What you need to know about investing in ESG and sustainability

ESG and sustainability

Investing in ESG and sustainability is seen as an important part of raising the green finance necessary to combat climate change and foster a more sustainable future. As a result, there is growing interest in environmental and sustainable investing. However, investors should adopt a systematic approach and tools to identify these investing opportunities.


With the growing global concern about climate change, the impact of carbon emissions on the environment has led to an expansion in ESG and sustainability investment strategies. Some investors now seek ways to assess and mitigate the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of their portfolios.


Let’s explore the methodologies used by investors to achieve these objectives.

Define the scope and goal of ESG and sustainability investments
ESG reporting: how companies measure and communicate their impact

First of all, investors have to define what constitutes an environmentally sustainable investment for their purposes.


Consider your motivation, do you want to improve your environmental impact and/or mitigate environmental risks to your portfolio?


Environmentally sustainable investments can refer to financial activities that prioritize positive environmental impact alongside financial returns. These investors aim to invest in initiatives, companies, or projects that promote environmental sustainability, reduce carbon footprints, and contribute to a more sustainable world.


Companies with strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices may also be better equipped to navigate future environmental risks to investors, such as regulatory and tax changes, resource shortages and major shifts in the perspectives of stakeholders. These are known as physical and transition risks. Assessing physical risks involves evaluating how climate change might directly impact companies (e.g., extreme weather events), while transition risks assess potential financial impacts due to shifts in policies, consumer behavior, or technological advancements.


Investors may seek new investing opportunities in sectors like renewable energy, clean technology, sustainable agriculture, and conservation and biodiversity. By integrating environmental considerations into investment decisions, investors aim for long-term positive outcomes for both the environment and financial returns.


They may also use ESG criterion to identify companies that are making efforts to reduce their ecological footprint. This may involve companies making disclosures on practices such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adopting a climate change strategy, conserving energy and water, minimizing waste generation, and adopting renewable energy sources. Companies demonstrating commitment to environmental impact reduction align with this aspect of ESG criteria.


Investors may also avoid or minimize investment exposure to activities that harm the environment, such as fossil fuel extraction, deforestation, or unsustainable resource consumption.


These decision-making processes are called negative and positive screening.


Negative Screening uses exclusionary criteria to screen out companies involved in high-carbon or high risk activities, such as fossil fuel extraction, coal mining, or those with poor environmental track records.


Positive Screening actively seeks companies with low risks and/or low carbon footprints or those leading the way in sustainable practices to include in their portfolios.



Conduct research and due diligence in ESG and sustainability


The cornerstone of successful ESG and sustainability investing lies in meticulous research and due diligence. Investors must delve deep into industries, companies, and specific projects.


Investors can refer to companies’ sustainability and ESG disclosures. Almost all large companies and funds produce them, and they are sharing data about their carbon footprints, climate strategies and other sustainability efforts. At present, there is no guarantee of their accuracy. Scrutinizing a company or fund’s policies, practices, and historical track record regarding environmental concerns is imperative.


Investors can also study company’s Climate Scenario Analysis if they have shared one. Employing climate scenario analysis helps assess how companies’ strategies align with different climate change scenarios, allowing investors to gauge their preparedness for future environmental challenges.


What is helpful is that regulators are introducing rules as well as voluntary standards and guidelines for sustainability disclosures. Among these new and emerging rules, we can expect in the future that companies and funds will publish carbon footprint disclosures and climate change scenarios and strategies, some of which will be quality assured by third parties.


Investors can also use third party information in their research and due diligence.


Sometimes third parties, such as NGOs and eco-labels, collect data about companies’ environmental track-records and their efforts to make improvements. Investors can find some of the companies perceived to be good performers in our run-down of the top sources of corporate sustainability data.


