The U.S. Social Investment Forum recently released its 2012 report on trends in socially responsible investing, or SRI. Some interesting trends have emerged since the last report in 2010, and should give many investors food for thought on how to direct their investment dollars.
The report revealed that corporate governance is one area that has grown in concern for responsible investment; the recent acknowledgment of its importance has likely been helped along by Dodd-Frank and the financial crisis. However, another area that's of huge interest in 2012 is blocking or divesting stocks profiting in geographical areas fraught with conflict or tyrannical regimes.
Sudan's still on the map
Sudan has taken a higher profile in the socially responsible investing community than it probably has in many other areas. The report reveals that the risks related to this "volatile and repressive" regime has led to investors pulling out of companies working with Sudan, or at least engagement with them to try to find workable solutions. This issue actually affected more than $1.63 trillion in institutional assets and more than $999 billion across all investment vehicles.
In fact, the report reveals that such an impact means that "Sudan-related investment policies are the most prevalent ESG criteria incorporated into investment management." ("ESG" criteria are defined as environmental, social, and governance factors.)
Speaking of which, last summer Sudan avoidance activists scored a major victory. Shareholders of ING Emerging Countries Fund voted 59% in favor of banning Sudan-related holdings. After having initially tried to block the proposal from reaching shareholders for a vote, ING fund's board ended up taking a neutral stance on the resolution.
Activist group Investors Against Genocide has performed plenty of advocacy for avoidance of companies that profit in Sudan, having agitated at more than 80 other funds, but this was the first time it's managed to drum up a majority vote. Although the vote was non-binding, it was a major victory on the human rights front.
Oil companies are often implicated for the business they do in Sudan, financially supporting the government's human rights abuses and genocide in regions like Darfur. Such companies include PetroChina (NYSE: PTR ) and Sinopec (NYSE: SHI ) .
The problems in Sudan, most notably Darfur, began in 2003. War between armed military groups and government forces, lawlessness, large numbers of refugees lacking food, water, and sanitation, and violence and repression continue to this day. According to the United Nations, 300,000 people have been killed and 3 million displaced since the conflict began.
Plenty of areas to avoid
The situation in Sudan is obviously one of the most well-known and serious conflicts, even if news coverage has failed to keep us all current on the continuing problems there.
However, there's a divestiture campaign currently taking place related to the recent conflict in Gaza as well. An organization called We Divest has been calling for divestment, particularly by huge pension fund TIAA-CREF, from companies like General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) for "war profiteering" in the region.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is another source of conflict for responsible investors. "Conflict minerals," such as gold, tin, tungsten, and columbite-tantalite (coltan), are frequently sourced in the war-torn area, and are used in some of the most popular consumer devices such as laptops, mobile devices, and tablets.
The Securities & Exchange Commission adopted a rule last summer that was put forth by the Dodd-Frank Act; this will require public companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals sourced in Congo and other countries.
Other oppressive and terrorist regimes or situations that are being tackled by SRI asset owners include Iran and "The MacBride Principles," related to fair hiring practices in Northern Ireland.
Where do you stand?
This data may sound like a new way to approach the definition of a "sin stock," but it actually isn't. Way back in the 1980s, some responsible investors embarked on divestiture campaigns to protest apartheid in South Africa, for example. And addressing human rights concerns like these is certainly a far more complex approach to SRI than simply screening out weapons manufacturers or defense contractors.
It's no secret that socially responsible investing is fraught with complex issues and certainly tends to be a bit fragmented; after all, the area is very reliant on subjective opinion, and opens itself to discourse on what the most -- or least -- responsible companies actually are.
However, what may be the most important part of investing this way, and a key to making all investments better, is its focus on how companies profit, and whether it's truly right to use your investing dollars to support the practices.
There's a point where "Do I stand to make a profit?" should be followed by the question, "Is it high time I take a stand?"
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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.