Jakob Thomä on… LinkedIn whiplash and the future of sustainable finance

In the first of a series of monthly columns, the Theia Finance Labs co-founder looks at the evolution of sustainable investing and asks where we go from here.   

There is a case that LinkedIn should start to come with a warning sticker: “May cause whiplash!”

Whether you take the new SEC rules, the EU due diligence discussion, or the to-ing and fro-ing of voluntary initiatives, the sentiment is similar. We have cheerleaders convincing us the sustainable finance nirvana is upon us, and those concluding that we have in fact made no progress at all.

“We need Scope 3 disclosure! We need a wider coverage of disclosure! We need to get away from comply or explain!”

Hey, 2016 called – it wants its LinkedIn posts back.

Or 2014. Or 2012. When it comes to mandatory disclosure, 20 years of policy engagement leaves a distinct “glass half-empty” feeling among most sustainable finance professionals I talk to.

After all, last month reminded us that, despite our efforts, climate disclosure in the US will remain a comply-or-explain affair, with no Scope 3 solution, and covering a limited universe of companies.

Why are we still having the same conversations we were having 10 years ago? And why can we still not seem to make up our minds how we feel about them?

Blink and a yawn

But there is another type of sentiment that permeates the sustainable finance discourse and causes whiplash.

Subtle at times, buried in the fourth paragraph of a deep dive post on the SEC ruling or the due diligence supply chain regulation in Europe. If you blink, you may miss it.

The sentiment: A yawn. Not an actual yawn of course, basic politesse would forbid it. But a metaphorical yawn.

After all, many investors have recalibrated their expectations when it comes to corporate disclosure regulation and have looked elsewhere. And have found elsewhere.

No investor who takes climate seriously that I speak to relies exclusively on traditional climate reporting channels.

Alternative datasets are everywhere – asset-level data in portfolio analytics, news and sentiment data in reputational risk solutions, a meaningful rise in public statements and targets, surveys and alternative reporting channels, and of course the actual conversations taking place between companies and investors.

Those working with the plethora of climate data in fact complain of “too much data” at times. For them, missing data isn’t the problem and they are not waiting for some nirvana where all companies provide consistent, comparable and comprehensive reporting as part of a universal mandatory reporting regime.

Hence, the “yawn” from some of us when regulators disappoint on disclosure.

The “glass half-full” group will tell you we have never had as much data as we have today. If you want to consider climate in your investment decisions, at least in public markets, the data is effectively there.

Ok, so maybe we are making progress.

But then why is all of this data still such a mess? And why are we still spending 95 percent of our headspace debating labels, and disclosure, and processes, and 5 percent (on a good day, some might say) changing the actual concrete financial incentives, whether it’s taxes, capital requirements, or the other potential instruments at our disposal?

Why do we feel like NGOs (mine perhaps included) are still writing the same reports they wrote five years ago? Why, when the rubber hits the road on collective engagement, does the backsliding begin? Why are we still debating engagement versus divestment, and why do we have such limited analysis on the real world impact of the investment industry?

A sustainable Odyssey

The whiplash on Linkedin is one that I am sure many of us experience professionally, too, and indeed one I fear I have introduced here.

We are oscillating between wonder at the normalcy with which sustainable finance now forms part of the broader finance fabric – in the halls of major central banks, in the pages of mainstream financial newspapers and in the rooms where it happens – while we fret at seeing the Penelopean threads we spend our lives weaving into this very fabric being pulled out when the lights go off.

How you feel about this depends on how you benchmark your expectations, of course. If you thought we would still have to rely on the data quality from 2012, well good news! If you were hoping for more – hello darkness, my old friend!

But it also depends on how we respond to this whiplash. Because after all, it was Penelope herself – for those less well-versed in the Odyssean myth – who pulled the threads out of the fabric she wove each night, to postpone having to marry another man.

In that sense, rather than lament the whiplash we’re now experiencing, we should channel it. Faced with our frustration, it’s time to blame the kid touching the hot stove for the 10th time, and not the stove.

After all, this isn’t our first rodeo anymore. The Montreal Carbon Pledge and Portfolio Decarbonisation Coalition is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. France’s Article 173, which introduced the world’s first climate portfolio alignment disclosure requirements, will turn 10 next year.

We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and that experience should translate to meaningful lessons learned, to an assessment of what works, what doesn’t and where we go from here.

Unfortunately, we are also not in Kansas anymore when it comes to the headwinds facing the industry – anti-ESG backlash, costs, the uncomfortable relationship between responsible investing, and the global polycrises for which we don’t always have good answers.

In such a world, we have to take a long hard look at our industry. Are we meeting the challenge? Are we deploying resources in the right way? Should we double down on disclosure or cut our losses (and gains) and move on to more meaningful parts of our work?

It is this inflection point that I’ll be exploring in a new monthly column for Responsible Investor.

After all, despite the plethora of “takes” on whether the SEC rules are good, bad, ugly, or irrelevant in the modern climate data landscape, it is clear that they fall short of what many were hoping for.

And if that isn’t a sign that things need changing, the LinkedIn whiplash surely is.

Jakob Thomä is co-founder of Theia Finance Labs (formerly Two Degrees Investing Initiative), research director at Inevitable Policy Response and professor in practice at University of London SOAS.