Sustainable investing has faced growing criticism in recent years, with skeptics like former sustainable finance executive Tariq Fancy dismissing it as merely a placebo. Amidst this skepticism and stricter disclosure requirements, traditional sustainable investing methods like “voice” (shareholder engagement) and “exit” (portfolio screening) seem inadequate on their own. However, a comprehensive review of over 3,500 research papers reveals a new approach – “field-building” – that could enable investors to drive more meaningful sustainable change in companies. This tactic involves reshaping the “fields” or interconnected webs of stakeholders around firms to indirectly influence corporate behavior. By embracing field-building’s expanded toolkit, sustainable investors may amplify their positive impact and appeal to increasingly values-driven clients.
The Limitations of Voice and Exit
Sustainable investing has relied heavily on “voice” and “exit”, two strategies that pressure companies directly. “Voice” sees investors engage as active shareholders, using proxy voting and dialogues to advocate for improved environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. However, critics argue this approach rarely initiates major corporate changes. “Exit”, on the other hand, entails divesting from or screening out companies based on ESG criteria. But when sustainable funds sell off shares, they often simply transfer ownership to less discriminate investors. Exit also forfeits opportunities for constructive shareholder engagement. With sustainable investing assets reaching new highs, the minimal impact of voice and exit is increasingly apparent. For instance, despite years of lobbying by climate-conscious investors, not one major oil company has adopted adequate emissions reduction plans. Clearly, new tactics are needed alongside traditional voice and exit to drive more systemic change.
The Promise of Field-Building
This is where field-building comes in. It stems from a key insight: companies exist within broader “fields” or complex webs of stakeholders like employees, suppliers, customers, NGOs, activists, governments and competitors. These fields exert enormous influence on firms by shaping norms, regulations, business models and more. Field-building sees investors work to transform entire fields, not just target companies directly. For example, rather than pressuring automakers individually to adopt electric vehicles, field-building investors could advocate for larger regulatory changes to set industry-wide standards. By leveraging fields, sustainable investors can drive systemic, not just firm-level, changes.
A review of over 3,500 academic studies revealed five key field-building approaches:
Shifting Other Investors’ Evaluations: Investors can highlight underappreciated sustainability risks and opportunities to shift how issues are valued within the investment community. This builds consensus on the importance of key ESG issues, reshaping investment norms and amplifying pressure on target firms. For example, Larry Fink of BlackRock has sought to swing other investors’ assessments on climate change through high-profile letters advocating greater action.
Sharing Expertise: Investors often develop sophisticated expertise on ESG issues affecting their portfolio companies. By disseminating this knowledge, they can improve practices across entire fields. Robeco, for instance, freely shares its proprietary sustainability research with companies, academics and even competitors to elevate ESG integration.
Delegitimizing Activities: Investors can catalyze fields by arguing certain business activities should be restricted or prohibited altogether due to social or environmental damages. Wellington Management’s tobacco divestment in the 1980s helped spur a broader shift against the tobacco industry.
Establishing Voluntary Standards: Investors can set voluntary sustainability standards through groups like the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. These principles reshape norms and practices across investment fields. As of 2022, over 4,000 institutions with over $120 trillion in assets have signed on.
Supporting Regulation: Investors can lobby policymakers and back grassroots campaigns to advocate for regulatory changes that raise sustainability standards market-wide. In 2021, investors managing $5.5 trillion pressured the SEC to implement mandatory climate risk disclosure rules.
Field-building’s indirect influence can lead to immense impact. For example, by supporting stricter regulations, investors could catalyze economy-wide shifts on ESG issues. Critics argue voice and exit only pressure individual firms. Field-building acknowledges companies are constrained by their operating context. By transforming fields, investors can thus address root causes enabling sustainability challenges.
However, significant obstacles to field-building remain. Firstly, most field-building tactics are difficult to quantify, making impact hard to demonstrate. With sustainable investing already accused of being unprofitable, this poses challenges. Additionally, field-building often requires collaborating with regulators or advocacy groups, exposing investors to allegations of “politicized” activism. Lastly, meaningfully influencing entire fields is complex and resource-intensive. Small investment firms may lack the scale and capabilities.
Yet these are not insurmountable barriers. A long-term outlook centered on real-world impact, not short-term optics, could overcome profitability concerns. Strong processes could address charges of partisanship. And field-building coalitions could help aggregate influence and resources. With sophistication, field-building can enhance, not replace, voice and exit approaches.
Sustainable investing requires strategies that match the scale of systemic sustainability challenges. Field-building offers immense, untapped potential through its focus on reshaping the contextual forces surrounding firms. Sophisticated investors increasingly recognize that corporate change often requires field-level transformation. By embracing this expanded toolkit, the investment community can begin driving the deeper, more systemic changes needed to transition toward a truly sustainable economy. The path forward will not be easy, but the stakes could not be higher.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.