Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Going for Great Returns and the Greater Good: The Motley Fool's ESG Investing Framework

By Alyce Lomax and John Rotonti – Updated Apr 9, 2019 at 6:00PM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Is your investment strategy to buy ethical companies that will also deliver strong returns? Our ESG Compounder Checklist aims to provide both.

"An ESG focus has become essential for long-term compounding."
-- The Morgan Stanley International Equity Team

Do you wish you could enjoy robust stock returns, while also investing in companies that are making the world a kinder, healthier, safer, more stable, more sustainable, and overall better place? Don't believe the naysayers who create a false dichotomy by saying you must pick just one of these outcomes. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing is a great tool to help you achieve both financial returns and socially responsible results, while mitigating the ever-evolving risks in the market.

You may be thinking: "That sounds great, but how do I even do this ESG thing?" That's where The Motley Fool's ESG Compounder Checklist comes in.

Shoots of trees growing from piles of coins, in front of a rising 3D bar chart

Image source: Getty Images.

The ESG Compounder Checklist is The Motley Fool's investing framework for scoring companies based on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) profile, as well as on their financial characteristics. It consists of 10 questions that can serve as a blueprint for starting to invest in winning ESG companies. A compounder is a business with a growing intrinsic value and a long runway of profitable growth ahead. Some of the best compounders generate high returns on capital, and have many opportunities to invest new capital at high returns to drive growth in free cash flow (FCF).

The thesis of this investment strategy is that ESG investing can produce returns that are competitive and even superior to conventional investing, a notion backed up by many studies. Deutsche Bank looked at 56 academic studies and found that companies with high ESG ratings have lower costs of debt and equity; 89% of the studies the bank reviewed show that companies ranked high on ESG outperform the market in both the medium term (three to five years) and long term (five to ten years).

We think that with a basket of stocks that score high on this 10-item checklist (fulfilling seven or more requirements), and that are bought at fair prices, you should outperform the market over the long term. On the surface, this is a simple 10-question framework, but each question contains multiple sub-questions (and even other frameworks embedded within); these make the checklist a robust investing tool.

The first five questions address ESG, while the second five focus on financial issues that are part of the due diligence required in a rigorous research process. The first five questions ultimately help us determine whether a company is leaving a positive impact on the world. The second five help us determine whether it's a high-quality growing business that can keep compounding value for a long time.

Looking at ESG alone is not enough to tell whether a company will outperform its peers or the market, which is why answering the second five questions is integral to this strategy. ESG pioneer and legendary stock picker Jerome Dodson told us: "It's important to always consider both a company's financial prospects and its ESG track record." Furthermore, ESG and financial performance are very closely linked. Plenty of supporting evidence demonstrates that companies prioritizing ESG issues will generate superior long-term financial performance across a range of metrics; these include sales growth, return on equity (ROE), return on invested capital (ROIC), and even alpha (market outperformance).

The ESG Compounder Checklist reinforces this notion that ESG is just plain good: It leads to social and environmental good. It results in good business. It offers good (if not great) returns. And it feels good, too.

The ESG Compounder Checklist

Before diving in, let's address a few housekeeping notes. Our proprietary ESG framework includes many criteria that drive our decisions behind the scenes, but we've boiled it down to five salient areas of ESG. To be eligible for ESG status, companies must manifest at least three of the five ESG attributes. Any major red flags within the ESG questions might disqualify a company.

To find robust ESG disclosures from companies, we look for a detailed sustainability report that uses a respected reporting standard, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Thorough sustainability reporting goes a long way in helping us determine whether the companies we're putting through the wringer have the right ESG traits.

There are also preliminary exclusionary screens, meaning we will not rate or recommend companies within certain industries for the ESG Compounder Checklist; these include tobacco, alcohol, firearms, defense, gambling and casinos, and fossil-fuels companies.

And with that, on to our framework. If you're following along by applying this framework to a company you're researching yourself, answer yes or no to the following 10 questions. Count the times you answer "yes" to determine the ESG grade of your company; a sum of 7 or higher counts as a passing grade. We'll be publishing some companies we've analyzed using this framework, so start checking our ESG page regularly.

1. Does the company treat its employees well?

This section relates to cultural aspects of the companies being examined, including the chief concern: how employees are treated. We also consider worker safety; fair pay and benefits; opportunities for development, training, and advancement; and other aspects that impact the company's workers.

