The Role of Ratings in Greenwashing

Austria’s Financial Market Authority (FMA) warns consumers against “greenwashing” in the new edition of their consumer information series “Let’s talk about money”.

“Greenwashing” means that a financial product is advertised as environmentally friendly, green or sustainable – i.e. colored green – even though it does not actually meet these standards. In this way, potential investors are to be tempted to make investments that they would not have made or would only have made at a different price with knowledge of the actual effects of the financial product.

“Greenwashing” is carried out in particular through misleading or false information in advertising, consultations and product documentation. It is often associated with a corresponding optical design, for example through the use of the color green and through representations of unspoiled nature.

Furthermore, terms such as “ecological” or “green” are often used, or a certification that does not even exist is advertised, reports the FMA. The FMA report could be supplemented by a warning about sustainability ratings that were either developed in a fast-track process and thus ignoring a number of important aspects, or even applied without any technical expertise.

Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business. Some rating agencies are providing investors with its ESG analysis through a digital platform, comprising more than 1,600 companies in the MSCI world stock market index. They claim to have methodology that is applicable to the whole universe of corporates, from small and medium-sized companies to large listed multinational enterprises.

Such claims are a clear indication that the complexity of the analysis is being underestimated, especially when a team of analysts who is only very small in relation to the number of companies assessed and overwhelmed by the size of the task is involved in the acquisition and evaluation of the data.

Therefore, investors should heed the regulatory warnings: “Sustainable investments are not per se safer than comparable conventional investments. Always ask questions and be critical,” warns the FMA Board of Directors, Helmut Ettl and Eduard Müller. Particular caution is required on the so-called “gray capital market”, that is, the unregulated capital market.

Investments in “green real estate”, wind and solar parks or hydropower plants are often offered in the “gray capital market”. If such projects are designed as qualified subordinated loans, company investments, bonds or profit participation rights, one should be aware that if the company becomes insolvent, all the money invested can be lost.