All the organizations I have worked with over the past two decades—both NGOs and big business—have had a sense of urgency about making progress on environmental and social goals. All have understood that acting on sustainability is not only in society’s long-term best interest, but also can and should be an economic upside to operations.
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), one of my previous employers, humans currently consume Earth’s natural resources 1.7 times faster than its ecosystems can replenish. This consumption exists on top of the environmental impacts of climate change, such as increased frequency of drought, severe storms, and flooding. Over the years, Wall Street has not only largely ignored the potential risks of companies operating in this unsustainable state, but also failed to reward companies for actions that add societal and business value. The good news is that this is starting to change.
Investors are increasingly holding corporations accountable for social and environmental outcomes, not just for financial performance. According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, sustainable, responsible, and impact investing in the United States is continuing to rise. Socially responsible investing (SRI) assets at the beginning of 2016 totaled $8.72 trillion—up 33 percent from $6.57 trillion in 2014—representing nearly 22 percent all investment assets under professional management in the United States. Given this trend, we will likely start to see even more companies responding to investor pressure and taking action on important societal challenges.
I welcome this change. Yet, many of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) assessments we use to evaluate SRI strategy investments are oriented around reducing risk, and few seem to take into consideration a more holistic view. Too often, society has come to regret the unintended consequences of well-intentioned decision-making that relies on an incomplete fact base.
For example, bed nets are widely considered one of the cheapest and most effective ways to prevent malaria, a disease that kills at least half a million Africans each year. However, while I was at WWF working on a conservation project in Lake Niassa, I saw that many people were not using them as intended; instead, they repurposed them for fishing nets. These nets—with holes sized for mosquitos and often treated with insecticide—caught all sizes of fish and had a devastating impact on the health of local fisheries, an important source of protein and commerce. Our work focused on improving the health of the local fisheries (via providing untreated nets with bigger holes that caught fish at the right phase of maturity), while also addressing the health needs of local communities.
As I look at the current state of ESG assessments, I see a reliance on metrics that can easily be measured and a focus on controversies as a proxy for risk, rather than a robust understanding of the system in which companies exist. As a result, I am concerned that investors may be inadvertently incentivizing corporate behavior that is neither in society’s collective best interest, nor reflective of their aspirations. If I draw a parallel to my experience in Lake Niassa, it is as if investors have data about the total number of bed nets distributed, but not about how effectively they are used, the health of the local population, or the availability of a sustainable source of food. In this particular push on ESG, investors may demand more bed nets. Will that lead to better outcomes for people? Maybe. Maybe not. We need to look before we leap.