Guide to SRI Investing

By MP Dunleavey · June 27, 2024 · 13 minute read

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Guide to SRI Investing

Socially responsible investing (SRI) strategies help investors put their capital into a range of securities — e.g., stocks, bonds, mutual funds — that focus on socially positive aims: e.g., clean energy, air and water; equitable employment practices, and more.

Despite market volatility driven by interest rate changes and geopolitical conflicts in recent years, SRI investing strategies have garnered steady interest from investors.

Various analyses of SRI funds suggest that the philosophy of doing well by doing some good in the world may have an upside worth exploring.

What Is Socially Responsible Investing?

While SRI investing goes by many names — including ESG investing (for environmental, social, and government factors), sustainable, or impact investing — the fundamental idea is to channel capital into entities that are working toward specific environmental and/or social policies in the U.S. and worldwide. The aim of SRI is to generate both positive changes across various industries, while also delivering returns.

Generally, investors that embrace SRI strategies find ways to assess an organization’s environmental and social impact when deciding whether to invest in them. However, there are important distinctions between the various labels in this sector of investing.

Socially responsible investing can be seen as more of an umbrella term (similar to impact investing). Within SRI, some strategies focus specifically on companies that meet certain criteria — either by supporting specific practices (e.g., green manufacturing, ethical shopping) or avoiding others (e.g., reducing reliance on fossil fuels).

For that reason it’s incumbent on each investor to assess different SRI options, to make sure they match their own aims. This is no different from the due diligence required for anyone starting to invest.

Interest in SRI Investing Strategies

The tangible merits of socially responsible investing have always been subject to debate. But in the last couple of years there has been criticism of some of the underlying principles of SRI, as well as questions about the overall financial value of this investing approach.

Nonetheless, the value of global assets allocated to ETFs with an ESG focus have shown steady growth in the last two decades. As of November 2023, according to data from Statista, the value of these assets was $480 billion — a substantial increase since 2006, when the value of those assets was about $5 billion.

And according to a report published in 2023 by Morningstar, a fund rating and research firm, investors in conventional funds as well as SRI funds are likely to see returns over time.

Recommended: Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Investing

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SRI vs ESG vs Other Investing Strategies

While the various terms for SRI investing are often used interchangeably, it’s important for investors to understand some of the differences.

Impact Investing

Impact investing is perhaps the broadest term of all, in that it can refer to a range of priorities, goals, or values that investors may want to pursue. To some degree, impact investing implies that the investor has specific outcomes in mind: i.e. the growth of a certain sector, type of technology, or societal issue.

Impact investing may also refer to strategies that avoid certain companies, products, or practices. This could include so-called sin stocks (e.g. alcohol, tobacco), companies that adhere to principles that are in opposition to an investor’s or institution’s belief system, and more.

Socially Responsible Investing

SRI or socially conscious investing are two other broad labels, and they’re typically used to reflect progressive values of protecting the planet and natural resources, treating people equitably, and emphasizing corporate responsibility.

While SRI can be considered a type of impact investing, there may be impact investing strategies that are diametrically opposed to SRI, simply because they have different aims.

ESG Investing

Securities that embrace ESG principles, though, may be required to adhere to specific standards for protecting aspects of the environment (e.g. clean energy, water, and air); supporting social good (e.g. human rights, safe working conditions, equal opportunities); and corporate accountability (e.g. fighting corruption, balancing executive pay, and so on).

For example, some third-party organizations have helped create ESG metrics for companies and funds based on how well they adhere to various environmental, social, or governance factors.

Investors who believe in socially responsible investing may want to invest in stocks, bonds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that meet ESG standards, and track ESG indexes.

Sustainable Investing

Sustainable investing is often used as a shorthand for securities that have a specific focus on protecting the environment. This term is sometimes used interchangeably with green investing, eco-friendly investing, or even ESG.

Unlike ESG — which is anchored in specific criteria having to do with a company’s actions regarding environmental, social, or governance issues — the phrase “sustainable investing” is considered an umbrella term. It’s not tied to specific criteria.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Last, corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to a general set of business practices that may positively impact society. Often, companies establish certain programs to support local or national issues, e.g. educational needs, ethical labor practices, workplace diversity, social justice initiatives, and more.

Ideally, CSR strategies work in tandem with traditional business objectives of hitting revenue and profit goals. But since CSR goals are specific to each company, they aren’t formally considered part of socially responsible, sustainable, or ESG investing.

A Focus on Results

Investors may want to bear in mind that, with the steady growth of this sector in the last 20 or 30 years, there are a number of ways SRI strategies can come together. For example, it’s possible to invest in sustainable pharmaceuticals and even green banks.

