Published 2019-03-12

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Investors want to learn more about plastic

Plastic has suddenly become a highly controversial topic. Now, asset managers too want to know more about both the material and possible alternatives. Mistra therefore recently arranged a meeting between fund managers and researchers working in Mistra’s Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways (STEPS) programme. The investors did not get the simple answers they had hoped for; rather, the meeting gave them more insight into the complexity of the area.

One of Mistra’s missions is to disseminate research results — not only to decision-makers and the interested public but also to other groups with an interest in knowing about today’s cutting-edge environmental research.

Mistra has also encouraged asset managers to familiarise themselves with the research funded by the Foundation.

‘Fund managers at Öhman Fonder were interested in our research programme on the plastic of the future, and got in touch. It’s great that they took the initiative,’ says Åsa Moberg, Programmes Director at Mistra.

The next step was to hold a meeting where investors from the Öhman and Lannebo fund management companies, who have also shown interest in Mistra’s research, had the opportunity to learn more about plastic from researchers in Mistra’s STEPS programme. The same researchers then also held a webinar on the same theme with investors connected with the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), an international network of investors who work for greater financial sustainability.

‘The fund managers wanted answers to numerous questions, both general and more detailed. They were almost asking which solutions or companies are worth investing in. We were able and willing to answer the more general questions, but we refrained from giving specific advice,’ says Lars J Nilsson, Professor at Lund University’s Department of Environmental and Energy Systems Studies..

During the meeting, the investors were given a dose of basic facts about plastic. They learnt about current political developments and a little about EU strategy documents on the subject.

Ellinor Hult, a fund manager at Öhman, says she appreciated the chance to meet the STEPS researchers.

‘We have two global equity funds with sustainability profiles. To decide which companies to invest in, we use both a negative process of rejecting investments we regard as dubious and a positive one of selecting companies that may be interesting. For this work, basic knowledge of this kind is vital.’

Maria Nordqvist of Lannebo Fonder, who also attended the meeting, emphasised the value of investors being knowledgeable.

‘Unfortunately, we can’t be experts in every area. So I appreciated the chance to come and meet people who have a real grasp of an area that affects most companies in some way. Our normal procedure is to try to get a grasp of various environmental challenges through what we can read in the media and, in some cases, by reading research reports. That’s both time-consuming and difficult, so by meeting researchers like this we can get the knowledge we need in a more interactive way.’

Nonetheless, on one level, the meeting was somewhat disappointing for the investors. They received no simple answers on the rights and wrongs of plastic — rather, valuable insight that what is good and bad is not always self-evident.

‘Maybe we did more to confuse them than to clarify the issue. Or rather, we gave them a true picture of how complex the issue of plastic is. But I hope they learnt some useful lessons, anyway’ Nilsson says.

Hult found the meeting helpful. In particular, she both gained knowledge and was assisted in formulating a checklist of questions she can take with her and ask companies when she meets them, to gauge their awareness of the risks associated with plastic.

Nordqvist agrees with her.

‘It gave me a broader notion of what plastic is and the challenges involved. That doesn’t mean I know everything, but it helps me to pose more sophisticated questions to the companies I’m in touch with.’

One of the key insights Nordqvist took away from the meeting was that there is no single simple solution when it comes to plastic.

‘I suppose I used to believe that the problems would be solved if we just got bioplastics. Now I realise it’s not that simple.’

‘Although we didn’t get the easy answers we’d hoped for, I think this was a good test of how collaboration between fund management companies and researchers might work,’ Hult says.

Nilsson thinks the meeting was also fruitful for the five researchers from STEPS who were on the spot.

‘We often struggle with the question of investors’ role in the adjustment process. Are they just followers or do they shape the future with their chosen investments? Personally, I believe the people who decide where to invest the fund assets have a lot of power.’

Nordqvist thinks he is partly right, although she is reluctant to utter the word ‘power’.

‘As a major shareholder in several companies, we can influence the direction they take, of course.’

Nilsson sees no problem of investors and researchers getting too close to each other.

‘It’s all good that they try to keep themselves informed, and it’s our job to spread our results to everyone who’s interested.’

An interview with Gemma James, Senior Manager for Environmental Issues at the PRI, who is committed to the issue of plastic, may be found in a separate article.

Text: Per Westergård