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This article appears in the May 2020 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Although environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors have made headlines for several years for their material effect on investment performance, nearly two in five financial advisors at Canada’s brokerage firms do not bring up ESG with clients.

Investment Executive’s 2020 Brokerage Report Card asked advisors if they prompted conversations about ESG and responsible investing. In response, 60.2% said they did — leaving 39.8% of advisors not broaching the subject with their clients.

Many of those who don’t said it was because they prefer clients initiate those kinds of conversations or that investors weren’t interested. Some advisors in Alberta mentioned that they assume their clients would find screening out oil and gas stocks disagreeable. For example, an advisor with Montreal-based National Bank Financial Inc. (NBF) in Alberta says that while “of course we talk to clients about different avenues,” the conversation is “never specifically about the environment.”

Several advisors simply expressed interest in learning more about ESG, saying that they expected it to become more relevant in the next three to five years.

Beyond attitudinal or cultural sticking points, there were practical hurdles.

Some advisors said the right products weren’t available. An advisor in Ontario with Mississauga, Ont.-based Edward Jones says IE’s question about responsible investing was a “tough one, because we don’t really have access to environmentally conscious products.” Even so, advisors at Edward Jones seemed happy with their product shelf on the whole, giving the firm a performance rating of 9.4 for “quality of firm’s product offering,” up from 9.1 last year.

Scott Sullivan, principal, Canadian products, at Edward Jones, says there are funds offered with the “ESG or [responsible investing (RI)] stamp of approval.” However, “Our approach to responsible investing is evolving [alongside] our clients’ preferences,” he says, noting the firm is selective about product. Sullivan adds that ESG factors are mainly part of equity analyst research and educational initiatives for advisors at the firm.

At Toronto-based CIBC Wood Gundy, whose product offering rating went up to 8.9 from 8.3 a year ago, advisors were generally positive about the ESG offerings available to clients, with some saying they’d been discussing ESG products for years.

“Effective research, analysis and evaluation of ESG issues play a fundamental role when assessing the value and performance of an investment over the medium and longer term,” says Ed Dodig, managing director and head, CIBC Private Wealth Management and Wood Gundy. “CIBC has implemented a rigorous procedure to integrate ESG factors into our fundamental analysis and investment process.”

At Quebec City-based Industrial Alliance Securities Inc. (iA Securities), whose IA Clarington Inhance SRI suite went fossil fuel-free last year, advisors rated the product offering 8.3, up from 8.2. Advisors at the firm were split on the importance of ESG, with one advisor in B.C. noting a “big push from clients” while others said investors don’t seem interested.

The firm has a subadvisory partnership with Vancouver-based Vancity Investment Management Ltd., which iA Securities calls a “pioneer in the [RI] space.” As of late March, iA Securities said it had more than $1 billion in assets with Vancity, and that it particularly liked the subadvisor’s proprietary ESG analysis and expertise in green bonds.

There also were legitimate concerns that “responsible investing” is not clearly defined: “I always ask [clients] what they mean by that and everyone has a different definition,” says an advisor in Ontario with Toronto-based Raymond James Ltd. Raymond James advisors gave the firm a rating of 8.5 in the product offering category.

Similarly, several advisors from other firms were concerned about greenwashing. They were suspicious that ESG or responsible investments could be overly hyped for marketing purposes.

“Some of the ESG stuff that we’re seeing out there has felt a little bit more gimmicky than legitimate,” says Andrew Marsh, president and CEO of Toronto-based Richardson Wealth. “But there’s an authentic discussion [around ESG and RI] that will be developing and building momentum over the coming years. We’ll be putting training, education and coaching into our advisors to be able to not only have that conversation with their clients, but also to get their own minds wrapped around how they would work it into their client portfolios.”

According to the Responsible Investment Association, assets in retail mutual funds designated or labelled as “responsible” increased in Canada by 34% between 2016 and 2018, and assets in RI-dedicated ETFs more than doubled.

“The growth of assets in these products reflects the rising demand for RI among individual investors within a growing product landscape,” the RIA wrote in its 2018 Canadian Responsible Investment Trends Report. This rising demand was echoed in a similar report by the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance.

“There are some advisors that are ‘gung ho’ on it,” says Steve Galimi, senior vice president of branch administration at NBF, of the evolving landscape. “They really want to help us be the leaders there. [In the second group], there are lots of advisors who understand [the importance of ESG]. They agree with it, but they’ll kind of follow the course.”

Galimi adds that advisors who used to dismiss ESG as just a trend “are now more in [that] second group than saying it’s going to go away,” since the bank has encouraged “a lot of education and awareness.”