Investing in health of people and planet

This World Health Day engaging with companies on pollution and biodiversity, as well as human health concerns, will help build a fairer world

This year’s World Health Day, marked on 7 April, will take on an extra significance for many amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Started by the World Health Organisation, this year’s theme is ‘building a fairer, healthier world’ – a sentiment that will resonate with many ESG professionals.

The health of the planet is “intrinsically linked” to human health, said Catherine McCabe, analyst, responsible investment, at BMO Global Asset Management.

“Taking action to reduce air pollution not only improves public health, but also helps to mitigate climate change, which is a major threat to health security, contributing to food shortages and mosquito-borne diseases,” she said.

“Moreover, there are studies linking higher temperatures with a higher degree of antimicrobial resistance – a natural phenomenon in which microorganisms develop resistance to antimicrobial agents – that has been accelerated by poor stewardship of antibiotics in healthcare and livestock farming. The key takeaway is that human health should not be viewed in isolation, it is intrinsically linked to the health of our global ecosystem.”

McCabe said this year BMO GAM would like to see pharmaceutical companies commit to being more transparent about how they are taking steps to mitigate their environmental impacts, specifically greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and water stewardship.

Similarly, biodiversity – an increasing focus for many fund groups – has a direct link to health. “We rely on biodiversity to maintain a healthy diet, to develop new medicines and protect us from disease,” said Sophie Lawrence, senior ethical, sustainable and impact researcher at Rathbone Greenbank Investments.

“As investors, it is important for us to consider the impact our portfolio companies are having on the drivers of biodiversity, such as deforestation for agriculture and marine exploitation and engage with them to reduce these impacts. With 70% of emerging infectious diseases originating from wildlife, it is vitally important that we consider the impact of human activity on the natural world. With animals and humans living in closer quarters, this creates the ideal conditions for the spread of zoonotic diseases, such as Covid-19.” 

Covid-19

The pandemic has thrown many aspects of health into the limelight, such as mental health, physical health and health inequalities.

In the investment world we’ve seen investment manager CCLA launch a mental health benchmark focused on FTSE 100 companies last year; and an enhancement of Employee Assistance Programmes, flexible working and increased communications across many firms.

Last month, in response to the first health-based shareholder resolution at a FTSE 100 company, coordinated by ShareAction, Tesco said it will increase the proportion of its sales from healthier products to 65% by 2025 and will set out a strategy for how it will achieve this.

“Tesco’s new plans are an important recognition of the role supermarkets play in shaping our diets, at a time when our health has never been more critical,” said Jessica Attard, head of health at ShareAction.

For World Health Day Attard referenced ShareAction new Long-term Investors in People’s Health programme, which is currently being built to help investors consider the systemic impacts on health and build resilience across their portfolios.

“Health is an asset that investors can no longer afford to ignore. Investee companies have enormous impacts on people’s health – not only through the products and services they provide but also through the quality of work they offer and their impact on the environment and local communities,” she said.

Finally, health inequalities have been laid bare by the pandemic. Calvert researchers Laura Ahmadi and Bianca Minns outlined the disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 on certain racial and ethnic groups, citing a CDC study finding Black and Hispanic populations experience higher rates of hospitalisation and death from the disease in the US.

“While Covid-19 has cast a spotlight on enduring structural racism, it also highlights an opportunity,” they said. “Healthcare firms now have the chance to embrace practices during the pandemic that rebuild trust with communities of colour, dissipate inequities in health outcomes and improve diversity prospects.”

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Natasha Turner

Natasha is global deputy editor at ESG Clarity, part of the Bonhill Group, and has been a financial journalist for six years. She has been shortlisted for Story of the Year and Investment Journalist of...