What Are Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria?

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. Social criteria examine how it manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. Governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, auditsinternal controls, and shareholder rights.

Key Takeaways

  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria are an increasingly popular way for investors to evaluate companies in which they might want to invest.
  • Many mutual funds, brokerage firms, and robo-advisors now offer products that employ ESG criteria.
  • ESG criteria can also help investors avoid companies that might pose a greater financial risk due to their environmental or other practices.

In recent years, as younger investors, in particular, have shown an interest in putting their money where their values are, brokerage firms and mutual fund companies have begun to offer exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and other financial products that follow ESG criteria. Robo-advisors such as Betterment and Wealthfront have also used them to appeal to these investors. According to the most recent report from US SIF Foundation, investors held $11.6 trillion in assets chosen according to ESG criteria at the beginning of 2018, up from $8.1 trillion just two years earlier.

ESG investing is sometimes referred to as sustainable investing, responsible investing, impact investing, or socially responsible investing.

How Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria Work

To assess a company based on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria, investors look at a broad range of behaviors.

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria help investors find companies with values that match their own.

Environmental criteria may include a company’s energy use, waste, pollution, natural resource conservation, and treatment of animals. The criteria can also be used in evaluating any environmental risks a company might face and how the company is managing those risks. For example, are there issues related to its ownership of contaminated land, its disposal of hazardous waste, its management of toxic emissions, or its compliance with government environmental regulations?

Social criteria look at the company’s business relationships. Does it work with suppliers that hold the same values as it claims to hold? Does the company donate a percentage of its profits to the local community or encourage employees to perform volunteer work there? Do the company’s working conditions show a high regard for its employees’ health and safety? Are other stakeholders’ interests taken into account?

With regard to governance, investors may want to know that a company uses accurate and transparent accounting methods, and that stockholders are given an opportunity to vote on important issues. They may also want assurances that companies avoid conflicts of interest in their choice of board members, don't use political contributions to obtain unduly favorable treatment and, of course, don't engage in illegal practices.

No single company may pass every test in every category, of course, so investors need to decide what's most important to them. On a practical level, investment firms that follow ESG criteria must also set priorities. For example, Boston-based Trillium Asset Management, with $2.5 billion under management, uses a selection of ESG factors to help identify companies positioned for strong long-term performance. Trillium's ESG criteria, determined in part by analysts who identify issues facing different sectors and industries, include avoiding companies with known exposure to coal mining and those with more than 5% of their revenues from nuclear power or weapons. It also avoids investing in companies with major recent or ongoing controversies related to workplace discrimination, corporate governance, and animal welfare, among other issues.

Pros and Cons of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria

In years past, socially responsible investments had a reputation for requiring a tradeoff on the investor's part. Because they limited the universe of companies that were eligible for investment, they also limited the investor's potential profit. "Bad" companies sometimes performed very well, at least in terms of their stock price.

More recently, however, some investors have come to believe that environmental, social, and governance criteria have a practical purpose beyond any ethical concerns. By following ESG criteria they may be able to avoid companies whose practices could signal a risk factor—as evidenced by BP's 2010 oil spill and Volkswagen's emissions scandal, both of which rocked the companies' stock prices and resulted in billions of dollars in associated losses.

As ESG-minded business practices gain more traction, investment firms are increasingly tracking their performance. Financial services companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs have published annual reports that extensively review their ESG approaches and the bottom-line results.