2021 Eco-Fund Guide: The Ultimate Guide to Responsible Investing

Though 2020 rattled the economy, sustainable investing is booming. Which ETFs and mutual funds come out on top?

Illustration by Matthew Billington

With spring returning after a long hard winter, it’s a good time to take stock and see what has been growing. While we survived multiple lockdowns that have left the economy teetering, there was a silver lining to the fresh hell of this past year: sustainable investing went mainstream.It feels like years have passed, but I have a clear memory of January 2020. Brushfires were burning in Australia, and I was watching CNBC in the morning. I spat out my coffee in astonishment when Jim Cramer, an animated host on the investment news channel, declared, “I’m done with fossil fuels … we’re seeing divestment all over the world … the world has changed.” The acronym ESG (referring to environmental, social and governance indicators) was on the lips of every investment expert.

The COVID-19 crash came on suddenly. Investors panicked when they realized the severity of the situation, and there was talk that we could be headed into a depression. Central banks including the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve stepped in quickly, providing liquidity to prevent the bond market from collapsing. Many of us were afraid that it would be a repeat of the 2008/09 crash, when sustainability got thrown on the backburner. Fortunately, it feels like this time is different, as leading economies around the globe are baking social and environmental concerns into their economic recovery strategies.

It’s fair to assume that more of that baking lies ahead in Canada, with the appointment of impact investing maven Michael Sabia as deputy finance minister in November. The Canadian government is also in the midst of creating a Sustainable Finance Action Council to help ratchet up action on that front, and the Bank of Canada is launching a pilot project with major banks and insurance companies to assess and understand climate risk.

South of the border, things are looking even more optimistic. After four years of a White House that dismissed climate science, we’re seeing an administration that actually treats climate change like the crisis it is. The nomination of Janet Yellen to the role of Treasury secretary is encouraging, since she just co-chaired the G30 Working Group on Climate Change and Finance with Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada. Yellen has made her position clear: “Carbon must be priced appropriately to internalize the costs of polluting the planet.” A carbon tax in the U.S. would be a catalyst for further sustainable investment gains.

Sustainable investors are happy right now. According to the most recent report from the Responsible Investment Association, 80% of responsible investment funds have outperformed the average of their asset classes this year. The biggest winners have been the “doing more good” funds that invest in sustainability themes like cleantech and renewable energy. Electric car shares have been particularly impressive, with Tesla up eightfold (it’s now worth two and a half times more than ExxonMobil) and Chinese EV maker NIO up 20-fold.

Investors should be cautious since it’s unlikely that green sectors will continue to grow at such a rapid pace, but it does indicate markets have accepted that a green transition is underway and explains why sustainable investments have performed so well.

In addition to terrific financial performance, we’ve also seen the sustainable investment ecosystem mature considerably. Corporations are tripping over each other pledging to be net-zero by 2050, and 2020 saw the launch of a record number of new sustainable investment funds, including new exchange-traded funds (ETFs) from BMO, BlackRock and Wealthsimple. Sustainable investors now have more choice than ever, and demand is growing. A global report from Morningstar shows that more than US$347 billion poured into sustainable funds in 2020, eclipsing 2019’s record $160 billion of inflows. Much of that growth was in Europe, but in Canada, 41 new sustainable funds and ETFs were launched in 2020 alone, more than double 2019.

According to the 2020 RIA Investor Opinion Survey, 75% of respondents want their financial services provider to show them sustainable investment options, but only 28% of respondents have been asked if they are interested. For those of you who have been dragging your feet on switching your investments, consider this a kick in the butt to get it done ASAP. Almost every bank and financial advisor now has sustainable investment products on the shelf, and the myth that sustainable investments underperform financially has been thoroughly busted. If your advisor isn’t up to speed on these options, it’s time to find a new advisor (RIA has a marketplace for investment advice) or explore do-it-yourself investing. I’m hopeful that the 2021 Eco-Fund Ranking will be a helpful resource as you evaluate the options and decide which approach is right for you.

Tim Nash is the founder of Good Investing.

Corporate Knights ranked more than 1,000 mutual funds and ETFs based on their financial and sustainability performance and ESG-aligned management commitments.

Here are the top scorers.


Methodology: Funds are scored according to 1) three-year net return percentile rank (50%), 2) weighted sustainability rating percentile rank based on analysis of their holdings (40%), and 3) fund-manager intention to manage the fund according to responsible guidelines (10%). If the fund is less than three years old, its final score is based on #2 and #3, which are grossed up proportionately to 100%. Funds that do not have an ESG mandate or are not operated according to responsible guidelines are automatically excluded from the ratings. Funds that score in the highest or second-highest quintile among category peers receive a five-tree or four-tree rating respectively.

* Holdings that are red-flagged automatically receive a 0% CK Sustainability Rating Score. Red-flag holdings include companies that are classified in the Corporate Knights database for one or more of the following criteria: access-to nutrition laggards, access-to-medicine laggards, adult entertainment, companies blocking climate policy, cement-carbon laggards, civilian firearms, controversial and conventional weapons, deforestation and palm-oil laggards, fossil fuels (energy), farm-animal-welfare laggards, for-profit prisons, gambling, gross corruption violations, harmful pesticides, illegal activity, oil sands laggards, severe environmental damage, severe human rights violations, thermal coal, tobacco, alcohol, companies blocking climate resolutions, companies financing misleading media, industrial meat, nuclear energy, and companies most exposed to ESG and business-conduct risks.

Sources: Corporate Knights Research, Fundata, Responsible Investment Association, Refinitiv, InfluenceMap, Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), Chain Reaction, NZ Super Fund, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, American Friends Service Committee, Access to Nutrition Initiative, Access to Medicine Initiative, Motley Fool, animal welfare experts, Unearthed, Urgewald/GCEL, Media Matters, MVIS, RepRisk

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