ESG Leaders Awards at TBLI 2013 Chooses Balance Over Competition

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Nancy Gephart gives a round up on some of the winners of the ESG Leaders Awards and considers the dangers of praise.

ESG Leaders Award winners: (from left) Eva Meyer, Günther Herndlhofer, Clement Chenost, and Katharina Sommerrock.

Photo courtesy of TBLI CONFERENCE

ESG Leaders Award winners: (from left) Eva Meyer, Günther Herndlhofer, Clement Chenost, and Katharina Sommerrock.

Diversity ruled for the ESG Leaders Europe Awards at the Triple Bottom Line Investing (TBLI) Conference in Zurich. With four categories the award looks to highlight successes across the impact field, commending investors as well as the projects which tend to be the focus of awards.

In the end, it seems everyone could have been a winner – and that was the point. Rather than using concrete investment metrics to choose a winner, organizers chose to celebrate a wide range of activities across the field.

“What we tried to have between these four awards was a balance between big and small ones, new and old ones, and a reflection of specific elements related to this year,” explained Andrea De Wolff, founder of Sustainable Finance Geneva and one of the three judges of the competition.

VBV Vorsorgekasse, which took Best Investor in ESG, was a peculiar “newcomer”. With 1.8 million euro under management, VBV is the largest pension fund in Austria, and was the first to go into socially and environmentally responsible investing 10 years ago.  A decade on almost all of Austria’s pensions funds have followed suit.

“When we started, no one was doing it. Nowadays, there are 10 pension funds and eight of them are doing it. What used to be a niche topic is now becoming an industry standard.”

Although 10 years seems like a long time, it’s relatively short in the life of a pension fund; by the standards of a famously cautious industry, VBV’s move into impact and its market-altering effect in Austria has happened at high speed. With many pension funds around the world still unwilling to touch ESG, it’s still a novel idea for the industry.

The award for Best Impact Investor went to LGT Venture Philanthropy, a well-established investor, aiming to “increase the sustainable quality of life of less-advantaged people.”

The judges here favored experience over innovation: Although all nominees were doing innovative work, according to De Wolff, it was the length of LGT Venture Philanthropy’s involvement in impact investing that made them stand out.

The winner of the “Most Innovative Impact Investing Project” award went to the Moringa Tree Project. By planting trees at women’s cooperatives, schools, clinics, and orphan homes, this project has environmental benefits, but also provides financial opportunities for those who sell the tree fruit and pods.

The judges went with Moringa partly because its focus differed from the other awardees: “We considered that LGT looks mostly at social dimensions and wanted to also recognize those doing environmental work.”

A big part of conferences like TBLI is to get people going, to show them how much is going on; but while the awards made all conference attendees feel good and showed the breadth of innovation in impact, it perhaps gave credence to the stereotype that impact investing lacks rigor and is a “soft” field. By embracing breadth over performance and depth, the ESG Leaders Europe Awards celebrated the diversity of players in this space, but maybe set an unclear standard for high performing funds and projects in the future.

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