Six years ago, the world wasbrought to its knees by the collapse of a particular financial market that was not understood by most of those trading in it, let alone by most members of the public. The media have repeatedly dissected the causes and the fallout of the global financial crisis: how securitized credit default swaps and the subprime mortgage crisis brought the international financial system to its knees; how this filtered down into the largest fall in global economic output since the Second World War; and how well (or poorly) we are crawling out of the slump. But the question remains unanswered as to what has changed since 2007 that will prevent the financial sector from strangling the world economy once more.

There is a much broader question at stake here—of the role of the financial sector in the modern economy. At first it seems curious that a glitch in one sector of the economy could have such widespread repercussions. But when we learn that in the year 2000, the turnover of US-based financial institutions was nearly 52 times greater than US GDP, it is clear that financial markets are the most important markets in the world economy.

In reaction to the global financial crisis, the public has often responded with shock and horror when the culture at many financial institutions has been revealed. Since the crash, executives have been sacked, as have hordes of lower level staff. Regulatory bodies have been replaced, with more extensive mandates and greater powers. But there is little to suggest that the culture of excessive risk has actually changed. We are indeed seeing more institutions sanctioned for reckless practices, but this just proves that companies are still breaking the regulatory laws. What happens when the regulators inevitably miss another black hole?

So, if nothing has substantially changed to pull the world’s largest economic sector back from perpetually teetering over the brink of disaster, that begs a much more fundamental question: does finance even serve society any more? Well, of course it does—lending, borrowing, investing, and insurance are intrinsically necessary processes that allow the average citizen to buy a home, save for their retirement, and protect their property against misfortune. But could it serve society better than it currently does? Almost certainly, yes.

The financial sector has been seen to exploit the planet and its people for a percentage point of profit. We have seen this in multiple forms in recent years: the reckless financial practices of the world’s biggest banks (highlighted by the multi-billion dollar fines we see imposed on institutions for a variety of scandals, including J.P. Morgan, HSBC and UBS); and the questionable ethical and labor practices of the world’s biggest publicly traded natural resource and consumer goods firms (the Rana Plaza textile factory collapse in Bangladesh, the bribery scandal of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, and the BP oil spill, among others, attest to this).

However, there is a nascent movement within the finance industry to create a form of socially beneficial finance, which remains a small, but significant, and rapidly growing industry. Sustainable and Responsible Investment (SRI) aims to combine environmental, social, and governmental (ESG) factors into financial considerations. The majority of the growth in these markets has been since the financial crash—with the level of investment in SRI funds doubling in both the US and the EU.

SRI is no longer a marginal fringe of the finance industry, but is becoming large enough to shape wider trends. Sustainable investing, by some definition, now accounts for around US$3.7 trillion of assets under management in the US, around 11 percent of all professionally managed funds. In the EU, there is US$3.8 trillion of SRI assets, around 28 percent of the investment market. SRI is no longer about tree-huggers pretending to be bankers, or vice versa. Instead, the logic of SRI is that, in the longer term, the companies that will benefit from social trends or regulatory changes will be those that are already proactive in reducing environmental impact and looking after their workforce, and so ESG factors will ultimately influence companies’ bottom lines.

This investment thesis sounds utopian, and although the jury is still out, it seems that SRI funds do not necessarily underperform relative to their peers. Indeed, in the long run, as scandal or crisis has destroyed the share prices of those companies who have experienced an oil leak (BP) due to reckless safety practices, or been fined for malpractice, the investment funds that screened these companies out for less-than-ideal ESG credentials have benefited. This strategy has worked particularly well in economies such as Europe, where strict environmental regulation is increasingly hampering the performance of certain companies, creating social trends in the market that SRI funds are exploiting.

The wider financial world is taking notice. In 2012, the NGO Carbon Tracker released a report entitled “Unburnable Carbon”, which has since gained notoriety as a number of significant financial firms, including Standard & Poor’s, have amended investment guidelines based upon its conclusions.

The fundamental concern is that, if the international community is to stick to the commitment to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees, then a substantial quantity of proven coal, oil and natural gas reserves simply cannot be burned. Only 20 percent of reserves of the top 100 coal or oil and gas companies listed on global stock exchanges can ever be extracted and burned unabated. These reserves are the paramount factor in these companies’ valuation; if these can never actually be extracted, then these assets are worthless. These companies are so vast that they account for seven of the world’s 20 biggest companies, and so there are extremely far-reaching implications in the finance world if they are vastly overvalued due to unburnable “assets”.

The future of finance, then, does not only need further structural reform to prevent the mistakes of yesterday from happening again, but is also in need of a substantial correction to align with the interests of society and the environment. This is not just an ideological claim, but an economic reality: literally hundreds of trillions of dollars of assets which account for a huge proportion of financial markets are essentially worthless.

Unburnable carbon is just one way in which wider social concerns must not only be considered by financial institutions in addition to profit-making, but, in fact, as part of profit-making in the future. Those who argued that the financial crisis of 2007-9 would result in far-reaching changes in the way in which economies are run were not wrong, but progress is slow, just as it is necessary.