It’s easy to think of investments as existing in a vacuum. You contribute money, wait a certain amount of time and watch your portfolio grow. Where that money goes – and how it grows – are questions most people would rather not think about.
But the fact is, what you choose to invest in matters. There is no better way to support a worthy cause than by putting your money behind it, and vice versa for companies you disagree with. In a world where money talks, nothing speaks louder than where you put your hard-earned dollars.
If investing in the greater good is something that interests you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn how easy it is. You can start making a difference immediately, all while still enjoying the returns you would expect from a robust portfolio. Here’s how to do it.
What Sustainable Investing Means
For many consumers, making a difference in the world is about more than sharing posts on social media or making charitable donations at the end of the year. It’s about taking concrete action and making a real mark. One of the best ways to do that is with “impact investing.”
Impact investing can come in a few different forms. Investors can buy individual stocks of companies they support, invest in startups with a worthy cause or otherwise invest their money in a way that promises both social and financial benefit.
This practice is becoming more and more common. The 2018 Trends in Investing Survey from the Journal of Financial Planning found that 20% of financial advisors said they planned to increase their use or recommendation of socially responsible funds.
Invest in SRI and ESG Funds
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to choose between supporting sustainable companies and focusing on your bottom line. There are large funds available for consumers who want sustainable investing and diversification in their portfolio. There are two main types: Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds and Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) funds.
Though every fund has their own standards, ESGs and SRIs both generally exclude companies that produce firearms, tobacco products, fossil fuels, adult entertainment and more. You can find ESG or SRI funds at most major brokerage firms, including Vanguard, Charles Schwab and Fidelity.
Deciding which ESG or SRI fund to invest in is similar to picking any other mutual fund. Look for funds that have low expense ratios and compare their returns to the S&P 500. According to Fidelity, 61% of ESGs have fees that are above or below average, which means you won’t pay more for these funds.
When you invest in ESGs or SRIs, make sure those choices sync with your other investments. For example, if 10% of your IRA is made up of the Fidelity International Sustainability Index Fund, look at how much you’re holding in other international stock funds. Don’t lose sight of basic investing principles, like having too much money in one sector.
Pick Robo Advisors that Offer SRIs
If you’re not sure how to pick the right ESG or SRI funds or want more guidance, find a robo advisor. Robo advisors can create a portfolio that matches your financial needs with your moral compass. Betterment and Wealthsimple both offer SRI investing with no minimum investment amount. Micro-investing app Stash also makes it easy and simple to invest in SRIs that fit your values.
Swell is a robo advisor with unique SRI portfolios composed of individual stocks. Their funds tend to be smaller than other ESGs or SRIs. For example, their Clean Water fund only has 49 companies and their Renewable Energy fund has 56 companies. Because these funds are so precise, investors can choose exactly which issues they care about.
People who want an even more personal touch should hire a financial planner experienced with investing in SRIs and ESGs. The Garrett Planning Network has a comprehensive list of socially responsible planners committed to this type of investing. They can evaluate your current portfolio and suggest which funds are right for you.
Recognize the Limitations
Being a socially conscious investor isn’t a simple task, because the phrase itself is subjective. A fund that claims to be socially conscious can still hold companies that an investor might deem immoral.
It can be difficult to find an ESG or SRI whose holdings are completely faultless. Many of these funds hold hundreds of companies, so it would take a while to go through each and determine if it meets your personal values.
Some experts say the best option is to choose a variety of low-fee ESG and SRI funds that match your long-term needs. Don’t worry if there are a few companies in the mix that ruffle your feathers. Instead, commit to donating more money and time to causes you support. Contact your legislators and tell them what issues are on your mind. That will have a far greater impact than simply divesting from a few large companies.
Another thing to take into account is the unfortunate reality of corporate culture and how that affects investing returns. With a few exceptions, the companies who are most successful – and therefore offer investors the largest returns – are less likely to follow a strict moral code or employ a socially-conscious business model. Working towards the greater good often requires sacrifice, and that holds true for investing as well.
But in some cases, investing ethically can allow you to benefit from the march of progress. Solar energy, for example, is both a sustainable and profitable industry. As more and more people and companies begin switching to solar and other sustainable energy sources, those industries will continue to offer impressive returns for their investors.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Debt Free After Three.