Pandemic Creates Watershed Moment for Sustainable Investing

Sustainalytics Founder Michael Jantzi says COVID-19 has been a catalyst for ESG investing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of life in 2020, from the expected, such as a run on hand sanitizer and toilet paper, to the unexpected, like not being able to find a bicycle or jigsaw puzzle for sale. And one of the more surprising effects the pandemic has had on the world is the way it has spurred sustainable investing.

Michael Jantzi, founder of Sustainalytics, which rates the sustainability of companies based on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance, believes sustainable investing is currently at an inflection point in its nascent history. Speaking at the virtual Morningstar Investment Conference on Wednesday, he said the pandemic has not only not hindered sustainable investing, but is actually helping accelerate its growth and importance.

The sustainable investing movement was already showing strong growth before the pandemic hit. Jantzi cites the rising interest in sustainable investing in the growth of the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). The PRI is an international organization that works to promote the incorporation of ESG factors into investment decision-making. He said the organization has grown exponentially since its inception in 2006, from 19 signatories to more than 3,000 signatories today controlling more than $100 trillion in assets.

Jantzi said that there are record inflows into sustainable investments this year, including a quarterly record of $10.5 billion during the second quarter. He also noted that record net inflows in 2019 were four times greater than the previous year.

“We’re starting to see a real shift in how people are moving assets in the largest capital markets in the world,” said Jantzi. “People are not just saying they want to do sustainable investing, they’re putting their money where their mouths are.”

He said Europe remains the largest pool of ESG assets in the world with nearly $684 billion, followed by North America with $119.3 billion in ESG assets. He also said this growth has been gathering steam since the pandemic hit.

“People have said to me how can I believe that sustainability and sustainable investing is at such an important time in its history … how can that be in the environment in which we now find ourselves?” Jantzi said.

“I do think that the current circumstances caused by COVID-19 has been an accelerator or a catalyst to this change,” he added. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the challenges and realities and disruptions we face today are causing people to ponder in a different way some of the sustainability risks and issues that we’ve been talking about for a long time.”

He also said there has been a “profound and powerful” shift in the conversation companies and investors are having regarding sustainable investing. He said the conversation used to be exclusively about how to integrate ESG into their investing process. 

“But more recently that conversation has been flipped 180 degrees,” he said. “The conversation is now also about outcome, which is what investing should always be about,” he said, adding that investors are beginning to ask what the impact of their investment process is having on the environment and society. “That is a profound change … investors are embracing sustainability in a more robust manner.”

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