Sustainable investing is on a steady march toward the mainstream. Consumers, especially women and millennials, are increasingly demanding that exposure to environmental, social and governance factors be incorporated into their portfolios. And that's putting players across the asset management industry on watch: Total assets in sustainable investment strategies hit $12 trillion in the U.S. in 2018, up 38% from two years earlier, according to the US SIF 2018 Trends Report.
The trend's momentum was evident recently in the packed room at the fourth annual Sustainability Investment Leadership Council Conference in New York on May 9. A few of the topics on tap included digital innovation and sustainability, managing ESG exposure within global supply chains, the changing nature of regional regulations around mandatory disclosures — and, of course, data.
Especially in areas where ESG reporting isn't mandatory (like the U.S.), access to data on companies' exposure to ESG factors is extremely difficult to obtain. There are many data providers out there — think Bloomberg and MSCI — but they are largely reliant on voluntary self-reporting by companies, and often produce opaque, aggregate measures of sustainability or scores that aren't fully explained. They also generally don't provide the underlying data. So, if you are a financial adviser trying to create a custom framework, you're out of luck unless you have a team of data analysts to rake through filings and extract that for you — a luxury reserved for a handful of large asset managers with huge ESG mandates.
This is all pretty well known; adequate data is an issue within the sustainable investing realm. But another well-made point during SILC is that data itself and how it's treated is an ESG factor. That's because data, especially personally identifiable data, is proliferating through all aspects of business, and handling that data responsibly is a governance issue. While there is a great deal of talk around sustainability regarding the environment, it's key to remember that data will eventually become a bigger sustainability concern, explained June Choi, CEO of Serval Ventures.
The world is quickly moving to a future where data will be at the heart of every organization. That's going to enable incredibly tailored products and services; it's also going to create a ton of risk. Facebook's data privacy issues are a prime example of this — in fact, the company was recently dropped from the S&P 500 ESG index in part due to its opaque practices around how it collects and utilizes user data. Soon, many more companies will have similarly huge data troves they need to secure, and could face similar issues.