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Mid-2022 ESG & Sustainability Outlook

Multiple authors
2022-12-31
Archived info
Archived pieces remain available on the site. Please consider the publish date while reading these older pieces.

The views expressed are those of the authors at the time of writing. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. The value of your investment may become worth more or less than at the time of original investment. While any third-party data used is considered reliable, its accuracy is not guaranteed. For professional, institutional, or accredited investors only. 

Sustainability commitment insights

Deepening our commitment to sustainability: Progress in 2022

Wendy Cromwell,  CFA,  Head of Sustainable Investment

Sustainability is a strategic priority for Wellington and an integral part of our long-term mindset and commitment to our clients. Recent market volatility has heightened our focus on continuing to find ways to deliver strong long-term investment results for clients, and sustainable investing is one key component of our approach. 

We believe sustainable investing will shift capital markets over the next 20 years, affecting security prices across regions and asset classes, and therefore, the portfolios we manage on behalf of our clients. Our long-standing goal is to drive excellence for clients, in part by building a sustainability edge that is research-based, credible, future facing — and squarely focused on delivering superior investment results. To that end, we continue to make significant investments to enhance best practices and bolster our sustainable investment platform and corporate sustainability efforts. Here, we provide an update and outlook for the balance of the year, centered on our sustainability pillars of integrated research, innovative investment strategies, influential engagement, and industry leadership. 

Please see more details on notable highlights for 2022 across our sustainable investment platform: 

Integrated research: Our four-year research partnership with Woodwell Climate Research Center studying physical climate risks continues in earnest. This year, we are exploring ways to broaden our research to include the risks associated with biodiversity loss, an area of increasing concern to our clients. 

In January of this year, we entered into a new collaboration with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to bolster our current research on the transition to a low-carbon economy, enhance our understanding of the expected financial impacts of various transition pathways on industries and economies, and amplify our decarbonization engagement practices.

Innovative investment strategies: We continue to expand offerings within our four sustainable investment categories: impact, climate change, ESG forefront, and sustainable thematic. Within impact investing, we are building our impact measurement and management practice. Our climate investing suite continues to grow amid a growing opportunity set and our deepening capabilities in this area.

Influential engagement: Stewardship engagements continue to play a vital role. We see active ownership as a means of delivering sustainable, competitive investment returns for clients. Throughout 2021 and the first half of 2022, while encouraging constructive dialogue with companies and emphasizing management accountability, we tracked engagements and achieved a number of positive outcomes on major priorities, including strengthening climate resilience, addressing board diversity, and aligning executive compensation with shareholder outcomes. 

As part of our stewardship efforts, we also seek to promote diversity at the companies in which we invest. We know that we must hold ourselves to the same standards if we are to evolve, grow, and improve. We have become signatories of the Corporate Call to Action and voiced our support for EEO-1 reporting, demonstrating our fundamental belief that increased transparency regarding diversity data creates accountability and allows our firm and our industry to measure progress.

Industry leadership: Our participation and leadership in sustainable organizations has deepened, in an effort to move our industry forward. We continue as an active participant and founding member of the Net Zero Asset Managers (NZAM) initiative, which, as of this writing has US$57.5 trillion committed from 236 signatories worldwide. As of 31 March 2022, we are pleased to report US$436 billion client assets aligned with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. At this writing, more than 32% of our total assets under management are now on track for net zero.

In June, we wrote a letter to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), commending its recent proposed ruling to enhance and standardize climate-related disclosures — an action we had advocated for in a 2021 letter to the SEC. Accurate and comparable information about climate risk is critical to our ability to make informed investment decisions on behalf of our clients. Because climate change will continue to profoundly impact society, economies, and markets, investors need more information to better price these risks and fully assess the value of an issuer’s securities. Currently, our evaluation of the positive and negative impacts of climate change on issuers is limited by inadequate information and the absence of a standardized framework for disclosure. The SEC’s proposal represents a strong step toward providing investors with the information they need to make informed investment decisions. 

Within our corporate operations, our WellSustain program remained focused on aligning with best practices for reducing our firm’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and overall carbon footprint; strengthening our emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and engaging with local communities to advance positive financial, social, and environmental outcomes. 

As part of this approach, we entered into a virtual power purchase agreement (PPA) with Enel Green Power in 2021. Our purchase of 11 megawatts (MW) of capacity at Enel’s Rockhaven Wind Project in Oklahoma in the western US will produce more than 48,000 MWh of electricity per year, enough to match 100% of electricity use from our US offices and US employees’ home use each year. 

