In Focus: Sustainable investing  

 Is it possible to diversify an ESG portfolio?

Tanya Pein

Tanya Pein

“What’s wrong with a fag and a drink?”

That was the first question I once had from a client about the environmental, social and governance recommendations I had proposed for the portfolio.

An entirely reasonable question, I thought.

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It goes straight to the part that 'know your customer' rules play in ESG-oriented advice.

Having listened to, and gently probed the client’s views in previous conversations as part of the KYC process, I was reassured that the recommendations seemed suitable.

The client was simply engaging with the recommendations, and his question led to an enjoyable and thoughtful conversation.

All the investment recommendations were accepted, and they proved to be rather profitable for the client: the ideal of making money, and doing good.

Is ESG a niche interest? No, it is a multi-trillion dollar part of the listed investment universe.

In Europe, more investors have assets that have been ESG screened than not. Every asset class is available, and there is plenty of choice in sub-asset classes too, with both growth and value orientations.

There are more than 100 actively managed funds provided by UK fund managers, and an increasing range of passive funds too.

It would be rare for large workplace pension schemes to have no ESG options, so clients may be interested in your view on those funds too.

But what about 'greenwash'? Yes, it’s definitely out there, especially in the newer funds. But there are plenty of ESG funds with good criteria and strong performance.

Some of the actively managed funds have been going for a decade or several more, so have a strong track record.

In practical terms, this means that they invested early and very profitably in wind turbines, solar energy, electric cars, and pollution management and so forth.

Forward-looking, modern and motivated investors, they have rewarded their clients rather well over the years.

ESG investment 101: how does it work? There are three basic approaches: screening, engagement and positive investing.

Screening for example, would be excluding sectors such as the arms industry. This is likely to be very profitable, and not just because of the continuing war against Ukraine in Europe, but over the longer term too, in other parts of the world.

So it is worth asking a client directly: would you like to profit from wars?

Their response could be a helpful guide as to where, and how deeply they would like you to embed their values in your investment recommendations.

It will also illustrate that choices have to be made, if the instruction is 'just maximise the return'. Most clients would prefer that returns are high from the expansion of renewable energy than from bloodshed.