Have you ever noticed the clean open spaces, futuristic tech and greenery on Robinhood’s public site?

Robinhood’s public site employs Solarpunk imagery, an art style that imagines a utopian, eco-friendly future. In Robinhood’s case, urban green spaces and lemon trees co-exist with retail investing and options trading. Solarpunk imagery speaks to the climate anxiety felt by the environmentally conscious and Millennial/Gen Zers at large. The artwork on Robinhood’s site presents a harmonious sustainable world where environmental issues and technological development work hand in hand, rather than a dystopian cyberpunk future or, more commonly on financial services websites, stock images of people in sweaters drinking coffee. This may be reading into the imagery with rose colored glasses, but the question remains, who benefits from this sort of marketing and why even make this effort?

A solar punk image from Robinhood's homepage
An image from Robinhood’s homepage

Climate-conscious users and how firms try to appeal to them

Why use the word Solarpunk to describe the artwork on Robinhood’s public site? The term describes an art and literary movement that emerged in early 2010s that imagines a future where renewable energy, social ecology and a collective well-being connected with the environment flourishes.

Though the Solarpunk aesthetic and movement seems like an odd match for a brokerage firm that appeals to retail investors, the financial world has been evolving to include and even center environmental concerns. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing has a long history hailing from its tentative origins with the creation of the Domini 400 Social Index (now, MSCI KLD 400 Social Index) in the 90s to its official use of the term in 2004 with the Who Cares Wins UN report. It’s now a calling card for any investors seeking to support sustainable companies. (ESG is so popular that backlash anti-ESG funds also exist.) The amount of ESG mutual and exchange-traded funds has more than doubled since 2017, with over 550 being available to the US market in mid-2022.

These environmental concerns have also led to cynical misrepresentations of environmental efforts that seek to take advantage of consumer’s desires for eco-friendly products. Greenwashing refers to misrepresentation and false advertising of supposed sustainable or environmentally friendly practices. In 2023 alone, RepRisk recorded 148 instances of greenwashing with 106 attributed to European financial firms. In the United States, the FTC issued updated Green Guides in 2023 in response to consumer complaints, providing the agency more leeway to go after firms that greenwash.

Why does it matter? Do consumers care about this?

A survey conducted in 2021 shows children and young people experience moderate to high climate anxiety with 59% of those reported as feeling extremely worried about climate change. These numbers translate to the spending habits of consumers. In 2022, McKinsey along with NielsenIQ released a study on the buying trends of consumers within the ESG space, finding that consumers were seeking out products with ESG claims and correspondingly more products featured these claims. A 2023 study by Pew Research shows not only do Americans think the government should support green energy initiatives, but also believe large corporations and the government could do more to mitigate the effects of climate change. The same study shows younger US adults prioritize phasing out fossil fuels completely, unlike older generations who are more hesitant.

This climate-conscious thinking applies to the money younger generations are investing. In 2020 millennials invested $51.5 billion into sustainable funds and 40% of Gen Z investors confirmed they invest in companies who are driven by a purpose. Furthermore, chief investment officers are increasingly factoring ESGs into their investment decisions, according to a McKinsey study, and are willing to pay a premium for show of financial gain with ESG efforts.

A screenshot of solar punk imagery from Robinhood's ESG site
An image from Robinhood’s ESG site

Industry Examples

Consumers are increasingly seeking out firms that do good in the ESG space and provide opportunities for their clients to get involved. Robinhood not only appeals to climate conscious individuals through their commissioned artwork, but also provides a dedicated page for its ESG initiatives. Clients can view the firm’s sustainability report and standout statistics to make better-informed decisions on where their money goes.

On the flip side, other robo-brokerages such as Acorns or Wealthfront provide dedicated landing pages with information about what ESG investments are. Acorns relies on graphics and minimal text that mirrors that aesthetics of other pages on its public site. The client not only learns what ESG investments are, but Acorns provides an easy guide on how to switch to an ESG portfolio through the secure site. Wealthfront takes a different approach, focusing on how the portfolio can benefit the client and describing how the switch to an ESG portfolio requires no effort on the client’s part. Interestingly, Wealthfront calls this the SRI or socially responsible investment portfolio rather than an ESG portfolio. The difference in terminology refers to what is being prioritized; namely with an ESG portfolio investors look at ESG risks and opportunities and how they can keep the same financial gains, while SRI portfolio investors look at the moral values in the investments before considering the financial gain.

A screenshot on SRI investing from Wealthfront
Wealthfront’s Socially Responsible Portfolio Public Site Page

Outside of the brokerage space, neobanks are also turning towards making strides in addressing ESG desires of their clients. Aspiration, a neobank striving to address climate change, advertises carbon removal as a part of their banking experience along with giving the client carbon credits. The public site promotes action against climate change and tree planting programs. However, the reality seems to be different, as further investigations on the claims from Aspiration indicate potential practices that mislead clients. Other neobanks are taking a different approach, such as Green-Got, a new French alternative to traditional bank accounts, that guarantees client’s money is not being invested in fossil fuels and instead looks to invest that money into non-profits.

From a subtle marketing tactic on Robinhood’s public site, the world of ESG investments and financial climate change initiatives driven by Gen Zers and Millennials emerges. For more about the latest trends and developments within the brokerage and banking spaces, check out our Insights section or learn more about our Monitor Research Services.

Lucia Simova

Lucia Simova is an Analyst on CI's Projects team.