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While there are many similarities between ESG Investing and Impact Investing, there are important and meaningful differences.  These differences tend to be more pronounced for Investors looking to invest as opposed to companies hoping to attract ESG and Impact Investment.

This Thoughtpiece is written from the perspective of an Investor but can be useful for companies seeking to raise capital from ESG and Impact Investors.  A cross-cutting issue is the importance of optimizing value across social, environmental and business dimensions.  

VALUE CREATION IS KEY.  Impact Investors and ESG Investors are investing for multi-dimensional value creation that integrates and aligns social, environmental and business dimensions.

ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing is an approach that incorporates non-financial factors into investment decisions, with the aim of aligning investments with broader ethical, environmental, social principles. It evaluates companies and assets based on their performance and practices related to environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and corporate governance, as well as corporate financial performance.

ESG investors seek to support businesses that demonstrate strong ethical and sustainable practices while mitigating risks associated with issues like climate change, labor practices, diversity, and corporate transparency.

ESG investing is driven by the belief that companies that excel in these areas are more likely to generate long-term value and are better positioned to thrive in an evolving global economy with heightened awareness of social and environmental challenges.


ESG Integration: This is the most common approach, where ESG factors are integrated into the investment analysis and decision-making process. Investors assess the impact of ESG criteria on financial performance and risk, and this information guides their investment choices.

Negative Screening: In this approach, investors exclude companies or industries that do not meet specific ESG criteria or engage in controversial activities. For example, investors may avoid companies involved in tobacco, firearms, or fossil fuels.

Positive Screening: Positive screening involves actively selecting companies that excel in ESG performance or are leaders in sustainable practices. Investors seek out businesses with strong ESG credentials and invest in them.

Thematic Investing: Thematic ESG investing focuses on specific ESG themes or sustainability goals. Investors allocate capital to sectors or companies contributing to environmental solutions (e.g., renewable energy), social impact (e.g., education), or other targeted objectives.


Risk Mitigation: ESG factors can help identify and mitigate investment risks related to environmental disasters, regulatory changes, social controversies, and governance failures, potentially enhancing long-term financial performance.

Long-Term Value: Companies with strong ESG practices are often better positioned to thrive in a changing world, attracting responsible investors and stakeholders who prioritize sustainability, thereby potentially increasing shareholder value over time.

Alignment with Values: ESG investing allows investors to align their portfolios with their personal or institutional values and ethical principles, fostering a sense of purpose and social responsibility.

Improved Corporate Practices: ESG investing encourages companies to adopt more responsible practices, leading to positive changes in areas such as environmental sustainability, workplace conditions, diversity, and corporate transparency.

Access to Sustainable Growth: Investors can tap into the potential of emerging sustainable industries and technologies, benefiting from the growth of sectors like renewable energy, electric vehicles, and green technology.


There are specific pitfalls to ESG Investing that Investors must take into account in their strategies

Lack of Standardization: ESG ratings and criteria lack standardization, leading to variations in assessments and potential confusion for investors trying to compare different ESG investment options.

✘ Greenwashing/Socialwashing: Some companies may exaggerate or misrepresent their ESG efforts to attract ESG-focused investors, leading to the risk of investing in businesses that do not genuinely prioritize sustainability.

Potential Trade-Offs: Pursuing strong ESG criteria may result in trade-offs between financial returns and impact goals, as not all high-impact investments are equally profitable.

Complexity: ESG analysis can be complex and data-intensive, requiring specialized expertise and resources for thorough evaluation and integration into investment strategies.

Short-Term Focus: ESG investing can sometimes lead to a short-term focus on ESG metrics, potentially overshadowing long-term sustainability goals.


Impact investing is an investment strategy that seeks to generate both financial returns and positive, measurable social or environmental impact. Unlike traditional investing, impact investors are driven by a dual purpose: to achieve financial gains while intentionally directing their capital toward initiatives and projects that address pressing global challenges, such as poverty, climate change, or healthcare access.

Impact investments span various sectors, including sustainable agriculture, clean energy, affordable housing, and education, with the explicit goal of creating meaningful change in these areas. Measurement and transparency are key; impact investors rigorously track and assess the social and environmental outcomes of their investments, ensuring accountability and contributing to a vision of capitalism where profit and purpose coexist for the benefit of society and the planet.


Thematic Impact Investing: This approach focuses on specific thematic areas such as renewable energy, clean technology, or healthcare access. Investors target investments that align with their chosen impact theme, contributing to positive change in those areas.

Geographic Impact Investing: Geographic impact investing concentrates on particular regions or communities facing specific social or environmental challenges. Investors direct capital to projects and businesses within these areas to address local needs.

Impact Bonds: Impact bonds, also known as social or development impact bonds, are structured to tie financial returns to the achievement of predetermined social or environmental outcomes. Investors provide funding for initiatives, and returns are based on the success of these programs.

Social Enterprises: Impact investors support socially conscious businesses or social enterprises that have a dual mission of generating profit and addressing social or environmental issues. These enterprises often reinvest profits into their impact goals.

