There's a common perception among investors that putting money into companies that promote sustainability on issues like climate change or corporate governance is "the right thing to do."
New research from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests these investments can also pay off.
In a chapter published Thursday as part of the IMF's October 2019 Global Financial Stability Report, researchers found the performance of "sustainable" funds is comparable to that of conventional equity funds.
"We don't find conclusive evidence that sustainable investors underperform or outperform regular investors for similar types of investments," Evan Papageorgiou, an author of the research, and deputy division chief in the Monetary and Capital Markets Department of the IMF, told CNBC Wednesday.
The research suggests investors don't necessarily need to sacrifice returns when they make investments in portfolios that prioritize environmental, social and governance (ESG) values. ESG investing takes into account factors like companies' carbon footprints, employee diversity or accounting practices, to name a few.
The IMF estimates there are now more than 1,500 equity funds with an "explicit sustainability mandate." These funds control nearly $600 billion in assets, up from roughly $200 billion in 2010. Overall, ESG-listed funds still have some way to go before becoming mainstream, representing less than 2% of the total investment fund universe.
"Awareness about sustainable investing has soared in recent years, and so have the options offered to investors," Papageorgiou said, pointing to products like "green bonds."
The IMF research also detailed a shift in "responsible investment strategies." In 2012, for example, investors made sustainable investments mainly by excluding companies or sectors, like tobacco or gaming, from their portfolios. Now, investors are increasingly putting money into companies with good track records on environmental, social or governance issues.
"There have been some instances of sustainable funds sacrificing performance in the early days, partly because of exclusion from investments of profitable sectors such as oil and gas or tobacco," Papageorgiou said. "Sustainable investing has now evolved to include more careful screening based on the need for impact, addressing some of the sacrifice in performance along with it."
One hurdle to making sustainable active management funds more widespread is anecdotal evidence that their fees are often higher than those of other active funds, the IMF research said. Another barrier is the lack of a consistent definition of "sustainable" principles. The report urged policymakers to play a role setting these standards.
"Corporate reporting is largely voluntary and inconsistent, and particularly sparse with respect to environmental and social dimensions, even though ESG disclosure has been improving over time," the research said.