"Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel; and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land ... " — from "Paradise," as performed by John Prine
"Socially responsible investing" is a phrase garnering lots of attention in the financial world. Some investors exhibit great concern over the type of companies in which their money is invested; some do not.
Let's say you're an investor who prefers not to place your capital in oil and gas companies or in MLP's that transport oil or gas, because you are committed to the renewable energy movement. Or perhaps you choose not to invest in companies that produce tobacco or alcohol because you don't want to support industries that you believe produce harmful products. Your concerns are completely understandable.
Most folks can quickly decide for themselves if tobacco or alcohol-related investments are in their moral wheelhouse. More often than not investors who eschew ownership of these companies have some personal connection to the negative side effects produced by these types of products.
But what about companies that make soft drinks and junk food? If a company knows their products aren’t healthy yet keeps producing them, is that company socially irresponsible? What about household goods companies that produce unnecessarily thick plastic containers for purely aesthetic reasons? Are media companies behaving in a socially irresponsible way when they repeatedly produce violent movies? If they produce a family-friendly movie for every violent one, does that make it more acceptable?
Like everything else in life, it’s complicated.
Take a company that checks almost all your social boxes. They donate generously to causes you support; they pay their employees a living wage even though others in their industry may not; they recycle everything they can and take active measures to reduce their environmental footprint; and they genuinely try to do the right thing based on your definition of “the right thing.” But what if they are extremely aggressive about avoiding taxes legally? They aren’t breaking the law, but does pushing the tax boundary to the very limit of legality fit in your definition of being good? Head hurt yet?
Here's my take. I admire people who want to support ethical companies. Voting with your pocketbook is one of the truest forms of activism and those interested in a particular cause would naturally like to align their investments with their beliefs if possible. But for the average investor who just wants to enjoy a nice retirement, trying to only invest in companies you agree with socially, environmentally and politically is almost a full time job.
Isolating companies that are good investments is a challenge. Finding ones that are socially responsible is difficult as well. Doing both can sometimes be impossible.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management LLC (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.