Microfinance and Financial Inclusion: This type of impact investing focuses on providing financial services to underserved populations and small businesses, promoting economic empowerment and financial inclusion.


Positive Social and Environmental Impact: Impact investing allows investors to actively contribute to addressing pressing global challenges such as poverty, climate change, and social inequality, making a meaningful difference in the world.

Alignment with Values: Impact investors can align their investments with their personal or institutional values and missions, creating a strong sense of purpose and social responsibility.

Potential for Competitive Returns: Impact investments can generate financial returns that are competitive with traditional investments, dispelling the myth that investors must sacrifice profit for impact.

Innovation and Problem Solving: Impact investing encourages innovation and creative solutions to societal and environmental problems, fostering progress and positive change.

Measurable Outcomes: Impact investors emphasize measurement and transparency, ensuring that the social or environmental impact of their investments is quantifiable and accountable


✘ Risk-Return Trade-Offs: Impact investments may carry different risk-return profiles compared to traditional investments, potentially leading to lower financial returns for some investors.

✘ Complexity and Due Diligence: Assessing the impact and effectiveness of investments can be complex and resource-intensive, requiring specialized expertise and research. ✘ Lack of Standardization: The lack of standardized impact measurement metrics and reporting frameworks can make it challenging to compare and evaluate the impact of different investments.

✘ Illiquidity: Many impact investments are illiquid, meaning that they cannot be easily bought or sold, potentially limiting liquidity and flexibility for investors.

✘ Impact-Washing: Similar to greenwashing, there is a risk of “impact-washing,” where investments are marketed as having a greater positive impact than they actually deliver, highlighting the need for rigorous due diligence.


ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing and impact investing share a fundamental commitment to responsible and sustainable investment practices, recognizing the importance of considering non-financial factors. They both incorporate environmental, social, and governance criteria into investment decisions, aligning portfolios with ethical values and promoting corporate responsibility.

However, their key distinction lies in their primary objectives and outcomes. ESG investing primarily seeks to integrate ESG factors to manage risks and potentially enhance financial returns while promoting responsible corporate behavior. In contrast, impact investing places a stronger emphasis on intentionally generating specific, measurable, and positive social or environmental impacts alongside financial returns, with the ultimate goal of addressing pressing global challenges and fostering meaningful change.

Both approaches contribute to the growing landscape of responsible finance, offering investors a range of options to align their investments with their values and impact preferences.


1) Goals

Impact Investing: The primary goal of impact investing is to intentionally generate measurable, positive social or environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Impact investors actively seek investments that contribute to specific, targeted outcomes, such as poverty reduction or clean energy adoption, with the intention of making a meaningful difference in these areas.

ESG Investing: The primary goal of ESG investing is to integrate environmental, social, and governance criteria into the investment process to potentially reduce risks and enhance financial performance. While ESG investors may support responsible practices, their primary focus is on aligning investments with ESG principles rather than creating specific, measurable impact outcomes.

2) Screening

Impact Investing: Impact investing does not typically involve extensive negative or positive screening processes. Instead, it emphasizes intentional selection of investments that align with impact goals and measurement of actual outcomes.

ESG Investing: ESG investing often involves negative and positive screening. Investors may exclude companies or industries that do not meet specific ESG criteria (negative screening) or actively seek out businesses that excel in ESG performance (positive screening).

3) Risk

Impact Investing: Impact investors are willing to accept some level of risk associated with achieving specific social or environmental impacts. This can result in risk-return trade-offs, as not all high-impact investments are equally profitable.

ESG Investing: ESG investors primarily view ESG factors as a means to mitigate risks and enhance long-term financial performance. ESG integration is often seen as a risk management strategy.

4) Return

Impact Investing: Impact investments aim to generate both financial returns and positive impact. While competitive financial returns are still a goal, some impact investments may offer returns that are slightly lower than purely profit-driven investments to achieve their impact objectives.

ESG Investing: ESG investments are generally expected to offer financial returns comparable to conventional investments, and they often seek to enhance returns by considering ESG factors. The emphasis is on financial performance, with any impact outcomes seen as secondary.


ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing and impact investing are two distinct approaches to responsible and sustainable investing.

ESG investing integrates non-financial factors into investment decisions primarily for risk management and financial performance enhancement, aligning with ESG principles but not necessarily focused on creating specific impacts.

In contrast, impact investing is centered on intentionally generating measurable, positive social or environmental impacts alongside financial returns, with a strong emphasis on achieving targeted outcomes. While both approaches consider non-financial factors, they differ in goals, screening processes, risk acceptance, and return expectations, catering to different investor preferences and objectives within the realm of responsible finance.

ESG, Sustainability & CSR should be as much a business value driver as it is a social and environmental value driver. If it gets out of balance it creates risk and makes the CSR and indeed, even the business itself, potentially less sustainable.

Business is about creating value. CSR is also about creating value; value for society, for

environment and for shareholders.

Thanks for reading

Wayne Dunn

Founder and President


Prof. Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global sustainability expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and advisory service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.