The first was billed as an “impact” investment, the second as an “ESG” investment and the third as “sustainable” investment.

In fact, those three BlackRock Inc. mutual funds started out as the same fund—one that was marketed and re-marketed under different names at different times as Wall Street sold the idea of investing with a social purpose.

How and why the switch was made, not once but twice in six years, is a story for these uneasy times in environmental, social and governance investing.

After a period of heady growth, ESG—a loose category of investments that vaguely promise to do good while doing well—is coming under attack from without and within.

In the US, Republicans are railing against ESG and “woke capitalism,” in a markets version of the culture wars. In the UK, a prominent ESG practitioner recently disparaged the very brand of investing he’d been promoting, exposing a level of hypocrisy that shocked even Wall Street.

Now the US Securities and Exchange Commission is examining how asset management companies are portraying ESG-type funds to an often-bewildered public.

At issue is a seemingly simple question that neither regulators nor investment pros have a clear answer for. “Impact,” “ESG,” “green,” “sustainable”: What exactly do all these different terms mean? SEC officials worry ordinary investors may be misled.

BlackRock hasn’t been accused of misleading anyone. And it’s hardly alone in doing a little ESG re-branding from time to time. Since the start of 2019, at least 65 US funds at a range of asset management companies were re-purposed as “sustainable,” according to data from Morningstar Inc.

Yet it might come as a surprise that the latest iteration of that BlackRock fund—rechristened in 2021 as the BlackRock Sustainable Advantage Large Cap Core Fund—held an $8.3 million stake in Exxon Mobil Corp. and a $1.8 million position in Halliburton Co. at the end of June.

What makes those “sustainable” investments? In an e-mailed statement, New York-based BlackRock called the fund a “benchmark aware” product that “tilts” toward or away from certain stocks based on their return potential as well as their ESG characteristics compared with the broad Russell 1000 Index. In effect, when the Russell 1000 increases its weighting for energy stocks, as it has in the past year, the fund may do so, too.

BlackRock also said the name changes reflected how the industry’s understanding of the various terms has evolved over time.

“BlackRock offers clients a range of sustainable funds so they can choose how best to achieve their investment objectives,” it said.

To the average investor, one fix might seem obvious: truth in advertising. New Balance Athletics once got in trouble for claiming a line of its sneakers helped burn calories. Kellogg Co. got dinged for saying Rice Krispies had immune-boosting properties. The list goes on.

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