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Chart: Is ESG Investing in Decline?

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This area chart shows the decline of fund flows in ESG investments.

Is ESG Investing in Decline?

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These days, ESG investments have lost their luster given high interest rates, political backlash, and greenwashing scrutiny.

In 2021 during the pandemic boom, U.S. sustainable funds hit a record $358 billion in assets, up from $95 billion in 2017. But since then, investor interest has waned as higher borrowing costs impact capital-intensive clean tech stocks.

This graphic shows the drop in sustainable fund flows—often considered an indicator of investor sentiment—based on data from Morningstar.

Slowing Demand

In 2023, investor appetite cooled for sustainable investments, as fund flows notched their worst year on record.

Overall, flows sank $13 billion as fund performance lagged behind conventional funds. Adding to this, concerns surrounding the murkiness of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings were put under the spotlight.

As ESG pushback intensified in U.S. politics, at least 165 anti-ESG bills were introduced in 2023. Politicians have claimed that ESG criteria negatively impacts financial returns, but evidence behind that is mixed.

While sustainable funds underperformed traditional funds in 2023, a separate study showed that ESG portfolios had as much as 6% excess returns annually compared to benchmark indexes between 2014 and 2020.

ESG Investments: A Closer Look

One key aspect of ESG funds is whether they hold investments that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Globally, 542 funds with $125 billion in assets are associated with at least one of these objectives. The table below shows the top five SDGs, by ETF assets under management (AUM).

SDGGoalNumber of ETFsAUM
SDG 13Climate Action275$65.4B
SDG 7Affordable
and Clean Energy
80$15.3B
SDG 9Industry, Innovation,
and Infrastructure
49$13.4B
SDG 6Clean Water
and Sanitation
16$9.1B
SDG 11Sustainable Cities
and Communities
34$5.5B

Source: Trackinsight. As of January 7, 2024.

We can see that Climate Action is the highest overall, with companies held in these ETFs making commitments to lower emissions and advance sustainability.

For instance, Home Depot has cut electricity use by over 50% since 2010 in U.S. stores, and aims to use renewables for all of its electricity by 2030. In addition, Microsoft has committed to this goal through a number of initiatives, including providing access to clean water to over one million people across Indonesia, Brazil, India, and Mexico in 2023.

While investor interest has slowed, 35% of advisors said they used ESG funds last year, based on a Journal of Financial Planning survey. As the industry matures, it remains to be seen if ESG investments will see a resurgence, especially if interest rates fall in the coming years.

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Agriculture

The World’s Top Cocoa Producing Countries

Here are the largest cocoa producing countries globally—from Côte d’Ivoire to Brazil—as cocoa prices hit record highs.

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This tree map graphic shows the world's biggest cocoa producers.

The World’s Top Cocoa Producing Countries

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West Africa is home to the largest cocoa producing countries worldwide, with 3.9 million tonnes of production in 2022.

In fact, there are about one million farmers in Côte d’Ivoire supplying cocoa to key customers such as Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey. But the massive influence of this industry has led to significant forest loss to plant cocoa trees.

This graphic shows the leading producers of cocoa, based on data from the UN FAO.

Global Hotspots for Cocoa Production

Below, we break down the top cocoa producing countries as of 2022:

Country2022 Production, Tonnes
🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire2.2M
🇬🇭 Ghana1.1M
🇮🇩 Indonesia667K
🇪🇨 Ecuador337K
🇨🇲 Cameroon300K
🇳🇬 Nigeria280K
🇧🇷 Brazil274K
🇵🇪 Peru171K
🇩🇴 Dominican Republic76K
🌍 Other386K

With 2.2 million tonnes of cocoa in 2022, Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer, accounting for a third of the global total.

For many reasons, the cocoa trade in Côte d’Ivoire and Western Africa has been controversial. Often, farmers make about 5% of the retail price of a chocolate bar, and earn $1.20 each day. Adding to this, roughly a third of cocoa farms operate on forests that are meant to be protected.

As the third largest producer, Indonesia produced 667,000 tonnes of cocoa with the U.S., Malaysia, and Singapore as major importers. Overall, small-scale farmers produce 95% of cocoa in the country, but face several challenges such as low pay and unwanted impacts from climate change. Alongside aging trees in the country, these setbacks have led productivity to decline.

In South America, major producers include Ecuador and Brazil. In the early 1900s, Ecuador was the world’s largest cocoa producing country, however shifts in the global marketplace and crop disease led its position to fall. Today, the country is most known for its high-grade single-origin chocolate, with farms seen across the Amazon rainforest.

Altogether, global cocoa production reached 6.5 million tonnes, supported by strong demand. On average, the market has grown 3% annually over the last several decades.

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