Survey finds ESG adoption tapering off among institutional investors

By Katie Keir | October 16, 2019 | Last updated on December 6, 2023
3 min read
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Issues like climate change are hot topics these days. But when it comes to responsible investing (RI), it seems some investors have cold feet.

According to RBC Global Asset Management’s (RBC GAM) 2019 RI survey, the adoption of environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies by institutional investors “is showing signs of tapering.” A report on the survey results noted “an evident divergence of opinion about the value of ESG-based investing.”

The 2019 survey polled nearly 800 institutional asset owners, intermediaries and investment consultants from around the globe between June 4 and July 24. It found that 70% of respondents used ESG principles when investing, down from 72% a year ago.

Regional results suggested that respondents in the U.K. and Canada were more active in the RI space, with 97% and 80% using ESG analysis, respectively. But globally, there were more respondents this year who said they didn’t consider ESG factors in making investment decisions (30% in 2019, compared with 28% in 2018 and 33% in 2017).

Respondents who did consider ESG factors said they did so to lower risk and increase returns (53%, unchanged compared with a year ago), and to satisfy their fiduciary duty (50%, down from 54%). The report said most of these respondents agreed that ESG factors can mitigate risk (93%, up 3% from 2018) and generate alpha (69%, up 4% from 2019).

Of those who didn’t consider ESG, 32.9% said it wasn’t consistent with their fiduciary duty (up from 27% in 2018). A year ago, the most commonly cited reason for not integrating ESG was a lack of resources, but only 19% said that’s a barrier now. Nearly one quarter (21.9%) of respondents who didn’t consider ESG factors said they “don’t believe these factors will materially impact their investment returns.”

What these findings suggest, the report said, is that respondents who have only somewhat adopted an RI approach are wrestling with “growing uncertainty” about its long-term effects.

During a webinar discussing the report, RBC GAM senior portfolio manager Habib Subjally said, “Adopting ESG isn’t easy.” He added that, for some institutional investors, “perhaps expectations got too high” with respect to potential returns. “[ESG is] not a silver bullet [for portfolios], and people are skeptical of greenwashing,” Subjally said.

Subjally noted that this year’s survey included a larger sample size — there were fewer than 550 respondents in the 2018 edition — which may account for some of the findings. He was surprised, for example, by the “notable” decline in the percentage of European respondents who incorporated ESG into equities investments.

Still, the top asset class globally for incorporating ESG remained equities at 87%, up from 84% a year ago. That was followed by fixed income (62%, up from 60%) and real estate (38%, down from 43%). For Canadian respondents, incorporating ESG into real estate and alternative investments increased, and it decreased in infrastructure.

Looking at which ESG issues investors are most concerned about, the report found cyber security topped the list (67.4%), followed by anti-corruption (65.7%) and water issues (64.8%). Climate change came in fourth place, at 58.8%. Europe and the U.K. were most concerned about climate change and other environmental issues, while cyber security and anti-corruption were top of mind in North America.

One issue that garnered less interest in this year’s survey was board diversity. It was important to three-quarters of respondents in 2018, the report said. This year, the survey question about board diversity “was phrased in terms of whether corporations should adopt gender diversity targets,” the report said. Just over half (52%) of respondents said no, and 48% said yes. Respondents felt shareholder proposals “should be the main force behind encouraging gender diversity on boards.”

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Katie Keir

Katie is special projects editor for and has worked with the team since 2010. In 2012, she was named Best New Journalist by the Canadian Business Media Awards. Reach her at