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Growing appetite: A trader works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. A record US$649bil (RM2.72 trillion) poured into ESG-focused funds worldwide through Nov 30. — AP

INVESTORS concerned about climate change and social justice had a bumper year in 2021, successfully pushing companies and regulators to make changes amid record inflows to funds focused on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues.

Extreme weather becoming more frequent and events highlighting social justice issues, such as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, contributed to ESG rising to the top of the agenda of investors, companies and policymakers.

A record US$649bil (RM2.72 trillion) poured into ESG-focused funds worldwide through Nov 30, up from the US$542bil (RM2.26 trillion) and US$285bil (RM1.19 trillion) that flowed into these funds in 2020 and 2019, respectively, the latest Refinitiv Lipper data shows.

ESG funds now account for 10% of worldwide fund assets.

Stocks of companies rated highly for their sustainability efforts also notched gains. The MSCI World ESG Leaders’ index has risen 22% so far this year, compared with the MSCI World Index’s gain of 15%.

Investors flexed their muscle to challenge companies’ ESG credentials, culminating in a landmark board challenge against oil major Exxon Mobil Corp.

Support for social and environmental proposals at the shareholder meetings of US companies rose to 32% in 2021 from 27% in 2020 and from 21% in 2017, according to the Sustainable Investments Institute.

“It was a watershed year,” said Tim Smith, a director at investment management firm Boston Trust Walden.

He contrasted the votes this year with one of the earliest corporate social policy measures, in 1971, when only 1% of General Motors’ shareholders backed an investor resolution for the auto maker to withdraw from South Africa over the country’s racist social policies at the time.

Regulators have responded to the new pressure by making ESG disclosures a priority. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been asking money managers about the ESG classifications they use for their funds and is expected to firm up guidance on corporate disclosures such as carbon emissions.

The European Commission has finalised most of its “sustainable finance taxonomy” rulebook on which corporate activities can be labelled climate-friendly.

Rules will apply to some sectors in the European Union starting next month.

Of the US$6.1 trillion (RM25.59 trillion) in ESG funds, 59% of the money is held in Europe, Middle East and Africa, according to Lipper, reflecting the region’s earlier embrace of the investing trend.

Inflows in European ESG funds dropped in 2021, but this was more than offset by rising flows into US and Asian ESG funds.


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