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Pioneers never rest on their laurels

Pioneers never rest on their laurels

04-05-2020 | Interview
It had to be taken, that one photo. On the roof. Her roof. Despite the objections of a photographer afraid of heights Masja Zandbergen, Head of ESG Integration, insisted that she be standing between the solar panels on the photo. Proudly. Because the house – her house – is clear proof that it’s possible: to make a difference. If you want to. If you have vision. And if you’re willing to invest.
  • Peter van Kleef
    Peter
    van Kleef
    Chief Editor

And investing – to reap the rewards later – is what it’s all about, also in her role at Robeco. But the willingness to invest in sustainability only emerges once people become aware of the need, or the opportunities. And that awareness, Zandbergen notes, has really gone into high gear in recent years. At the start of her career, in 1997, Zandbergen – who didn’t like to invest in companies that used child labor or had poor working conditions – was met with resistance from portfolio managers when she talked about sustainability considerations.

Now, analyzing both the risks and opportunities of sustainability has become an essential aspect of every financial analysis. “Everyone is more aware of it, society is changing and you see global unrest about the climate, but also about wage inequality, for instance. Companies realize they are being held responsible by shareholders for their CO2 emissions, production of single-use plastics, tax morale, and so on.”

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Leading the pack

But increased awareness is not enough. Not by a long shot. “There is still a significant lack of knowledge and understanding in relation to sustainability,” says Zandbergen. “And for the asset management industry, we have a long way to go when it comes to effectively implementing sustainability in portfolios. There’s much more to it than taking part in a race to be the first to offer a trendy new fund just because it will attract new clients.”

The industry has to take steps, and that’s causing a different kind of conflict. You’re competing with your peers, you want to be the best, but at the same time you need everyone to move in the right direction. Because working together is the only way to get change on the agenda. And Robeco is leading the pack, she says.

“Our internal research is second to none, thanks to RobecoSAM, our Swiss affiliate; our portfolio managers understand the importance of that research. They know how to implement the data, and also why it is crucial in the analysis of future risks and opportunities.” And that knowledge is not a pool of standing water: it’s constantly moving.

Decarbonized value

“Our quantitative researchers have succeeded in developing a ‘decarbonized value’ methodology. There was a lot of pressure to do so, because clients wanted a value portfolio with a smaller footprint, in other words, lower CO2 risk. Many traditional value companies are part of old, polluting industries. The researchers have now developed a model that enables them to continue exploiting the value factor, yet substantially reduce their footprint.”

But don’t think for a second that Zandbergen’s resting on her laurels now, because despite the daily progress, much remains to be done. We are still at the very early stages of being able to measure impact. “We’ve got a long road ahead. I want to keep moving forward. We are building risk models, factor models that incorporate ESG criteria in their calculations. We have developed ESG scores for companies. We hold dialogues with many companies. But at the end of the day, you want to know – be able to measure! – what you have achieved in the real world. And it’s there that our impact is difficult to measure, because we don’t create or produce anything.”

“Will the world be a much safer place if we exclude a company that manufactures controversial weapons? If we exclude, will the investment then be made by investors who care less? And if we lower the carbon footprint of a portfolio, how does this affect the real world?” There is still little research available to answer these questions.

Soul searching

Clients want fewer risks in their portfolios, including fewer climate risks. From a stewardship perspective, they also want to invest responsibly. For now, non-financial impacts are difficult to measure. With Northern Europe leading the pack, the financial industry is working on finding solutions to measure this nonfinancial impact. “Some elements can’t be included in financial analysis yet," says Zandbergen.

“You can include CO2 risks in your valuations, but this would be a lot easier if there were a unit price for carbon.” Can the financial industry give the world a push in the right direction? Is it, perhaps, even its responsibility to do so, as an owner or manager of large sums of capitals? It’s no wonder the industry is in soul-searching mode.

And, in a sense, the same applies to Zandbergen. “The question is: where does the responsibility begin and where does it end? If a government decides to build coal plants, should we exclude it? This is one of the many dilemmas the industry is struggling with. And we also have to deal with competitors, NGOs and other players, as well as the question of how certain, big decisions would have an impact on our investment universe.”

The palm oil industry presents such a dilemma. Palm oil production poses a threat to the Earth’s rainforests. “We have a strict lower threshold: half the production must be sustainable. If companies are nowhere near this limit, we can discuss it until the cows come home, but they’ll never get there. We exclude such companies. For other companies, we make it very clear that we expect them to meet this requirement. And in these cases, we can have a real influence.”

This interview was first published in SIX.
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