Employees are the lifeblood of a company. Happy, healthy, and valued employees are more willing and able to do higher-quality work, be enthusiastic brand evangelists, unleash their creativity to invent better services and solutions, and innovate to improve the company. Employees should be viewed as valuable assets to invest in continually, not expendable "resources" or drags on the bottom line. (The "bottom line" is net profit -- a company's income after all expenses have been deducted from revenue.)

Companies that excel at engaging their employees actually achieve per-share earnings growth more than four times that of their rivals, according to Gallup. Compared to companies in the bottom quartile, the top-quartile companies (based on employee engagement) generate higher customer engagement, higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents, and 21% higher profitability.

Even though Wall Street tends to cheer when companies lay off workers, high employee turnover is actually an expense to be avoided. Not only is it a financial cost -- think about severance packages, and the costs of recruiting and training new employees as well as retraining remaining workers -- but the loss of intellectual capital is also a poor outcome for employers.

Company websites and sustainability reports can help you assess this factor. Also look for publications from organizations that rate companies on worker treatment, such as Fortune's annual list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" and Forbes' "Just 100" list.

We also look for negative elements, like shoddy employment treatment; contentious relationships with unions; lawsuits or controversies about discrimination; harassment or wage theft; and other behavior that indicates poor employee relations, like serial layoffs or constant restructuring. These kinds of red flags might disqualify a company for inclusion in our ESG portfolio.

2. Is the company a good steward of the environment?

These days, a company's environmental stewardship is about much more than not actively polluting. Climate change looms large over the globe, and companies that work hard to lighten their carbon footprint are the ones worth considering in our ESG investing framework.

Look for specific disclosures of initiatives and goals, and transparency about whether the company is meeting greenhouse-gas emissions goals. A high grade from nonprofit ratings organization CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) tells you the company is doing its part for the environment. Companies that pursue the use of (or a complete transition to) renewable energy also get high marks here.

The environmental piece of the puzzle includes responsible sourcing, and dealing with resource scarcity. For example, is a water-intensive company allocating funds and employees to conserve water? Does a consumer-goods company innovate to use fewer materials, or recycled materials?

Internal work is essential, but so is a company's environmental approach to stakeholders, such as customers. Businesses can do good by empowering people to recycle and reuse electronics, or by offering products that help consumers increase their own energy efficiency.

While these initiatives can be costly up front, ultimately these efforts will reduce costs for companies implementing them. Robust sustainability reports usually include how much money a company saved via its sustainability initiatives; such savings fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which says being environmentally responsible is too expensive for companies to pursue. Lastly, while eco-friendly initiatives can generate growth, they can also be used as risk-mitigation tools to prevent lawsuits, fines, and burdensome regulation.

If a company lacks solid environmental initiatives and goals, is a polluter or waster of natural resources, or exhibits other sustainability problems, we might exclude it from consideration for our ESG portfolio.

3. Does the company promote diversity and inclusion?

Although many ESG issues may not be financially material to all industries, we believe that diversity and inclusion of all people -- regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, background, and other similar traits -- is one that can be viewed as material across the board.

Embracing different types of people is the moral thing to do, but it's also the best financial thing to do. In 2018, management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. released the report "Why Diversity Matters"; it examined data sets from 366 public companies in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and the U.K. Companies in the top quartile for gender, racial, or ethnic diversity were more likely to generate financial returns above the national medians for their industry; the converse was also true. Meanwhile, McKinsey concluded that "diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time."

Why? Plenty of data shows that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones. Narrow-minded in-group thinking, in which members are more likely to have similar experiences and viewpoints and come to the same conclusions, can be terrible for decision-making. Meanwhile, groups in which many different life experiences and perspectives are represented help set the stage for better decisions.

Underlining this principle is the correlation between what a company does and who runs it. For example, if a retailer sells jewelry aimed at female consumers, having an entirely male management team and board of directors would seem absurdly mismatched -- it would result in missing valuable perspectives about the very people it's aiming to attract as customers.

In ESG investing, we seek positive elements like a transparent workforce-diversity disclosure (some companies don't disclose their staff makeup at all); composition of its board of directors and executive leadership; and internal programs and policies that foster or support diversity -- adequate paid family leave, professional programs for people of color, and fair hiring practices.

