Fund Managers Doing Bogus ESG ‘Engagement’ Are Put on Notice

ESG funds that are peddling bogus engagement strategies are about to feel some heat as Morningstar Inc. moves to the next stage of its quality control of the industry.

“We are going to look at engagement more closely, engagement activities related to climate especially, to hold managers to account,” said Hortense Bioy, global head of sustainability research at Morningstar.

It’s the next step in a review designed to weed out greenwashers and make sure investment firms actually live up to their marketing hype around environmental, social and governance strategies. And it comes after a major purge by the market researcher earlier this year, when Bioy cited “ambiguous” ESG definitions as grounds to strip the label off funds representing more than $1 trillion.

Few corners of the financial universe have been surrounded by as much marketing froth as ESG, which by some estimates represents more than $40 trillion in assets. According to Morningstar, genuine ESG funds held about $2.7 trillion in managed assets at the end of the fourth quarter.

The ESG fund industry has gone through a particularly fraught period since February, when Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine revealed that large numbers of ESG managers were trapped in questionable Russian holdings. ESG-labeled funds have also been regularly criticized for including stakes in fossil-fuel producers, or companies exposed to questionable labor practices in supply chains.

Asset-Owner Concerns

ESG fund managers tend to defend such holdings by pointing to so-called engagement strategies, whereby the goal is to try to influence a company’s conduct by holding meetings with C-suites and then voting at shareholder meetings. But there’s little in the way of policing of such claims and asset managers often have inconsistent approaches.