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Ethical and sustainable: what’s the difference?



George Latham, managing partner at WHEB Asset Management, looks back at a number of recent events in the ethical and sustainable investment sectors to determine the real story of enlightened investment.

What is happening to the world of ethical funds? Over the past eight years or so, ethical funds have been one of the few areas of growth in the world of equities investment, almost trebling funds under management. Yet, in the last 12 months, several of the largest incumbent managers have made radical cuts to the resources they devote to these businesses.

In October, Barchester Green Investment marked out Henderson, Ecclesiastical and F&C as its ‘spinners’ of the ethical investment world, and Jamie Hartzell, founder of the Ethical Property Company and Ethex, the Ethical Trading Exchange, set up a debate during National Ethical Investment Week proposing the motion ‘SRI is for dummies’. To cap it all, last weekend FairPensions, the campaign for responsible investment, published what was described by Investors Chronicle (with undisguised glee) as “a damning report that puts ethical funds under the spotlight.”

FairPensions’ principle conclusion that the ethical investment industry is “failing to represent the views of their customers” makes us unsure whether to be proud of achieving second place in the survey and being ranked among those that are maintaining a “robust, responsive, and engaged approach to their investing” – or whether we want to be seen to be part of the industry at all!

The problem for the traditional ethical approach of negative screening is that the starting point is to take the investment universe, screen out those sectors (tobacco, arms, pornography etc.) that conflict with the criteria and everything else that gets through the screen is passed for investment. This has two consequences. First, for the fund manager; they are trying to beat the universe with a constraint imposed, which is at best seen as an irrelevance and at worst as an encumbrance to performance. Second, the resulting portfolio’s largest holdings tend to be banks, telecoms, even oils and pharmaceuticals, and any large mainstream sector that happens not to conflict with the screens. So when the customer looks at their portfolio’s top holdings it can be quite hard to discern how it differs from a mainstream fund.

Our approach is fundamentally different to this. Instead of screening out, we screen in. Our starting point for defining our universe is to identify companies that are providing solutions to sustainability challenges. Our contention is that those companies that are helping to solve some of the great challenges that we face as a society and an economy over the coming decades will have end-markets that are growing faster than the average for the economy as a whole. In other words, we want to invest in our themes because we believe they will lead to financial outperformance and we think they will lead to outperformance because they are offering solutions to pressing sustainability challenges.

Therefore, and as a starting point for our investment and stock picking process, we see our universe as an attractive place to invest, one that should provide a following wind to the fund’s performance. Indeed in the years in which the team ran the ‘Industries of the Future’ strategy before joining WHEB, investing exclusively in the themes provided about 30% of the fund’s outperformance. The second outcome is that it is much clearer, both internally and for our clients, as to why each holding in the fund fits and has a role to play in a ‘sustainability fund’. That makes it easier for us to be transparent about our investment process, for example publishing a complete list of fund holdings together with an explanation of why each company fits the description of providing a solution to a sustainability challenge.

It is clear from a broad sweep of research that the issues of sustainability, responsibility, trust and transparency, as well as ethics, continue to be of increasing importance in the minds of investors – be they large institutions, high net-worth individuals or ordinary savers. A recent survey for the Kaiser Partner special report series on Responsibility in Wealth found that multi-millionaires consistently rate such issues more highly than their advisers do. The Financial Times this week reports that fund managers recognise that Environmental, Social and Governance issues are of increasing importance to clients, and EIRIS’s annual survey demonstrates consistent market growth in the broad areas of sustainable and responsible investment.

However, although the market appetite is clearly there, there is continuing disquiet over whether many of the available products are really serving customer’s needs, as evidenced by some of the surveys mentioned above. This is not new. Paul Hawken, writing in Natural Capital in 2004 described “how the SRI industry has failed to respond to people who want to invest with conscience.” The article caused quite a stir at the time, and was perhaps one of the influencing factors that led our team to design the ‘Industries of the Future’ investment strategy which now lives on a WHEB.

There is no doubt that the ethical funds industry has achieved a huge amount in the last 40 years. Such funds have created meaningful change in highlighting a huge range of issues to consumers, driving real change in corporate behaviour and disclosure and mobilising politicians and regulators to force change where self-regulation in the wider investment industry has failed. These achievements should be celebrated. However, over this period there has also been huge progress in understanding how to exploit environmental, social and governance dynamics within companies and markets to support fund performance and real innovation in how to package this in a way that meets the needs of investors. This should also be celebrated and encouraged, and represents the real story behind the recent headlines about the industry today.

George Latham is managing partner at WHEB Asset Management. This article originally appeared here.

Further reading:

Ethical funds ‘exposed’ or the lesser of 3,000 evils?

FairPensions publishes ethical investment responsibility ranking

Sustainability funds are ‘helping the world move onto a more sustainable footing’

What kind of investor are you?

Drop in ethical fund sales part of a ‘general decline’

Sustainable investment flourishes amongst European high net-worth individuals

The Guide to Sustainable Investment (NEIW edition)

Articles, features and comment from WHEB Group, an independent investment management firm specialising in opportunities created by the global transition to more sustainable, resource efficient economies. Posts are either original or previously featured on WHEB's blog or in its magazine, WHEB Quarterly.

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2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage



Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker |

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018



Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art |

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly


Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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