It’s not unusual to hear that a firm has been awarded a label for one of its products – including in the financial sector. What’s the point of certification? Is it actually worthwhile for a company? Can we rely on it? Denise Voss, Chairwoman of LuxFLAG, shines a light on these labels – including in Luxembourg.
Ms Voss, what labels are banks eligible for when it comes to green finance and the sustainability transformation?
Certification is traditionally aimed at products of all kinds – cosmetics being one example. It’s exactly the same situation in the financial sector. Only products offered by banks are certified – not those offered by asset managers.
A number of European regulations have added an SRE (Socially Responsible Enterprise) element to their content. The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID) governing the distribution of financial products requires banks, brokers and finance companies to ask their clients about their sustainability preferences – the aim being to offer them suitable products.
The new EU Ecolabel is being created for financial products, but we don’t yet know the criteria, or which body will be responsible for awarding it.
What is the appeal of these labels for these companies?
In the past, asset managers were primarily interested in financial criteria when it came to advising their clients. However, they now need to incorporate ESG criteria as well. That’s a challenge, because it requires data.
Labels can help financial players identify products that match the sustainability preferences of their clients and therefore ensure they comply with the rules. This also enables a number of challenges to be addressed in terms of climate but also social criteria. It’s a new way of investing for the growing number of managers. Some of them are already well advanced and incorporate ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria into their investment process. Although we do see best practice in operation, there’s still a lot more work to do.
In Europe, there are seven agencies that award certification for financial products – and investment funds in particular.
Who generally awards these labels?
In Europe, there are seven agencies that award certification for financial products – and investment funds in particular. These agencies generally grant ESG labels (for sustainability transformation) or green labels (with a positive impact). Each agency has its own labels, although there are a lot of similarities between them. The role of these agencies is to certify that the criteria for each label are properly understood by all. It’s possible that other companies will be able to award labels in future depending on their usefulness.
The LuxFLAG agency awards its own labels. What is their key feature?
LuxFLAG is an independent labelling agency that has existed since 2006. We certify 365 financial products – the lion’s share of them being investment funds, both Luxembourg-based (60%) and European. These funds, which are run by 125 managers, have combined assets under management equivalent to EUR 190 billion.
Unlike other agencies, we have six labels. Four of them are aimed directly at what we term positive impact and correspond to Article 9 of the SFDR: Microfinance, Climate Finance, Green Bond and Environment. These are appropriate for products enabling investment in impact companies.
We also have two labels that relate more to the sustainability transformation and correspond to Article 8 of the SFDR: ESG and Sustainable Insurance Product. We encourage companies to commit to this transformation approach.
How does the process of awarding a label work?
The request submission process is totally transparent. Certain specific documents on SRE and exclusion policies are required, for example. Once these documents have been received, the application is analysed and any necessary questions asked.
The process of awarding a label requires three months; however, it often takes a year for institutions to complete the paperwork.
We also receive the portfolio details for each fund and select specific securities for testing purposes. We ask asset managers to provide evidence and explanations of the reasons that prompted them to invest in these securities from an SRE standpoint. We also check the quality of the products and review the file before sending it to our eligibility committee, which is specific to each label and composed of experts. The ISAE 3000 (international standard) certifies our process and is a guarantee of quality. This process of awarding a label requires three months; however, it often takes a year for institutions to complete the paperwork.
It should be noted that our labels are valid for a year and can be renewed based on the same procedure.
What criteria are used for assessing quality?
Each label has its own criteria, which – although strict – are achievable for certain products. If we take the case of the Climate Finance label, the chosen fund must invest at least 75% of its portfolio in assets directly linked to mitigation and adaptation of climate change activities. Other criteria aim to guarantee that the fund and its manager are supervised in Europe, for example.
As far as the labels granted by LuxFLAG are concerned, all criteria are set out on our website for transparency purposes. The ESG label, meanwhile, requires analysis of the portfolio as a whole in order to verify compliance of each security in SRE terms. For this label, we have put in place an exclusions list that incorporates the likes of tobacco.
Do these criteria evolve, with a view to guaranteeing improvement in the labels?
Absolutely, the labels are evolving all the time. LuxFLAG’s ESG label, for example, has modified its criteria. At least three of the ESG strategies now need to be incorporated into the investment process. Numbering seven in total, these strategies require that the asset manager speaks to the companies with a view to improving their ESG approach, or sets up an exclusion policy, for example.
The labels are not a guarantee of a fund’s financial or ESG performance, but constitute a positive signal with regard to the efforts made to ensure a more sustainable financial product.
In conclusion, can investors rely on labels?
The labels are not a guarantee of a fund’s financial or ESG performance, but constitute a positive signal with regard to the efforts made to ensure a more sustainable financial product. Faced with two similar investment policies, it’s quite normal to be drawn towards the one that is certified. At the end of the day, the introduction of these labels is a service for investors.