8 Investments That Make a Difference

Originally published on U.S. News & World Report, June 3, 2015.

Can socially responsible companies turn their good values into good value? Market experts share their insights on potential winners.

Investing is good – and oh so very good when it reaps a healthy profit. But while we all hope for monetary gains, there’s also the question of the “greater good.” Socially responsible investments yield returns of another sort – whether they aid the environment, back ethical businesses or pursue medical cures – that seek to turn money into muscle that boosts a positive social or corporate agenda.

In this arena, experienced pros could actually learn something from the newbies, says Bradford S. Bernstein, senior vice president of wealth management with UBS in Philadelphia. “Millennials are the biggest force behind this trend of socially responsible investing,” he says. “The millennial generation is interested in making a difference, and they choose to invest in and buy from companies that are making a social statement.”

Yet socially responsible investing has pitfalls. For starters, it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. It would be good to be able to invest in companies that are working against “poor labor conditions in developing countries, but regrettably there are few, if any, companies that are doing this effectively,” says Geoffrey M. Heal, a professor of social enterprise at Columbia Business School.

What’s more, the best of intentions doesn’t necessarily equal the best of returns. “Don't invest just because you like the ethical narrative,” Heal says. “There have to be financial and ethical stories that are compelling.”

Some companies may also use good behavior to blot out the bad. While it’s known for controversial labor practices, “Is Walmart a conscious [company] for investing heavily in the organics industry?” asks Elliot Kotek, chief of content and co-founder of Not Impossible, a company that uses crowdsourcing to pinpoint worldwide problems and develop compelling solutions. Meanwhile, he says, some publicized do-good efforts are just plain strange: “Is Google conscious for providing reimbursements to employees who want to freeze their eggs?”

There’s no need to fear freezing your nest egg, though: All it takes is aligning your money smarts and virtuous heart. Here, we present eight investments that strive to make a difference.

Google (symbol: GOOG) Frozen eggs aside, the tech behemoth hatched from a search engine is one of many West Coast companies run by progressive management. “Environmental and social concerns rank high among their corporate concerns, and their senior executives often live their values,” says Kevin Barr, executive vice president of the investment management unit at SEI, an investment firm headquartered in Oaks, Pennsylvania. Google also ranks among those companies where senior execs make substantial personal contributions to charity.

Faith-based mutual funds Barr points to a number of funds SEI has developed to honor the religious values of investors. These run the gamut from the New Covenant Growth Fund (NCGFX) to the SEI Catholic Values Equity Fund (CAVAX). “These offer socially responsible investment mandates to screen out specific securities as well as positive tilts designed to favor companies that meet certain criteria,” Barr says. They also avoid holding bonds issued by a firm such as Vitrolife due to the firm’s involvement with stem cell research. Generally, these funds favor companies that have high environmental, social and governance standards. Other faith-based funds include the Islam-based Amana Mutual Funds Trust Income Fund (AMANX), the Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund (AVEMX) and the Christian-based Eventide Gilead Fund (ETGLX).

PowerShares Water Resources Portfolio (PHO) How wet can you get? This exchange-traded fund is comprised of 28 stocks of small- and mid-cap companies that purify and deliver clean water to homes and businesses. Although the stock has been flat over the past year, trading at about $26, the severe drought in the Southwestern U.S. could change that. “When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘The economy isn’t doing so well [so] I’m cutting out my glass of water in the morning’?” says John O’Donnell, chief knowledge officer of the Online Trading Academy, based in Irvine, California. “Investing in clean, safe water is about doing good for the community as well as setting yourself up for a large profit potential.”

Johnson Controls (JCI) Johnson Controls is an American technology company that focuses on sustainability, say Mark A. Tan, a financial advisor at Thrivent Financial, based in north suburban Chicago. “Their products are built to save the user money, create efficiency, conserve energy and make consumers’ lives better.” He cites how Johnson has helped automakers increase fuel efficiency and hospitals create constant energy supplies so they can function during power outages. Rich Erwin, senior analyst and portfolio manager at Exencial Wealth Advisors, also likes Johnson for its high environmental, social and governance scores.

Azzad Ethical Fund (ADJEX) Based in Falls Church, Virginia, Azzad Asset Management has a fund centered on mid-cap growth companies and focused on impact investing. “It actively avoids companies that run afoul of the [United Nations] Global Compact,” says Joshua Brockwell, Azzad’s director of investment communications. Besides avoiding investments related to alcohol, gambling and tobacco, “The fund also shuns companies that engage in hydraulic fracturing,” he says.

Nike (NKE) You’ve got to be kidding, right? The sports company Michael Moore savaged in his 1997 documentary “The Big One” has rebounded from its rotten reputation for using sweatshop labor. “It’s the way the company responded to these issues that impresses us,” Erwin says. It now uses recycled and sustainable materials in its products and has established strong health and safety standards for employees. Management has also committed to monitor conditions at supplier factories. “Their supplier auditing systems are considered industry best practices,” Erwin says.

Apple (AAPL) Apple hasn’t avoided labor controversy either, with “suicide nets” at its Chinese factories to keep stressed workers from leaping to their deaths. Yet Apple itself made the revelation, “and for the most part is considered very socially responsible,” Tan says. “They treat their U.S. employees very well and are environmentally conscious.” On the latter point, good practices equal good profit. “Apple's new solar-power plant is inevitably going to be best for their business,” Kotek notes. “So maybe we don't need companies to remain or become ethically mindful corporate ‘citizens’ for change to be effected.”

Panera Bread (PNRA) For Panera fans, there’s more to love besides bakery sweets and free Wi-Fi. “This company has an extended history of product sustainability, transparency and leadership,” says David Yepez, an investment analyst at Exencial. For more than a decade, Panera has used antibiotic-free chicken, and has added antibiotic-free ham, breakfast sausage and turkey; the animals are raised in “reduced-stress environments,” according to the company. And recently, “Panera introduced a ‘No No List’ that covers more than 150 artificial ingredients that will be removed from Panera Bread and St. Louis Bread Co. bakery-café menus.”zens’ for change to be effected.”

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