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  • Wanda Lopuch, Ph.D.

ESG - To Regulate or Not To Regulate

ESG-washing, known also as green-washing on the capital markets, is becoming dangerously prevalent, as fund managers are more than eager to satisfy investors' appetite for “responsible investment” assets. (I have written about the supply and demand that fuels greed in capital markets here).

ESG investment surpassed $35 trillion in 2020, with expectations to reach $50 trillion in 2025. With such a strong and steady demand, asset managers are frantically searching for ESG investment opportunities. Some of their choices are, let’s say, aspirational (“though the CO2 footprint is not great, this company is on a promising transition path, so it is ‘green’”), whereas others are simply fraudulent and make misleading ESG claims.

When investors, like myself, run their portfolio through green filters (such as FFF, Fossil Free Funds), they may be surprised at the outcomes. They may find that their “green” positions are not that green after all, and that their portfolio may have a rather heavy CO2 footprint. Some investors may pause, or come to the conclusion that ESG does not work. Others take action: in my case I have replaced two “dirty positions” with “cleaner” positions with a similar performance profile, and I have dumped one asset manager with a tendency to make aspirational claims. So, investors like myself welcome the SEC’s (US Securities and Exchange Commission) plans to regulate the ESG marketplace, starting with the SEC taskforce entrusted with identifying offerings with misleading ESG claims. This is the first step into a much needed cleanup of so-called “clean” assets. If the EU is to be any compass indicator, there is more on the horizon. Perhaps we’ll see more akin to the process of cleaning “organic” labeling on FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) markets.

A recent Bloomberg editorial addressed the inability of the ESG framework to guide capital markets through a transition into a low carbon economy. Bloomberg’s Clara Ferreira Marques and Clive Crook argue that in order to achieve the required transition needed to address climate change, markets need accurate and transparent risk assessmant such as ESG. These have been promised but not delivered.

It is painfully obvious that capital markets are not rising to the challenge of using ESG in the intended way. Principles of ethical investing have not been working, and neither does self-policing. As climate change urgency forces us to go beyond paying lip service, the ESG space needs to weed out misleading claims and other forms of greenwashing, such as offsets. The time has come to regulate ESG claims and to adopt a common taxonomy and disclosure standards.

Kudos to the SEC for tackling this problem on behalf of responsible investors who want to stay responsible.

Have you checked lately how clean your portfolio is?

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