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New Study Reveals Greenwashing as Key Obstacle for ESG Funds

  • Greenwashing, particularly in the financial sector, has significantly increased over the past five years, leading to a decrease in investments into sustainable funds.
  • High-profile cases like Deutsche Bank's DWS and Baillie Gifford have spotlighted misleading ESG claims, contributing to a lack of trust among investors.
  • The study found that greenwashing accusations cause institutional investors to decrease their green fund investments by 8% and retail investors by 12.6% the following month, highlighting the urgent need for regulatory action to improve trust and transparency in sustainable investment products.
Greenwashing

Investments into sustainable funds are reducing due to an increase in greenwashing and scepticism towards environment, social and governance focused investing, a new study has found.

The whitepaper from Elise Gourier and Helene Mathurin at ESSEC Business School found that the issue of greenwashing had become “particularly prominent in the past five years”, especially within the financial industry.

Greenwashing is when companies present misleading information about how environmentally friendly their products are.

Through using natural language processing to analyse hundreds of thousands of news articles that mention greenwashing or terms associated with it, the study tracked the prominence of the issue.

Strikingly, it found that while greenwashing had previously been focused on sectors such as the oil and gas industry or specific incidents such as the Volkswagen scandal in 2015, the recent focus on investment firms was new.

This “unprecedented” surge in the financial sector has now made investment firms the most frequent target of greenwashing accusations, with articles about greenwashing from the industry matching the combined total of those about both the energy and construction industry.

In September, Deutsche Bank’s asset management arm DWS was fined $19m by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for “materially misleading statements” about its process for incorporating ESG factors into research and investment recommendations.

Scottish asset manager Baillie Gifford also came under fire last year from Greta Thunberg, who pulled out of Edinburgh International Book Festival due to its sponsorship by the asset manager, which invests in fossil fuel companies.

Through tracking the frequency of articles like these, the study found that an uptick in greenwashing stories causes institutional investors to decrease their investments in green funds by eight per cent the following month, and retail investors by 12.6 per cent.

The paper added that retail investors and institutional investors differed in their response, with the former specifically pulling money out of funds that have strong ESG ratings, suggesting a lack of trust in the ratings themselves.

ESG ratings themselves have come under fire in recent months, with MSCI recently being accused of ‘bias’ in its ratings to push investors towards their indices.

Because of these withdrawals, this was leading to the price of sustainable firms to become warped by greenwashing, the paper argued.

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New rules from the Financial Conduct Authority around greenwashing are set to be implemented from 31 May this year, with firms facing a fresh clampdown to improve the “trust and transparency of sustainable investment products”.

By City Am

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