For some investors, the concept of ESG investing may represent something of a change to how things used to be done. After all, isn’t investing about making money? Isn’t that what firms and stocks are for? As someone with many years of experience in the financial world, I understand this argument—but I don’t believe it’s right. In fact, if you really think about it, ESG investing is a wider and more effective look at the factors we are already assessing. Let’s take a closer look.
To use an appropriate metaphor, historically we have looked at companies (i.e., trees) without looking at the wider economy (i.e., the forest). And that made sense, because historically the trees could thrive independently of the forest. The health of the forest was assumed to be fine, regardless. And if that is the case, why worry about it? What we have learned over the past 20 years, though, is that if the forest is threatened, so are the trees. Here, I want to abandon this metaphor for a moment and go back to finance.
Remember the great financial crisis (GFC)? When the system itself looked threatened? When even strong companies, or what were thought to be strong companies, teetered and collapsed? In that case, it was proven that the larger system (the forest) mattered. That trees couldn’t thrive in the middle of a forest fire. That looking beyond the companies, at the systems and the systemic risks, was necessary as investors. So far, so good, and this view is now accepted.