businessman plugs in an electric car

A growing number of investors today want their money to do more than just multiply; they want to invest in companies they believe are helping to make the world a better place.

This growing trend of seeking out both financial and social returns — known as responsible or sustainable investing — is being driven in part by Millennials who want to align their investments with their personal values. As they start to accumulate wealth, many Millennials are putting their money into companies and funds with a strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) track record. Examples include organizations with a diverse board and management team, companies that work proactively to reduce waste, water and emissions, or that give back to communities by creating long-term jobs or building schools to help educate future generations.

"Many of the Millennials we work with today want to know that what they're investing in is having a positive impact. It's not just about achieving returns, but also incorporating their core values into the process," says Gregory Yong, a relationship manager at RBC Wealth Management in Singapore. "They have a view about what they're passionate about, such as electric cars, promoting clean water or giving back to communities — and they put at least some of their money into places where they feel it can make a difference."

In fact, investors in their 20s and 30s are almost twice as likely to put their money into companies or funds that target positive environmental or social outcomes, according to a recent Ernst & Young report. It also says 29 percent of Millennials are looking for a financial advisor who offers this type of values-based investing. "Since Millennials are poised to receive more than US$30-trillion of inheritable wealth, sustainable investments will continue to grow in demand," the report states.

SRI versus ESG

The most common types of sustainable investing are socially responsible investing (SRI), which excludes companies based on certain criteria, and ESG, a more broad-based approach focused on protecting a portfolio from operational or reputational risk.

Connect with a skilled advisor
Don’t have an RBC advisor and wish to find one? Let us match you with one.

With SRI, investors pick stocks or funds based on a set of standards such as positive or negative screening, the level of shareholder engagement or community/impact investing. With screening, for example, investors may eliminate a company from a portfolio if it's involved in weapons contracting, tobacco or gambling. On the other hand, a company might be included if it has a gender-diverse board of directors, or a strong track record of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

ESG investing considers a broader set of due diligence questions on how environmental, social and governance factors impact performance, both positively and negatively. For instance, an oil and gas company might be considered a responsible investment if it's working continuously to reduce emissions in its operations, has a strong safety record and is giving back to the communities where it operates.

Screening is the largest sustainable investment strategy worldwide, valued at about US$15-trillion, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Review 2016, released by the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance (GSIA). ESG integration was next at about US$10.4-trillion followed by corporate engagement/shareholder action at nearly US$8.4-trillion. The report says ESG integration dominates in Asia (not including Japan), North America and Australia/New Zealand, while corporate engagement and shareholder action is the dominant strategy in Japan and negative screening is most prominent in Europe.

Investors seeking sustainable investing options

A CFA Institute report shows 85 percent of investment professionals in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are most likely to take ESG issues into account in their investment analysis and decisions, followed by 81 percent in Asia Pacific and 68 percent in the Americas.

ESG investing is already integrated into many institutional mandates in Europe, while institutional investors in Asia are, "Increasingly look for asset managers with ESG capabilities," according to a report by PwC. It also points to a growing number of studies showing that companies with strong ESG credentials outperform those with weaker performance. What's more, companies are getting better at disclosing their ESG performance.

"This virtuous combination of burgeoning demand and investment rationale will drive the ESG asset pool's rapid growth," the report states. "It's not only active managers pushing for better management of ESG issues; passive investors are also requesting this as part of their public commitment to longterm value creation."

PwC also notes that sustainable investing is quickly gaining traction across age groups and wealth classes.

Ai Ling Toh, associate director, RBC Wealth Management in Singapore, has noticed many Baby Boomer investors are being encouraged by their Millennial children to pay closer attention to ESG performance in their portfolios.

"Millennials are quite different than their parents," when it comes to investing style and approach, she says. For instance, Toh has a Millennial client who is very passionate about protecting and providing clean water in developing countries. To back his beliefs, the investor has put some of his money into investments that help to provide fresh water to communities in need. "It's these investors who will often identify companies they feel are more socially responsible and discuss them with their parents, and with us," she says.

How to spot sustainable companies

For investors looking to align their values with their investments, Yong recommends working with an investment professional who can help pinpoint companies with a strong ESG track record. Investors can also track and monitor companies on their own, but Yong warns the process can be complex.

“A lot of these things are intangible," Yong says. "It's not something you can immediately find by looking at the financial statements, for example."

The good news for responsible-minded investors is that more companies are reporting their ESG targets and performance on a regular basis. Investors can sometimes find this information in annual reports, or some companies produce separate corporate social responsibility reports focused on ESG targets and performance."More and more, regulators are requesting companies be more transparent with their ESG values," Yong says.

A growing number of companies are also providing voluntary disclosure through organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative, which has developed sustainability reporting standards, or the Carbon Disclosure Project, a not-for-profit charity that runs a global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts.

"For clients who are into this, one way is to get engaged and to educate yourself," says Yong. "Clients who have a view about what they're passionate about may then apply it to create a more ESG-focused portfolio."