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Environmental, social and governance investing has been engulfed by suspicion and acrimony this year. That could be for the best.

If anything, the turmoil in ESG has helped investors and the public better understand what it is, and what it is not, as the world grapples with social inequity and a climate crisis. At its core, ESG is a series of measures used to determine if a company or fund is protected against non-financial and policy-related risks tied to climate change, worker safety, boardroom diversity and other factors. It is slowly becoming more specifically categorized.

“I think these are much-overdue growing pains,” said Alexandria Fisher, an Edmonton-based ESG risk-management expert. “It’s a clear signal that the area is maturing from something that is kind of greenwashing into something that is more robust and is creating a better picture for risk management.”

As ESG-themed investment chilled in 2022, questions emerged about just how effective it is in transforming the business world into a force for environmental and societal good. Meanwhile, regulators meted out a series of enforcement actions and fines against asset managers for making false or exaggerated environmental claims – a practice known as greenwashing – which drew more scrutiny.

On top of that, ESG has become a target of attacks, especially from the right wing of U.S. politics, with some Republican-controlled states banning the use of ESG as a risk-management tool among institutional investors, largely to shield the fossil fuel industry.

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Uncertainty over what constitutes credible measurement and disclosure is pushing regulators to put more rules in place aimed at preventing fund managers and others from suggesting environmental and social benefit when such claims can be dubious. Regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the new International Sustainability Standards Board are also pushing the financial and industrial sectors to employ more standardized reporting of climate-related risk and other non-financial metrics.

Ms. Fisher said Canadian regulators must get as tough as they are with financial accounting. “I think where we are right now, we need more explicit instructions because companies are trying to capitalize on the market,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s to their own detriment, because they are putting short-term profitability and using ESG as a buzzword at the expense of their long-term credibility.”

In 2022, the practice of using ESG as marketing tool came under fire. In May, the SEC fined BNY Mellon US$1.5-million for misstatements and omissions about ESG factors that went into investment decisions for some of its mutual funds. That same month, German police raided the offices of Deutsche Bank AG’s asset-management division, DWS, in connection with accusations of investment fraud related to greenwashing.

The uncertainty has played into a sharp drop in money flowing into sustainable-investment funds after major gains early in the pandemic. In the third quarter, flows into such funds totaled US$23-billion globally, down from US$150-billion a year earlier, according to Morningstar. In Canada, the figure was US$108.4-million, down from US$2-billion in the third quarter of 2021.

The fading lustre of ESG is not surprising as war rages in Ukraine and inflation puts pressure on corporate and personal finances, said Kent Kaufield, ESG markets leader and chief sustainability officer at Ernst & Young LLP. Pressing issues have overtaken longer-term concerns in the public consciousness, but the move to more transparency and reliable non-financial data has maintained its momentum, he said.

He also sees the questions about ESG as part of a maturing process. Following the regulatory enforcements, court challenges over ESG claims are likely the next battleground until reporting standards and third-party verification are standardized and enforced, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it, and I think in some respects that’s almost helpful because that just gives it more validity once it’s been through the court system,” Mr. Kaufield said.

Some high-profile financial professionals have been harshly critical of ESG. Tariq Fancy, onetime chief investment officer for sustainable investing at BlackRock Inc. BLK-N, the world’s largest asset manager, has called it “a giant societal placebo” geared to improving risk-adjusted returns for professional investors more than to promoting the global action required to solve complex environmental and social problems.

Stuart Kirk resigned as global head of responsible investment at HSBC Investment Management in London after being suspended for bluntly speaking out at a conference against the effectiveness of sustainable finance in halting climate change. On his exit he vowed “continue to prod with a sharp stick the nonsense, hypocrisy, sloppy logic and group-think inside the mainstream bubble of sustainable finance.” He has since started writing columns for the Financial Times.

Ms. Fisher sees positive signs on the horizon, including companies starting to run ESG data through internal audits – even at larger organizations where change can take a long time amid “institutional stickiness.” However, it may be a few years yet before sustainability is fully accepted as part and parcel of doing business, she said.

In 2023, nature-related impacts and risks, especially involving corporate landholdings, water usage and biodiversity, are likely to emerge as a big issue that will be integrated into climate disclosure, Mr. Kaufield said. Such issues, debated at the COP15 summit in Montreal, will only add to the field’s complexity.

Indeed, a global effort, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, is finalizing a framework for measurement and reporting that is slated to be ready for adoption by companies, financial institutions and investors in September, 2023.

“It will be alarming to people as to how much work goes into disclosure around climate-related activities or nature-based activities, or nature-impacted activities, and how they have to disclose it into their stakeholders,” he said.