Either way, the underlying principle of these strategies is to make a profit by making a difference. By putting money into companies that embrace certain practices, investors can support organizations that embody principles they believe in, thereby potentially making a difference in the world, and perhaps seeing a financial upside as well.

Socially Responsible Investment Examples

These days, thousands of companies aim — or claim — to embrace ethical, social, environmental, or other standards, such as those put forth in the United Nations’ Principles of Responsible Investing, or the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. As a result, investors today can choose from a wide range of stocks, bonds, ETFs, and more that adhere to these criteria.

Understanding SRI Standards

In addition, there are also standards set out by financial institutions or other organizations which are used to evaluate different companies. It may be useful when selecting stocks that match your values to know the standards or metrics that have been used to verify a company’s ESG status.

Depending on your priorities, you could consider companies in the following sectors, or that embrace certain practices:

•   Clean energy technology and production

•   Supply chain upgrades

•   Clean air and water technology, products, systems, manufacturing

•   Sustainable agriculture

•   Racial and gender equality

•   Fair labor standards

•   Community outreach and support

Exploring Different Asset Classes

Investors can also trade stocks of companies that are certified B Corporations (B Corps), which meet a higher standard for environmental sustainability in their businesses, or hit other metrics around public transparency and social justice, for example. B Corps can be any company, from bakeries to funeral homes, and may or may not be publicly traded.

Companies issue green bonds to finance projects and business operations that specifically address environmental and climate concerns, such as energy-efficient power plants, upgrades to municipal water systems, and so on.

These bonds may come with tax incentives, making them a more attractive investment than traditional bonds.

Another option for investors who don’t want to pick individual SRI or ESG stocks is to consider mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that provide exposure to socially responsible companies and other investments.

There are a growing number of index funds that invest in a basket of sustainable stocks and bonds. These funds allow investors to diversify their holdings by investing in one security.

There are numerous indexes that investors use as benchmarks for the performance of socially responsible funds. Three of the most prominent socially responsible indexes include: the MSCI USA Extended ESG Focus Index; Nasdaq 100 ESG Index; S&P 500 ESG Index. (Remember, you cannot invest directly in an index, only in funds that track the index.)

Recommended: Portfolio Diversification: What It Is and Why It’s Important

The Growing Appeal of Socially Responsible Investments

While many investors find the idea of doing good or making an impact appealing, the question of profit has long been a point of debate within the industry. Do you sacrifice performance if you invest according to certain values?

Unfortunately, the lack of consistency in terms of what constitutes a sustainable or socially/environmentally responsible investment has made it difficult to compare SRI strategies to conventional ones. One financial company may use one set of criteria when developing its sustainable offerings; another company may use its own proprietary set of standards.

That said, as the universe of sustainable offerings continues to grow, it’s possible to create more apples-to-apples comparison sets. According to Morningstar data, sustainable equity funds saw median returns of 16.7% for 2023 versus 14.4% for traditional equity funds. The relative outperformance of SRI strategies was consistent across equity fund styles and most market caps, but particularly large-cap equities. Over 75% of SRI and conventional funds include large-cap equities.

In addition, sustainable fund assets under management (AUM) globally were up 15% over 2022, growing to $3.4 trillion.

The Evolution of Responsible Investing

Socially conscious investing is not a new concept: People have been tailoring their investment strategies for generations, for a number of reasons, not all of them related to sustainability. In fact, it’s possible to view the emergence of socially conscious investing in three phases.

Phase 1: Exclusionary Strategies

Exclusionary strategies tend to focus on what not to invest in. For example, those who embrace Muslim, Mormon, Quaker, and other religions, were (and sometimes still are) directed to avoid investing in companies that run counter to the values of that faith. This is sometimes called faith-based investing.

Similarly, throughout history there have been groups as well as individuals who have taken a stand against certain industries or establishments by refusing to invest in related companies. Non-violent groups have traditionally avoided investing in companies that produce weapons. Others have skirted so-called “sin stocks”: companies that are involved in alcohol, tobacco, sex, and other businesses.

On a more global scale, widespread divestment of investor funds from companies in South Africa helped to dismantle the system of racial apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

Phase 2: Proactive Investing

Just like exclusionary strategies, proactive strategies are values-led. But rather than taking an avoidant approach, here investors put their money into companies and causes that match their beliefs.

For example, one of the earliest sustainable mutual funds was launched in 1971 by Pax World; the founders wanted to take a stand against chemical weapons in the Vietnam war and encourage investors to support more environmentally friendly businesses.

