Image: River Tungnaà, Iceland

With global sustainable investments having reached over 22 trillion US dollars in 2016, up from 14 trillion in 20121, there can be little doubt that sustainable investing (SI) is becoming a mainstream investment approach.

This growth has led to increasing pressure on professional investors to invest sustainably – what might call the sustainability imperative.

This pressure is coming from a number of different stakeholders.

In a broad survey three-quarters of professional investors (asset owners)2 said management of environmental, social and governance issues (the so-called ESG factors that are at the heart of much sustainable investing) are one of their top five criteria when choosing an asset manager.

Some 85% review their manager’s responsible investing policies, while 81% want to better understand – and improve3 – the positive impact their investments can have on society.

Growing numbers of institutional investors have a fiduciary duty to SI too: more than 65% have contractually committed4 to report to their stakeholders on social/environment performance. Regulators around the world are also increasingly requiring pension funds and other institutional investors to consider and report on their sustainable investing activities, adding a compliance element to the mix.

Perhaps most importantly, institutional investors face a continuing struggle to meet their performance targets in today’s low-return environment. There is strong evidence that sustainable investing approaches can lower overall portfolio risk while supporting sustainable returns. That makes for a compelling investment case for SI too.

New skills and a new set of eyes

As one of the first global banks to be actively involved in SI, we at UBS are well acquainted with these approaches – and convinced of their merits.

Today we have one of the premiere global SI offerings covering all its different aspects, from research and assistance with corporate engagement to a wide range of innovative products and services to supporting our clients as they tailor their own SI solutions.

SI approaches are not meant to replace standard financial analysis, but to add a new layer of pertinent information to it. For professional investors, taking advantage of SI means learning a new set of analytical skills – which involves learning to see the world with a new set of eyes.

We understand what this means: At UBS Asset Management we have a long history of developing proprietary methodologies that incorporate sustainability factors into fundamental research, analysis and investment decision-making. Among other things, we have created an objective, proprietary ESG score which is transparent, comparable, and reflects our proprietary assessment of each company’s sustainable profile. Today we are working with academics to develop quantitative methods to measure the impact of investments, which is one of the new frontiers of SI.

There is little doubt that sustainable investing is coming into its own. At the same time, these are early days and there is much left to learn. For professional investors facing the sustainability imperative, there is also much to be gained.