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How to avoid ‘impact washing’ in ESG’s fastest-growing sector

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Third-party certification, shared principles or a code of conduct could help guard against product providers exaggerating their impact investing claims, according to a survey by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN).

More survey respondents were in favour of greater transparency on impact strategy and results, with 80% agreeing that this would help mitigate the risk of “mission drift”.

Two in five respondents (41%) agreed that third-party certification would help mitigate the risk of “impact washing”, while others agreed that shared principles (31%) or a code of conduct (26%) were potential approaches.

One in five (21%) considered no action was necessarily required, instead arguing that “the market mechanism will address the risk of impact washing”.

The survey was the eighth annual impact investor survey that the GIIN has carried out. It asked 229 investors for their views on approaches to mitigating the risk of impact washing after respondents to last year’s survey identified the risk of “mission drift” or “impact dilution”.

The GIIN highlighted the recent rapid growth of the impact investing market “with many well-known, large scale firms entering over the past few years”.

Investors were also asked about their views on challenges to the growth of the impact investing industry. The most commonly cited challenges were the “lack of appropriate capital across the risk/return spectrum” and the “lack of common understanding of the definitions and segments of the market”.

Survey respondents by organisation type

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This year, the GIIN also asked respondents whether they were exclusively dedicated to impact investing, or also made “conventional” investments. Two-thirds were in the former camp, and one-third in the latter.

The survey captured 229 organisations – although three did not provide information about assets under management. As at the end of 2017, the remaining 226 respondents collectively managed $228bn (€193bn) in impact investing assets. Respondents included some of Europe’s largest asset managers, such as AXA Investment Managers, BlackRock, and Deutsche Bank.

Fund managers comprised the bulk of the sample – 59% – and managed 32% of the assets under management. Development finance institutions comprised only 3% of the sample but accounted for 45% of assets.

‘Conventional’ investors get stuck in

Respondents operating in both conventional and impact investing arenas reported that they were making more impact investments compared to three years ago, as well as demonstrating greater commitment to measuring and managing their impact, and gaining more buy-in from key internal stakeholders.

A large share – 70% – of investors also indicated that conversations with internal stakeholders had moved from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ of impact investing.

Respondents highlighted the need to convince key decision-makers of the potential financial performance of impact investments as a significant challenge (31%). 

A fifth of respondents found it a significant challenge to demonstrate sufficient client demand for impact investing products, but more than two-fifths did not feel this was a challenge.

Over half of respondents (55%) faced no difficulty demonstrating concrete examples of peers engaged in impact investing, and just 10% of respondents found it significantly challenging to prove that impact investments were consistent with their fiduciary duty.

Significance of challenges to gaining buy-in for impact investing for organisations that also make conventional investments

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