Leveraging ESG ratings also provides a structured framework to evaluate potential investments in listed companies and green bonds. However, to benefit from them it is important to understand the methodologies of the ESG ratings system used. Some focus on how well a company is mitigating ESG risks to returns. Others rate a company’s positive environmental impact. Investors can refer to our review of ESG scoring systems of listed companies here to help in the selection of ratings providers.


Investors can also refer to sovereign ratings when considering some bonds. These do not rate country’s environmental performance, but they do rate the quality of a country’s governance. The World Bank also publishes many countries’ sovereign ESG data here.



Conduct Industry and Sector Analysis


When selecting ESG and sustainability investing opportunities, investors often choose between a “best in class” approach or to focus on specific sectors and industries. In the former approach, investors select the best performing companies in environmental risk/impact and financial terms from across all industries and sectors.


In the latter approach, investors take a thematic approach. They identify sectors with the most significant potential for positive environmental impact or least excessive exposure to environmental risks, for example, renewable energy, clean technology, or sustainable agriculture. Investors analyze trends, regulatory changes, and technological advancements in these sectors, identify investing risks and opportunities, and focus on well-managed and profitable companies that are developing and promoting technologies and business models within the preferred theme.



Assess ESG and sustainability factors


Investors might choose to measure and analyze environmental data, as part of the research and due diligence process, and to establish a quantitative baseline for their portfolio that they can monitor over time.


Scope 1, 2, and 3 Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Investors analyze direct (Scope 1) and indirect (Scope 2 and 3) greenhouse gas emissions of companies in their portfolios. Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, while Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from purchased energy, and Scope 3 entails indirect emissions from the entire value chain. Scope 3 emissions data are very hard to come by because of the difficulties in calculating it, but some regulators could make scope 3 emissions reporting mandatory in the future.


Look for Carbon Accounting Standards: Some companies have adopted internationally recognized standards such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which helps standardize carbon accounting, enabling consistent measurement and comparison of emissions across companies. Investors can also refer to the Science-Based Targets Initiative to check whether a company is listed with them as complying with the latest scientific standards in carbon reporting.


Other factors where investors might measure and assess data are for reducing waste and pollution, reducing water usage, restoring eco-systems or rate of adopting clean technologies.



Risk and Return Assessment


Investing in ESG and sustainable assets involves understanding their financial implications and associated risks.


Assessing financial implications involves analyzing both short-term and long-term prospects. While some sustainable investments might offer lower initial returns due to higher production costs or emerging market factors, they may demonstrate resilience over time. For instance, renewable energy may have extremely high setup costs but lower operational expenses, yielding stable returns in the long run. Understanding these trade-offs against traditional investments requires evaluating risk factors like market volatility, regulatory changes, and consumer demand shifts.


Comparing potential returns between sustainable and traditional investments requires a nuanced approach. While historical data might suggest traditional investments have higher returns, the landscape is evolving. Sustainable investments increasingly show competitive performance over the long term due to shifting consumer and investor preferences, government policies favoring climate change initiatives, and innovations driving cost efficiencies in sustainable sectors.


To evaluate returns effectively, analyze performance metrics, industry trends, and potential future developments. Assess the impact of sustainability on revenue generation, cost reduction, brand value, and risk mitigation within companies. Additionally, consider how environmental factors affect market perceptions and companies’ access to capital.


Ultimately, understanding the financial implications of sustainable investments involves a comprehensive analysis of risk-return trade-offs, industry dynamics, and evolving market trends to make informed investment decisions.



Stakeholder engagement and influence


Investors use proxy voting and shareholder resolutions to leverage their voting rights and propose or support shareholder resolutions that encourage companies to set and achieve specific environmental risk or impact targets, or to pursue more sustainable commercial opportunities. To gain support, the threshold is high for showing that these initiatives will deliver returns for investors, especially in light of rising energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Investors can also assess how well companies address and involve their stakeholders in sustainability initiatives. Reputation in this area matters in the long-term for companies, irrespective of short-term pressures on energy prices.


