Why socially responsible investing has improved

The breadth and quality of options for socially responsible investing has improved markedly in recent years.

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  1. Rob Morgan

Vegan burgers have got a lot better over the years, challenging my previous view that a good burger has to be made of meat. The health and environmental benefits mean I’m likely to keep buying, and I don't have to compromise on taste. It’s the best of both worlds.

It’s a similar story with socially responsible investing. ‘Ethical’ investing, as it has been traditionally known, was often accused of offering mainly bland, middle-of-the-road funds that applied simplistic restrictions to a universe of shares. To be fair, the experience wasn’t that satisfying in many cases. Simply concentrating on avoiding the ‘bad’ didn’t often deliver great results. That wasn’t necessarily to do with any flaw in the investment approach; it was more a lack of quality in the delivery and, perhaps in some cases, less emphasis on positive factors driving businesses.

An improving experience

Some fund management groups didn’t get involved this type of investing; maybe fearing that too much consideration of non-financial aspects of a company would constrain a cherished investment approach. Many others did look at these factors, often from a risk perspective looking at environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, but didn't necessarily highlight this aspect of their process. A decade ago the public consciousness on issues such as climate change, plastic pollution and social inequality was less developed.

Other investors considered it a very important area and became niche players, often incorporating more positive approaches surrounding the sustainability of businesses on top of the usual exclusions such as weapons or tobacco. Many of these funds now provide a decent track record. Add to this a new breed of investments, also well-resourced and with clear philosophies of adding value for investors through investing responsibly or sustainably – not in spite of it. There are now a large number of funds that marry profit with principles in a credible way and are generating decent performance to boot. As with vegan food, the appetite is there and the market has developed.

No need to compromise

Just as cutting out more red meat from your diet might benefit your health, there is mounting evidence that investing in line with ESG criteria is beneficial to returns. For instance, Lyxor Asset Management found that using an ESG ‘filter’ to exclude 50% of companies with the lowest ESG ratings from a European equity size portfolio added 2.3% per year of return over ten years, while also slightly reducing volatility.

In its study, fund manager Hermes also found companies with below-average or worsening governance tended to underperform, and a ‘meta-study’ of nearly 200 individual studies carried out by Oxford University found that 80% of them showed that superior corporate environmental performance produced better share price returns, and 88% showed that strong ESG practices resulted in better operating performance as measured by accounting indicators.

Increasingly, investors are aware that taking these factors into account is a critical part of any investment process – whether or not the end product is labelled as ‘ESG’ or ‘sustainable’. Imagine, for instance, investing in the oil and gas sector, without regard for the impact of climate change, or investing in tobacco stocks without thinking about the health consequences of the product and the legislative framework. All investors should be at least considering these sorts of factors.

Need for action

Ethical and sustainable investments are now playing an increasingly important role. As more capital is allocated responsibly with the stewardship of society and the environment in mind, the more companies will take notice and clean up bad practices. Investing in this manner is one of the main ways we can all make a difference as it influences companies’ actions. For example, backing companies that set ambitious targets on climate change and other issues can increase the competitiveness of environmental solutions and products, as well as encourage progress and innovation.

Let’s not forget the opportunity too. The world’s biggest problems are going to require some ingenious solutions, and the prospects for companies that can successfully address huge challenges in areas such as waste recycling, renewable energy and social equality are likely to be bright. Fund managers that spot these opportunities early can potentially harness strong long term returns for their investors.

What are you buying?

One of the obstacles of this type of investing is the broad range of terms applied. We define them in our new guide but the basic idea is that, just like burgers, they share similar characteristics but come with various ingredients. It’s important to remember that all investors should examine whether any fund meets with their own values as well as objectives and attitude to risk – the ‘house’ burger may not be to your taste. The good news, however, is that there is more choice than ever and an increasing range of options to satisfy any investment appetite.

We are also dedicated to including a range of socially responsible fund options on our Foundation Fundlist. This is our list of preferred investments across the major sectors for new investment. Socially responsible funds on the list are selected for their investment credentials as well as their commitment to having a positive impact on society and the environment. We hope they will help a broad range of people to invest in keeping with their values.

Past performance is not a reliable guide to future returns. This website is not personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal. Investment decisions in fund and other collective investments should only be made after reading the Key Investor Information Document or Key Information Document, Supplementary Information Document and Prospectus. If you are unsure of the suitability of your investment please seek professional advice.

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