As always, we look forward to continuing to build out our sustainable investment capabilities in pursuit of better investment outcomes for our clients in 2022.

For a comprehensive review of our ongoing sustainability efforts and highlights from 2021, please see our 2021 Sustainability Report.

Climate investing insights

Climate change investing: Research and collaboration continue

Julie Delongchamp, CFA, Climate Transition Risk Analyst
Jenny Xie, Climate Physical Risk Analyst

Climate change continues to be a key strategic focus for our firm. Apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, few issues so captured the world’s attention in 2021 — a record year for many climate events. In 2022, our research into the market and economic effects of the physical and transition risks of climate change continues to expand, as does our engagement on climate issues with companies and issuers around the world. Below is a brief summary of our recent and ongoing progress.

Industry leadership on Net Zero by 2050

In accordance with our commitment as founding signatories to the Net Zero Asset Managers (NZAM) initiative, we continue to build a foundation for our investment teams and clients to establish net-zero objectives and measure progress, with an emphasis on:

  • Discussing net-zero implementation options and measurement approaches with clients
  • Engaging with companies to promote science-based targets as part of credible climate plans
  • Incorporating additional carbon-related data into proprietary investment research tools to foster increased transition-risk awareness, measurement, and accountability
  • Defining measurable net-zero implementation plans for 70 investment strategies across equities and corporate fixed income
  • Actively serving on NZAM’s advisory board and participating in multiple implementation-oriented working groups

As a result of these and other efforts, as of 31 March 2022 our commitment now includes US$436 billion in client assets aligned with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, more than 32% of our assets under management. Because we see our net-zero commitment and clients’ investment objectives as inextricably linked, we assess clients’ investment portfolios and investment strategies one by one.

Enhancing our integrated research on climate transition risks

In January 2022, we announced the formation of a climate change research collaboration with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This alliance will bolster our current research on the transition to a low-carbon economy, enhance our understanding of the expected financial impacts of various transition pathways on industries and economies, and deepen our decarbonization engagement practices.

The MIT Joint Program’s integrated team of natural and social scientists aims to provide our investment teams with climate projections under various environmental, economic, and policy scenarios. The objective of this research is to outline decarbonization pathways for corporate operations, supply chains, and products, while also assessing their potential economic impacts. This has included two-way dialogue with our industry experts on current bottlenecks and potential breakthroughs for select industries, including energy and light-duty transport. Our investment teams plan to integrate these transition-risk findings into their ongoing fundamental research, in conjunction with physical-risk findings from Woodwell Climate Research Center.

As Chris Goolgasian, director of Climate Research, noted, “Our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program will focus on cutting-edge transition-risk research outlining the economic risks and opportunities associated with climate change. The pace of change and innovation in this field demands that we collaborate with and learn from leading climate-science experts to further inform investment decisions.”

Leading our industry on real estate carbon-emissions reductions

In early 2022, we also became a founding signatory to the Global Real Estate Engagement Network (GREEN). We join several of our peers in recognition of the role asset management firms can play in reducing carbon emissions from the real estate sector — which accounts for 30% – 40% of global emissions each year.

Owners of energy-efficient buildings are commanding premiums, as more tenants demand these types of spaces to lower costs and demonstrate progress on decarbonization. At the same time, the intensifying physical effects of climate change are likely to increase the costs associated with the failure to protect property and build climate resilience. Real estate operators that can get ahead of building code and insurance covenant changes with enhanced resilience plans may be able to lower the cost of compliance and damages when events do occur.

With our GREEN commitment, we have pledged to engage and encourage our portfolio companies to:

  • Enhance disclosure on the robustness of companies’ business plans in different climate scenarios
  • Implement a strong governance framework for climate change and sustainability, including ambitious target setting, aiming to achieve the 1.5°C pathway
  • Develop science-based transition pathways to help meet Paris Agreement goals
  • Achieve certified and standardized green building certifications

As Bradford Stoesser, real estate portfolio manager explained, “Wellington Management joined GREEN because it aligns with our philosophy and process regarding climate change and real estate — material climate-risk factors are strategic business issues that could ultimately impact the long-term value of real estate companies.”

Intensifying focus on biodiversity research

We are in the process of launching our firmwide biodiversity strategy, leveraging our scientific partnership with Woodwell Climate Research Center. Through our biodiversity research, we will aim to develop security-level analysis on the potential biodiversity-related dependencies and implications, including associated regulations, for portfolio companies and issuers. We will also seek to enhance and formalize engagements on biodiversity, prioritizing highly exposed sectors and coordinating with Wellington’s broader industry research efforts.

