November 28, 2014
Sustainable Assets Up by 76% Since 2012
by Robert Kropp
The biennial Trends Report by US SIF reveals that consideration of environmental, social, and
corporate governance factors by money managers has contributed to sustainable assets in the US that
now total $6.57 trillion.
The practice of sustainable investing has evolved to encompass an array of strategies since its
early days of negative screening by faith-based institutions. And, as the recently published Report on US Sustainable,
Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2014 reveals, assets devoted to the practice are
increasing rapidly: the $6.57 trillion in sustainable assets “represent nearly 18 percent of the
$36.8 trillion in total assets under management,” according to the report; such assets have
increased by 76% since 2012.
The Trends Report, which is published on a biennial
basis by US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, divides the practice of
sustainable investing into two broad categories: the incorporation of environmental, social, and
corporate governance (ESG) considerations into investment decision making, and the practice of
shareowner engagement. Shareowner action, which US SIF describes as emblematic of the industry's
evolution from avoidance to active ownership, accounts for about $1.7 trillion of the funds
invested according to sustainable guidelines.
“In asset-weighted terms,” the report
states, “public funds dominate this arena, accounting for $1.26 trillion of the assets but just 15
of the filing institutions.” On the other hand, readers of SocialFunds.com should not be surprised
to learn that faith-based institutions—most of which are members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)—are by far the
most numerous practitioners of shareowner action.
But it is in the area of ESG
incorporation, which accounts for the lion's share of sustainable assets, that the evolution of
sustainable investing can be described. In one of several highly useful narratives included in the
report, US SIF notes the formation of the first modern sustainable mutual funds in the 1970s, which
“were the first funds both to avoid tobacco, alcohol, nuclear power and military defense
contractors and to consider labor and employment issues.” In the 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement
in South Africa galvanized both divestment strategies and corporate engagement.
then, ESG incorporation has developed to include more than negative screening and divestment.
Climate change and fossil fuel dependence; an increased scrutiny of the supply chains of
multinational corporations; and a growing number of opportunities for investment in renewable
energy and other clean energy investments, have enabled many sustainable investors to be more
proactive in helping to shape a global economy that aspires to be more just and environmentally
In addition to negative screening, ESG incorporation strategies include the
inclusion of risks and opportunities in financial analysis; investment in companies with superior
ESG performance when compared to industry peers; impact investing; and sustainability-themed
investment, in which assets are allocated to superior ESG performers across a broad spectrum of
While it remains a comparatively small percentage of sustainable assets,
community investment is a critically important response to the consequences of increasing wealth
inequality, and the Trends Report devotes a subsection to the practice. While the rate of increase
has slowed since the dramatic gains recorded in 2012, community development financial institutions
(CDFIs) continue to provide financial services and technical assistance to businesses and residents
in communities underserved by commercial banks.
Overall, one finds little with which to
quibble in a well-written and informative report. It is only when one studies the breakdown of how
assets are allocated by sustainable investors that where they fall short in the midst of a global
environmental crisis becomes more clear. Among both money managers and institutional investors,
negative screening—primarily in the forms of avoiding investment in tobacco products and adhering
to regulatory restrictions on investing in companies doing business in Sudan—continues to
predominate, although “climate change remains the most significant environmental factor in terms of
assets.” With fossil fuel divestment a noteworthy development in 2014 (after the numbers in the
report had been collated), addressing climate change is likely to grow.
As Cary Krosinsky,
the Executive Director of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets
(NSFM), wrote in his foreword to Evolutions in Sustainable Investment: Strategies, Funds and
Thought Leadership, "Take a purely values-based approach, and you risk missing the very same
practical opportunities in eco-efficiency and innovation, where the sustainability we require will
come from." Also according to Krosinsky, the 2012 Trends Report reveals "at most $100B in managed
portfolios applying ESG factors actively."
Whether it is because of the financial risks
associated with investment in relatively new companies engaged in clean technologies, or because of
lingering concerns over a narrow concept of fiduciary duty outlined in the Employee Retirement
Investment Security Act (ERISA) in 2008, the movement of sustainable assets into the clean tech
space has not yet grown to offer a clear sense of the low-carbon economy that most if not all
sustainable investors agree is a critical necessity.
“Investors who divest from fossil
fuels will likely consider opportunities for investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency,”
US SIF has stated. If the fossil fuel divestment movement continues its momentum, and a significant
portion of those assets are reinvested in companies whose products and services contribute to a
low-carbon economy, then the 2016 Trends Report should make for compelling reading.