This approach gained steady interest from investors, as financial companies launched a range of funds that focused on supporting certain sectors. So-called green investing helped to establish numerous companies that have built sustainable energy platforms, for example.

Phase 3: Investing With Impact

With the rise of digital technology in the last 30 years, two things became possible.

First, financial institutions were able to create screening tools and filters to help investors gauge which companies actually adhered to certain standards — whether ethical, environmental, or something else. Second, the ability to track real-time company behavior and outcomes helped establish greater transparency — and accountability — for financial institutions evaluating these companies for their SRI fund offerings.

By 2006, the United Nations launched the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a set of global standards that helped create a worldwide understanding of Environmental, Social, and Governance strategies.

ESG became the shorthand for companies that focus on protecting various aspects of the environment (including clean energy, water, and air); supporting social good (including human rights, safe working conditions, equal opportunities); and fair corporate governance (e.g. fighting corruption, balancing executive pay, and so on).

Why Choose Socially Responsible Investing?

While the three phases of socially responsible investing did emerge more or less chronologically, all three types of strategies still exist in various forms today. But the growing emphasis on corporate accountability in terms of outcomes — requiring companies to do more than just green-washing their policies, products, and marketing materials — has shifted investors’ focus to the measurable impacts of these strategies.

Now the reasons to choose SRI strategies are growing.

Investors Can Have an Impact

The notion of values-led investing is that by putting your money into organizations that align with your beliefs, you can make a tangible difference in the world. The performance of many sustainable funds, as noted above, indicates that it’s possible to support the growth of specific companies or sectors (although growth always entails risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results).

Socially Responsible Strategies May Be Profitable, Too

As discussed earlier, the question of whether SRI and ESG funds are as profitable as they are ethical has long been a point of debate. But that skepticism is ebbing now, with new performance metrics suggesting that sustainable funds are on par with conventional funds.

Socially Responsible Investing May Help Mitigate Risk

The criteria built into ESG investment standards may also help identify companies with poor governance practices, or those with exposure to environmental and social risks that could lead to financial losses.

Do Retirement Accounts Offer Socially Responsible Investments?

Generally speaking, individual retirement accounts may include socially responsible or ESG investment options. For example, when investing in different types of IRAs, e.g., a traditional, Roth, or SEP IRA, investors typically have access to all the securities offered by that financial institution, including stocks, bonds, and ETFs that may reflect ESG standards. The choice is up to individual investors.

That hasn’t always been the case with employer-sponsored 401k or 403b plans. But in 2023, the Department of Labor issued a rule allowing plan fiduciaries to consider ESG investment options for plan participants.

While some plans may now offer socially responsible or ESG investments, there is a push from some lawmakers to restrict or eliminate the availability of these funds. ERISA standards for retirement plans dictate that the investment options offered by employer-sponsored plans “must be based on risk return factors that the fiduciary prudently determines are material to investment value.” Some lawmakers argue that ESG funds are higher risk and not suitable for employees in company plans.

The Takeaway

Socially responsible investing is a broad term that can mean different things to different groups, but no matter which term you use — socially conscious investing, impact investing, ESG investing — it comes down to the compelling idea that by investing your money in organizations that match your values, you can make a difference in the world.

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Is socially responsible investing profitable?

Socially responsible investing can be profitable, as multiple reviews of fund performance have shown over the last several years. That said, some believe that the financial strength of ESG or SRI strategies is debatable. While any investment strategy has its own risks, it’s best to assess them according to your own aims.

What is the difference between ESG investing and socially responsible investing?

Socially responsible investing is considered a broad term that can encompass a range of practices and standards. ESG investing stands for environmental, social, and governance factors, is a set of principles that is often used to assess how well companies meet specific, measurable criteria. While there is no single industry-wide metric for ESG standards, investors can consider various proprietary tools.

How many socially responsible investment opportunities are there?

It’s impossible to say how many SRI opportunities there are, as the stocks, bonds, and other securities that embrace ESG standards continue to grow. More than 120 new sustainable funds entered the SRI landscape in 2021, in addition to 26 existing funds that took on a sustainable mandate.

What is the socially responsible investment theory?

The theory behind socially responsible investing can be summed up by the old saying about “Doing well by doing good.” In other words, by investing in companies that support positive social and environmental products and policies, it’s possible to help investors realize a profit.

How do you start socially responsible investing?

Investors who are interested in SRI or ESG investing can begin by getting to know companies that adhere to certain eco-friendly or socially responsible standards. In addition, many financial institutions offer clients a way to screen for stocks or mutual funds that have an ESG focus.

Photo credit: iStock/luigi giordano

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