20-06-2024 · SI Dilemmas

SI Dilemma: The right (and wrong) questions about sustainable investing and returns

‘Is it possible to invest sustainably while also making an attractive return,’ is often asked when I speak with clients or friends. Put this way, it’s framed as a dilemma. But it’s the wrong question. Rather, we should ask how much risk is acceptable in order to generate returns as well as whether clients view impact as important.


  • Carola van Lamoen - Head of Sustainable Investing

    Carola van Lamoen

    Head of Sustainable Investing

Many treat investing sustainably and generating returns as an ‘either or’ decision. Clients and friends often ask whether it’s really possible to do both. It was also the first question posed when I recently presented on sustainable investing at Nyenrode Business University, here in the Netherlands. It’s been asked for decades, but attention has recently amplified as sustainable investing reaches maturity and political forces in some countries (notably the US) shift the focus to the assumed contradiction between investing sustainably and realizing returns. Moreover, the recent underperformance of renewable energy and other stocks related to sustainable development is also intensifying concerns.

The right question

Asking whether you want performance or to invest sustainably is the wrong question; it creates a false dilemma. Performance that is in line with client expectations is a prerequisite for every investment product. So, the more appropriate question is about risk-adjusted return criteria, and how the client’s risk budget can be used to integrate sustainability preferences.

A singular focus on financial returns fails to appreciate that many investors also want to reduce risks and enhance positive impact.

First, there is a question of assessing financial impact of sustainability issues. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors may present risks and opportunities to companies and countries in which we invest. It is our fiduciary duty to understand and research these aspects as part of the investment process. Second, investors increasingly want to align their portfolios with positive impact. Here, rather than a dilemma, we face an optimization challenge: what is an investor’s performance target, how much risk are they willing to take, and how much sustainability should we integrate?

Rather than a dilemma, we face an optimization challenge

Integrating sustainability adds material value

ESG integration is an integral component of our investment approach; we cannot turn it off. We conduct ESG integration because it makes us better-informed investors. This is a clear investment belief with financial materiality as the driver.

ESG factors can act as an ‘early warning radar’ for risks that are not yet reflected in asset values. Climate and transition risks can negatively influence future returns of companies and lead to stranded assets. Considering financially material ESG issues leads to more comprehensive assessments and valuations, also resulting in the earlier discovery of investment opportunities.

Supported by dedicated sustainable investing research analysts, Robeco’s portfolio managers integrate ESG considerations into their portfolio analysis and decision-making processes.

What the research says about sustainability

However, there is no one size fits all. Sometimes ESG issues are key for investment decisions, and sometimes they are irrelevant. In credits, for example, in roughly 25% of cases ESG analysis signals hidden company risks that influence investment decisions. In equities, the impact is stronger with more than 50% of cases influenced by ESG issues. These results make sense, given the long-run nature of ESG analyses and the fact that the time horizon to value stocks is indefinite. Credits, on the other hand, tend to have shorter horizons.

In credits roughly 25% of cases are influenced by ESG analysis … in equities the impact is stronger

ESG integration is embedded in every stage of our investment process, from universe creation to individual stock selection, so it is not easy to pinpoint and assess the exact impact on returns. Still, recent ESG performance attribution analysis in the Robeco Sustainable Global Stars strategy found that ESG has contributed positively to investment performance over the longer term. More specifically, it explains 23%, or around 90 bps, of the strategy’s 384 bps annualized outperformance over 2017-2023. 1

Moreover, in-house quantitative research shows that certain aspects of sustainability, such as human capital management and resource efficiency, actually enhance quality factors in our model and improve alpha.

Aligning portfolios with positive impact

For ESG integration the starting point is financial materiality. This is different from assessing the impact of our investments on society, where impact materiality is the starting point. Investors can make an active decision to allocate capital toward companies that make a positive impact and away from companies that do (significant) harm. In addition, engagement and voting can drive positive change within invested companies.

Of course, when using impact materiality as an investment lens, it is only natural to ask what is the impact of investments for society at large. This approach helps investors better prepare for the future. Monitoring regulatory action, we anticipate that companies should expect to pay for negative externalities such as carbon emissions and biodiversity degradation which means these will have financially material impacts down the road. In this case, as an investor it is key to understand the possible consequences of these decisions on investment performance.

Moreover, internal research shows that we can actively allocate toward companies with positive outcomes, while maintaining a similar risk-return profile.

Internal research shows that we can actively allocate toward companies with positive outcomes, while maintaining a similar risk-return profile

For instance, research concludes that integrating sustainability aspects as an investment restriction can result in risk-return characteristics and diversification benefits that are similar to those of passive market-cap indices over the long term. This means that carbon footprint reduction and SDG integration can be implemented without compromising investors’ financial objectives.2

In addition, Robeco’s quant research team found that a portfolio with value stocks can be decarbonized without sacrificing returns. In general, footprints in portfolios are highly skewed. The carbon footprint of a portfolio can be significantly reduced by moving away from a small set of the most carbon-intensive companies.

More research is needed

The investment industry definitely needs more research on the relation between performance and various sustainable investing approaches; it remains a constant fixture of our research agenda. It is also exciting to see the enthusiasm on the subject from academia. Our desire to contribute to ongoing research is one of the reasons we granted public access to our SDG scores.

When it comes to sustainability integration and investment performance, it is key to ask the right questions: what are the sustainability preferences of the investor, what are the financial goals, and how can these be combined in a suitable way? Adding sustainability preferences to an investment strategy is no different from adding other institutional preferences like region, currency, liquidity. It should not be treated differently.


1 Source: Factset. Cumulative figures, based on Robeco EUR G composite data.
2 Indices insights: Can passive investors integrate sustainability without sacrificing returns or diversification?