The article below is from our BRIEFINGS newsletter of 12 March 2021
Just over a year into Goldman Sachs' 10-year plan to deploy $750 billion toward accelerating the climate transition and advancing inclusive growth, the firm has reached a fifth of its target. We sat down with John Goldstein, head of the firm’s Sustainable Finance Group, to discuss progress, client concerns and the impact of the pandemic on companies’ sustainability goals.
John, soon after the firm announced its sustainability goal in late 2019, the world went into lockdown. Can you describe how the pandemic affected companies’ sustainability objectives in 2020?
John Goldstein: Last year was undoubtedly a year of volatility and complexity, but the one constant was the growing interest and focus in sustainable finance and ESG as evidenced by the fact that in 2020 alone we reached a fifth of our $750 billion 10-year target. The pandemic served as a stress test for the industry—which it passed with flying colors. The strong performance of ESG investments during the first-quarter downturn was rewarded with greater focus and capital flows as the year progressed. In addition, the pandemic reminded people of how quickly the world can change and how important these emerging changes can be to portfolios. Factors that may not have always been incorporated in traditional financial models can have significant financial impacts. From our perspective, 2020 highlighted the importance of both elements of our sustainability approach which focuses on two interconnected themes: climate transition and inclusive growth.
Can you describe the firm’s approach to sustainability—how did you come to decide on these two themes?
John Goldstein: When we first announced our sustainability approach in 2019, people immediately understood the focus on climate transition, but were less certain about the focus on inclusive growth. Well, 2020 was a stark reminder that both pillars are essential. The pandemic gave us a health and employment crisis while highlighting the deeply visible manifestations of the ongoing racial inequalities, particularly in the U.S. You could say that the social component of ESG has climbed into the front seat with the environmental concerns.
So let’s talk about how the first year of allocating capital went. How did the firm approach making its targets a reality?
John Goldstein: A big part of achieving our goal during the first year stemmed from the fact that we were able to leverage the strengths across the organization. Soon after we announced our 10-year target, we created a new team, the Sustainable Finance Group, to coordinate our sustainability efforts across the firm. Shortly thereafter, we launched dedicated sustainability councils within all of our businesses, each led by a senior leader within the firm, to integrate sustainability solutions into our work with clients.
What's an example?
John Goldstein: One example I would highlight is the work that we did with our Global Markets Division where we incorporated ESG data into the division’s trading capabilities. That in turn helped clients achieve their ESG goals either broadly or in specific areas, such as lowering their carbon footprint in their portfolios. We essentially served as a product incubator within divisions to understand the market need for new strategies for their clients. The division, in turn, scaled the products and strategies more broadly.
What types of strategies resonated most with clients?
John Goldstein: Climate solutions were a key focus for clients across the firm. For example, we’ve worked with our colleagues in the Asset Management Division to provide growth financing to Swedish manufacturer Northvolt AB to support the construction of a lithium-ion battery factory that will expand the market for electric vehicles in Europe. For our public market investors, we’ve developed ESG strategies in our trading and asset management businesses and are accelerating global power solutions through our structuring services in the Global Markets Division. In the Investment Banking Division, we were part of the largest corporate sustainability bond for Alphabet; the largest IPO for a solar company, Shoals Technologies; and helped clients issue more than $35 billion in COVID-19 relief bonds. What we’ve learned is that there are multiple ways to help clients meet their decarbonization goals across the firm. In fact, making sustainability a core commercial focus for us has not only allowed us to scale ESG and inclusive growth strategies across the breadth and depth of our organization to meet our clients’ goals, but doing so has also enabled us to tie it into our own funding strategy as we recently did with the issuance of our $800 million green bond.
Finally, what do you see as the key ESG and sustainability priorities for companies this year?
John Goldstein: Investors and corporates are all looking at moving sustainability considerations from the periphery to the core of their organizations. That means that for investors, it’s not just about ESG products—it’s about all of their investing products. It’s not about their sustainability report—it’s about their annual report. For us, our focus will continue to remain on incubating and launching new product offerings within our divisions in partnership with our clients and—in particular—to accelerate our efforts to work as one firm to meet clients’ needs.