Podcast: Are investment managers ready for ESG going mainstream?

Podcast: Are investment managers ready for ESG going mainstream?

27-07-2021 | Podcast
More and more investors say they choose their fund manager based on their sustainability credentials. But is the industry ready for this fundamental shift towards ESG and impact investing? In our latest podcast, Masja Zandbergen, Robeco’s head of sustainability integration, discusses what it takes to keep up the pace. She also tackles some hot topics in ESG investing, including activism, health and biodiversity.


We do not guarantee the accuracy of this transcript.

Erika van der Merwe (Erika): Judging by the statistics, ESG investing has become mainstream. Record amounts are flowing into sustainability-themed investment products. A growing share of institutional and retail investors say they select their fund manager based on their sustainability credentials. And the majority of asset managers claim to have ESG policies. But have we truly arrived?

Male voice: Welcome to a new episode of the Robeco podcast.

Erika: Masja Zandbergen is Robeco’s Head of sustainability integration – just the person to give us a sober perspective on what investors ought to know about the state of sustainable investing. Welcome Masja.

Masja: Thank you, Erika. Glad to be here.

Erika: We've had a long list of frameworks and labels and definitions and terms such as responsible investing, green investing ESG, the SDGs, climate impact and sustainability. And I'm sure there are more. Have we created a problem of definitions and of scope for sustainable investing? Do you think we know what we measuring and what progress we're making?

Masja: Yeah, I think indeed sustainable investing is a catchphrase and it contains a lot of different elements. As more and more people are trying to get into finding out what it actually means, we find that a lot of people get very confused. And I think the need for one standard is important. But I also think that we will never get to one standard, because the world is always changing and it's just a way of thinking. So what we always say to ourselves is, think about how value is being created by businesses and then think about what are the main ESG elements that could affect that value creation. So think about human rights, basic human rights, basic labour standards, think about the environment, think about anti-corruption, good governance, and then to give an example, if you think about how is value being created in that in the pharmaceutical industry? Well, of course, they use a lot of R&D, invest a lot of money in developing new medicine and medicine are becoming more and more expensive. So if you ask yourself the second question, what are the, let's say, social effects? Well, we're seeing that the healthcare burden and the healthcare costs are increasing enormously. So if you tie that value creation aspect of a pharmaceutical company that's putting a lot of money in developing new medicine and wants to get a return on that with the fact that the health care costs are increasing quite a lot, then you come up with, OK, maybe the way they're pricing their products is a very important issue that we should consider as investors. So I think the need for standards in ESG is clear. The EU is now defining what our green activities, what our green economic activities. That's very good. But on the other hand, we always need to continue to think about and just change the way we think about these, the way businesses create value and also how that is affecting the societies and the environment around us. And that's just a new way of thinking. And you cannot get there with only setting a standard. And I also think that the people that are confused now are the people that just need to build up more knowledge about the topic. And that's key. So it's both getting some kind of standard. But on the other end, always, always, always, you know, keep on thinking about new issues that are popping up.

Erika: So flexibility required and perhaps avoiding the risk of thinking in absolutes about this. Yeah, absolutely. A slightly different aspect of this that we were thinking so deeply about sustainability issues and as I said earlier, you’re seeing all these funds fund inflows, the fact that investors, asset managers and also regulators are so focused now on ESG is good news, of course. But if we are mainstreaming sustainable investing, is there a risk that we end up doing it for appearances sake because everyone else is expecting it and that we forget what the real reasons for doing this as a possible indicator? Here's a fact that I found from FactSet, the financial data company. They found that more than one in four S&P 500 companies cited the term ‘ESG’ on their fourth quarter earnings calls, so at the end of 2020. And perhaps that's not a big deal, but the fact is that this is more than three times higher than a year previously. So are we all investors, asset managers, corporates and so on, being sincere in our actions here?

Masja: Well, Erika, you can look at it two ways. One, you can look at it, the glass half full, and one, you can look at it, the glass half empty. So let's start with the glass half empty, which I think you're suggesting in your in your question. It is becoming a commercial opportunity for many asset managers, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. And the question is, you know, what are the intentions? Are you always have to consider the impact that you're making when you when it comes to sustainable investing. And if it's if your only goal, your only purpose is to sell more funds, probably in five years time, you will end up not being selected by anyone because there has to be more to it. And if we look at the glass half full, I think if asset managers are being pushed by their clients to become do have more and more sustainable investments, then that's going to benefit. That's going to benefit everyone. And I think I would rather look at it that way than the other way.

