The Origins of Socially Responsible Investing

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Socially responsible investing (SRI) follows standards to only invest in businesses that abide by good social values and work towards promoting positive outcomes for many social problems. Such goals can include promoting women and education, engaging in social justice, and protection of the environment. SRI will avoid allocating funds to companies that are seen as causing harm to the social wellbeing of humankind.

Deep Roots of Socially Responsible Investing

Practitioners of sustainable or socially responsible investing take note of its roots dating back more than 200 years ago to money management practices of the Methodists. Others suggest this goes back to the ideas long championed in Sharia investing if not beyond.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, urged his followers to shun profiting at the expense of their neighbors. Consequently, they avoided partnering or investing with those who earned their money through alcohol, tobacco, weapons, or gambling—essentially establishing social investment screens.

Shariah—Shari'a—investing follows Islamic religious guidelines and also avoids investments in alcohol and tobacco-related enterprises.

While the Methodists and members of other faiths apply particular principles to their investments through the years, it wasn’t until the sixties that socially responsible investing vaulted forward as an investing discipline.

The '60s

Dissatisfaction among students and other young people led to protests against the Vietnam War and the boycott of companies that provide weapons used in the war. Meanwhile, civil rights and racial equality rose in prominence. Community development banks that were established in low-income or minority communities were part of a movement that produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The '70s

During the seventies, social activism spread to labor-management issues at corporations, while protection of the environment also became a consideration for more investors. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. As the decade wore on, concerns that many activists had over the threat of pollution from nuclear power plants were heightened with the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

A significant breakthrough for socially responsible investing occurred in 1970, when Ralph Nader—a consumer advocate, environmentalist, and later independent candidate for president of the United States—succeeded in getting two socially based resolutions on the annual meeting proxy ballot of General Motors, the country’s largest employer at the time. Although both votes failed, it was the first time that the federal Securities Exchange Commission permitted social-responsibility issues to appear on a proxy ballot.

Progress continued for SRI during the eighties, most notably through the effort to end the racist system of apartheid in South Africa. Individual and institutional investors pulled their money from companies with operations in South Africa. The investment decisions of churches, universities, cities, and states moved many U.S. corporations to divest themselves of their South African operations. That led to economic instability within South Africa and contributed to the eventual collapse of apartheid.

The '80s

The early 1980s were also a time when several mutual funds were founded to cater to the concerns of socially responsible investors. These funds applied positive and negative screens or filters to their stock selections. The funds included Calvert Social Investment Fund Balanced Portfolio and the Parnassus Fund.

The filters included the basic concerns of the Methodists—weapons, alcohol, tobacco and gambling—but also more modern issues, such as nuclear energy, environmental pollution, and the treatment of workers.

The '90s

By 1990 there had been sufficient proliferation of SRI mutual funds and growth in popularity as an investing approach, to warrant an index to measure performance. The Domini Social Index, made up of 400 primarily large-capitalization U.S. corporations, comparable to the S&P 500, was launched in 1990.

The companies were selected based on a wide range of social and environmental criteria and provided investors with a benchmark to measure the performance of screened investments versus their unscreened counterparts. Over time the index would help to disprove the argument that by limiting the companies they could include in their portfolios they were settling for lower returns than traditional investors.

The activism that led to the identification of specific screens and the engagement of dialogue with companies with questionable corporate behavior also propelled the growth of community investment, another major element of socially responsible investing. Support for community development financial institutions grew during the 1960s as a way to address racial inequality.

Activists argued that there was a positive social impact by investing in CDFIs, which in turn would inject that money into small businesses and housing programs in low-income communities. Loans were made to poor people, who paid them back with a rate of interest, providing a return for investors beyond knowing their money was used in a socially positive way.

Present Day Responsible Investing

Fast forward to the present day, and we are seeing an acceleration of positive approaches to sustainability challenges emerging as a form of SRI 2.0. Such modern approaches include impact investing, and the mainstreaming of sustainable investing, which continues to evolve.

With issues continuing to manifest from income and wealth inequality to climate change, expect these trends to continue and strengthen going forward especially as sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies continue to add financial value to companies and their shareholders.