Pursuing profits with a clear conscience – the growing appeal of sustainable investing

15 October 2020

5 minute read

Sir David Attenborough’s ‘A Life On Our Planet’ and Prince William’s ‘A Planet for Us All’ are powerful new documentaries reminding us that our environment and natural world are under siege. Increasingly, companies are doing their bit to help make a difference – something investors are supporting more and more through sustainable investing.  Here, we consider what impact investing is, dispel a few common myths, and discuss sustainable investing products.

Who's it for? All investors

The value of investments can fall as well as rise. You may get back less than you invest.

What you’ll learn:

  • What is sustainable investing.
  • Investing responsibly doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice returns.
  • How you can access sustainable investing products with Smart Investor.

It’s no secret that the human race faces challenges, and that more can be done to tackle the issues confronting us. From global warming to our rapidly expanding population, humanity has work to do to create solutions to many complex problems as we move further into the 21st century.

Over the last few decades more and more people have come to the realisation that it’s not just down to philanthropy or government policy to fix societal ills; the private sector has a crucial role in tackling some of the problems that humanity, and the planet we inhabit, faces. In practice, many believe this should involve investing in companies which have the potential to change our world for the better by effecting social or environmental change.

Impact investing: a new path down a well-trodden route

The concept of responsible investing has been around for centuries, but the driving philosophy behind this practice hasn’t changed much throughout its many iterations. Supporters of responsible investing believe that making capital more accessible to responsible companies supports their development, and may drive sustainable business practices.

The first form of sustainable investing was negative screening. This is where companies are excluded for not complying with social or environmental criteria, based on the individual’s or institution’s principles. Many investment managers use this technique, often prohibiting investment in companies which are part of the tobacco industry or are involved in arms production. Another method is ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) integration, which involves incorporating ESG criteria into the analysis of investments. For example, a fund manager analysing a manufacturing firm might consider whether the firm disposes of waste in a way that’s not harmful to the environment, alongside non-ESG factors such as costs and sales.

What sets impact investing apart from other forms of sustainable investing is the selection of companies based on the measurable positive impact they have on the world, as well as their potential to produce financial return. So, if a fund manager at an impact fund was looking to invest in a company, they would positively screen for businesses whose product or service has the potential to change our world for the better – which could be anything from catalytic converters to educational resources.

But how do you know which companies to invest in, and how can individual investors access these companies?

How you can invest responsibly

An increasing number of products are being launched so that investors can have a more positive impact with their investments, and make a difference with their money. This supply is being met by rising demand and enthusiasm for these products – a recent UK survey found that over 70% of people want their investments to benefit people and the planet1. Growing awareness and accessibility of these products led to investors pouring €120 billion into sustainable investment products in 20192.

Managers of impact investing funds select companies which meet their criteria, and will report on the impact generated by the underlying investments as well as the performance of the fund. You can access impact funds, and other sustainable investments, through Smart Investor.

Capital growth, not charitable giving

There is a common misconception that investing sustainably means sacrificing financial returns. However, some studies have shown that this is not the case Research by the London Business School found that companies which make material efforts to transform their business practices had higher share returns than their peers who didn’t in the form of an extra 4.8% return per year over 18 years3. However, this is just one piece of research. It’s important to remember that the evidence isn’t yet clear whether ESG investing produces better returns than non-ESG investing. Furthermore, this is research that tells us about the past performance of these investments and it’s not a reliable basis for predicting their future performance. In any event, whether these strategies do perform better isn’t necessarily why many investors are interested in them.

It can be difficult for an individual investor to differentiate which companies actually adopt responsible business practices and which ones are just “making the right noises” for good press; a practice known as “greenwashing”. But again, this is where fund managers who select the companies they invest in based on their research and analysis will be able to see the wood from the trees, and can pick companies that have genuinely integrated ESG policies into their way of doing business.

Many of these companies may well be poised for success. A business which evaluates the long-term needs of the world at large and has a strong governance culture will often have the potential for sustainable earnings growth – and is more likely to stay on the right side of their regulators.

Another barrier to overcome with impact investing is a public perception that sustainable investing just involves companies making wind-farms and solar panels – but the truth is that the investment universe is so much bigger. Healthcare, sustainable transport, education and technology are all areas that contribute to the wellbeing of our society, so companies involved in these sectors will be found in many impact investing funds.

Who are they, and how are they doing it?

One example of an impact investing fund is the Janus Henderson Global Sustainable Equity Fund. This fund looks to support the development of a sustainable global economy, while pursuing strong financial performance for investors. They famously ask a key question while deciding whether to invest in a business; “is the world a better place because of this company?” As part of this process, they identified four societal ‘megatrends’ which humanity will have to adapt to; population growth, ageing populations, resource constraints, and climate change. The fund invests in businesses where at least 50% of revenue comes from the sustainable development of solutions for these issues. This fund has also demonstrated strong and consistent financial performance, with average annual returns of 15% over the last five years. However, do note that past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

Discrete performance of the Janus Henderson Global Sustainable Equity Fund over the last 5 years
12m to 31.7.2016 12m to 31.7.2017 12m to 31.7.2018 12m to 31.7.2019 12m to 31.7.2020
12.47% 18.45% 14.29% 15.68% 13.40%

Past performance of investments is not a reliable indicator of their future performance.

Another product that you can invest in is the Barclays Multi Impact Growth Fund (MIGF), which also looks to achieve its financial aims through investments that generate a positive impact. This product is an award-winning4 “fund of funds” – meaning that it doesn’t directly invest in companies but invests in other specialist funds which Barclays considers to be “best in class” impact funds. However, it’s important to remember that it is not yet clear whether ESG investing is likely or not to produce better returns than non-ESG investing. Like all investments, the Multi-Impact Growth Fund can fall or rise in value.

This is an expanding and exciting area for investing. If you’re interested in sustainable investing, you can find many sustainable funds available through Smart Investor. Take a look at our ESG and Impact Investing Hub.

Or to help you narrow down your choice, take a look at the Barclays Funds List where we’ve brought together the funds we like from all the key sectors for building a diversified portfolio. This includes a number of ESG funds.

Bear in mind that our mentioning of the funds in this article doesn’t constitute a recommendation. We don’t offer personal investment advice so if you’re not sure about investing, seek independent advice.

Funds are designed for the long term so you should only consider them if you can stay invested for at least five years.

These are our current opinions but the future, as ever, is uncertain and outcomes may differ.

The value of investments can fall as well as rise. You may get back less than you invest.

You may also be interested in

The value of investments can fall as well as rise. You may get back less than you invest. Tax rules can change and their effects on you will depend on your individual circumstances. Smart Investor doesn’t offer personal financial advice. If you’re not sure about investing, seek independent advice.

Investment Account

A fully flexible way to invest

A flexible, straightforward account with no limits on the amount you can invest.


Investment ISA

An easy way to start investing

We offer two ways to invest using an Investment ISA (also known as a stocks and shares ISA). Choose your own investments with Smart Investor, or let us make the decisions for you with Plan & Invest. Either way, invest up to £20,000 per year and any returns you make are tax-free5.

Start investing to make the most of those special times to come by using your new 2021-22 ISA allowance in an Investment ISA today. The sooner you begin, the sooner you could grow your money, tax efficiently.

Plan & Invest

Our experts will manage your investments for you. We develop a personalised Investment Plan tailored to you but our experts then make all the buy and sell decisions. Invest from £5,000 in cash and/or an ISA transfer6 today.