Strengthening our climate-focused investor tools

We have recently launched or upgraded a number of proprietary investor tools designed to help our investment teams analyze climate physical and transition risks.

CERA: The Climate Exposure Risk Application (CERA) is a proprietary mapping tool built to share climate science data from our collaborators at Woodwell Climate Research Center. Users can visualize projected physical climate risks of locations and securities. Over the past three years, we have reviewed climate-risk exposures for approximately 1,550 companies. We have also completed 2,900 portfolio-position-level reviews, informed by our research with Woodwell and corporate climate disclosures. These analyses are the result of climate portfolio reviews for over 40 of our portfolio managers across asset classes.

Company carbon dashboard: This tool enables our investment professionals to compare companies with their peers and with industry intensity averages. It includes the historical trend of intensity figures for Scopes 1 and 2 and Scopes 1, 2, and 3, leveraging estimated Scope 3 datasets. We display multiple data sources to demonstrate the difference in estimation methodologies and underscore the importance of encouraging company-specific disclosures.

Net-zero portfolio dashboard: This tool allows us to monitor progress toward our net-zero milestones. It shows top-down progress, based on historical and projected portfolio-level weighted average carbon intensity (WACI). The dashboard also highlights bottom-up progress, measuring portfolio exposure to companies that have committed to or have set science-based targets. It also illustrates security-level exposures, including the largest contributors to each portfolio’s carbon footprint, and combines this data to suggest target companies for engagement, specific to each investment team.

Esg insights

ESG and stewardship: Key updates to focus topics and voting guidelines

Carolina San Martin, Director of ESG Research
Daniel Veazey, Stewardship Practice Leader

Our efforts on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) integration and stewardship continue in earnest. In the first half of 2022, we updated our proxy voting guidelines to enhance our commitments in three key areas: Board diversity, climate-related accountability, and cross-shareholding. We’re also watching an evolving pattern with E & S shareholder proposals and expanding engagement opportunities.

Board diversity

Wellington has a history of engaging and using our escalation process to vote against companies that lack diverse boardrooms. We believe boards are better positioned to create shareholder value when they reflect a wide range of perspectives. In our view, qualified leaders with diverse experiences, backgrounds, and worldviews are key factor in stronger corporate strategies, better financial performance, employee engagement and retention, customer loyalty, and brand strength. We continue to use our vote in cases where companies do not meet local standards for gender diversity or fail to proactively appoint directors from minority racial or ethnic groups.

As an example, we recently met with members of the board of a large homebuilder, after the company had failed to disclose the racial/ethnic diversity of its directors. We prefer specific, company-disclosed diversity metrics rather than alternative methods of determining representation, which could be inherently less accurate. Because the company was not able to commit to providing the requested disclosure, we voted against the election of a board chair.

Climate accountability

Our Sustainable Investment Team, along with many other teams at Wellington, aim to assess and monitor the potential effects of climate change as part of our investment processes. The ESG Research Team, in conjunction with these investment teams, uses proxy voting and engagement to drive board accountability for managing company-level climate-risk exposure.

We encourage companies to develop credible climate transition plans and enhance disclosure on carbon emissions. Lagging in this area could eventually translate to higher capital costs related to regulatory risks and carbon-pricing schemes. We expect climate transition plans to be transparent and clearly communicated to stakeholders. At a minimum, we seek robust, straightforward Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions disclosures, as this data is easy to attain and measurement practices are well defined. If a company’s progress on these issues lags our expectations, we may use our vote to spur action from the board. 

We utilized this voting approach when performing our due diligence at a large financial services company in the lead-up to its 2022 annual general meeting (AGM). At the time, the company did not disclose its Scope 1 or Scope 2 emissions, nor did it file with the CDP, a best-practices framework for disclosing environmental data (including from Scopes 1 and 2 emissions). To underscore our aim to hold board members accountable for a lack of progress on their climate transition planning, we voted against the re-election of one of the company’s directors.

Cross-shareholding

We have had concerns about excessive cross-shareholding at several publicly traded companies in Japan, where companies hold ownership stakes in other publicly traded companies. We believe cross-shareholding could hinder efforts to maintain high-quality corporate governance and hold management teams accountable for responding to shareholder concerns. Under our new voting guidance, we typically vote against the highest-ranking director at any company where management allocates more than 20% of net assets to cross-shareholdings with no reduction target or reasons for the investment. Our new policy has created opportunities for us to step up engagement with companies that exceed our 20% threshold. It also resulted in votes against directors at 15 companies.