Erika: On that point now, what do you seeing what are clients wanting. You are in regular discussions with your clients? So around ESG compliant investing, what are their needs?

Masja: Yeah, I think the needs differ and we always say there's no one size fits all, and that's truly the case. Clients are now using all different types of data providers, for example, to screen our portfolios. And there's no, as we already talked about in the beginning, there's no common denominator for if companies are doing well or poorly on ESG. And that's why I think it's excellent that we are also moving a little bit more towards impact thinking. So really thinking about how not how does ESG affect a company's ability to create value, but how does the company affect the environment and the society and the broad stakeholder from a broad stakeholder perspective? And there it's more easy to do to have certain standards. So it's very easy to report on how money flows. How much do you invest in fossil fuels? What is the board diversity of your average portfolio company? What are the CO2 emissions of the portfolio of the companies that you invest in; so really more concrete and objective measures that you can actually use to measure portfolios. And I think that is where the market is currently going. So moving from using ESG as an alpha, uh, or it make a better informed investment decisions, which will still be done, but then also moving to looking at what is the real impact that we are creating by investing in certain companies? And that's where I see a lot…. Last year, 2020, our impact range, so our thematic funds, our SDG strategies, they overtook our traditional sustainable strategies when it comes to assets under management. And that's part of the business is really growing extremely fast. So there's a lot of demand from clients for funds and strategies that only invest in companies where we believe that they have a net positive contribution to sustainable development.

Erika: And as you said, there's perhaps no absolutes in this, but is this sort of a consistent message in the kind of impact that clients want? Is it easy to cater to that?

Masja: Yeah, well, that's different per client. We have some clients that have specific SDGs that they want to focus on. Think about climate, but also job creation. Some want to focus more on health so that really can differ quite a bit per client and also depends on what the client is. If you're a health insurer, maybe you want to focus more on health; if you're a P&C insurer, maybe climate is more relevant for you. So there yeah, so there are different aspects that different clients find relevant. And because we have our SDG framework that we developed internally, we can also cater towards those clients’ needs. And that's quite important.

Erika: And I think in line with what you've said now, as a house, it's been very clear this year that you you're very much focused on solutions for sustainability issues, to move away from just placard waving, away from talking about things to solving the problem. And there's some real dilemmas in doing that. It requires us to get out of our comfort zone, to think differently. On this point, here is a comment by the Swiss explorer and environmentalist Bertrand Piccard. He was speaking at one of Robeco’s climate events recently.

Masja: It is the language that protection of the environment is expensive, the protection of the environment needs behavioral sacrifices, and this language of having less has not been very stimulating, I have to say. And it has created a lot of resistance against the protection of the environment, against the ecology. So if we are stuck between two options that don't work quantitative growth or degrowth, we need to choose a third one. And the third one is what I like to call the qualitative growth, where we create jobs and make profits by replacing what is polluting, by what is protecting the environment.

Masja: Bertrand’s point about finding a third way in a profitable way is echoed by the strategist and scientist Gabrielle Walker. She was speaking also at a Robeco event recently.

Gabrielle Walker: This is an incredible transformation and because everybody needs it, the world is your market. It is happening at light speed. Actually, one banker said to me: this is warp speed, I can't keep up with it. And I said, it's just going to get faster. It’s dynamic, it’s creative, it's inventive. The opportunities are out there; go grab them. That way we can make money and save the world.

Erika: Your views on this, I'm sure you agree.

Masja: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I'm sorry. We do have to also be honest. Sometimes it costs an investment up front to create an opportunity later. But that's what doing business is all about. And there are some aspects that might be a little bit harder from a from a shareholder perspective to think about how they will create value. And also you have to believe in it. So, for example, paying a living wage in the supply chain for a, let's say, a garment company or a company that's making sneakers or footwear. You have to think about it up front. Maybe the costs will go up a little bit. And it also it takes a lot of effort and a lot of work to make sure that actually that money really comes in the pocket of the people that are at the end of your supply chain that are making your products. So it's not only about money, it's also about a lot of effort that needs to be put in. But then in the end, it will increase your brand value or at least it will protect your brand value. And that is how you need to think. And then I would like to maybe quote Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, who said, it's a tragedy of the horizons because investors tend to look at the first part, the investment part, the cost part, and then and they forget about sometimes about what it's going to bring in the end in terms of enhancing your reputation or in the case of footwear company, your brand value. And as long as we keep thinking in that that way, things are not going to change. So I think what Gabrielle Walker was saying is excellent things are happening at lightspeed, so you have to be there. I really believe that. And I think people that are not thinking that way, they will be left behind in five, ten years time. They will be obsolete. They will be dinosaurs and we all know what happened to them

Erika: On this point of putting in the effort and not being left behind. What about fund managers? Are they really equipped to ramp up their efforts on sustainable investing? It requires investors to very rapidly change their approach and even their skill sets. And meanwhile, we are seeing a war on talent in asset management, the scramble for data and new IT systems. Do you believe that asset managers will succeed in this challenge?