Companies with poor diversity statistics, or lawsuits related to discrimination and harassment, will be noted for their heightened risk and probably disqualified from inclusion.

4. Does the company have ethical corporate governance principles?

The quick definition of "corporate governance" is "the rules, practices, and processes by which a company is directed and controlled." In less dry terms, issues we look at in the corporate-governance area include the quality and composition of companies' management teams and boards of directors, and how they interact with stakeholders, including investors.

One major area to dig into is executive and CEO pay. Are the CEO and other top executives compensated fairly and according to performance measures? Pay plans that reflect actual performance are a positive mark, and egregiously overpaid CEOs are a negative. ESG investors should also frown on outrageous perks enjoyed by executives on the shareholder dime, like private jets and expensive club memberships.

ESG investors should also examine each company's board of directors. Is the board diverse, composed of folks who are able to push back against management when necessary? Examine aspects like director tenure -- long tenure can lead to a less diverse, robust board. The purpose of the directors is to be a voice for shareholders, so it's not good to see an entrenched or complicit board that will rubber-stamp every whim of management.

It's a good sign when a board of directors has an independent chair. If the CEO also holds the chairperson role, it's much harder for a board to do its job properly. Combining the chairperson and CEO roles can make the leader more like a monarch than a company employee, which is what a CEO actually is.

Another point to consider: Does the company have multiple classes of stock, with one or more classes controlled by executives who have supervoting rights? Supervoting rights mean those shares held by management or insiders can have many more votes than those held by regular shareholders; while a normal shareholder has one vote per share, management-controlled supervoting shares might get 10 votes per share. That would indicate that ordinary shareholders have little voice in votes, a shareholder-unfriendly scenario.

Companies with a collection of poor corporate-governance policies are red-flagged and possibly disqualified from inclusion in our ESG portfolio.

5. Do the company's business model and its investments promote ESG principles?

It's great to see companies improve internal processes to become more friendly to stakeholders. But what's even better is when businesses sell products or services that actually help further the goals of ESG investing.

Research and development (R&D) spending is technically a cost, but it's better to view it as an important investment in creating innovative new products and services that will spur growth. Using our ESG lens, the kind of R&D we want to see catalyzes responsible and sustainable growth that makes the world a better place.

Imagine the invention of a new manufacturing process that not only produces a more popular, higher-margin product, but also yields significantly less manufacturing waste. Or consider a company that specializes in snack foods but devotes dollars to research on creating healthier options, as Indra Nooyi did while CEO of PepsiCo.

R&D investments not only result in innovations that make the world a better, healthier place, but they can also attract new customers and new revenue streams, result in higher-margin products and services, and even generate new job opportunities. Obviously, such spending doesn't necessarily translate into higher profits -- a poorly managed company may not generate a meaningful return on R&D spending.

Companies lagging in the area of ESG innovation may stagnate, failing to evolve with changing times and becoming ripe for disruption or obsolescence. One of the biggest changes afoot is millennials' interest in investing in companies that are environmentally and socially responsible.

6. Does the company have a healthy balance sheet?

The balance sheet is the structural foundation of a business, and we're not willing to bet that a viable company can be built atop a weak foundation. So this is where the financial analysis of a potentially ESG-friendly company begins.

While net cash positions are preferable, we'll still give a "yes" to companies with net debt, if they're using a prudent and appropriate amount of debt to increase shareholder value (what's "prudent" and "appropriate" depends on each company's circumstances). In analyzing a company's balance sheet and financial health, we'll examine plenty of factors including, but not limited to:

  • Whether the company has net cash or net debt
  • The reason the company uses debt (is it strategic, or out of necessity?)
  • Management's balance-sheet strategy: does it maintain a lazy balance sheet that drives down returns, or is it appropriately efficient -- or even overly aggressive?
  • Whether the company's debt and net debt levels are increasing or decreasing
  • The cyclical nature and capital intensity of the industry, and the ability of the company's cash flow to pay off its debt
  • The company's cost of debt (the interest rate it pays to borrow money), maturities on its debt (repayment schedules), and whether it can withstand rising interest rates
  • The percentage of debt with a fixed rate versus a variable (floating) rate
  • The amount of corporate debt versus bank debt
  • The size of pension obligations and operating leases
  • The company's credit ratings
  • Ratios including net debt to free cash flow, interest coverage, debt to equity, debt to total capital, net cash to total assets, net cash to market cap, and goodwill (intangibles) to total assets

