In fact, I am not sure anyone really knows. Of course, you will be able to find people who can give a confident answer; that it is about wise voting at a company meeting or tilting a portfolio away from companies that belch out CO2 or engaging with company management to ensure board diversity... but I do not believe there is a standard definition.
Is a standard definition even realistic for such a subjective topic? One investor might shun an oil company on account of its carbon footprint whilst another might invest and engage to encourage management to pursue a greener agenda. Both might have valid reasons for claiming they are investing responsibly.
Investment managers have spotted an opportunity here. They know pension scheme trustees want to be seen to invest responsibly (the naming is clever – the alternative would be ridiculous), so managers are now keen to point out how Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors are embedded into their products. Even long-standing funds where all that has changed is the marketing approach, telling us that the way the fund operates was always the embodiment of responsible investing.
This green-washing of funds is unhelpful. Whilst I am not sure how to properly describe responsible investing, I am confident that it cannot be achieved simply by selecting funds labelled ‘ESG’ or ‘Impact’ or ‘Sustainable’.
Maybe the best approach to responsible investment needs to be a personal one; think about what matters to you and identify investments that will make a difference in those areas. Helpfully, if we look beyond the jargon, investment managers are starting to publish useful information. It is increasingly easy to identify any ESG tilts a manager may apply and to understand their approach towards engagement and voting.
You may want to identify managers who can demonstrate strong credentials in the governance areas that matter to you. Alternatively, you might be worried about the risk of capital loss resulting from climate change. This might lead you to favour investments in windfarms and battery technology companies rather than the fossil fuel industry.
Many of the trustees I work with are frustrated with recent legislative changes; frustrated at having to make repeated changes to their Statement of Investment Principles (SIP) to accommodate wording that makes little sense; frustrated at having to produce an implementation statement that is unlikely to get many hits on the website where it must be published; frustrated at having to pay their investment consultant to help them with all this extra work.
And yet, whilst I share these frustrations (or at least two of them), I do think the sentiment behind the new requirements is sound. Essentially, the intention is to encourage trustees to mitigate the long-term risks they face, to think what responsible investing means to them, and to hold investment managers to account against those objectives.
Despite the frustration, that can’t be a bad thing.
This article was featured in Pensions Aspects magazine March 2021 edition.
Last update: 4 March 2021