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Sustainable returns? Trends to look out for in ESG in 2021

Words by:
Account Director
January 13, 2021

Introduction

Evaluating investments on the basis of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) principles has been one of the most visible trends in the investment industry over the last few years. A far cry from the familiar, straightforward screening of traditional “sin stocks”, investors are increasingly demanding a much deeper read of a company’s ESG procedures – from staff welfare and internal governance to supply-chain risk and climate action – in order to assess the sustainability of their returns.

Across the world, the proportion of investors applying ESG principles to at least a quarter of their portfolios has risen sharply from 48% in 2017 to 75% in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought questions of sustainability to the fore, and looks set to reinforce the trend towards greater awareness and uptake of ESG principles. An estimated 200 new funds in the United States with an ESG investment mandate are expected to launch over the next three years, more than doubling the activity from the previous three years. ESG-mandated assets could grow almost three times as fast as their non-ESG counterparts in the coming years, so that they make up half of all professionally-managed investments by 2025.

This growing trend represents a clear opportunity for investors, yet the consensus of a number of studies and surveys is that the significant variety of approaches to ESG incorporation by investment management firms, regulators, and investors means that its full potential is not being realised. Below, we assess some of the key issues which investors will want to bear in mind when formulating their strategies.

Changing regulatory environments

Over 170 ESG-related regulatory measures have been proposed globally since 2018. This marked increase (it is more than the number of proposals from 2012 to 2018 combined) is a measure of the pace of change in this area and the level of regulatory focus upon it.

The traditional approach in the US, for instance, has been the SEC’s principles-based approach to company disclosure, which applies equally to ESG-disclosures as non-ESG. There, are, however, increasing calls for a more prescriptive approach for ESG, along more “European” lines.

In the EU, sustainability risk has been integrated into MiFID II, AIFMD and the UCITS framework. The changes will dictate how market participants and financial advisors must integrate ESG risks and opportunities in their processes as part of their duty to act in the best interest of clients. It is small wonder, therefore, that 97% of European institutional investors now say that they interested in ESG investments.

The UK is expected to retain an approach similar to that of the EU after Brexit. In December 2020, for instance, the FCA set out proposals to promote better disclosures on climate risk from premium-listed companies and will publish a consultation paper in early 2021 with a view to widening the scope of these measures. The Government is due to consult on measures in the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures framework, which would oblige large listed and private companies to disclose the risks to their businesses from climate change. Influential investors have also urged the Government to consult on the idea of introducing mandatory “say on climate” votes for shareholders at AGMs, somewhat akin to “say on pay” votes.

Whilst different regulators have taken different approaches, the overall trend is for more stringent ESG disclosure requirements, with ESG more firmly integrated into the investment advisory and decision-making process. International frameworks, including that drawn up by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) are gaining influence in developing consistency in ESG reporting across companies. Indeed, many companies have already identified the value placed on ESG transparency by investors, and are using these frameworks for reporting and disclosure which goes beyond the requirements set by regulators.

The role of technology

As the amount of ESG data available to investors has increased, so too has demand for analysing it. Spending on ESG content and indices rose by almost 50% between 2018 and 2020, indicating the scale of growth in the field.

The trend has been for investment management firms increasingly to develop their own capacity for gathering and processing data, but emerging technologies including Artificial Intelligence are likely to hold the key to extracting material ESG insights as the volume of data increases. AI engines can, for instance, be used to sift through unstructured data – which may not have formed part of a company’s formal disclosure – with a view to uncovering further material information. Such tools are potentially very powerful, but investors and investment managers would do well to keep an eye on the potential for regulation in this area, given the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in the UK and the EU’s forthcoming legislative proposals on AI.

Emerging technologies also have a large role to play in addressing environmental questions – and are thus a significant contributor to the “E” in “ESG”. Here, again, AI is an important field – with promising applications from energy monitoring and control systems to automation in agricultural production. Alongside it sit emerging technologies in energy generation, including carbon capture, small modular reactors and nuclear fusion.

The impact of Covid-19 on ESG trends

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect across the economy, with Governments playing much more interventionist roles in economic affairs than they might have envisaged pre-pandemic. The UK Government has spent almost £300bn on coronavirus measures, and the EU has agreed its €750bn Recovery Fund. Recovery plans unveiled to date – whether the UK’s Ten Point Plan or the EU’s Green Deal – have set clear ESG priorities and could, therefore, represent significant opportunities in sectors including clean energy, building technology and electric vehicles. In addition, an increase in demand for hygiene and diagnostic technologies may be a boost to the life sciences sector.

The logistical challenges which the pandemic has presented to many firms may bring about a renewed focus on supply-chain risk. Faced with a sudden shock, the vulnerabilities of many widely-dispersed supply chains were exposed, and this may galvanise efforts by companies to “reshore” some elements of production. To achieve this will likely require greater spending on advanced technologies including AI and robotics if moving production necessitates a move away from low-cost manufacturing elsewhere.

Perhaps the most obvious post-pandemic trend is the move towards remote working and digital commerce. For many, these have become embedded into daily life and will doubtless have long-standing social implications well into the future.

The opportunity for investors

The trend towards ESG investing is here to stay. It is an area of intense regulatory focus and the pandemic has heightened interest further still.

This growth represents a substantial opportunity for investors who can fully integrate ESG principles into their investment process. Such integration is likely to go beyond a mechanical exercise in completing an ESG “checklist”. Rather, it is likely to be a robust, thorough due-diligence process, illuminating past sustainability risks and providing a real picture of how target companies conduct their operations. Using the ever-increasing amounts of available data, and the evermore sophisticated technologies available to harness them, investors can gain deeper insights into their target and portfolio companies than ever before, and have the opportunity to generate genuinely sustainable returns.

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