ESG: What does it mean, and why is it important for investors?

The environmental impact and social responsibility of businesses are currently front and centre, increasingly becoming a key factor in the decisions of customers, employees, shareholders, governments and investors alike, brought into focus even more so by the impact of Covid19.

The 1983 United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1

“Sustainability”, however, has become a very broad concept meaning almost anything under the “doing well by doing good” phrase, as is similar to the terms “corporate responsibility”, “socially responsible investing” and “green”.

Despite the growth in sustainable investing in the early 2000s, a realisation within capital markets and international organizations such as the United Nations began to emerge, this realisation being that such investments needed to make financial sense and not just be tied to a moralistic stance against unethical businesses.

In 2006 the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) report (consisting of the Freshfield Report and “Who Cares Wins”) provided for the first-time recommendations on how to incorporate environmental, social, and corporate governance into financial evaluations, asset management and securities brokerage. At the time of the report, 63 investment companies composed of asset owners, asset managers and service providers signed with $6.5 trillion in assets under management (AUM) incorporating ESG issues. As of June 2019, there are 2450 signatories representing over $80 trillion in AUM.2

So, what does Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) mean, and why is this so important?

ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance – three categories that enable businesses to measure their outputs’ real sustainable and societal impact. These target areas need genuine, persistent improvement to experience real positive change in the workplace and the world around us.

While sounding similar to corporate social responsibility (CSR), the difference is that ESG is measured, quantifiable and criteria-led, allowing businesses to fully integrate better ESG strategies into their DNA and brand whilst reporting improvements to shareholders.

As outlined in the AICPA & CIMA paper, Sustainability and Business: The call to action: build back better3, the three areas can be defined in further detail as:


Considers how a company performs as a steward of nature. This factor includes the nature and extent of non-renewable resources used in production and the release of harmful elements into the air, land or water.


Examines how an organisation manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. Social issues range from human rights, health, and safety to responsible business practices such as product marketing and privacy. Expectations around these issues and environmental issues define what is often referred to as the social licence to operate.


Deals with an organisation’s leadership and effective management of the business. In addition to overseeing strategy execution, performance and management of risks, effective governance ensure maintenance of the social licence to operate.’

Covid19 and its impact on ESGs

So, what impact has Covid19 had on ESGs, if any? According to a survey conducted by BNP Paribas Asset Management on European Institutional investors and intermediary distributors4, a greater focus of ESG in their investment decisions was reported by 23% of the respondents. Additionally, in a report published by EY in June 20205, they outline that ‘strong ESG programs may help buffer the impacts of the current crisis, hasten recovery, spur innovation needed to navigate a “new normal” and reduce risks to additional crises in the future.’

But it isn’t just investors who are seeing the benefits of ESGs, it is impacting how we use our human resources, too, our employees. As EY go on to highlight, ‘The crisis has revealed for many companies the benefits of investing in their social and human capital, which is enabling them to mobilize talent and resources in new ways and continue to function in uncertain circumstances through a culture of trust, commitment and innovation’. Similarly, research has shown that a loyal and motivated workforce creates enterprise value over the long term through increased productivity, lower voluntary turnover and improved labour costs.

ESG and the Middle East

As KPMG highlights, ‘In the Middle East, we are seeing a growing maturity and understanding of CSR as encompassing economic aspects of an organisation, as well as environmental and social.

Moreover, with national initiatives like the ‘Year of Giving’ and the ‘Year of Tolerance’ in the UAE, organisations are starting to think about the wider context and implications of social responsibility. More than a potential ‘nice-to-have marketing stunt’, it is recognised as a responsibility monitored by a regulatory authority.”6

Middle East companies may generally have a head start with ESG, relating to their focus on Islamic Finance, where capital raised and invested follows Shariah Law. Whilst ESG may be secondary to Shariah law, the two are complementary in their capital-raising and investment approaches with many shared principles (CFA Institute and Principles for Responsible Investment Report – Nov 19)7. For example, ESG investing and Islamic finance prohibit investments in tobacco, alcohol, weapons, gambling and human trafficking (human rights), to name a few.

ESG scores from Refinitiv’s EIKON database of over 5,000 non-financial companies suggest a direct correlation between Shariah compliance and higher ESG scores.  Shariah-compliant companies – to which Islamic financial institutions will direct capital – have ESG scores that are 6% higher than those excluded by the Shariah screening process. For non-financial companies, the difference rises to 10%. ESG scores for Shariah-compliant companies ranged from 3.0% higher for governance to 7.3% and 7.0%, respectively, for environmental and social issues. (Islamic Finance ESG Outlook 2019 – Shared Values)8.

Although they will remain separate investment approaches, Islamic finance and ESG investing converge. This is not surprising given each investment approach’s origins and common underlying principles. A deeper understanding of Islamic finance and ESG investing by all investors and the increasing materiality of social and environmental issues will likely continue this trend toward using common techniques and analyses.

As outlined at the start, a business’s environmental impact and social responsibility are currently front and centre; companies who ignore ESG and its importance do so at their peril.

  • Sustainability and business. The call to action: build back better (
  • Institutional investors say COVID-19 pushed ESG to forefront – FM (
  • Why sustainability and ESG are as important as ever | EY – US
Ashley Taylor

Ashley Taylor is General Manager at Carnrite Group MENA and Managing Director at NETZERO

NETZERO contributes to the Middle East carbon circular economy by providing a platform for project developers looking to offer carbon credits to the region and the private sector SMEs and large enterprises looking to decarbonise their assets and portfolios. netØtwenty50 provides granularity for companies to understand, measure, forecast, and manage their organisation’s carbon footprint and provide a roadmap to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Enabling access to Middle Eastern internationally standardised and registered carbon credits means that companies within the region have a tool to offset their carbon footprints, thereby enabling organisations to bolster their Environmental Social Governance (ESG)/Sustainability reporting commitments to investors and shareholders.

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