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What is ESG: Decoding These Important Letters

Updated: Feb 5

What is ESG

What is ESG: More than Just Letters

Environmental, Social, and Governance: These three words have rapidly gained ground in the investment world, merging profitability with sustainability. But what is ESG really all about? Let's dive in.

In the world of finance, acronyms are a dime a dozen. You've got your ETFs, your REITs, your IRAs - the list goes on. But there's one term that's been making waves in the investment community: ESG, which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. As our collective consciousness becomes more aware of the impacts our actions have on the world, many investors are considering ESG as a guiding principle for their portfolio.

"ESG Investing isn't just about feeling good, it's about doing well by doing good."

Environmental: The First Piece of the Puzzle

Let's begin with the 'E' in ESG. This pertains to how a company interacts with the environment. Factors to consider here include a company's energy use, waste, pollution, natural resource conservation, and treatment of animals.

Investing in companies that have robust environmental policies can help protect your investments against similar disasters. In our Betterment review, we found that they offer a portfolio that specifically caters to those who prioritize ESG factors, which makes it easy for investors to align their values with their investments.

Social: Building Stronger Relationships

Next up is 'S', which stands for social. This involves how companies manage relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where they operate.

For example, companies that prioritize their employees' well-being often see increased productivity and decreased turnover. By investing in such companies, you're not only supporting ethical practices but also contributing to a sustainable future.

Governance: Holding the Reins

Finally, we have 'G', which represents governance. This relates to a company's leadership, executive pay, audits, internal controls, and shareholder rights.

The key to effective governance is transparency. Companies that communicate openly about their financials, strategies, and performance are likely to be better governed. Acorns, a popular investment platform, uses transparency as a key strategy to gain investor trust. By investing in such transparent companies, you are reducing your risk.

In summary, ESG investing is about far more than just doing good; it's a different way of looking at investments that consider long-term impact and sustainability. The popularity of ESG investing is a clear sign that investors are looking beyond financial returns and considering the broader impact of their investment decisions.

ESG: More Than Just a Trend

The rise of ESG investing isn't a mere fad; it's a paradigm shift. Traditionally, investments were evaluated based on their potential returns and the level of risk involved. Now, there's a growing school of thought that suggests a company's environmental, social, and governance policies can influence its long-term performance.

"ESG investing: For those who want their money to work for them and their values."

So, how can you integrate ESG into your investment strategy? There are multiple ways to approach it.

  1. Screening: One approach is to screen out companies that don't align with your ESG criteria. This is a common strategy for investors who feel strongly about certain issues. Our E-Trade review notes that their platform provides resources to help you conduct ESG screenings.

  2. Integration: Another approach is to integrate ESG factors into traditional financial analysis. This involves assessing a company's ESG performance in conjunction with its financial metrics. In our SigFig review, we found that they provide tools that enable this kind of analysis.

  3. Thematic investing: You could also invest in themes or sectors that align with your ESG priorities. For example, if you're concerned about climate change, you might invest in renewable energy companies.

Investing Platforms That Support ESG

Fortunately, several investing platforms recognize the importance of ESG and provide options for conscious investors. In our Wealthfront review, we highlighted how they offer a socially responsible portfolio option. Similarly, Fidelity has a range of sustainable funds that investors can choose from.

When it comes to ESG, one size does not fit all. It's about finding a balance between your financial goals and your values. With the resources available today, like our guide on Diversification for beginners, it's easier than ever to create a diversified portfolio that reflects your ESG priorities.

ESG investing is not just for the big players. Even if you're just starting out, platforms like Robinhood make it easy for beginners to get started with ESG investing. Our guide on Investing for Beginners can also provide valuable insights.

ESG: A Sustainable Future

With the increase in social consciousness among investors, ESG factors have started to heavily influence investment decisions. In fact, ESG investing is projected to reshape the global investing landscape in the future. But this does not mean ESG investing is without challenges.

"Investing with a conscience does not have to mean sacrificing returns."

While ESG scores provide a measure of a company's commitment to sustainable practices, they are not absolute. Each ESG rating agency has its own methodology, and a company that scores high with one agency might score lower with another. Moreover, not all companies report their ESG data, making it difficult to evaluate them on these parameters.

Components of an ESG Score

Understanding the components of an ESG score is crucial for grasping its overall meaning and implications. An ESG score is divided into three main categories:


This component evaluates a company's impact on the earth, focusing on:

  • Climate Change: Greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint reduction strategies.

  • Resource Depletion: Sustainable resource use, recycling programs.

  • Waste Management: Waste reduction processes, disposal methods.

  • Pollution: Efforts to minimize pollution, investment in clean technologies.


The social aspect examines how a company manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and communities:

  • Employee Relations: Fair wages, working conditions, diversity and inclusion policies.

  • Supply Chain Management: Ethical sourcing, labor standards among suppliers.

  • Community Engagement: Community service, charitable giving, impact on local communities.


Governance considers the quality of a company’s leadership, financial practices, and compliance:

  • Corporate Ethics: Business ethics practices, anti-corruption policies.

