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Sustainable Investing and Finance 101

When I think of investing, I think about a chaotic, anxiety-inducing, shouting from all corners of the floor kind of atmosphere. I think so many of us have grown up with the narrative that the investing and finance world is like this and that it's all about making the most money you can in whatever way possible. Obviously that view is skewed and not really accurate, but there is definitely a certain truth to it.

"Buy Low Sell High" - I was taught this on the first day of the first finance class I took at University and was consistently reminded about it in most subsequent lectures throughout my finance major. Although I truly enjoyed how dynamic and useful finance is, I have often struggled to see the bigger picture of it all when it comes to its greater purpose beyond money-making. I remember sitting in my Corporate Finance class asking myself, "There must be more to this than just satisfying the shareholders and making as much profit as possible?" Now obviously that is important, but for too long there has been too much of a sole focus on the bottom line (profit). In more recent times, the Triple Bottom Line (i.e., the 3 P's: Profit, People, Planet) has been a goal for more and more companies, and I see it as the only way forward.

Why have we neglected the other 2 P's for so long? What is it about profit that makes it so important for companies as to completely neglect everything else? Should the companies who don't have any emphasis on People and Planet even continue doing 'business as usual'?

These questions, as well as many others, have raced through my brain constantly since I first began to think about this topic. I took a class called 'Social Impact and Entrepreneurship' my Senior Year at college and learned and experienced how the blend of business and corporate social responsibility is not only possible but also the best thing to do for companies of all industries. It's not only better for the People and Planet, but also can help Profit in the long run, especially with this very big push for companies just to do better and with people's minds changing about consumerism and mindful consumption. Focusing on a triple bottom line can help employees stay motivated with their work because it has been proven over and over again that when people are doing something that they see a purpose in and feel like they're making a positive impact, that's when they perform the best and enjoy their work the most. If we really take a step back and question why profit has been at the top of most company's and individual's agendas for so long, it's generally because we live in societies and culture that tell us that more is better, ALWAYS. But time and time again, it has been proven that when most of our needs our met, excess money doesn't really bring the happiness or fulfilment that we expect it to. There might be bursts of it, but generally it's not long-lasting.

ESG/SRI investing has been more and more talked about in recent years, but it still has to transition from being something that's the standard and not just a 'bonus'. This has been happening and there is strong momentum in the field to change it for the better, but there are still ways to go! Sustainable investing is an umbrella term for investments that seek positive returns and long-term impact on society, environment and the performance of the business.

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, Governance and in simple terms, Environmental refers to anything that affects planetary and human health, Social refers to the impact on society, and Governance is concerned with the way companies are run. ESG investing essentially looks at 'extra-financial' variables or factors. "Responsible investors evaluate companies using ESG criteria as a framework to screen investments or to assess risks in investment decision-making". Here are a few quick, encouraging facts about ESG investing:

  • Global ESG assets under management in ETFs have grown from $6bn in 2015 to $150bn in 2020

  • ESG investing is popular not just amongst millennials - in 2019 one study found that 85% of the general population expressed interest in ESG investing, compared to 71% in 2015 (84% in 2015 and 95% in 2019 for millennials)

  • In the first quarter of 2021, global ESG fund inflows outpaced the last 4 consecutive quarters, reaching $2 trillion. However, although this investing has gained a lot of momentum, the CFA institute shows that 33% of investors surveyed feel they have insufficient knowledge for considering ESG issues. Whilst this is knowledge gap is frustrating, it can be seen as a an area that has a lot of untapped potential for growth, which is very exciting.

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), on the other hand, began in the 70s as investors mostly used negative screening methods to exclude investments in guns, tobacco, gambling, and other vices. The philosophy behind the practice was that capital should be used for morally "good" industries. However, it has been criticised in the past for having too narrow of a view of the investment universe. SRI investors consider not only factors such as diversification, dividends, rate of return, inflation, taxes, and risks, but also whether a particular investment positively impacts society. Although often synonymous, it is its own class to ESG investing.

It is very exciting to see SRI and ESG investing increasing year on year, but a lot of education still needs to be done as well as having more consistency. In order to do this and enable the development of reliable market data, standardisation of the definitions of E, S and G, globally needs to happen. Firms also need to balance improving their ESG credentials with the need to survive the impacts of the crisis and manage issues such as credit risk, cost reduction and consolidation.

So given all this, why is it that profit is still not only the main goal, but also praised so much more than the other factors like social and environmental?

It really is simple when you think about it, but the longer we keep doing the same thing, the harder it is to dig ourselves out of that hole. And unfortunately ,humans are very comfortable sticking to the status quo and just continuing to do things without questioning their actions. It takes literal planetary destruction for most of us to begin to even think about making changes. But I think one of the many things this COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that it is so important to be prepared and to focus on doing things that directly have positive impacts so that we don't end up in desperate states of trying to cover up huge issues with bandages when they could have been prevented in the first place. Finance and investing have and can have such an enormous impact on the trajectory of the future of our planet and everyone that lives on it. It is by no means and should not be viewed as something that is 'evil' because it's how we use is what matters. So let's continue putting money into investments that actually have a positive impact, especially as the stats show that it's the future of investing.



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