Well-meaning investors heeding the rising call to buy “sustainable” stocks might not think of emerging markets first. Images of developing-world industry still tilt toward raw materials and belching factories paying starvation wages—not companies that will rack up high environmental, social, and governance scores. “A lot of people interested in ESG have steered away from emerging markets,” says Young Kim, a senior portfolio manager at Columbia Threadneedle Investments.
Maybe they should think again. The smokestack picture is outdated. Only one of the top 10 holdings in the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets exchange-traded fund (ticker: VWO) deals in heavy industry. The surging names are Chinese internet dynamos like Alibaba (BABA), global tech blue chips like Taiwan Semiconductor (2330.Taiwan), and financial innovators like Ping An Insurance Group (2318.Hong Kong) or India’s Housing Development Finance (500010.India).
The stereotype will get more outdated as the world shifts toward sustainability. Many of the leading companies in solar energy, electric-vehicle components, or water filtration hail from China or South Korea. “We see more opportunities in emerging markets proportionally,” says Kate Starr, chief investment officer at sustainability consultant Flat World Partners.
The idea that ESG is a luxury for the rich world is another misconception, says Mark Haefele, chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth Management. Leaders and electorate alike in Beijing, New Delhi, and Jakarta, Indonesia, have daily experience of environmental degradation—through air pollution, undrinkable water, sinking streets—that their counterparts in Washington, D.C., and Berlin are so far privileged to avoid. That’s pushing sustainability policy, particularly in China. “There are more electric buses in one city in China than in the whole U.S.,” Haefele observes. A greater sense of urgency also is fomenting among financial elites. “Clients in Asia are much more likely to believe that sustainable investing will be the norm in 10 years,” he adds.