Masja: Um, some will, like us! Just kidding! In the war of talent, we actually see that ,because we put a lot of focus and effort on sustainability, that actually a lot of people want to work for us, and that's great. But we also have to take on board the people that are already working for us. And I think an interesting survey was done by the CFA that looked at the investment professional of the future; and the most important future skill that was mentioned by investment industry leaders was T-shaped skills; and T-shaped skills are people that are subject matter experts. So they really know what they're doing in specific topics, and in this case, you can say finance, asset management, uh, but they can also adapt to changing environments and they can work across disciplines. So in this case, it will require them to read research from climate specialist or maybe human rights experts and also being able indeed to use new data sources in doing their work. And I think portfolio managers in general are people that are very curious and they really want to know everything about the company, about how the world works, how the economy works, but that they need to spread their wings. And also think about how does the environment work and what is the impact on society of those companies that we invest in. And that is, um, as clients are getting more and more interested, I see that our portfolio managers certainly are really, really very quickly to adapt. And we've been working with this topic, since already quite a long time, even more than 10 years, our PMs have been integrating ESG. So they have a head start. But the whole aspect of impact is something that is new, is a new element to what we already used to thinking about. And this is something that we need to adapt even further.

Erika: You say you've been doing it for some time and moving fast, but activists have expressed their dissatisfaction with the pace at which even sustainable investors such as yourself are moving. Is that fair?

Masja: Well, I always think everyone has a role to play on the big stage. And activists are probably always a little bit further, they're pushing harder; and we have a different role to play, because we invest money for our clients. And in the end, our clients are everyone that has a pension. And that's important. And I think we have to balance out both, and we have to be very careful with the money that we invest. And we have to be stewards of that capital, not only for environmental and social good, but also for financial good. And I don't believe that there's anything sustainable if it doesn't also make sure that we generate enough returns for it to be sustainable in the long run. So I think everyone has a role to play and the NGOs have a role to play and sometimes they push us. And that's great because then we say, OK, hey, palm oil, maybe we should do more. And we do that, uh, and we did that. And sometimes, we push back a little bit. That's the way it is.

Erika: Masja, I'm going to change tack completely. Now I've got some rapid-fire questions for you. Very short. Brief answers just for fun.

Masja: That's difficult for me.

Erika: Masja, how would you describe your job to 12-year-old?

Masja: I've done that before, actually. Um, so I say, you know, I invest in companies like Unilever. I'm going to say a name now. I'm not allowed to, but it's not an investment recommendation. And they make peanut butter and you know, you know them because they make peanut butter. And what I want them to do is to make that peanut butter in the best way they can. So without using child labor, without having too much impact on the environment. And that's what I find important.

Erika: You spoke earlier about health, Masha. Do you have a Strava account or anything similar?

Masja: No, I don't. I'm a team player, so I play a lot of team sports. And also I like to have a purpose. I think purposes are very important and my purpose in sport is not to do run rounds or to cycle. But I like the team sport where you have to compete against each other and try to win. And that's then having a purpose is winning…

Erika: … like playing cricket on frozen canals in the Netherlands. You’re famous for that.

Masja: Yeah. Well, I love cricket. It's a fantastic sport. I also play soccer and hockey, field hockey and tennis. So I like any sport with a ball; and I don't need Strava to pump up my ego.

Erika: You said it's important for you to have a purpose. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Masja: A singer and an actress.

Erika: Which book or article would you recommend as the ‘must read’ for anyone getting started on the topic of sustainable investing?

Masja: Oh my gosh, I think I'm going to say the Big Book of SI, which I'm very proud of, that we produced. And I think it's very practical and good and we produce it. I think it was three or four years ago, but still topical. And that's what the song is about, long term thinking.

Erika: There you go. Last question. Which of the E, S or G is closest to your heart?

Masja: That's the S; so always social issues. When I was managing portfolios, I found it quite strange that I could invest in companies that I knew didn't have their supply chains in in order. And I think people that are the most vulnerable are at the end of that supply chain. And we should be more aware of that.

