By Fiona Reynolds, @Fireynolds, CEO, PRI
During my more than nine years leading the PRI, there is no doubt that responsible investment has come a long way. Although it seems like just yesterday that I walked through the doors of the PRI for the first time, the growth and evolution of the industry over this time has been significant. And, despite the trendy status of ESG now – in reality, it has taken more than two decades for it to become this ‘overnight success’.
Back in 2013, when I joined PRI, we had just over 1,000 signatories to the Principles and were only 37 staff. Fast forward to today, and the organisation has over 4,500 signatories globally with more than $121 trillion USD in AUM, collectively representing more than half of the world’s institutional assets and supported by more than 220 staff. We gain strength through our collective numbers and our signatory base’s diversity, which continues to expand. In fact, since 2020, we have seen a 50 per cent growth in the number of signatories headquartered in emerging markets.
Thanks in large part to the hard work and dedication of our global signatories, I’ve witnessed responsible investment shift from the periphery of the industry into the mainstream. In the past few years, we have seen a significant acceleration in the uptake of ESG investing and both a mainstreaming and maturing of responsible investment philosophies and practices.
Yet, although we’ve come so far, there is still a long journey ahead of us if we are to realise the sustainable, green and just future we’re all working toward. And while there are many goals on the ESG agenda still left to achieve, as I step down as CEO of the PRI, I’d like to share six key priorities as I see them for responsible investors.
1. Elevating social, or human rights, issues
There is no doubt that compared with just a few years ago social issues have started to rise up the finance agenda, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we’re nowhere near where we need to be in tackling social issues. Some investors are beginning to take human rights very seriously, but many others are simply citing a lack of data as a reason not to get started.
When investors first began working on climate issues, we didn’t have the full data and information either, but that didn’t stop us then, and it shouldn’t now. Just as for all businesses, institutional investors have a responsibility to respect human rights, and at PRI we have a five-year programme underway to support them in doing this. Addressing social issues is a personal passion of mine, and I hope to see investors taking human rights as seriously as they do climate by the end of the programme.
2. Ending tax avoidance and ensuring fairness
Of course, truly ending inequality requires a holistic view that extends beyond social issues to governance and environmental considerations. Importantly this includes the issue of tax, as one of the biggest drivers of inequality globally is tax avoidance. Tax revenues from both individuals and businesses provide global governments with financing for much-needed public services as well as social and environmental programmes to address urgent challenges.
This is why it’s time we start talking about tax—and it’s the global investment community that has the power to bring corporations to account. The recent OECD tax announcement is a good start, but we have a long way to go. In fact, earlier this week PRI launched a new paper on tax fairness and what it means for investors, and will continue to play a role in enabling investors to move towards practices that align with tax fairness.
3. Driving net zero commitments
Climate change has been the number one issue for responsible investors for many years, and with time running out to limit warming to 1.5C, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Now that COP26 is done and dusted, it’s clear that climate action is accelerating, but we need to see more investors stepping up to the plate if we’re going to reach net zero in time. Of course, this includes engaging with governments and businesses, but critically it also involves investors making their own net zero commitments backed by short-term targets and investing in climate solutions.
The UN-convened Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance is, as the Secretary-General termed it, the ‘gold standard’ for institutional investors transitioning their portfolios to net zero. Yet, this represents only 61 asset owners. In the PRI alone, we have more than 650. It’s time for all asset owners as well as investment managers to make this pledge, backed by targets and mechanisms to report against them.
4. Halting negative corporate lobbying
As an industry, we must acknowledge that one of the key reasons the world is so far off the curve in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is that negative corporate climate lobbying has been winning the day with delay, obfuscation and denial. In turn, this is slowing political, financial and business action.
Negative corporate climate lobbying has long been identified as an obstacle, and the watering down of the outcomes of the Glasgow Agreement clearly illustrates that it remains one. If we are to address the climate emergency, political leaders, business, finance and civil society all need to work together to overcome this.
5. Boosting policy engagement
On the theme of collaboration to tackle ESG issues, investor engagement with global policymakers has never been more critical. Public policy affects investors’ ability to generate sustainable returns and create value. It also affects the sustainability and stability of financial markets and social, environmental and economic systems. Whether on climate, human rights, or tax policy, engagement by investors is a natural and necessary extension of their responsibilities and fiduciary duties.
More and more policymakers and regulators are getting up-to-speed on sustainability issues. With the number of global policy interventions drastically rising, engagement with policymakers is a key lever for investors to drive positive change.
6. Ensuring accountability and preventing greenwashing
Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of ensuring accountability within responsible investment and, in turn, tackling the growing risks of greenwashing. This applies both to the PRI as an organisation as well as to investors on an individual basis.
The PRI takes an inclusive approach and, in the coming years, must continue to look at its role within the industry and ramp up the accountability of its global signatory base. It must continue to raise the bar, from both the bottom and the top, increasing minimum standards and ensuring accountability to the Principles. This will ensure the continued value of its membership and its role in supporting signatories in their responsible investment practices.
Gone are the days when ESG was a side-line activity, only tangentially considered by marketing teams. Today, a growing number of investors have dedicated ESG resources, with direct lines into the executive and the board, and many are even considering their role in driving sustainability outcomes. Indeed, responsible investment is becoming a core consideration in investment strategy and asset allocation. You need to look no further than COP 26 to see that broader society has finally recognised the integral role of private finance in delivering a sustainable future.
With this wind at our backs, it’s now time for investors to take on the most pressing ESG issues head-on, and these six areas, while far from an exhaustive list, are a great place to start.
Although I am stepping down as CEO today, I will still be at the PRI for a few months to help ensure a smooth transition and continued momentum. I truly believe the PRI’s best years are still ahead of it, and I look forward to continuing to work with staff and signatories around the world to create a better future for us all. I wish David Atkin, the new CEO, nothing but great success and he will always have my full support—I hope you will give him yours as well.
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