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The pandemic has accelerated the rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. However, argues Markus Müller, we must improve global standards continually if ESG is to fulfil its promise of driving economic growth while having a positive impact on the planet
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Markus Müller

The coronavirus pandemic has made us acutely aware of risks to our existence and how fragile the global economic system is. Many are making the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic part of the reason why ESG has risen rapidly to the top of the global agenda, moving from rhetoric and ambition to action. At the same time, the many facets of ESG are being discussed and examined across a multitude of investment institutions, to establish what it really means and whether it serves a purpose at all.

In my view, ESG prompts a simple question about why and how we do things, as individuals, as investors and as companies.

ESG originally developed from institutional investors screening out negative risks in investment targets. Today, ESG is much more than a combination of investment ratings and exclusions. With the goal of sustainability as our objective, ESG offers a way of understanding and quantifying the non-financial dimension of economic activity and of avoiding the dangers of a ‘submerged iceberg’.

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This means identifying where the risks lie and developing innovative mitigation strategies. Mid- to long-term risk for an investor comes in many forms. Physical risks (damage or threat to physical assets due to natural or climate change) are accompanied by transition risks (business or investment risks on the journey towards a greener economy) and liability risks (reputational issues, breach of standards). These risks can affect companies in a variety of ways. Production disruption, raw material and share price volatility and capital destruction are just a few examples. Importantly, it all involves understanding nature as an asset, as an input factor in our production function.

Innovation means finding ways to avoid those risks while embracing change and preparing for new future-oriented businesses which are ESG-positive. This has two prerequisites. First, we need more data disclosure to measure the impact of what we are doing. Secondly, we need goals and an evaluation method. These two issues are linked: data will give us an understanding of the impact of economic activity and how to steer economic development, which in turn should allow us to refine these goals.

Systematic decision-making is more than just a means to an end in order to achieve an overarching, positive goal within the Purpose Economy. We must also ensure that, when looking at equitability of impact, a distinction is not merely made between labour- and capital-intensive activities. Rather, impacts should be considered in three ways: the impact of individuals (including companies); the impact of politics (including governments and institutions); and the impact of nature (including natural resources).

Fortunately, we already have broad goals. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the linked UN Principles for Responsible Investment, along with the Paris Agreements as well as the (failed) Aichi Biodiversity Targets, have set the initial direction. But there is still no consistent global approach about how to go beyond these broad goals and to put them in a detailed synthesis with financial markets. Standards can help. Reporting is widening its scope: the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) was recently launched to go beyond ESG scores and climate change, to include the risk factor represented by biodiversity loss. The International Financial Standards Reporting Foundation (IFSR) has also proposed the inclusion of sustainability standards within its constitution as it aims for the establishment of an International Sustainability Standards Board.

Read more: Dimitri Zenghelis on Investing in the Green Transition

So, we are advancing on multiple fronts, but the scale of the task here is enormous: even within rating agencies, ESG ratings and scores vary due to differing methodologies. Global sustainability standards for company reporting would allow integrating data, insights and ESG themes into business strategy, product-development cycles and risk management. Harmonised standards would also allow us to improve scoring, enabling a more sophisticated discussion of what exactly scores mean and the importance of a company improving its ESG score rather than just accepting it or simply trying to ‘game’ it.

At Deutsche Bank’s International Private Bank we continue to develop our methodology to make sense of this evolving landscape on global standards. We use ratings, drawing on the research and analysis of a leading third party provider, but it is important to consider these in context. We realise that we have to give firms credit for improvement on ESG metrics, for example. We also apply exclusions against sectors that go against UN goals and principles and generate long-term risks (around greenhouse gases, for example). Exclusions can also be applied on more individual value-based grounds.

Methodologies such as this require continual improvement through monitoring their effect on sustainability. But the priority should be to ensure that the impact of ESG on a client’s investments should be transparent and that they will lead to improved corporate behaviour on ESG issues. If we wish to make transparent the impact of our ESG activities, and if we want our economies to be ESG-positive, we need to all follow the same methods.

ESG is here to stay as a categorical imperative. It will, at the very least, slow down environmental degradation and will make the world and our lives richer and more meaningful.

Markus Müller is Global Head of the Chief Investment Office at Deutsche Bank’s International Private Bank. Find out more:

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue.