What is greenwashing?

The range of ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ investment products is proliferating as investment managers respond to investor demand for action on climate change and more ethical and responsible investment options. But investors need to be on their guard against ‘greenwashing’.

What is greenwashing?

According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), greenwashing is the practice of misrepresenting the extent to which a financial product or investment strategy is environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical1.

There is growing unease globally about the risks of greenwashing, which is due partly to the quick growth of this asset class, and partly to a lack of global or domestic regulatory standards or agreed classification on what an ethical or sustainable investment is, and how ethical and responsible investment products should be labelled.2 Until laws are introduced in Australia, investors need to be alert to ‘greenwashing’ and conduct their own research.

Ethical and responsible investment can be broken down into several categories:

  • Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) integration
  • Ethical investing
  • Impact investing
  • Sustainability-themed investing
  • Best-in-class approaches
  • Activist investing

Engagement is sometimes referred to as a style of ethical and responsible investment. But stewardship activities such as proactively engaging with companies and voting at company meetings can and should be applied over all types of investment to improve long term financial outcomes and ESG performance.

Greenwashing Examples

ESG integration involves including consideration of ESG issues in investment decision making. Often those considerations are subjective, and it can be difficult for investors to gain comfort that the manager does what they say they do. In Germany, for example, Deutsche Bank-owned manager DWS is facing legal action for allegedly misrepresenting the extent of ESG integration.

Best-in-class investing typically means picking the companies within a sector that rank highest on one or more ESG factors. Factors may be based on completely objective data or have some degree of subjectivity. A typical approach would be to rank companies on their ESG ratings as scored by a third-party research firm. An issue with best-in-class investing is it can sometimes mean ‘least bad’ and may not be consistent with the investor’s values or objectives. A product may have exposure to best-in-class fossil fuel companies when the investor’s expectation, based on labelling and marketing material, is it should have no exposure at all.

Betashares offers products which fall into the categories of ethical investing, impact investing and sustainability-themed investing.

Ethical investing typically involves the application of negative screens to exclude investment in companies whose activities have detrimental impacts on people, society, or the environment, or whose behaviour has been inconsistent with accepted norms. Positive screens may also be used to invest in companies that may, for example, meet ESG criteria such as a low carbon footprint. The term ethical investing is sometimes used interchangeably with the term ‘socially responsible investing’ (SRI).

Impact investing aims to provide financing that makes a positive impact on our society or the environment. It may include investments that aim to reduce poverty or inequality, improve agriculture, or provide better access to affordable housing.

Sustainability-themed investing typically involves investing in products or services that aim to improve environmental sustainability. These investments often have a focus on climate change, but may include broader environmental or sustainability issues as well. Some examples include solar and wind energy, battery technology and electric vehicles, or sustainable food production and agriculture.

Asking the right questions

The investments in some ethical and responsible investment products may not align with an investor’s expectations or values. Investments labelled ‘sustainable’ may have material exposure to fossil fuels for example and others labelled ‘socially responsible’ may have exposure to bonds issued by governments that contravene human rights. It is therefore important for investors to carefully assess the suitability of any product they’re considering investing in.

A good starting point is to the ask the following 5 questions:

  • Do I understand how securities are chosen for this portfolio?
  • Is the methodology consistent with my objectives?
  • What companies does the portfolio invest in and what do those companies do?
  • Is the investment product certified as sustainable or ethical by an independent organisation?
  • Do any metrics back the claims being made about the greenness or sustainability of a product?

Betashares options for investors

Betashares’ range of ethical and responsible investment ETFs has combined AUM of over AUD $3.4B3 and provides Australian investors with access to passively-managed, diversified portfolios of shares or bonds. Importantly for investors and their advisers, the methodology and rules-based process used to select and weight securities for each ETF is transparent, and Betashares publishes portfolio holdings on a daily basis.

Betashares’ range of ethical investment ETFs (FAIR, ETHI, HETH, GBND, DBBF, DGGF, and DZZF) and the Betashares Climate Innovation (impact) ETF (ERTH) have been certified by the Responsible Investment Association Australasia (RIAA) as ‘Certified Responsible Investments’ according to strict operational and disclosure practices required under the RIAA’s certification program4.

Betashares has been identified by the RIAA as a ‘Responsible Investment Leader’ according to criteria set out in its 2022 Responsible Investment Benchmark Report5.

Ratings are only one factor to be taken into account when deciding whether to invest in a financial product. You should make your own assessment of the suitability of this information.

There are risks associated with investments in the Betashares Ethical and Responsible ETFs, including market risk, index tracking risk and non-traditional index methodology risk. Investment value can go up and down and returns are not guaranteed. An investment in the Fund should only be made after considering your particular circumstances, including your tolerance for risk. An investment in FAIR, ETHI, HETH, GBND, ERTH, DRIV, TANN, IEAT and XMET should only be considered as a component of a broader portfolio. For more information on risks and other features of the Betashares Fund, please see the relevant Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determination, available www.betashares.com.au.


1. See Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC), Information Sheet 271 (INFO 271), issued June 2022.
2. The International Organisation of Securities Commissions, which has established a Sustainable Finance Task Force that covers greenwashing and other investor protection concerns. ASIC is participating in this task force.
3. As at 20 June 2022
4. The Responsible Investment Certification Program does not constitute financial product advice. Neither the Certification Symbol nor RIAA recommends to any person that any financial product is a suitable investment or that returns are guaranteed. Appropriate professional advice should be sought prior to making an investment decision. RIAA does not hold an Australian Financial Services Licence. www.responsibleinvestment.org
Betashares Capital Limited (ABN 78 139 566 868, AFSL 341181) (“Betashares”) is the issuer of the Betashares Funds. Any person wishing to invest should obtain a copy of the relevant Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determination (TMD) for the relevant Betashares Fund from www.betashares.com.au and consider with their financial adviser whether the product is appropriate for their circumstances.
5. http://responsibleinvestment.org/resources/benchmark-report/ Ratings are only one factor to be taken into account when deciding whether to invest in a financial product. You should make your own assessment of the suitability of this information.

Photo of Greg Liddell

Written by

Greg Liddell

Director - Responsible Investments

Ex Suncorp, Russell Investments, QIC and Mercer. Past Director of the Investment Management Consultants Institute (IMCA) and Management Committee of the Investor Group on Climate Change (IGCC)

Read more from Greg.


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