Sustainability’s Imprint on the Business World
As investors and consumers seek sustainability, companies transform their approach to solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Big-box stores bumping up wages. Plastic straws and mini shampoo bottles going the way of the dodo. Shoes and shirts fashioned from recycled bottles. Welcome to the new normal, where sustainability is increasingly woven into your everyday life.
Behind the small changes you see is a big shift in how companies are tackling environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues – everything from working conditions and energy efficiency to data security and business ethics – as money managers factor sustainability into investing.
“Investors want business leaders to focus on ESG … [it] isn’t just a nice-to-have anymore,” Oxford University professor and sustainability scholar Robert Eccles told Harvard Business Review. “It’s something shareholders will demand, because they believe it’s going to drive everything else they care about: growth, market share, profitability.”
Demand is the right word. This year some of the world’s largest asset managers have called sustainability the “new standard” for investing. Governments and consumers are getting on board as well. For example, the European Union now requires that corporations disclose how they manage social and environmental challenges. And at supermarkets and stores in the U.S., sustainable products have accounted for 50% of the growth in packaged goods.
So, how are corporations shaping the future? Raymond James Equity Research analysts across industries offered their insights into how an increased focus on ESG issues is driving change.
Data as the common thread
One common theme that spans from food producers to big-box retailers is the innovation fueled by data accessibility and transparency. This empowers farmers to reduce food loss and waste, enables retailers to use RFID chips to help recycle and resell clothing, and helps airlines optimize efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint. Companies are also gaining more transparency into their supply chains as they seek to measure – and mitigate – ESG risks and avoid any link to issues such as forced labor, unregulated deforestation and other practices with negative social and environmental impacts.
While big data represents opportunity, it’s also a big challenge: What ESG metrics should industries report on? Which ones are so closely tied to company performance that they can’t be ignored? After all, hazardous waste disposal may pose a significant ESG risk for a chemicals company, but not a professional services firm.
To answer those questions, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board in 2018 published voluntary guidelines mapping material ESG issues to 11 sectors. This recent shift to pinpoint ESG factors that could hamper growth or increase costs for a particular industry is a crucial one, professionals say, because it promises more relevant information and greater insight into the risks and opportunities companies are facing.
Powered by clean tech
Another sustainability theme is the adoption of renewable energy across industries. This is happening as costs for wind and solar have plummeted and technologies improve. Examples include data centers pledging to go “carbon negative” with wind and solar, and “green” buildings becoming mainstream.
We are still awaiting breakthroughs in clean battery technology that would allow us to power everything from air conditioners to airplanes when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But even electric aviation, an idea that once seemed out of reach, is closer than you might think. Eviation’s electric prototype plane, unveiled in 2019 with an 8,200-pound battery and a range of 650 miles, is proof of that.
A shift toward “enduring value”
As companies embrace sustainability, many investors have stopped viewing it as a niche strategy.
Strikingly, 26% of all U.S. professionally managed assets, nearly $12 trillion, are already classified as sustainable, and that number is rising. ESG-aligned mutual funds and ETFs available to U.S. investors raked in $20.6 billion of total new assets in 2019, data provider Morningstar reported, four times the $5.5 billion captured in 2018. Worldwide, these assets more than doubled from 2012 to 2018, surpassing $30 trillion.
These are the kind of eye-popping numbers behind a global movement. Though barriers related to ESG information and measurement persist, the desire to focus on the long term seems here to stay.
As a 2020 report from consulting firm KPMG plainly states, “Sustainable investing is about creating businesses of enduring value” – something most anyone can appreciate.
Sources: Raymond James Equity Research, EU’s Non-Financial Reporting Directive of 2018; NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business; Harvard Business Review; Morningstar; Lazard’s 2018 Levelized Cost of Energy report
Investing involves risk and you may incur a profit or loss regardless of the strategy selected. Sustainable investing considers qualitative environmental, social and corporate governance, also known as ESG criteria, which may be subjective in nature. As with any investment, there is no guarantee that sustainable investing products or strategies will produce positive returns. Investors should consult their investment professional prior to making an investment decision.