In recent years, social responsibility in investing took the investment world by storm. But now that the struggling financial system no longer enjoys access to tons of cash and easy credit, will investors decide that socially responsible companies aren't the right place to put their money?
Many investors try to make a difference by putting their money where their mouths are on social issues. According to one estimate, $2.7 trillion was invested using some type of socially responsible strategy in 2007. More than 250 mutual funds screened stocks using socially responsible criteria.
Critics argue that being socially responsible with your money simply means giving up return. By filtering out companies that don't meet your investing guidelines, you miss out on many profitable investing opportunities -- ones that could make the difference between gains and losses for your portfolio.
But a blanket condemnation of socially responsible investing is silly -- simply because there are so many ways to do it.
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Socially responsible investing means different things to different people. Some look to renewable energy and recycling. Others look for companies that promote social issues that are important to them, from encouraging healthy eating practices to supporting emerging-market economies abroad. Still others want companies that support employees and their communities through charitable work and giving.
As a result, depending on what type of screen you use, the companies you'll invest in will differ greatly. Companies such as Chipotle (NYSE: CMG ) and Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI ) don't just have a commitment to high-quality food -- they also treat their employees well.
On the other hand, you might be surprised at some of the companies that pass screens. Even much-maligned Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) has incorporated green-friendly measures in its stores. Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) pays above-average prices for coffee beans.
Socially responsible mutual funds see the same variations in investing styles. The Pax World Growth Fund (PWGIX), for instance, includes shares of Nike (NYSE: NKE ) , National Oilwell Varco (NYSE: NOV ) , and Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI ) among its holdings -- companies in industries where you might not expect to find many companies that pass Pax World's test by "meet[ing] positive standards of corporate and environmental responsibility."
Some also complain that socially responsible companies don't put shareholders first. As a result, you can't expect to get returns that are as strong as a company that puts all of its emphasis on the bottom line.
Obviously, if a company gives a penny of every dollar of earnings toward worthy causes, either within the company or outside it, that's one less penny for shareholders. The question, though, is whether those actions pay long-term dividends.
In my view, the answer is clearly yes. When companies promote their good acts, they create goodwill among customers. In many ways, corporate social responsibility is a more efficient form of advertising. Rather than putting together an attractive marketing campaign that may lack substance, a company that makes a contribution to its community shows that actions speak louder than words.
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At The Motley Fool, philanthropy and social responsibility are front and center right now, as we celebrate the power of investors to do good with our 2008 Foolanthropy campaign. With the problems of the past year caused in large part by people not understanding money matters well enough to avoid financial disaster, we're keeping our focus on improving financial literacy across the nation -- in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of the mortgage mess in the future.
As the financial markets continue to deal with uncertainty, it's tempting to tighten your belt in any way you can. If socially responsible investing is important to you, however, don't feel that you need to give up on it. During tough times, the investments that corporations make in their communities will pay even greater dividends.
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