7. Can the company generate organic revenue growth supported by long-term tailwinds?

The intrinsic value of a business is equal to the present value of its future free cash flow. Don't get too bogged down with discounting cash flow (DCF) -- it's better to focus on finding companies with growing free cash flows, and hence growing business value. FCF is determined by future return on invested capital (ROIC) and revenue growth, so revenue growth is one of two primary drivers of business value, and ultimately stock prices. An acceleration of the top-line growth rate can also be an indication that a company is gaining market share, or that it has significant pricing power.

Usually, we prefer to see that most revenue growth is organic, meaning it doesn't come from acquisitions. Organic growth indicates that the company's investments and innovations are largely driving demand for its products or services.

Coveting mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is a blind spot that can lead to poor decision-making by investors. Acquisitions can cause problems if a company takes on massive debt or pays an inflated price for its target, or if the deal sucks up management's time, crowding out other important corporate functions. Acquisitions can also lead to integration issues or cultural challenges. Wall Street, the media, and most investors love acquisitions because they're exciting, and investment banks can generate fees for helping put deals together.

One form of M&A activity is the "roll-up," in which a company acquires several smaller companies and merges them together. Be especially wary of serial acquirers that pursue a roll-up strategy to drive growth in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) and EPS (earnings per share), often at the expense of FCF and return on capital. Roll-ups must pursue larger and larger acquisitions to maintain the EPS growth and the price-to-earnings multiple (P/E) that the market has come to expect. At some point the growth will slow, the stock price and the P/E drop, and it becomes more expensive for the company to use its shares as a currency to buy other companies. When that happens, it typically takes on debt to make larger acquisitions (sometimes debt is also needed to make up for the negative free cash flow) and its risk profile usually takes a turn for the worse. If the company takes on too much leverage, or it becomes clear that the roll-up strategy is running out of steam, the market can be brutal in crushing the stock.

More than 60% of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deals destroy shareholder value, according to a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review. Further, in the article Capital Allocation, Michael Mauboussin and Dan Callahan write, “Research by McKinsey concluded that about one-third of deals create value for acquirers, and the other two-thirds are value neutral or value destructive.” Also, the book Valuation by McKinsey says, “Many acquisitions are earnings accretive but destroy value.”

Sure, some acquisitions create value, and certain companies are experts at building shareholder value through acquisitions. But our conservative nature makes us more comfortable with growth that is internally generated and supercharged by operating in growing markets.

To hammer home the importance of top-line growth, let's listen to the experts:

  • "Always start with the key drivers of value: return on invested capital (ROIC) and revenue growth," says McKinsey's book Valuation.
  • The McKinsey article "The Real Business of Business" says: "We've found, empirically, that long-term revenue growth -- particularly organic revenue growth -- is the most important driver of shareholder returns for companies with high returns on capital (though not for companies with low returns on capital)." The most important driver for companies with low ROIC is to increase ROIC, because growth destroys value if the company's ROIC is less than its cost of capital.
  • "Sales growth is the most important driver of value for most companies," wrote Mauboussin, former head of global financial strategies at Credit Suisse.
  • Bill Miller, an investor who beat the S&P 500 for 15 consecutive years, said: "If you look at the old DuPont formula to aggregate the source of returns ... if you earn above your cost of capital with other things equal in that formula, the revenue growth rate represents the growth of value in the underlying business. So, the faster the revenue growth, the greater the value appreciates."
  • The Motley Fool's co-founder Tom Gardner said: "I believe that the greatest investments of our lives will be into companies with superlative top-line growth rates extended over long periods of time. Great companies foster and serve high rates of demand."

Finally, we prefer organic revenue growth powered by long-duration secular trends, also called positive long-term tailwinds. Being on the right side of tailwinds can insulate a company from cyclical pressures and keep it from being dependent on short-term fads. It's much easier for a company to grow if it's riding a powerful wave, rather than trying to swim against the current. Long-term trends can help a business maintain high growth longer than the market expects.

