If you’re wealthy and you care about the world, then sustainable or ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investing allows you to put money where your mouth is. Sustainable or ESG investing means that portfolios flow into sustainable funds or companies which provide a healthy return while making the world a better place.
But in practise it’s more often a case that these investments send money to all the usual places, just with a few exceptions, such as oil and gas and other fossil fuel industries. This process of exclusion is known simply as “divesting.”
While there are undeniably good intentions in this, many believe the process of divesting fossil fuels to be entirely pointless. “Divestment, to date, probably has reduced about zero tonnes of emissions,” Bill Gates told the Financial Times on Tuesday.
Ivo Welch, a economist, has also criticized divestment strategies. Writing in the New York Times after Stanford University decided to divest its endowment from coal-mining companies, he said: “It would probably take the market less than an hour to absorb the shares. It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching, much less in changes in operations.”
Gates and other critics may have a point—not investing in environmentally harmful companies, does not exactly drive them into bankruptcy. Other investors will simply take that place.
Where Are All The Good Guys?
Divestment might be one of the few options available to today’s environmental investor. Wealth managers complain that there are too few companies they can invest in which are both fully sustainable and profitable.
And those companies that do hit upon that magic formula tend to me too small to grab investors’ attention. The amount of legal fees and due diligence required for dozens of private deals would simply not be worth the returns.
It is the same with bonds. Estimates suggest that just 5% to 10% of green-bond proceeds go towards funding conservation projects. Most go into energy, buildings or transport projects.
This is a pain point for investors who want to invest sustainably. In a recent survey by Morgan Stanley 85% of investors in the U.S. said they had an interest in sustainable investing. However, 65% said a lack of financial options prevented them from following through (though there is often a disconnect between investors saying they want to invest sustainably and actually doing so).