Putting your money where your mind is
We all feel happy when our investments make money. More money enables us to do things that give us joy, like providing for our families, supporting our communities and of course having fun. While most of us would agree that money can’t buy happiness, we also know that it can help support what makes us happy.
Until a few years ago, I had no idea that the process of investing could be aligned with my core values, which include community and caring for our planet. I had been following a conventional goal of investing money solely to make more money. Then, if I wanted to do some good, I could donate it to a cause or organization that I cared about.
Finding value without sacrificing values
After leaving the brokerage business in 2007, I was drawn to the idea of sustainable investing because it emphasizes the deeply connected nature of people, planet and profit. If we wish to make the world a better place, then all of those things need to be considered. To educate myself, I started attending a variety of conferences and workshops, including the Slow Money gathering in 2010. The event, and the organization in general, challenges people to consider ‘slowing down’ the nature of their money (at least some of it) by considering the impact it has on providing healthy, local and sustainable food.
From that conference, I was introduced to several other organizations that offer ways to be more intentional about money and investing, including RSF Social Finance, a dynamic non-profit with a mission to transform the way the world works with money. People can invest in their loan fund to support businesses and organizations that address diverse social and environmental issues, including food, the arts and education. Through working with these organizations, I’ve come to understand that my investments can earn a return and also be focused on what is truly important to me and my family. There are a growing number of ways that do that, some of which have been around for a long time.
Start with banking
Community banking, owning stock in socially responsible corporations, funding a new generation of social entrepreneurs (people focused on solving social or environmental issues), and investing in making your home more energy-efficient all represent ways to use our investment money for positive change.
Evaluating your bank is one of the easiest ways to get started. The more locally focused your bank or credit union is, the more benefit your deposit dollars will bring to your community. About two-thirds of loans made by community banks go to small businesses—many of them local. In contrast, only about one-third of loans from national and global institutions flow to small businesses.
Small local banks and credit unions are also more likely to have stakeholders (depositors, borrowers, employees and even bank owners) connected through place and community. Some community development banks and credit unions provide assistance to people lacking access to financial services—another social benefit.
Options for socially conscious investing
Investing in the stock market and publicly traded companies doesn’t have to mean ignoring your values. Advisors that specialize in socially responsible investing (SRI) have been around for decades. Originally, they mostly offered “negative screens”—identifying companies that were not involved in things like alcohol, tobacco or weapons, for example. Now, many public companies report on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of their business, along with their financial results. This allows investment experts to positively screen companies according to values and sustainability, in addition to potential financial return.
You can also find out how well a company treats their employees, including factory working conditions and availability of healthcare coverage. Many companies report on CO2 emissions, natural resource consumption and recycling programs, all of which affect our environment. From a governance perspective, we can consider how diverse a board of directors is, whether it includes a significant number of women, etc.
Useful resources abound
Across all these areas, a growing number of resources can help us be more intentional with our money and investing. Green America and Social Funds have made simple investment guides to help people get started, along with listings of relevant mutual funds. First Affirmative is a network of investment professionals who help clients invest in values-aligned companies.
Investment firms like Trillium Asset Management use ESG information to analyze and manage investments for their portfolios and clients. In addition, they proactively engage public companies to improve their business practices by acting as an advocate for their client shareholders.
Learning about sustainable investing has changed the way I think about money. To help others get involved, I created a directory as a one-stop site for information on the subject. I continue to realize how much our investments have an effect on society and the planet, and as a consequence, impact our own happiness and wellbeing.
Brian Kaminer is the founder of Talgra, a consulting firm focused on sustainable, responsible and impact investing. He is also co-creator, with his wife Alka, of LiveHappyWithin.com.