15 Sep 2020

For businesses, a focus on ESG is more important than ever

Since the outbreak of the pandemic we have seen businesses worldwide rush to offer help, with many redeploying their time, energy and resources to more purposeful ends. Not only were many businesses facing a stalling in their own sales, they were also recognising their opportunity to play a vital civic role in society: identifying - and helping to fill - gaps left by government and public service funding.

From beverage companies like BrewDog producing hand sanitiser, to clothing and fitness brand Under Armor creating facemasks for hospital workers, many pivoted their business operations to help support the provision of health services. As concerns around mental health also grew, others sought to support workers, with the likes of Starbucks offering its partners personalised, confidential mental health care.

 

But while the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the role that ‘business for good’ can play in society, will we see these businesses continue to pursue meaningful change as part of the new normal?

The growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG)

Even prior to the pandemic, the focus on ESG focused business practices was already being recognised as growing in importance, not least to investors.

 

Commenting on this growing importance, Andrew Summers, Head of Collectives and Fund Research at Investec says “We are seeing increasing demand from all types of clients for ESG focused funds. Most clients want to know that they won’t make money at the expense of our planet or the less fortunate”.

 

He continues “That being said, how clients translate this into what is acceptable and not acceptable in practice varies widely, as do fund managers’ interpretations of ESG criteria. The most attractive funds to investors will be those that thoughtfully and appropriately integrate ESG factors into their investment processes and can convincingly demonstrate their ESG approach will enhance risk-adjusted returns.”

 

Data from Morningstar also points towards this demand. In 2019, sustainable funds which invested based on ESG-related themes recorded inflows of $20.6bn - almost four times the amount recorded in 2018. There are a number of factors contributing to ESG being such a key area of growth, of course. For some time now we have seen climate change becoming an area of increasing concern and attention, particularly amongst younger generations, with many businesses taking steps to align themselves with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a result.

 

What’s particularly interesting to note, though, is more recent data from Morningstar which shows that between April and June this year, inflows into sustainable funds reached $71.1bn, bringing the total assets under management with an ESG focus to $1tr for the first time on record. Morningstar attributes this in part to the pandemic, noting that support for ESG projects has “intensified in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as governments have committed to a green recovery.”

Andrew Summers
Andrew Summers, Head of Collectives and Fund Research at Investec

We are seeing increasing demand from all types of clients for ESG focused funds. Most clients want to know that they won’t make money at the expense of our planet or the less fortunate.

A future-proofed approach

The fallout of the pandemic is giving businesses the chance to reassess almost every aspect of their operations - albeit, for many, through necessity. In the face of a global economic downturn, businesses must be prepared to constantly review the most basic elements of their operations - resourcing, logistics, supply chains - right through to topline strategy.

 

For a large number, doing so will pertain simply to immediate short-term survival.

 

However, business leaders should also be using this as a chance to take stock. In an Investec webinar hosted earlier this year, Tom Savigar - a co-founder of futures consultancy The Future Laboratory and the founder of Avansere - noted the opportunity to collectively pause, and to refocus on “what actually makes humans happy” and the progressive ways of working that can facilitate this.

 

For businesses, this moment should be about recognising the purpose and direction of the organisation, and the wider role that it can play to support the communities it operates in.

 

The caveat, of course, is that this ‘role’ by its very nature will vary for every business based on the goods or services they provide, and the jurisdictions they operate in. (When considering Investec and some of the varied clients we work with, a business operating in the UK has a very different backdrop to consider to one in South Africa, for example.)

Defining purpose

When it comes to having a sustainable purpose, this should be something that is ingrained into a business’ very DNA.

 

Investec recently hosted a webinar exploring Coronavirus and the business of ESG. During the event, Tanya Dos Santos, Head of Group Sustainability at Investec, commented that: “We need a more focused approach - from both the government and private sector - to all elements of ESG.”

 

“This means that businesses need to have a social purpose, and the CEOs of the future must want their companies to be recognised as forces for good.”

 

In an article for FT Adviser, David Harrison, fund manager of the Rathbone Global Sustainability Fund, describes the work the fund has done with Microsoft to tackle the sustainable sourcing of cobalt (a mineral vital to the production of mobile battery technology). By seeking to tackle an issue which is inherent to its industry, Microsoft demonstrates its commitment to engaging on big, industry-wide problems, and in leading the way for other companies in the space.

 

This is also a good example of why corporate social responsibility and commitments to sustainability should never just be seen as a ‘tick-box’ activity. Tackling large issues means investing significant time and effort - and to take the case of sustainably sourcing cobalt, these are problems which cannot be solved overnight.

Tanya Dos Santos
Tanya Dos Santos, Head of Group Sustainability at Investec

We need a more focused approach - from both the government and private sector - to all elements of ESG.

Practice what you preach

As the focus on ESG grows, so too do instances of Greenwashing - a form of marketing spin in which investors and customers are deceived into thinking a business’ services, products and policies are more sustainable than they are, in order to better appeal.

 

With this in mind, it has perhaps never been more important that businesses ensure they uphold their promise. In a world in which sustainable credentials are not only important among investors, but also customers, employees and suppliers, failing to follow through on your word can have a serious impact on your business’ reputation.

 

If you actively treat your stakeholders well, uphold your ideals, engage with worthy causes and become a voice on important topics, your reputation will precede you and people will begin to recognise your business as an authoritative and reputable organisation they want to associate with.

 

As the full impact of the pandemic becomes more certain, I suspect we’ll begin to see more and more businesses recognising the benefits of this approach.