Prolific writer William S. Burroughs wrote in his book about addiction, Junky: "When you stop growing you start dying." Sean Stannard-Stockton at Ensemble Capital elaborated on this quote by applying it to business:

Once [companies'] ongoing growth rate slows down they hit what might be thought of as "stall speed." In aerodynamics, the stall speed is the minimum speed at which an aircraft must travel to remain in flight. If it slows to a speed below this rate, it will stall and eventually crash.

For companies, if they stop growing as fast as the economy grows they start slowly losing share of their customers' wallet. They start losing relevance and as they are left behind by new competitors, their customers start thinking about them less and less and growth continues to slow before finally going into decline.

This explains our dedication to companies with leadership positions in a large and growing market, and why we analyze the macro-level and micro-level drivers of a business's top-line growth. At the micro level, when we analyze a single business, we spend a lot of time evaluating its pricing power, recurring revenue, innovation culture, and long-term mind-set; we focus particularly on the company's opportunities to reinvest capital at high rates of return in order to drive organic revenue growth, and grow earnings and FCF far into the future.

Among the secular trends that interest us most are all the facets of the digital revolution; these include cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) computing, digital marketing and advertising, e-commerce, digital payments, artificial intelligence (AI), big-data analytics, and industrial automation. We're also interested in the sustainability trend in all industries.

Think of huge companies with legacy businesses that are evolving to be more sustainable: They're taking hard looks at their businesses and their operations and processes, to avoid resting on "what always worked before," while also protecting themselves against competition and disruption. Furthermore, business behemoths can really move the needle on environmental and other important issues by throwing their weight and money behind ESG principles.

8. Can the business generate growing FCF and sustain high ROIC?

Return on invested capital is the ultimate measure of business profitability and performance. The ROIC metric is the linchpin that connects a company's sales growth, profitability, free cash flow, and balance sheet.

Here's an example from the McKinsey book Valuation. Assume we have two companies (company A and company B) that aim to grow earnings at a rate of 5% per year, but Company A has a ROIC of 20% and Company B has one of only 10%. Then company A only has to reinvest 25% of its profits to grow earnings 5% (20% x 25% = 5%), but company B has to reinvest 50% of its profits to grow earnings at the same 5% rate (10% x 50% = 5%). The company with the higher ROIC has a lower reinvestment rate, and will need to reinvest less capital to achieve the same level of earnings growth. And because the higher-ROIC business requires less capital (reinvestment) to grow, it generates higher free cash flow.

This means ROIC is the prime driver of FCF and earnings growth. ROIC is not only a measure of quality...but also of growth.

Mauboussin writes: "The rate of return on incremental capital is the maximum growth rate in operating profit a business can reach without external financing." Using the formula ROIC x reinvestment rate = profit growth, we can see that a business that generates a ROIC of 10% can't grow operating profit faster than 10%, and to do so it must reinvest 100% of its profits (10% x 100% = 10%). But a company that generates a 20% ROIC and has opportunities to reinvest 100% of its capital can grow earnings at 20% (20% x 100% =20%).

Because these high-ROIC businesses generate so much FCF, they can finance their growth internally, rather than relying on outside capital to grow. This means less debt (or less equity dilution) for shareholders. It also means that some of the excess FCF can be used to pay down debt, which further strengthens the balance sheet. Common terms used to describe high-ROIC businesses that don't require a lot of capital to grow (and therefore generate strong and growing FCF) are "self-funding," "asset-light," and "compounders." No matter what you call them, ESG investors should love them.

ROIC is the North Star in analyzing a company's financial strength and future prospects. Diving into whether a company's ROIC is rising or falling is important, and understanding the drivers behind its ROIC trend line will make you a better investor. The DuPont Analysis breaks ROIC down further to see what's driving returns: high profit margin or high invested-capital turnover.

As part of identifying the drivers, we study a company's business model and its competitive advantages (or its competitive edge), and examine whether these edges are getting sharper or deteriorating. We also study the competitive environment, market-share trends, the rationality (or lack thereof) of pricing in the industry, and barriers to entry. We also employ frameworks like Porter's Five Forces to help with measuring the "moat," or competitive advantage, enjoyed by a company.

Next, we take a look at the net operating profit after tax (NOPAT) -- a crucial number used to calculate FCF, which also serves as the numerator in the ROIC equation; the company's margin profile; and the amount of operating leverage inherent in the business model. We previously demonstrated how to analyze the balance sheet and how efficiently it's managed, because invested capital is the denominator in the ROIC equation.

