What is ESG greenwashing?

Greenwashing happens when investing products oriented to ESG investors are mis-labelled or marketed in a misleading way.

As a consumer, you may be familiar with the termTerm The period of time that a contract covers. Also, the period of time that an investment pays a set rate of interest.+ read full definition greenwashing. Typically, it refers to the practice of labelling products as environmentally friendly when that claim may be hard to verify or even untrue.

For ESG investing, greenwashing extends beyond environmental claims. While ESG investors can be motivated by environmental concerns, they may also be focused on social and governance issues.

ESG greenwashing happens when an investmentInvestment An item of value you buy to get income or to grow in value.+ read full definition product (such as a mutual fundMutual fund An investment that pools money from many people and invests it in a mix of investments such as stocks and bonds. A professional manager chooses investments that match the fund’s goals for risk and return. You can redeem your fund units at any time.+ read full definition or ETF) is either intentionally or inadvertently marketed in a misleading way — that could include inaccurate descriptions of a fund’s ESG attributes. This is also a risk when directly investing in a company, as some companies may not accurately describe their ESG-related practices, policies or outcomes.

What does greenwashing look like?

There are many ways greenwashing in ESG investing can happen, including:

1. Misleading advertising and information

A company may have advertisements or a website that suggest a fund is focused on ESG when it is not. Some products are named to sound like an ESG product but do not actually have any ESG elements.

There are companies that exaggerate the impact of their ESG activities. Sometimes, only part of a company’s operations adheres to its ESG claims. For example, a fossil-fuel free company may not use fossil fuels in its operations, but it might import parts from another company that uses fossil fuels.

2. Public ESG commitments without follow-through

When a company or assetAsset Something of value that a company or an individual owns or controls. Examples: buildings, equipment, property, a car, investments, or cash. Can also include patents, trademarks and other forms of intellectual property.+ read full definition manager makes ESG commitments in the media but fails to demonstrate progress towards those commitments on an ongoing basis. This could be either inadvertent or intentional.

All investments are marketed and described in some way. It is important to be aware of greenwashing when selecting ESG investments. It will help you ask the right questions when adding these investments to your portfolioPortfolio All the different investments that an individual or organization holds. May include stocks, bonds and mutual funds.+ read full definition.

What you need to know about greenwashing as a retail investor

There are different ways greenwashing can happen in the investing world. And, unfortunately, it is not always possible for investors to know it is taking place. However, there are steps you can take to better understand your ESG investments.

4 steps to better understand ESG mutual funds and ETFs:

1. Identify your ESG goals or desired outcomes

There are many types of ESG funds with different focuses and strategies. Knowing what ESG goals you hope to achieve by investing can help you find funds that meet these goals or investment outcomes.

2. Check the fund’s objectives

When you read the prospectusProspectus A legal document that sets out the full, true and plain facts you need to know about a security. Contains information about the company or mutual fund selling the security, its management, products or services, plans and business risks.+ read full definition of an ESG fund, you should see its ESG focus included in the investment objectives. For example, that focus could be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or improving/demonstrating board diversity of the companies included in the fund.

3. Check the fund’s investment strategies

An investment fund must disclose the investment strategies used to achieve its investment objectives in its prospectus. This includes describing the type(s) of strategies used to achieve ESG targets (for example, negative screening or positive screening) and the industries or companies the fund focusses on.

4. Ask your advisor for more information

Once you’ve determined your ESG investing goals, or desired outcomes, it’s a good idea to include this in conversations with a financial advisor, if you have one. They can help you identify funds to help you meet your goals. And they can provide you with more information about the funds that you’re interested in and the fund’s investment objectives and strategies.

There are also considerations for investors who investInvest To use money for the purpose of making more money by making an investment. Often involves risk.+ read full definition directly with a company (rather than through a fund).

3 considerations for investing in companies for ESG reasons:

1. Evidence to Substantiate ESG Claims

Consider what evidence the company uses to support its ESG claims. For example, if a company has committed to net zero emissions, has it disclosed how it plans to achieve this? Also consider if well-recognized data collection methods are being used, such as the GHG Protocol for GHG emissions information.

2. Limitations of Evidence or Data

ESG information is an evolving area. In certain contexts, there are limitations when it comes to collecting data. Consider whether a company has disclosed the limitations of the data and its ESG performance.

3. Cherry Picking

Is the company emphasizing certain kinds of ESG information and downplaying others? Consider whether the information provided by a company provides the full ESG picture or if there are gaps in the disclosure.

Learn more about Understanding Fund Facts, the documents which summarize key information about mutual funds you’ve purchased. And check out ETF facts: interactive sample.

Any investment choice, ESG-related or otherwise, should be a good fit for your level of risk tolerance, investment time horizon, and investing personality.

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