Stop greenwashing and stop using that expression

Published on: 23 June 2022

My son is graduating in Madrid next month and is busy reading for the final exams. No distractions for him, as the Spanish capital hit 40 degrees this week and people simply must stay indoors. The temperature across Europe was 15 degrees higher than it should be last weekend, emphasizing what we have in front of us. To slow global warming, we need to act, and this is not a matter of regulation vs. the industry. We need to act as one to hand over the planet to coming generations to ensure they can build a prosperous future.

In an article last week, it was argued that the ESG-framework has fallen prey to greenwashing asset managers. Questions posed about the relevance of ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) are outright unacceptable. If market participants are caught mis-selling, they need to change. Regardless if the reason is unrealistic promises about returns or false ESG ambitions. If you think back it is not the first time regulators are looking into how new regulation is being applied. And often they start at the top of the industry in each country to make a point. It was like this when the industry introduced active share as an indicator of active asset management more than 10 years ago and it will happen again this decade. Trust me. But folding ESG now is not an option, just because it gets difficult. Even though the framework might not be perfect, it's a one in a lifetime opportunity to make our industry truly relevant going forward. 

The issue here at stake is accountability and we need to be as transparent about ESG ambitions as possible. At APG, our responsibility toward the ultimate pensioners is a good pension (read good returns) yet also on a planet to spend it (read ESG in a broad sense). We consequently deliberately invest under a multi-objective -without pre-set order - of return, sustainability, cost and risk. Article 8 of the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) fits this quadrant of objectives, as the dynamics between our objectives are interdependent and of different importance - case by case, investment by investment. Within this approach we often identify companies that with engagement are expected to execute meaningful change or impact to make the planet better for people and everyone else - hence why biodiversity is increasingly on the agenda as an important part of sustainability.

Where companies might feel tempted to falsely brag about ESG investing it should surely be exposed and corrected. It is however also a fact that the regulation is new and parts of the more detailed instructions on how to report is late and pending. Regulators should acknowledge this fact and work together with the industry to bring us all forward and allow some slippage or at least benefit of the doubt. The core issue with this kind of regulation is that it might actually not lead to a better world. At APG we have, together with other investors, created a system under which investors can translate Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to actual investments (SDI). We believe the system is solid, transparent, and making it possible to report consistently, set targets and compare. But will it make the world a better place? Probably and we surely hope so. But can we guarantee it? Absolutely not. If you think back to the example of active management, it is again surprisingly similar. No active asset manager can guarantee outperformance. Likewise, no ESG manager can promise that the world will be better, greener, more equal, or less warm. But we are surely all working towards that as a strong ambition.

For long term investors we need to find meaningful ways to measure and demonstrate ESG success

The conviction that we as investors have a broader responsibility is a mission that we all need to share. In the same way we (mostly) share humanitarian ethics. I get sad when leading investors like Warren Buffet reject the industry responsibility and want to hide behind "clear regulation". It will never be clear. Just like investment returns differs depending on what you compare them to. Old school investors and most current adults have benefitted enormously from "free" nature in terms of access to natural resources and free carbon emissions. Most of our wealth is built on this fact. Asset managers need to come to terms with this uncomfortable reality and address it by transforming themselves into responsible investors. We can do that by making sure we understand and act on sustainability and governance issues. Active management doesn’t have to contradict ESG management. On the contrary, it is a robust part of being long term investors and being able to make informed investment decisions. Thinking carefully about it, all investors should do the same. For that reason it is paramount that the regulators facilitate the transition by clamping down on mis-selling. This is not a change. They have always done so.

For long term investors we need to find meaningful ways to measure and demonstrate ESG success. Those ways all come with important caveats and we need to be humble towards the fact that achieving KPIs is not equal to real impact. Carbon emission is an obvious KPI, yet the calculations are still inaccurate, and we need to be careful not to over engineer target setting on dubious data. Also, tackling climate change requires more than only reducing carbon emissions in our investee companies. This is a different kind of potential mis-selling but far more tragic as we - in a wish to serve the public request for clarity - might end up missing the better transition investments that are so evident in our shared mission to save the planet. It will require strong leadership from the industry to steer through the energy transition and at the same time serve all stakeholders and doing it while securing good pensions for the old age to everybody. This comes with a big responsibility that APG, on behalf and together with its pension fund clients, as leading long term responsible investor is willing to take.

Peter Branner is Chief Investment Officer at APG.