Sustainability and ESG: What Do Investors Want?

December 29, 2023

Chief Executives and boards have become increasingly vigilant about incorporating sustainability in external reporting, but they must not underestimate the profound impact of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors on investor decisions. ESG considerations are no longer peripheral but central to investment strategies, influencing choices in public funds, private equity and credit markets. The challenge for companies is to understand how operational sustainability aligns with investor expectations. This understanding is critical, as the investor community is rapidly advancing their ability to use sustainability data, with a growing preference for investments that demonstrate strong ESG performance.

Recent studies indicate that ESG-focused investments tend to offer better long-term returns and risk mitigation, making them attractive to a broader investor base. As a result, corporate leaders and board members will certainly need to prioritise ESG considerations in their strategic planning to meet these evolving investor demands. This trend signifies a shift towards more responsible investing, emphasising the need for companies to align their operations with sustainable practices.

The importance of capital markets

The discourse surrounding ESG and sustainable investing is increasingly prominent and divisive. It’s a challenge for leaders to navigate, yet engagement is essential as sustainable investing transcends beyond niche ESG-focused funds to become a mainstream concern. ESG considerations are now fundamental in diverse investment categories, and their integration into broader investor portfolios is a trend that’s here to stay.

Capital markets, traditionally not focused on sustainability, have now become central to it. This shift, driven by policy changes that either reward or penalise specific sustainability practices, has blurred the distinctions between corporate governance and investment strategies, particularly for public companies. This evolving landscape is creating uncertainties about the importance and impact of stakeholder inquiries. Private firms and projects in sectors like infrastructure and real estate are also experiencing similar changes, where market dynamics and foundational assumptions are rapidly transforming.

This changing environment means the next few years are pivotal for corporate decision-makers. A growing body of research and industry reports suggest that companies not only need to adapt to these changes but also proactively contribute to shaping them. Businesses are increasingly expected to integrate sustainability into their core strategies, not just for compliance, but as a key component of long-term value creation and risk management. This paradigm shift demands a new level of preparedness and strategic thinking from executives and board members, as stakeholders increasingly hold companies accountable for their ESG performance.

The Impact of Sustainability on Investment Choices

The incorporation of sustainability into asset allocation is reshaping investor portfolio decisions. A significant 63% of investors now avoid companies with poor ESG practices, even if financially attractive. ESG investment strategies vary, from impact investing, targeting positive societal or environmental impacts, to socially responsible investing, aligning with values like human rights and climate change mitigation.

ESG data has become crucial for assessing company performance and managing risk. For instance, Nestle SA’s halving of water consumption since 2010, part of a conservation program, not only reduced costs but also bolstered its ethical image among consumers. Investors often consider key ESG metrics like carbon footprint, water usage, board diversity, and employee turnover. These metrics offer insights into a company’s climate change risks, operational efficiency, governance quality and workplace culture, thereby influencing long-term value creation and financial performance.

By leveraging ESG data, investors can make more informed decisions, aligning financial and sustainability goals. This trend underscores the growing importance of ESG considerations in investment strategies and corporate operations, necessitating proactive engagement from companies in these areas.

The portfolio focus on ESG

Investors are increasingly integrating ESG considerations into their portfolio decisions, utilising a diverse array of information. This trend, already on the rise before ESG’s widespread adoption, is particularly evident in private equity and public market investing, where non-traditional data insights are being used for due diligence and valuation.

Global executive teams, especially those with significant exposure to Europe, are acutely aware of impending regulatory shifts impacting both company and investor disclosures. The period from now through to 2025 will see the introduction of enhanced disclosure requirements for around 49,000 publicly listed and privately held businesses in the European Union. These changes are expected to provide investors with a wealth of information, which will be diligently analysed for insights, particularly in portfolios with sustainable disclosure requirements as outlined in the EU taxonomy. This influx of information is not just about compliance; it offers an opportunity for investors to find unique insights that can inform their portfolio strategies and differentiate company performance.

The growing emphasis on ESG factors highlights the shifting landscape in investment decision-making. Investors are no longer solely focused on financial metrics but are also considering a company’s sustainability practices and their potential impact on long-term value. This shift is motivating executives and boards to approach sustainable topics proactively, recognizing that effective ESG engagement can be more than a compliance exercise and can significantly influence portfolio positioning.

Pay close attention

As we conclude 2023, the landscape of ESG continues to evolve, shaping the perspectives of investors globally. This year has been marked by heightened expectations for progress on climate pledges and other sustainability concerns, including biodiversity, diversity, equity, inclusion and worker well-being. The urgent need to address climate change and its impacts, alongside the challenges posed by geopolitical events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has added complexity to the energy transition and sustainability efforts.

The scrutiny on corporate sustainability efforts has intensified, with stakeholders critically evaluating the authenticity of companies’ ESG claims to guard against ‘greenwashing’. Furthermore, the development of new global ESG-related standards, guided by bodies like the International Sustainability Standards Board, signals a move towards more consistent and credible disclosures across jurisdictions and industries.

Looking forward, it’s evident that the focus on sustainability and ESG will not only persist but intensify. Companies must navigate these evolving standards and expectations, balancing immediate operational needs with long-term sustainability goals. For investors, this means an ongoing recalibration of portfolio strategies, incorporating a more sophisticated understanding of ESG impacts. Executives and boards must therefore treat ESG as an integral part of their strategic decision-making, going beyond compliance to embrace it as a core component of corporate identity and value.

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