Making Change

The debate over socially responsible investing


| March / April 2005



So, you've decided the time has come to make some socially responsible investments. OK. How about a few shares of post-Cheney Halliburton? Or maybe a supersized helping of McDonald's? And hey, while you're at it, don't forget there's nothing like a little ExxonMobil to juice up the ol' portfolio.

Not what you had in mind? Well, according to entrepreneur Paul Hawken, if you invest in a socially responsible investment (SRI) mutual fund, these are exactly the sorts of companies you'll be doing business with.

At the end of 2003, according to a controversial report co-authored by Hawken and his Natural Capital Institute -- and published in October 2004 by a number of monthly publications owned by the alternative magazine chain Dragonfly Media -- 23 SRI funds had shares in Halliburton, the subject of multiple federal probes. The fast-food juggernaut McDonald's, which has been linked to America's obesity epidemic, was included in 41 funds. And ExxonMobil, a perennial environmental threat, was represented in the portfolios of some 40 SRI funds. These are significant numbers, given that there are only 100 SRI funds managed domestically, and some 600 worldwide.

In fact, Hawken estimates that more than 90 percent of all Fortune 500 companies are now included in SRI portfolios. 'The term socially responsible investing is so broad it is meaningless,' he writes in the report. 'If a fund doesn't own companies involved with gambling and pornography, it can be called socially responsible.'

Part of the progressive lexicon for over 30 years, socially responsible investing was initially conceived as a way to help investors subject their portfolios to a 'negative screen,' thus avoiding funds that included companies mixed up in the military-industrial complex or profiting from social vices like alcohol, gambling, and tobacco.

As SRI funds have become more commonplace, Hawken contends, the pressure for them to perform as well as traditional mutual funds has increased, leading to what he calls 'portfolio creep' -- 'porous and spurious criteria about what is a socially responsible company.' At the same time, he's troubled by companies that make false claims in their advertising and clients who are often in the dark about which investment strategies are chosen or why.