  • Board Quality and Composition: Board diversity, independence, and effectiveness.

  • Audit and Risk Management: Internal controls, risk management strategies.

How ESG Scores are Calculated

The process of calculating an ESG score involves several steps and varies by agency, but generally includes:

  1. Data Collection: Gathering data from company reports, government databases, and third-party sources.

  2. Analysis: Assessing the data against specific criteria for each ESG component.

  3. Scoring: Assigning a score based on performance in each area.

The Significance of ESG Scores

ESG scores offer valuable insights into a company's sustainability practices, operational risks, and ethical conduct:

  • Risk Management: High ESG scores may indicate lower operational and financial risks.

  • Investment Decisions: Investors increasingly rely on ESG scores to screen potential investments for sustainability and ethical practices.

  • Company Reputation: Companies with high ESG scores often enjoy a more positive public perception.

Challenges and Criticisms of ESG Scores

Despite their growing importance, ESG scores face several challenges:

  • Lack of Standardization: Variability in scoring methodologies can lead to inconsistent results.

  • Transparency Issues: Limited disclosure on how scores are calculated can undermine trust.

  • Greenwashing: Companies may exaggerate their ESG efforts to improve scores without making substantial changes.

The Future of ESG Scores

The landscape of ESG scoring is evolving, with potential developments including:

  • Improved Standardization: Efforts to harmonize scoring methodologies across agencies.

  • Regulatory Influence: Increased regulatory oversight may drive transparency and accountability.

  • Integration into Financial Analysis: Broader acceptance of ESG scores as critical financial indicators.

Real-World Examples of Companies by ESG Score

Companies with High ESG Scores

These companies are often lauded for their strong performance in environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and governance:

  • Microsoft: Recognized for its commitment to carbon neutrality and renewable energy initiatives. Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 and has implemented comprehensive sustainability practices across its operations.

  • Nestlé: Despite facing criticism in the past, Nestlé has made significant strides in improving its ESG scores through extensive efforts in water management, sustainable sourcing, and enhancing nutritional value in its product lineup.

  • Tesla: Known for its revolutionary impact on the automotive industry by promoting electric vehicles, Tesla also focuses on sustainable energy production and storage solutions, contributing to its high ESG score.

Reasons for High Scores

  • Innovative Environmental Initiatives: Investments in renewable energy, carbon offset programs, and sustainable product designs.

  • Strong Social Commitments: Programs aimed at improving employee welfare, community engagement, and customer satisfaction.

  • Ethical Governance Practices: Transparency, board diversity, and effective risk management strategies.

Companies with Low ESG Scores

These companies have been critiqued for various ESG-related issues, ranging from environmental harm to social and governance controversies:

  • ExxonMobil: Frequently cited for environmental concerns, ExxonMobil has faced criticism over its climate change policies, fossil fuel reliance, and impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Facebook (now Meta Platforms): Has encountered multiple social and governance issues, including data privacy concerns, misinformation spread, and questions about content moderation practices.

  • Boeing: Faced significant governance and ethical issues, especially related to safety lapses and transparency concerns with its aircraft, impacting its ESG scores.

Reasons for Low Scores

  • Environmental Challenges: High carbon footprints, poor waste management practices, and environmental degradation.

  • Social and Ethical Issues: Controversies involving labor practices, community relations, and customer privacy.

  • Governance and Transparency Problems: Ethical breaches, lack of board diversity, and ineffective risk management.

Key Takeaways

These examples highlight the dynamic nature of ESG scores and the importance for companies to continually assess and improve their practices across environmental, social, and governance dimensions. High ESG scores can reflect a company's commitment to sustainability, ethical operations, and social responsibility, potentially leading to enhanced reputation and financial performance. Conversely, low scores may indicate areas where companies need to address significant challenges or risks.

ESG and You

If you're considering ESG investing, remember that it's not an all-or-nothing approach. Start small, and gradually align your portfolio with your values. You could begin by investing in a few ESG-focused funds, as we discussed in our M1 Finance review.

We also recommend using a financial advisor to guide your ESG investment journey. In our SmartAsset review, we found their platform to be an excellent resource for finding advisors who specialize in ESG investing.

Here are some final steps to kickstart your ESG investment journey:

  1. Define Your Goals: Before you begin, clearly define what you hope to achieve with your investments. Do you want to support renewable energy, or are you passionate about social justice? Our global entrepreneurship network page can provide inspiration.

  2. Research: Look into the ESG practices of companies and funds you're considering investing in. Resources like Yahoo Finance provide comprehensive data.

  3. Invest: Once you've done your research, it's time to invest. Our guide on how to invest in private and public companies can be helpful.

In conclusion, ESG investing offers an opportunity to generate returns while making a positive impact on society and the environment. It's a powerful tool for investors who want their money to align with their values. Remember, though, that as with any investment strategy, it's important to thoroughly research and consider your own financial situation and risk tolerance.

Our personal finance blog, TheSavingDude, is here to guide you on your journey toward financial freedom and sustainable investing. Happy Investing!

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