Investors can also join shareholder networks and advocacy groups that promote environmental and sustainability initiatives. Some asset managers are active in this space and may appeal to some investors for this reason.



Diversification and portfolio strategy


A well-rounded portfolio comprises diversified sustainable investments across various industries and sometimes geographic regions. It is imperative to create a long-term ESG and sustainability investing strategy that is aligned with your financial and sustainability goals.


The journey doesn’t end with investment. Investors must conduct continuous monitoring and engagement. Regularly monitor investments for ongoing sustainability efforts and financial performance, and when possible, engage with companies to encourage sustainable practices, transparency and regulatory compliance.



Quantitative models


If you are using a professional ESG and sustainability asset manager, they have additional structured approaches and tools to those listed above, especially in the area of Quantitative Models and Data Analysis. Using Scenario Analysis and Stress Testing they can assess the potential impact of climate-related risks on investment portfolios. Stress testing models help quantify the financial implications of different climate scenarios.


In addition, they can calculate (to the extent data is available) the total carbon footprint and intensity of their portfolios.



Carbon offsetting initiatives


Another way for investors to mitigate the impact of carbon emissions from their portfolios is to adopt some carbon offsetting investments. For example:


Renewable Energy Projects: Investors allocate funds to projects generating clean energy, such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric power, contributing to reducing overall carbon emissions.


Afforestation and Reforestation Initiatives: Investing in projects aimed at planting trees or restoring forests helps sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.



Challenges of ESG and sustainability investing


While the methodologies for assessing and building ESG and sustainable portfolios are advancing, they do come with some downsides and limitations.


Data Accuracy and Availability: One of the challenges is the reliability and availability of sustainability data. Not all companies disclose comprehensive environmental data, making it challenging for investors to accurately measure the carbon footprint or intensity of their portfolios.


Standardization Issues: The methodologies often lack standardized metrics and frameworks, leading to complexities in comparing data across different companies and sectors. This lack of standardization can make assessments subjective and challenging.


Subjectivity: ESG ratings and scores can vary among rating agencies and might be subjective. This discrepancy in data quality might lead to inconsistent evaluations of companies’ sustainability performances.


Engagement Challenges: Engaging with companies to drive change in their environmental practices can be time-consuming and might not always yield immediate results. The current political environment in the USA also prevents investors from building momentum.


Risk of Greenwashing: There is a risk of companies engaging in greenwashing—making it challenging for investors to accurately assess a company’s true commitment.


Financial Performance Concerns: Some investors worry that prioritizing sustainability might negatively impact financial returns. Shifting away from certain high-carbon sectors or excluding companies based on environmental criteria could potentially limit investment opportunities and returns.


Market Volatility and Uncertainty: Sudden changes in regulations, technology advancements, or climate change impacts can significantly impact the effectiveness of investment strategies.


Limited Impact on Global Emissions: While large investors can influence companies within their portfolios, the overall reduction in global carbon emissions might be limited unless systemic changes occur across whole countries, continents and economies.


Investor Expertise and Resources: Implementing some of these methodologies requires expertise and resources in sustainability analysis and financial modeling, which means that not every method is for everyone. Always seek professional financial advice and independently verify information.



The growing interest in sustainable investing is a testament to the recognition of environmental responsibility in investment decisions. It’s a journey where investors wield their financial influence to support initiatives aligned with a greener world. With a systematic approach encompassing thorough research, stakeholder engagement, and continuous monitoring, sustainable investments could not only drive financial returns but also pave the way for a more sustainable future for generations to come.


If you enjoyed this article, you can also read our climate change investing 101 and everything you need to know about climate finance for more background on ESG and sustainable investing opportunities and service providers. If you are interested in renewable energy investing, why not test yourself with our quiz, how much do you know about clean energy?


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Tags :
Environment,ESG and Sustainability Standards,ESG Basics,ESG Investing,ESG Ratings,ESG Strategies,Green finance
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