Green Funds in a Gray Area


retail investors
ESG Funds
Environmental, Social, and Governance
Securities Law
Securities Regulation
ESG rules
Fund Names
Exchange-Traded Funds
mutual funds
hedge funds
institutional investors
administrative law
Administrative rulemaking

How to Cite

Shapiro, C. (2023). Green Funds in a Gray Area: The ESG Fund Labeling Problem and How the SEC Can Fix It. Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 48(2), 63.


Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) funds face tremendous skepticism regarding their impact relative to investor perceptions. In fact, several figures, including media commentators and asset management leaders, have sounded the alarm on ESG investing. They believe investors, especially retail investors, are being misled by funds’ names and largely unhelpful disclosures, and that some fund managers are exaggerating their ESG practices in the name of attracting investors’ money. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has documented evidence of misleading statements regarding ESG investing processes and has brought enforcement actions against companies for making false claims in their disclosures. In an effort to address the lack of standardization and clarity in the ESG fund industry, the SEC proposed two rules in May 2022 that would change the naming and disclosure requirements for ESG funds.

To examine how ESG funds are naming themselves and disclosing key ESG information, this Note aggregates data collected from the twenty largest ESG mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Based on an analysis of this data—which simulates an investor’s experience attempting to identify which ESG funds best align with their objectives—this Note derives quantitative and qualitative takeaways. The main conclusion is that ESG fund names are often vague and misleading, and neither their names nor their accompanying disclosures describe the funds’ investment strategies in a manner retail investors can meaningfully understand and use to make fully informed investment decisions. This Note calls this phenomenon the “ESG fund labeling problem.”

In addition to analyzing the ESG fund labeling problem and its impact on retail investors, this Note considers whether the SEC’s two proposed rules from May 2022 will be successful in abating the ESG fund labeling problem. Ultimately, this Note concludes that the proposed rules fall short of meeting investors’ needs in key areas and proposes modifications the SEC can employ to further resolve the ESG fund labeling problem and reduce investor confusion.
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Copyright (c) 2023 Corey B. Shapiro