We’re used to expecting companies and those who invest in them to take concerns about nature and our climate seriously. When governments regulate the activities of these companies, it’s these same issues they’ve tended to concentrate on. But from the food we eat to our local environment, companies also have a decisive influence on our health. We think it’s time for governments and regulators start taking these impacts just as seriously.
Those that make policy should look beyond public health as it’s traditionally thought about, with a focus on individual choices, and pay attention to the impact that business and investors can have on improving health. Institutions like banks, insurance companies and asset managers have significant influence through the ownership and financing of companies, which gives them great power to drive change.
It isn’t just the right thing to do. The health of a whole society can impact the bottom line of individual companies and investment portfolios. But right now, investors usually don’t look at these risks at all, or focus only on risks to a single company.
But if poor health impacts all of society, it will impact a whole investment portfolio as well. Broad, diversified portfolios are most at risk from this. And if the relevant data isn’t being collected properly, investment teams won’t be able to advise their clients on emerging new regulations, or other health trends in society that could have knock-on effects later.
Ignoring health trends is a risky decision
ONS data tells us that the sickness absence rate last year was the highest since 2004. An estimated 185.6 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury. Improved population health would cut the number of sickness absences, boosting productivity, increase labour supply, and reduce pressure on the NHS (and other healthcare systems globally).
Governments around the world are clamping down on tobacco. And more than 50 countries now tax sugary drinks. As people become more health-conscious and more aware of marketing techniques, reputational risks are growing for companies who profit from unhealthy foods.
It’s clear that awareness of health trends and acting on them is crucial for investors. Many firms are responding with ‘sustainability-related objectives’, such as linking executive pay to corporate social responsibility. But our research shows the asset managers who manage vast sums of global wealth are largely failing to commit to improving public health.
Improving our health should be a priority for all asset managers
Our Point Of No Returns III report examined the social policies and practices of 77 of the world’s largest asset managers, who collectively manage over $77 trillion in assets. Where health was considered or reflected in investor policies, it tended to focus on basic health issues such as tobacco, rather than taking a holistic view of health. Fewer than 10% of asset managers made commitments on issues such as vaccine equity, human nutrition and workplace mental health.
The research backs up our recent response to the Financial Conduct Authority’s consultation on the subject. Their Discussion Paper (DP23/1) titled ‘Finance for positive sustainable change: governance, incentives and competence in regulated firms.’ aimed to increase industry-wide discussion on investors’ sustainability-related governance, incentives, and competencies.
Clarifying and expanding investment firm’s objectives is crucial to meeting our biggest challenges. The finance sector will need to play a big role in the transition to a net zero economy and a sustainable future.
A starting point for health integration
We want to see asset managers and investors set social and environmental objectives consistently and across every area of their work. The FCA will have an important role by setting strong regulatory expectations for how this should happen.
As a starting point for health, investors should acknowledge health as a relevant investment topic and signal publicly that health issues are important. Once they have committed to setting health-related objectives, then they must allocate responsibilities and resources to deliver on these objectives. Appointing a internal health champion can help deliver on the overall strategy and build understanding of the firm’s sustainability objectives across the business.
Firms can create positive, sustainable change
As public expectations grow for companies to act ethically, and investors who entrust their money to these firms pay closer attention to what activities they are funding, now is the time for action.
We welcome the FCA taking on a role in ensuring investment firms are working towards positive, sustainable change, but we want to see health included in these discussions.
These investment companies’ policies and practices can have real impacts on the health of consumers, workers, and communities across the world. This gives them inherent ethical responsibilities.