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Is ‘sin’ unsustainable?

01/02/2019

 

For many, the end of Dry January will be met with cheers, clinking of glasses and a collective sigh of relief that one can now console oneself with a soothing ale or glass of red when cold weather bites.

Yet longer-term trend data tells us that the proportion of Brits drinking, or drinking to excess, is falling. As outlined in a recent MoneyWeek article on the subject, young people are especially inclined towards teetotalism or infrequent drinking. A country renowned for its binge drinking culture cutting its alcohol consumption could spell trouble for big multinational drinks companies Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller, as well as national pub brands like J D Wetherspoon and Greene King. True, the multinationals also have portfolios of soft-drink brands, but these are vulnerable to growing anti-sugar sentiment and already have the UK’s sugar tax to contend with.

Traditionally, ethical fund managers may well have screened out alcohol producers. Today, there is arguably a financial imperative to at least limit exposure to these companies. A heat wave or a World Cup may temporarily boost consumption but longer term, people are much more concerned about the health risks of sugar and alcohol, and regulation is reinforcing the trend.

The same is true of smoking: tobacco may no longer need to be screened out on ethical grounds; it could simply make good financial sense to do so. Good news for the 22% of private investors who reported to us that they have actively looked to avoid or minimise investment in tobacco. According to the Office of National Statistics, only 15% of UK adults smoked cigarettes in 2017, with more than 900,000 having quit both smoking and vaping.

So the stats say that sin is going out of style. What are younger generations spending their time and money on instead? Fund managers have not been blind to the growing popularity of cycling, spin classes and other athletic endeavours, nor the desire to at least look as if you’re on your way to a gym session, even if your destination is a café. Alan Rowsell, manager of Standard Life Investments’ Global Smaller Companies fund, attributes some of his fund’s success to the “athleisure boom”. Columbia Threadneedle’s American funds seek to capitalise on the trend, investing in companies like Nike and Lululemon Athletica. Countless others are undoubtedly investing with a similar frame of mind.

Investing in athleisure is just one example of sustainable investing that fund managers probably do without thinking of it as such or undertaking explicit ESG analysis. Of course, companies like Nike are not 100% virtuous, having been one of many to be shamed in the past for tolerating sweatshops. Yet having been shamed in the early noughties, first by the press and then by the public, these companies are now compelled not only to be more vigilant of working conditions in factories abroad, but also to improve their stakeholder engagement. Nike has certainly got its sustainability reporting act in gear.

Even the NHS is getting in on the athleisure game… sort of. Its weight loss programme aimed at tackling obesity and Type 2 diabetes (part of the recently-launched NHS Long Term Plan) includes wearable technologies. More broadly, it is putting pressure on the food industry to help battle the bulge costing taxpayers billions every year.

With all this in mind, it’s fair to make the case that what’s healthy for your body may be healthy for your investment portfolio as well.

Our upcoming Responsible Investment Review will look at the current size and growth potential of the responsible and ESG investing landscape in the UK. Spanning various audiences, from financial advisers to private investors and institutional investors, we hope to have succeeded in establishing to what extent this previously ‘niche’ investment philosophy has disrupted the investment management industry.

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