As being green is killing bees, greenwashing is killing sustainable investment

by 9 Jan, 2020

Yesterday I found myself distracted by the article everybody is talking about: Annette McGivney’s piece for the Guardian: ‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond-milk obsession.’

The piece explores the impact that mass almond production in central California (where an astonishing 80% of almonds are produced!) is having on bee populations. Speaking to McGivney, veteran beekeeper Dennis Arp compares sending his bees to pollinate almond crops to ‘sending them to war’. This is because an incredible 30% won’t make it back.

Green food growth

Rampant growth in demand for almonds over the past five years means the nut is now being intensively farmed using methods that are killing bees, quite literally, in droves. One key driver of this growth has been almond milk: consumption of the dairy alternative has apparently grown by 250% since 2013.

It is probably no coincidence this growth has coincided with a tough time for the dairy industry. Over the same period the sustainable benefits of veganism have garnered global headlines. Few of us are now unaware of the harm a glass of milk, or even worse a pound of steak, does to the planet.

As such, veganism has become the lifestyle de-jour for the angsty millennial. So much so that – I don’t know about you – but stating that I am not even a vegetarian feels a little uncomfortable at some dinner tables. (Incidentally, though, I am allergic to dairy – so that’s something).

Unintended consequences

There is, however, a consequence to this mass shift to plant-based alternatives – as highlighted in the FT’s excellently titled article: ‘Holier than Dow.

The avocado craze of the late 2010’s, for example, caused huge price spikes in poorer countries where it grows, like Mexico. As British twenty somethings soak-up their hangovers with smashed avocado on sourdough, the avocado has become inaccessible to many from these regions.

Similarly, Western cravings for quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-wah’, darling) sent farmers in Peru rushing to cultivate the crop. This, in turn, sent prices tumbling and has left many farmers out of pocket, if not bankrupt. “The road to hell”, the FT’s Izabella Kaminska reminds us, “is paved with good intentions”.

Greenwashing the green

Right now, something similar is happening in sustainable investment. Just as people’s concerns over dairy farming have pushed them to almond milk, investor concern for the planet – of which dairy farming forms a big issue – has sent them flocking to sustainable investment funds. 

Capitalising on this interest, unscrupulous asset managers like BlackRock have launched waves of environmental, social and governance (‘ESG’) investment funds. Rather than invest in companies harming people and the planet, these funds are meant to invest in those supporting them.“Great news!” you might think. Well, so did the many of us that have been fighting this corner for decades. The problem, though, is that a lot of it is patent b*llocks. ‘Greenwashing’ is now becoming a big problem in the industry and one that is set to derail the incredible work true sustainable investors have been doing for more than twenty years.

Greenwashing is now threatening the credibility of the industry and, ultimately the future of our planet, which needs real, genuine sustainable investment to thrive so we and our environment survive. Fighting greenwashing is an urgent, urgent task.

Greenwashing fightback

This year, the New Money team is putting together a guide to greenwashing with the support of three pioneering investors. In it, we’re going to show you exactly what greenwashing is and how you can sniff out a phoney from a genuinely impactful investment. We’ve already uncovered some shocking statistics. Watch this space.

We won’t be alone, either. The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority is currently collecting feedback for its own greenwashing review, with the regulator set to call out some of the worst practices. It might even force UK companies to disclose their climate-related risks – going further than any government yet.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s sustainable investment taxonomy will be coming into force across the continent. Though it doesn’t sound too sexy, this is game changing. The first ever enforceable guidelines on what defines a sustainable investment, this should become a global benchmark that will put an end to phoney claims.

No time to waste

This is crucial work. As we know, we have just ten years left to curb carbon emissions enough to save life on our planet as we know it. Thus, 2020 must be the year that we see sustainable investment and development cement its place in global economic practice and policy.

This will only happen, though, if we can root out the poisonous BlackRock’s from the sustainable investment landscape. Or else, we’ll be facing a toxic environment that will kill off an industry we – and the bees – desperately, desperately need.


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About the author

About the author

Rebecca Jones

A financial journalist and communications consultant for nearly a decade, Rebecca has worked across national media, b2b, charities and for the UK’s most established sustainable investment team.