SDR: Three major impacts to look out for in 2024

Seb Beloe, partner and head of research at WHEB Asset Management, explains how SDR will change the sustainable investment market over the next year


Seb Beloe, partner and head of research, WHEB Asset Management

Almost a year after the second consultation period closed and two years since the original discussion paper, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has finally published its Sustainability Disclosure Requirements (SDR) and investment labels’ policy statement.

It had been rumoured that the FCA was toying with the idea of playing Santa Claus by launching the policy on Christmas Eve. In the end, however, and perhaps in anticipation of the COP28 negotiations in Dubai the policy ‘dropped’ on 28 November.

After skimming the 200-odd pages of the policy statement, the overwhelming reaction was one of relief. As avowed impact investors, the FCA’s original framing of the ‘Sustainability Impact’ label was deeply problematic. The final policy statement however has taken account of feedback on this and other contentious points. Most firms should look to adopt the Sustainability Impact label at the first opportunity for all their in-scope funds.

It is not an overstatement to say that the SDR will fundamentally change the sustainability investment market in the UK. But beyond the detail, the SDR will have three strategic impacts. These will affect not just the UK market but many other jurisdictions as they establish their own frameworks for regulating sustainability investments.

1. Maturing of the market

The most visible change that SDR will bring is a clear differentiation in the market. Over the decades that sustainability investing has developed, distinct approaches have emerged. The SDR formally recognises these different approaches by providing specific labels for the three main variants: ‘Sustainability Improvers’, ‘Sustainability Focus’ and ‘Sustainability Impact’. A fourth ‘Sustainability Mixed Goals’ has also been included in the final policy covering hybrid funds that offer a mix of the other three.

This differentiation will have a profound impact on the market. Conflating these distinct approaches under generic terms like ESG has for many years confused consumers and created space for greenwashing. The formal endorsement by the regulator of these distinct approaches now gives each a legitimate place in the market and will enable each to develop further in meeting specific client needs.

2. Additionality and causality out, intentionality in

The narrow concept of additionality as applied to the investors’ contribution in impact is deeply problematic and misses the systemic nature of markets.

The final policy statement has moved significantly in this direction. For example, while the importance of ‘new’ capital in impact investment is still recognised, critically the policy statement no longer makes it the defining feature of the Sustainability Impact label. Instead, the policy replaces ‘additionality’ as the defining characteristic with requirements to demonstrate investment ‘intentionality’ and provide a corresponding ‘theory of change’ along with measurable indicators of impact.

The requirement to demonstrate ‘causality’ between engagement activities and outcomes has also been removed. It is extremely rare – and probably not even desirable – that companies adapt policies and performance on issues at the behest of a single investor. Instead, the policy now requires detailed reporting on the intentionality of engagement alongside any associated outcomes.

3. Balancing principles and prescription

One of the key weaknesses of the European Union’s Sustainable Finance Disclosures Regulation (SFDR) is that it is overly prescriptive in mandating the reporting of specific KPIs. These are often irrelevant for the assets that are held and result in meaningless and sometimes even misleading reporting.

The FCA does a much better job of avoiding this debilitating level of prescription. The principles underpinning the SDR statement are directly linked to the FCA’s obligations to the consumer. Labelled products are required to meet ‘general criteria’ that include setting out the sustainability objective of the product and establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) that the fund needs to report against. Each label then has additional ‘specific criteria’ that products need to comply with such as reporting a theory of change for Sustainability Impact products.

Critically though, and in stark contrast to the SFDR, the detail of the strategy, and the KPIs that are selected, are left to the fund manager to define. This avoids the top-down prescription that has been so painful for the industry and so unhelpful to consumers.

The future of sustainability investment regulation

The SDR is not finished, and it is also not perfect. Discretionary wealth managers still must wait until 2024 to receive proposals governing their activities. It was disappointing to see a 70% threshold applied as the qualifying hurdle for each of the three original labels. There has been calls publicly for asset managers to disclose all their holdings and there is hope that the FCA might make this a requirement as the regulation evolves.

Nonetheless, the policy statement and the principles on which it is based as a hugely positive step forward. This is the first major piece of FCA regulation on sustainability investment and will help underpin trust and support authenticity in sustainability fund management.

Several other regulators, including the EU and the US, are reviewing their own approaches to the regulation of sustainability investing. Hopefully, they take note of the approach used by the UK and replicate it in their own policy making.

It has taken a long time to get here. It has been worth the wait.

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