We also analyze management's ability to allocate capital, the performance metrics used to incentivize management, management's understanding of intrinsic value growth, and the language the company uses when speaking about growing business and shareholder value. Connecting the dots between revenue, ROIC, and FCF is a hugely positive sign.

Lastly, we analyze whether management incorporates ESG into everything it does, because ample research shows that focusing on ESG improves ROIC. Organic revenue growth and high ROIC are ultimately what create the FCF growth (particularly FCF-per-share growth) that we so desire. Remember that FCF is the amount of cash that is available to investors, as it's the amount of surplus cash generated by a business after spending capital (investing) to maintain and grow its assets. This FCF can be returned to shareholders as dividends, share buybacks, or by paying down debt. (If the company paid down all debt, there would be no more creditors to have a claim on cash flow, so equity holders would have full claim -- after the government, which gets its take through taxes. So by paying down debt, management is returning capital to equity holders.) The free cash can also be used to make acquisitions, or build the cash on the balance sheet.

For more on FCF, read Free Cash Flow and Shareholder Yield by Bill Priest and Lindsay McClelland, Free Cash Flow by George Christy, or Creative Cash Flow Reporting by Charles Mulford and Eugene Comiskey.

9. Is the management team focused on driving long-term profitable growth?

The goal is to invest in management teams that understand the drivers of business value, and do a good job of growing their businesses in a way that balances top-line (revenue) growth with bottom-line (earnings) and FCF growth. It's important to commit time to analyzing executives' abilities to:

  1. think like long-term owners (and to treat shareholders as partners)
  2. operate the business efficiently
  3. allocate capital intelligently
  4. commit to ESG and nurture a uniquely positive culture
  5. operate with honesty, transparency, and integrity

Many of the fastest-growing companies are earlier in their corporate lifecycles, so they don't yet generate positive earnings or cash flow. It's also true that many companies that are not yet profitable have great founder-led management teams and strong customer-level economics, and will eventually achieve a certain amount of scale resulting in robust profitability and cash flow, leading to multibagger returns for investors.

But it's hard to determine with conviction which companies can transition from burning cash today into being free-cash-flow machines tomorrow. Since we've found more than enough companies growing their revenue, net income, and free cash flow at nice clips, ultimately we won't have to sacrifice growth for profitability. Instead, we'll focus on companies that prioritize achieving both.

You can find these details by doing rigorous research that includes deep analysis of financial statements, and lots of reading -- the company's SEC filings (including proxy statements), CEO letters, annual reports, earnings-call transcripts, conference presentations, and transcripts of investor days (public events where management teams discuss their businesses with analysts and investors). See what investors you admire think about the company and its management team. ESG investors should also take advantage of any opportunities to speak directly with management. Pay close attention to the language they use and the metrics they highlight, and be sure to analyze any performance metrics to which CEO compensation is tied.

Follow the news about the companies you're considering investing in. The media often uncover issues about management teams and companies that reveal warning signs.

10. Does the company have a medium- or lower-risk profile?

Fortunately, one of the most effective ways investors can mitigate risk is by studying the company's ESG profile. As part of our business analysis we check for several financial risks including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Heavy debt loads
  • Mismanagement or poor leadership
  • Deteriorating financials (declining revenue, or ROIC that is falling for the wrong reasons)
  • Commodity exposure
  • Cyclicality
  • Business-model risk
  • Low barriers to entry
  • Industry headwinds (the opposite of tailwinds -- that is, long-term trends working against the company)
  • Potential for disruption or obsolescence
  • Overdependence on one customer or supplier
  • Consistently weak earnings
  • Poor customer service
  • Toxic or unhealthy corporate culture
  • Lack of data privacy
  • Lack of transparency
  • Lack of succession planning
  • Short-term thinking and underinvestment in R&D and other important areas
  • Brand or reputational risk
  • Burdensome regulation

What's next for ESG investors on

This framework for finding high-ESG, financially solid companies to invest in will power our ESG content on

While you can use this checklist for your own investing, we'll also be applying The Motley Fool's ESG Compounder Checklist to public companies. We'll post the results when we find likely ESG winners, so stay tuned!

Alyce Lomax has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. John Rotonti has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.