Over the last decade, growing numbers of investors have become increasingly concerned with the environmental and social impact of their investments across asset classes. This trend has recently been driven by new waves of "impact investors" proactively seeking measurable social and environmental impact in addition to financial returns, and by "responsible investors" making commitments to engage on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues through initiatives such as the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). At the same time, engaged shareholders have had long-standing experience using "the power of the proxy" and their voices as investors to hold companies accountable for the impacts they have on employees, stakeholders, communities, and ecosystems.
While investor interest in shareholder engagement has grown, our understanding of the impacts associated with engagement activities remains largely anecdotal.
In 2012, an important study on Total Portfolio Activation provided a new conceptual and analytical framework for investors to pursue environmental and social impact across all asset classes commonly found in a diversified investment portfolio. Building upon the insights of Total Portfolio Activation, the Impact of Equity Engagement (IE2) initiative seeks to deepen our understanding of the nature of impact in one specific asset class—public equities— where investors' engagement activities have generated meaningful social and environmental impacts.
Given the large social and environmental footprints of publicly traded corporations and the persistently high allocation to public equities in most investor portfolios, public equity investing presents a major opportunity for impact investing. Yet impact investing, as currently practiced, has concentrated primarily on smallscale direct investments in private equity and debt, where many investors perceive that social and environmental impact can be more readily observed than in publicly traded companies where ownership is intermediated, diluted, and diffused through secondary capital markets.
Indeed, the nature of impact within public equity investing remains poorly understood and insufficiently documented. Because of this, many investors may be overlooking readily available opportunities for generating impact within their existing investment portfolios.
To address these misperceptions and missed opportunities, the IE2 initiative is developing a more rigorous framework for documenting the impact of engagement within the public equity asset class.