Erika: We see a number of new ESG questions being raised recently because of some important themes playing out in society and in markets. You regularly write columns on these topics. So let's look at health, for instance. Covid has compelled us to look seriously at the importance of maintaining personal and communitywide health. How do you see this from an EU perspective?

Masja: Health is a topic that we have been working on already for quite some time, both in our active ownership and also in our investments. And of course, you know, the focus on health has been there for a long time. And with the push of Covid, some of the things that we invest in have actually done really well. And some of the trends that we are seeing is that consumers are much more aware of healthy nutrition, and even though it's still a very small part of the market, is really growing quite fast. So that's an area that we are interested in investing in. We also see that there is much more public awareness of healthy lifestyles; obesity levels in the Western world that are very, very high. And the pandemic has actually really unfortunately contributed even more because on average, it's estimated that that weight gain has actually been like six kilograms. And I myself have also gained a few, which I'm not very happy about. But yeah, I would love to go back to work and cycle to work to lose that again. But unfortunately, that's the truth. So we see that things like, um, companies that are related to fitness and activities, athletic apparel, fitness equipment, those are companies that we are really interested in to invest in, as well as other areas, hygiene and consumer health products. Again, with the Covid pandemic, it's becoming very topical; think about hair and skin products, vitamins, nutritional supplements, also very much a growing area of interest. And last but not least, it's also about prevention, because I think 98% of our healthcare costs go to combating diseases and only 2% goes to preventing disease, which is, of course, a bit strange and should be much more. So we're also investing in prevention and diagnosis, also healthcare efficiency, chronic care. So healthcare is really a long-term trend. And we also see that when it comes to our investment results, because the risk if we measure by volatility is actually relatively low, so fairly stable companies to invest in. But over the long run, this strategy does outperform the market. So, yeah, it's an interesting area to invest in.

Erika: Perhaps just briefly, I think a really important point to touch on also is biodiversity. It's become a real focus for investors. Why is this such an issue and how are you tackling it as an investor?

Masja: Yeah, I think my article on that was actually a bit thought provoking. We said loss of biodiversity is a bigger threat than climate change. Of course, that's maybe not completely true, but the fact is that they are very, very, very much interlinked. And if we continue to reduce biodiversity, to cut down forests and nature, then that's going to have a huge climate impact. And the other way around, if the climate remains changing, the nature will change as well. And our biodiversity and we I think we're all experiencing that in our in our lives. Right. I don't know how it is in other countries, but here in the Netherlands, it's much drier than it used to be. And it's much warmer in the summers, but also. Yeah, it's a less predictable climate that we have here. Um, so, yeah, we are all experiencing that. So there's a big linkage between biodiversity loss and climate risk. And if you look at the planetary boundary work of the Stockholm University that is looking at, uh, you know, how far are we in terms of having an equilibrium and going too far, it's not even climate, but it's mostly biodiversity that that is actually the biggest risk currently. Um, and of course, it's very, very difficult for the financial industry to think about how our what is our role to play here? How are we affecting this? And this is something that we are currently working on, in two initiatives. One is the Finance for Biodiversity pledge that was launched this year. And we have signed that pledge and committed to protecting and restoring biodiversity through our financial activities and investments. And the first thing, of course, is to think about how do we measure that? How do we measure how our portfolios are negatively or positively contributing to biodiversity. So the second initiative that we are working on is the Partnership Biodiversity Accounting Financials. So it's the successor to PCAF, the Partnership Carbon Accounting Financials. And we're really working on trying to find metrics to measure biodiversity impact of portfolios. And that's still an early stage. But we need to measure first and then we can set targets. And that's our goal.

Erika: Right. Coming back to that point of measurement again. Bringing all your thoughts together, what we've discussed, Marcia, what do you hope to see by the end of your career in the realm of ESG and sustainable investing?

Masja: At the end of my career, that's going to be a time from today. Well, I really think that that it would be good if not only investors, but also corporates really live the fact that they are not there only to make to maximize profit, but to maximize, in our case, wealth and well-being for all of our clients, for all of our stakeholders. So it's a broad stakeholder perspective that we should take and not only there to maximize profit, but you're also there to maximise some kind of value, uh, for your employees, for your customers and for the communities that you work in. And I think that's very important.

Erika: Well, Masja, thank you. Super talking to you. Thank you for your insights.

Masja: You're welcome. Thanks, Erika.

Erika: Thanks also to our listeners and for being part of this conversation. We'd like to hear from you, so please send us your comments, feedback and suggestions to podcast@Robeco.com and you'll find all of our podcasts on your favorite podcast platform, as well as at Robeco.com.

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