E&S shareholder proposals

The first half of the year saw a marked increase in the number of E- and S-focused shareholder proposals. Interestingly, nearly 50% of the 500 E&S proposals filed were withdrawn before they reached a vote at an AGM. This pattern suggests a productive environment for engagement: Companies are facing increased pressure to engage with proponents and reach agreements in private, rather than allow a matter to reach a ballot and be put to a public vote. 

We continue to evaluate shareholder proposals which come to a vote on a case-by-case basis, and believe they are a valuable tool to hold companies accountable. We expect portfolio companies to comply with applicable laws and regulations with regard to environmental and social standards and may vote against directors where we see a lack of accountability. We consider the spirit of the proposal, not just the letter, and generally support proposals addressing material issues even when management has been responsive to our engagement on the issue. In this way, we seek to align our voting with our engagement activities. If our views differ from any specific suggestions in the proposals, we will provide clarification via direct engagement.

Impact insights

Impact investing: Increasing needs, broadening opportunities

Joy Perry,  Investment Director
Meredith Joly, Investment Director

We continue to evolve our impact investing approach in response to major trends, including the ongoing pandemic, intensifying effects of climate change, and digital ways of living, working, and learning. As communities increasingly see the value of solving major social and environmental problems for the benefit of people and the planet, companies and issuers have been incentivized to innovate and offer solutions. The result is an expanding public market impact opportunity set across developed and emerging market equities and fixed income. Here, we offer a brief update on our impact platform and approach.

Themes in focus

In our digital divide theme, we anticipate significant long-term demand for technologies addressing widening digital inequality across developed and emerging markets. In our health theme, we are finding more companies and issuers looking to solve health care-related challenges such as access to affordable care, inefficiencies in service delivery, and chronic underinvestment in health care infrastructure. The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an urgent reminder for countries the world over to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and increase their focus on energy security. We expect impact companies in the alternative energy and resource efficiency spaces to see accelerated demand as governments redouble their efforts to diversify energy systems.

The challenges associated with climate change remain a primary focus. Our ongoing research with our climate-science partners at Woodwell Climate Research Center shows the widespread need to boost climate resilience. Solutions to protect life and property from the effects of climate events cross several impact themes in our Life essentials, Human empowerment, and, of course, Environment categories. Wellington has expanded its focus on climate transition risks through a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. We also continue our leadership in the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative.

Impact measurement and management (IMM)

In April 2021, we hired Oyin Oduya as Wellington’s IMM practice leader. Partnering with our impact equity, bond, and emerging markets teams, Oyin serves as a dedicated resource focused on ensuring consistent, high-quality impact data and analysis. Her remit is to:

  • Facilitate our impact monitoring and reporting process
  • Provide useful insights to our investors and stakeholders
  • Deepen understanding of the real-world outcomes of our investments

In 2022 and beyond, we look to build on the expertise of our IMM practice and Oyin’s experience in private market impact investing to evolve our approach and align with industry-leading IMM standards.

Importance of engagement

Engagement remains a vital part of our investment process. We believe partnership and engagement with our portfolio companies and issuers can enhance their positive social and environmental impact while creating lasting value for our clients. Engagements provide valuable and additive insight into companies’ strengths and weaknesses. These discussions also help us confirm companies are delivering impact and have the potential to generate strong long-term financial returns.

Through engagement, we encourage companies to establish key performance indicators (KPIs) demonstrating positive social and environmental impact. In our fixed income strategy, we can invest in issues that incentivize issuers to improve their sustainability profiles and set targets with associated metrics. Key engagement and research areas include:

  • Talent management and the effects of the “great resignation”
  • Supply-chain accountability and modern slavery
  • Labor practices, particularly in the solar industry
  • Financial inclusion in emerging markets
  • Health care technology
  • Biodiversity
  • Climate adaptation and resilience
  • Infrastructure in emerging markets

Expanding impact to emerging markets

Launched in January 2021, our emerging markets impact strategy is the most recent addition to Wellington’s impact platform, joining our global impact equity and bond strategies. The approach aims to outperform its equity universe by investing in innovative companies focused on emerging markets, whose core goods and services address large social and environmental challenges across our Life essentials, Human empowerment, and Environment categories.

