More focus on the ‘S’ means asking more difficult questions

Investors have never had such opportunity to engage with company management on a wide variety of ESG issues

The pandemic has clearly highlighted the social inequities and injustice that exist within the current global financial and economic system, giving greater prominence to the ‘S’ in ESG investing last year.

For example there has been no shortage of scrutiny on global supply chains, with several industries rocked by high profile cases of labour exploitation, including within the fast fashion, fintech and industrial materials sectors.

But the rise in prominence of social issues has meant investors are now putting more difficult questions to their investee or potential investee companies on important issues such as labour and business relations, minimum wage, employee training and development, and welfare. Human capital, long absent from balance sheets, is now being recognised on par with other more tangible items such as plant equipment and machinery.

This will prove vital as the global economy rapidly moves into its next phase; increased digitalisation, which in no small part has been accelerated by the pandemic. The need to recruit, develop, train and retain human capital will be at the core of resilient business models.

This augurs well for ESG investors who give such focus to social issues over the next decade and beyond, where the human capital will not only be a key innovator, but also an important driver of consumer behaviour.

Engagement will remain key to ESG

As the pandemic has changed the way we eat, drink, socialise, exercise, travel, learn and work in a profound and lasting way, this same impact has been felt by many companies; businesses have had to perform a dramatic shift in how they engage with their employers, suppliers, customers and investors.

For the latter group, it has provided an opportunity for responsible and sustainable investors to reinforce the benefits of using an ESG criteria; when making key decisions on investing in companies, but also importantly when engaging with companies on ESG issues and on divesting from unsuitable names.

Investors have never had such opportunity to engage with company management on a wide variety ESG issues, and this new and improved alignment of both stakeholders on these issues should help to deliver long-term investment returns to shareholders over the coming decade.

See also: – Rules of engagement: What constitutes best practice?

Rapid digitalisation across a wide range of industries, from traditional cyclical parts of the economy to the newly emerging sub-sectors remains a key catalyst for ESG investors to watch. The ‘roaring’ 1920s were spurred on by the rapid uptake of electrification in then newly emerging industries and there is every possibility that rapid digitisation by all parts of the current economy will lead to another ‘roaring 20s’ in the upcoming decade.

A more engaged consumer has led to greater changes in consumption patterns, driven in large part by these digital tailwinds. Fortunately for ESG investors, this includes a higher savings ratio, which has helped consumers to focus on investing more, and especially in responsible and sustainable funds, where more and more high-profile financial institutions have begun to develop a meaningful footprint. There are now a diverse range of providers in the marketplace allowing investors a greater choice in terms of investment style and philosophy.

This is a positive for the consumer, who will have more choice than ever before. It also brings about increased awareness of responsible and sustainable investing, and adds further momentum to ESG investing in the medium to long-term; comparative to the wider investment industry, ESG is still in its nascent stage and should undergo several growth stages in the coming decade.

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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...