By Thomas Kostigen

Money flowing into investments that support environmental,
social, and corporate governance issues (ESG) is growing at a blistering rate.
That is cause for both celebration and concern.

According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, ESG assets
under management (otherwise known as money that has been invested in the
capital markets and is being professionally managed) amounts to $17.5 trillion,
up 69 percent from just two years ago. And most of that money is coming from
the pockets of investors in the United States and Canada.

“Assets managed with sustainable investing strategies now represent
26 percent of all investment assets under professional management in the United
States,” the GSIA reports. That’s more than one out of every four investment

If you care about the planet, support local communities, or
believe in fair labor practices, all that capital is reason to cheer. It means,
assumably, companies that embrace ESG principles are being rewarded with
capital and will, again assumably, do more of the right thing.

The United Nations Principles of Responsible Investing
lists climate change, resource depletion, waste, pollution, and deforestation
as issues that companies embracing positive environmental policies will likely
address. Social policies at companies will likely highlight issues such as
human rights, modern slavery, child labor, working conditions, and employee
relations. Governance issues include bribery and corruption, executive pay,
board diversity, political lobbying, and tax strategies. There are, of course,
overlaps in areas. And many companies excel in one area, and may fall down in

“There are many ways to invest responsibly. Approaches are
typically a combination of two overarching areas,” the UNPRI notes. One
approach is to consider ESG issues when building a portfolio. Another approach
is to encourage companies in which you are already invested to embrace or
improve their ESG standing. This latter approach is known as active ownership,
or “stewardship.” 

There are ESG mutual funds, ESG managed accounts, and even ESG
exchange traded funds to make investing with a conscience super easy and super
accessible. And that is the cause for concern. Many organizations haven’t quite
figured out exactly what constitutes an ESG stock. Is it strictly one that has
strong environmental, or “green,” policies? Is it one that has robust
charitable programs? Or is it one that mandates board of directors diversity
and stands up for things like gender equality?

Recently, for example, it was discovered that oil and gas stocks
were being held in an ESG ETF being managed by a well-known financial
organization. Proper screening, due diligence, and portfolio monitoring can get
lost in the rush to gather investment dollars. That’s why it’s usually a good
idea to have a financial advisor who can vet investments and ensure investment
portfolios are being managed as advertised with the types of ESG-minded
companies promised.

To be sure, an increase in the amount of money being invested in a broader menu of ESG investment product offerings is good news for ethically minded investors. But just like with Chinese food takeout, it’s wise to check what’s in the bag—and that you got what you ordered.

Thomas Kostigen is a contributing writer to, the premier matchmaker between investors and advisors. Thomas is a best-selling author and longtime journalist who writes about environmental, social, and governance issues.