Investing in “socially responsible” funds, as Jeff Keenan noted in his earlier blog, is an option. But a challenge seems to be the criteria for establishing such funds. Some simply focus on avoiding certain types of products like alcohol, tobacco, weapons, and gambling. Others are narrowly focused on rating companies for labor practices. Each may be helpful but provides insight on only part of the issue.
Further, perception of socially responsible action changes. In a recent release, one social responsibility fund has made a decision to stop investing in large banks because of their role in the worldwide economic disaster:
Appleseed Fund, a self-described socially-responsible fund that was created in 2006, said that Too Big to Fail (TBTF) banks are also "too big to own." The TBTF firms are now treated by the fund like those that "derive substantial revenues from the tobacco, alcohol, pornography, gambling, or weapons industries," according to the fund's filings.
But prior to this time, it and other similar funds had significant investment holdings in banks because lending to the poor with sub-prime mortgages was deemed a socially responsible thing to do.
We are not criticizing Social Responsibility Funds. Rather we provide the illustration to underscore the challenge of finding a single fund which aligns with all of our own social concerns.
To further complicate the picture, very few companies are perfectly socially responsible. Most have a mix of positive and negative characteristics. Some socially conscious companies, for example, headline their social commitments but offer less value and quality in their products and services. Others focus on creating jobs and economic opportunity without touting an explicit social agenda. Take Microsoft for example. Some would not include Microsoft (either because of some of the predatory practices lawsuits that have been raised against them or simply because of their size) in the socially responsible category. Yet Microsoft played a key role in support of the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina (developing a “people finder” application that allowed families to reconnect after the disaster) and has an even bigger stake in moving many people from poverty in India through its standard products and services in this emerging technology capital of the world.
Perhaps we should revisit the criteria for socially responsible investment, and look not simply at the product categories being offered (no tobacco, alcohol, pornography, gambling, or weapons) or at the programs being touted (or portions of profit being diverted towards social causes). Rather, we should ask the question: What constitutes a good company (not a perfect company), and how might it meet a real need in the world?
In our next post, we'll share what might be a better measure for guiding what constitutes a good investment decision.
Note: This piece is part of a larger story that will run in the October 2010 Fall edition of WEALTH magazine.
Albert M. Erisman, Ph.D., is Executive in Residence in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. He is a Fellow in the Center for Integrity in Business and is co-founder and executive editor of Ethix magazine. Prior to joining the SPU faculty, Dr. Erisman spent 32 years with the Boeing Company, the last 10 as Director of R&D for computing and mathematics.
John R. Terrill is the Director for the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. Prior to joining Seattle Pacific, John served as National Director for Professional Schools Ministries with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as well as a human resources and organization development consultant with the Hay Group.
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