a company that violates the rights of individuals or communities, such as forced labor, child labor, discrimination, or violations of indigenous peoples’ rights. Human rights violations can lead to reputational damage, legal liability, and other business risks.
Data privacy and cybersecurity: This refers to protecting personal information and securing digital systems and networks. Businesses face increasing pressure to protect data and prevent cyber attacks, as breaches can lead to financial losses, reputational damage, and legal liability.
Board diversity and governance: This refers to the composition and structure of a company's board of directors, and its overall approach to governance. Companies are under pressure to increase board diversity, improve transparency, and implement robust governance protocols to bolster stakeholder trust and mitigate risk.
Supply chain management: This involves managing and monitoring the entire chain of suppliers that provide goods and services to a company, from raw materials to finished products. Companies must ensure that their supply chains are ethical, sustainable, and compliant with local laws.
There has been a massive increase in ESG investment over the last decade. US inflows into sustainable funds have increased significantly, rising from $5 billion in 2018 to over $50 billion in 2020 and rising further to almost $70 billion in 2021. However, according to a Morningstar report, the inflows in sustainable funds fell to $3,1 billion in 2022 — the lowest level of sustainable fund flows since 2015 — largely due to the negative impact on markets caused by escalating interest rates, oil prices, and inflation.
But the decline may also reflect growing skepticism about the value of ESG investment strategies, with doubts and criticism emerging over the effectiveness, transparency, and impact of ESG investment and reporting practices.
Current concerns about ESG practices include:
Greenwashing: Greenwashing refers to the practice of presenting a company or investment as more environmentally friendly or socially responsible than it actually is. ESG skeptics argue that many companies engage in greenwashing by making superficial or misleading claims about their sustainability efforts in order to attract ESG-focused investors.
Lack of standardized metrics: Skeptics point to the need for standardized metrics and reporting frameworks for ESG factors. The lack of consistent guidelines makes it difficult to accurately compare and evaluate companies' ESG performance.
Data quality and reliability: ESG skeptics raise questions about the quality and reliability of the data used for ESG ratings. They have raised concerns about the accuracy, consistency, and completeness of ESG data sources, as well as the methodologies employed to analyze and score companies. Skeptics argue that these data limitations can undermine the credibility and effectiveness of ESG investing.
Ethical concerns: ESG skepticism also extends to ethical concerns and controversies surrounding specific ESG investments. Critics argue that some ESG funds may invest in companies involved in controversial activities or industries, raising questions about the true social and environmental impact of those investments.
Regulatory challenges: Skeptics highlight the challenges and inconsistencies in ESG regulations and standards across different jurisdictions. Critics argue that without clear and enforceable regulations, the potential for ESG greenwashing and misrepresentation remains high.
It's important to note that while skeptics and critics question and debase ESG practices, there are also proponents who strongly believe in ESG’s potential to drive positive change and promote sustainable investing. As the ESG landscape continues to evolve, efforts are being made to address raised concerns and improve transparency, standardization, and data quality.
To guarantee further progress in ESG, ensure investor confidence in the instrument, and reduce the risk of market fragmentation, a concerted effort needs to be made to increase awareness and discussion of challenges and solutions related to ESG investing, including the need for guidance on improving consistency and transparency, alignment with materiality, frameworks, and good practices of benchmark and fund reporting.
A report from OECD from 2020 suggests that the way forward could be a joint effort by policy-makers, financial market participants, and other stakeholders to strengthen ESG practices in five key areas, including:
1. Consistency, comparability, and quality of core metrics;
2. Ensuring relevance of reporting through financial materiality;
3. Leveling the playing field of ESG disclosure and ratings across large and small issuers;
4. Transparency and comparability of scoring methodologies of established ESG ratings providers and indices; and,
5. ESG product labeling and communication.
To summarize, further efforts are needed to strengthen ESG practices so that they are consistent and comparable at the global level involving policy-makers, the financial industry, end-investors, and other stakeholders helping shape ESG practices.