Given growing interest from our clients and an expanding emerging market impact opportunity, we aim to continue our research to identify potential investments. Portfolio Manager Liliana Castillo Dearth takes a bottom-up approach, informed by on-the-ground “grassroots research.” Liliana believes that, in addition to traditional fundamental analysis, it is critical to research domestic markets in person. These trips are immersive experiences to understand cultural settings and the hopes, aspirations, and challenges of local business owners and consumers.

On her team’s most recent research trip to India to understand the country’s challenges in health care, digitalization, and clean power and transport, Liliana was thrilled to see the progress made since her last visit in 2018. In May 2022, the team headed to Indonesia to focus on understanding investment opportunities in infrastructure, health care, and digitalization. For the balance of 2022, she and her team have plans to visit Brazil to deepen their understanding of local markets and identify impact investment opportunities.

Sustainable fixed income insights

Sustainable fixed income investing entering the mainstream

Anand Dharan, CFA, Investment Director
Meredith Joly, Investment Director
Keenan Choy, Fixed Income Trader

Consideration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors has increasingly come into the mainstream of investment conversations, both through routine incorporation into traditional investment processes and through distinct sustainable or impact styles of investing. Recent and current global conditions — including extreme weather events, the inequitable impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising distrust of government institutions, and geopolitical challenges to a rules-based world order — have accelerated this trend, highlighting the direct relevance of ESG and sustainability to understanding long-term market risks and opportunities.

Until recently, ESG and sustainability have been more of a focus for equity investors than for their fixed income counterparts. Encouragingly, that is beginning to change and doing so at a pretty swift clip too. Especially since the onset of COVID, ESG and sustainability have gained considerable traction among bond investors and are now seen by many as integral to fixed income investing. For example, global sustainable debt issuance hit a new record high of over US$1.6 trillion in 2021 (Figure 1). Notably, we believe that ESG integration and sustainable investing in fixed income necessitate a very deliberate, thoughtful approach — one that would vary meaningfully from one fixed income sector to another.

Figure 1
sustainable-fixed-income-investing-entering-the-mainstream-fig1

Corporate credit

Data quality and disclosures: Sharing ongoing feedback with securities regulators and standard setters, such as the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), to help shape rules and standards for improved data quality and clear, easy-to-understand sustainability disclosures.

Relevant metrics: Helping sell-side firms establish market “best practices” for different types of sustainable bonds. For instance, on “use of proceeds” bonds (e.g., green bonds), demanding clarity on the allocation of funds and robust governance around use of the bond’s proceeds. On sustainability-linked structures, ensuring that KPIs are relevant and that sustainability performance targets (SPTs) are material and sufficiently ambitious for the issuer (i.e., to minimize the risk of “greenwashing”).

Education and engagement: Coordinating on management and board engagement across fixed income, equity, and ESG specialist investors to get the most complete picture on how a given issuer’s ESG trajectory is likely to impact its entire balance sheet. Optimizing opportunities to engage with company management (Treasury and ESG) during pre-marketing of labeled sustainable debt offerings to espouse specific views and recommendations on companies’ sustainable practices/deal structuring.

Sovereign debt

Data quality and disclosures: Leveraging proprietary insights and information advantages on sovereign issuers to overcome shortcomings in the quality of “official” ESG data and disclosures.

Relevant metrics: Defining material “E”, “S”, and “G” metrics that are relevant to forward-looking indicators of sustainable and inclusive economic development and to sovereign issuers’ willingness and ability to pay their outstanding debt.

Education and engagement: Seeking to broaden the scope of government stakeholders with whom to engage (beyond “typical” central bank and finance ministry contacts) and joining industry consortia, such as the Emerging Markets Investors Alliance, to amplify managers’ voices on material ESG or sustainable topics.

Securitized credit

Data quality and disclosures: Leveraging differentiated climate research to make more nuanced and localized assessments of physical climate risks that should be priced into RMBS or CMBS deals and drawing on expertise in collateral-level deal analysis to identify data (e.g., FICO scores) that could be relevant to assessing “S” or “G” considerations across deals.

Relevant metrics: Working with issuers to begin defining which metrics or practices should even be considered material in the context of ESG or sustainability (e.g., What constitutes predatory lending? How should a lender factor climate risk into loan underwriting decisions?)

Education and engagement: Bringing a full tool kit of engagement strategies, including leveraging equity, corporate credit, and private investing relationships to educate originators of securitized collateral on how ESG and sustainability apply to their businesses.

Take a deeper dive

To learn more,  view the full white paper, Sustainable fixed income investing comes of age.

Our approach to sustainable investing

Experts

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Investment Director
Investment Director

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