ESG investment funds unlikely to comply with sustainable investing rules

A lack of standardised regulatory regimes for non-financial disclosures and the naming of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) funds across the US, UK and Europe will mean that a lot of self-proclaimed “sustainable” funds will be unable to comply with proposed legislation.

ESG investment funds unlikely to comply with sustainable investing rules

The analysis explored compliance with the EU's naming laws

Analysis of more than 18,000 investment funds across Europe has found that less than 4% would be able to comply with naming laws for ESG funds across key markets.

The research, from technology platform Clarity AI, found that many would have to rename their ESG funds if they wanted to sell across the UK, US and Europe, all of which have different definitions and naming laws for non-financial disclosures and sustainability funds.

“When looking at funds with all three investment fund regimes – the US’, UK’s, and EU’s – we found that over 95% of funds with the word ‘sustainable’, or similar term, would require renaming or restructuring in order to be sold across all three markets,” Clarity AI’s head of product research and innovation Patricia Pina.

“This is not only an added cost in terms of compliance, but also underscores how different actors – in this case regulators – are interpreting the meaning of core concepts like ESG and sustainability.”

In November 2022 the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) ran a consultation to place minimum thresholds on Article 8 – which is for “light green” funds that use ESG-related terms in their names. ESMA proposed that these funds would need to ensure that 100% of the assets in each portfolio adhered to minimum safeguard thresholds that were aligned with the Paris Agreement.

It also suggested that 80% of the assets it invests in are used to meet the ESG-related characteristics that it promotes. Additionally, 50% of the assets would need to be defined as sustainable under the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR).

Clarity AI’s research found that only 20% of Article 8 funds using the term “sustainable” had current plans to comply with the recommendations of the consultation. The research suggests that the recommendations from the consultation would not closely align with investing proposals in the UK or US.

ESG down the agenda

Earlier this year, separate research found that investing in sustainable assets is less important to them now than it was in 2019.

The poll was conducted by British law firm Michelmores, covering 1,500 people in the UK with a minimum of £25,000 of investable assets each. 23% of respondents said they found investing in sustainable assets less important than they did in 2019, with the cost-of-living crisis cited as the key reason for this decrease in importance.

Research from EY found that the total amount of assets under management covered by specific ESG funds reached $2.7trn in 2021, marking a 53% year-on-year increase. But as the movement’s support grows, the perception that ESG is ineffective is also becoming more widespread.

EY acknowledges that many companies, ratings agencies and investors are using different definitions of ESG and different methodologies to assess performance across each of the three pillars. Some of these methodologies are based on historic data, some on future predictions. Some assign more importance to issues that are less material to a particular sector or project than those which materiality assessments have proven to be key. Some assign more weight to the ‘E’ and/or the ‘S’ than the ‘G’.

These discrepancies have led to rating agencies assigning scores that have caused controversy. Many of these controversies are now making mainstream news. For example, MSCI and Sustainalytics both provided high ratings to care home operator Opera Group, which this year was accused of mistreating residents and faced insider trading allegations. To give another example, in 2020, fast fashion retailer Boohoo was revealed to have the backing of 20 ESG-focused funds, despite persistent and credible allegations of supply chain workers being paid illegally low wages.

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