So You’re Interested in Sustainable Investing? Consider This…

As discussed in my last blog post, sustainable investing may be one of the most important investment trends of the next decade. It offers investors positive social impact alongside financial returns, and it is catching the eye of individual and institutional investors alike. Globally, more than $1 out of every $4 under professional management is invested sustainably1, as investors—especially women and Millennials—increasingly strive to align their investments with their values. Opportunities for investing sustainably now exist across all asset classes, from private to public, from real estate to fixed income to hedge funds.

However, as with anything new—from a self-driving car to a new job offer to a smartphone software update—we must consider both the benefits and the shortcomings of sustainable investing` before we go all-in. We must proceed with a healthy dose of caution as the market irons out the kinks.

The sustainable investing “movement” is still under development, with much work still to be done to clarify and standardize what it is, how it works, and what success looks like. Even the language used in this space is inconsistent, causing confusion around the various sustainable investment strategies and their nuances. Consider the following terms, often (erroneously) used interchangeably:

  • Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) uses a negative screen for companies believed to offer socially undesirable products or services, like tobacco.
  • Impact Investing focuses on using financial investment to address societal and/or environmental challenges, though many believe this occurs primarily through private markets.
  • ESG Investing evaluates a company’s environmental, social, and governance practices as part of an integrated investment selection process.
  • Thematic Investing (like ThirtyNorth’s Women Impact Strategy) is a more targeted method of addressing specific issues (in our case, a gender lens) in the investment selection process to address gender gaps and disparities. It is often a subcategory of Impact or ESG investing.

Next, consider the lack of standardization around performance evaluation. For starters, it’s not clear what “success” looks like in sustainable investing. Traditionally, higher financial returns have defined higher performance. When it comes to sustainable investing, however, the equation isn’t quite as simple. For some investors, positive social impact may be the end game, even if it means lower financial reward. Others believe a social impact screen is in fact the best path to greater financial outcomes. And other investors live everywhere along the spectrum.

Making matters even more challenging, there are no established and broadly accepted performance metrics, standards, or rating systems in this space. The companies being evaluated for ESG typically self-report these behaviors, introducing ample opportunity for bias. Asset managers and financial advisors offering sustainable investment products often must rely on a limited track record and hypothetical back-testing to demonstrate results. It appears that some companies are even rebranding existing funds as sustainable investment products, regardless of how marginal the ESG or social impact may be.2 These issues make it hard for investors to assess how a particular investment option aligns (or doesn’t) with their goals and nearly impossible for them to make apples-to-apples comparisons across companies, funds, and products. It is no surprise, then, that 70% of institutional asset owners surveyed by Morgan Stanley said that the lack of quality ESG data is one of their biggest challenges when investing sustainably.3

Finally, though numerous sustainable investment products are already on the market or under development—including offerings from virtually every major fund company—many financial advisors have not yet turned their attention to these offerings and may be uninterested in learning about them and/or ill-prepared to discuss them.

So, before diving in…


  • Think carefully about who you choose as a partner to guide you through this new terrain,
  • Be sure you and your financial advisor are speaking the same language and are aligned on how you will measure the success of your sustainable investment strategy, and
  • Before accepting the promise of something new at face value, push yourself to dig beyond the hype and review a fund or product for both quality and methodology.


Suzanne T. Mestayer


1 Global Sustainable Investment Alliance 2016 Report

2 It is Difficult to be an Ethical Investor, Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2018

3 Understanding ESG Ratings: A Brief Primer from Celent, ThinkAdvisor, August 6, 2018