Socially conscious investing is booming. According to the latest biennial report from the United States Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF), total U.S.-domiciled assets under management employing sustainable investing strategies increased 42 percent over the past two years to $17 trillion in 2020. ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing now makes up 33 percent of total U.S. assets under management.
As millennials and Gen Zers transition into prime investing years (and inherit the largest amount of wealth in history from their parents), the demand for socially conscious investment options—those that do well financially and do good for society—will undoubtedly increase.
That said, potential impact investors can be spooked quickly when confronted by all the terms and definitions in this relatively new area.
Socially conscious investing is the general term for an investment that has both financial and social/environmental objectives. It’s important to note that socially conscious investing is not an asset class but a philosophical approach to investing across all asset classes.
But the field of socially conscious investing has a lot of nuance, and thus, a lot of names to describe slightly different approaches. For someone new to the field, the seemingly never-ending assortment of acronyms, terminology and definitions associated with social investing can be confusing and leave potential investors on the sidelines, not sure about what action to take, if any.
So, let’s address this issue head on.
The first type of socially conscious investing is called responsible investing. This approach is also called “greenwashing” and “negative screening.” These are terms investors use when they’re looking to clean up their portfolios by weeding out investments in companies that are commonly perceived to be harmful to society—for example, guns and other weapon manufacturers, tobacco product producers and heavy polluters.
From responsible investing, we begin to move across the socially conscious investing continuum to sustainable investing. Sustainable investing is an investment approach that uses ESG criteria to help choose companies to invest in. ESG criteria are a set of standards for business operations that social investors use to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. Social criteria analyze how a company handles relationships with employees, suppliers, customers and the communities where it operates. Governance criteria look at areas such as a company’s leadership, executive pay, audits, internal controls and shareholder rights.
ESG metrics help separate stocks and funds that are truly sustainable investments from those that are simply greenwashing—i.e., organizations and funds that are simply trying to present a socially and environmentally responsible public image.
Next, we have triple bottom line (TBL) investing—also known as integrated bottom line and the three pillars—which involves investing in companies that, as part of their mission, want to positively impact people, planet and profit in some way.
TBL companies conduct business in a wide variety of industries and have products and services that may or may not have any specific positive social or environmental impact. However, whatever their industry, they look to report progress in the three pillar areas: people, planet and profits.
Lastly, there’s impact investing, which targets companies that produce products and services that directly address social and environmental challenges. Impact investing moves beyond the objective of “doing no harm” to investing in companies “doing active good” through investments in companies created specifically to address important social or environmental problems. Impact investing is based on the principle of using the power of capital for the greater good.
The impact investing space prioritizes—on equal terms—social and environmental impact, along with profitability. That’s not necessarily the case with the social investing approaches highlighted above.
Socially conscious investment options, especially widely available ETFs and funds, can be a possible first step into the socially conscious investing community. These SRI ETFs and funds utilize negative screening techniques, which allow them to avoid industries that are negatively impacting our world, including fossil fuels and heavily polluting sectors. Many of the available ETFs and funds share holdings in common, raising investor awareness and continuing the trend toward expanding socially conscious investing.
The great thing about socially conscious investing is the opportunity to continue across the continuum from “less bad” negative screening options to “active good” options. Impact investments align for-profit businesses that place positive social and environmental impact as the core mission of the business.
The beauty of socially conscious investing in general, and impact investing in particular, is that you don’t have to sacrifice financial returns to make a positive impact on society.
Craig Jonas is the founder and CEO of CoPeace, an impact investing holding company.