What is Ethical Investing?

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Contributor, Benzinga
June 15, 2023

Imagine earning stable financial returns while promoting important causes such as climate protection or social justice. Ethical investors focus on these issues as an additional screening tool in their investment portfolios. By incorporating ethical investing into your financial strategy, you build wealth and work towards a better world. Read on to learn how ethical investing works and how to build a responsible investment strategy. 

How Does Ethical Investing Work?

Ethical investing, also known as socially responsible investing (SRI) or sustainable investing, involves making investment decisions that align with personal values and ethical considerations. It aims to generate financial returns while promoting positive social and environmental impacts.

How Do Investors Identify Ethical Investment Opportunities?

Investors can identify ethical investment opportunities by considering factors such as companies' environmental practices, labor standards, community engagement, corporate governance policies and alignment with specific sustainability goals or frameworks.

Investors can research companies and read each company’s sustainability report, which may include greenwashed claims. Information provided by third-party reporting frameworks like MSCI or Sustainalytics can help investors objectively understand each company’s strengths and weaknesses with reference to environmental, social and governance (ESG) indicators. 

What Are the Different Approaches to Ethical Investing?

Ethical investing can be approached through different strategies, including negative screening, positive screening, thematic investing, impact investing and shareholder advocacy. Each approach has its own focus and criteria for selecting investments.

  • Negative screening excludes or avoids investments in companies or industries that engage in activities against the investor’s values, such as weapons, tobacco or fossil fuels.
  • Positive screening actively selects investments in companies that meet ethical criteria such as strong sustainability practices, renewable energy solutions or a commitment to social responsibility.
  • Thematic investing selects companies that align with specific areas, such as clean energy, water management, gender equality or healthcare innovation.
  • Impact investing allocates capital to projects, companies or funds with the goal of generating measurable positive social and environmental impact with financial returns.
  • Shareholder advocacy involves influencing corporate behavior and practices for sustainable goals This practice can include actively participating in shareholder meetings, filing resolutions and advocating for companies to adopt more sustainable and responsible practices or build sustainable markets.

What Is Negative Screening in Ethical Investing?

Negative screening excludes companies or sectors that engage in activities conflicting with ethical values. For example, an investor may avoid investing in companies involved in industries with poor labor practices or child labor or companies that produce specific products like fossil fuels, tobacco, alcohol or weapons.

How Does Shareholder Advocacy Contribute to Ethical Investing?

Shareholder advocacy involves actively engaging with companies as a shareholder to encourage positive changes in their practices. It can include participating in shareholder meetings, submitting proposals and voting on ESG issues. Over time, shareholder advocacy can shape a company’s priorities and environmental or social impact. 

What Are the Challenges of Ethical Investing?

Ethical investing can present challenges such as the lack of standardized ESG metrics and reporting, the subjectivity of ethical criteria and potential trade-offs between financial returns and ethical considerations. Investors need thorough research on ethical investments and to perform due diligence to ensure alignment with personal values and financial expectations.

Example of Ethical Investing

Ethical investing may focus on specific areas like climate or social justice. Examples of ethical investing include:

Renewable energy: Investing in companies that develop and operate renewable energy projects, such as wind farms, solar power installations or hydropower facilities. These investments contribute to reducing reliance on fossil fuels and mitigating climate change.

Impact bonds: Investing in bonds issued by organizations or governments to fund projects with specific social or environmental objectives, such as affordable housing, clean water initiatives or education programs. Investors earn returns while supporting positive societal outcomes.

Microfinance: Investing in microfinance institutions that provide financial services, such as small loans and savings accounts, to individuals and businesses in low-income communities. This type of investment helps promote financial inclusion and economic empowerment.

Things to Consider With Ethical Investing

Key factors that individuals should consider when engaging in ethical investing include financial performance and ethical evaluation. Here’s what to consider.

Factor #1: Environmental Impact of Ethical Investing

The positive environmental effects of ethical trading can be wide-ranging but difficult to quantify. Investment options that contribute to environmental sustainability may include companies that produce renewable energy or companies committed to carbon-neutral operations. 

Factor #2: Social Impact of Ethical Investing

Social benefits and outcomes of ethical investing can include the promotion of social causes or companies working to address societal challenges. This can include Fair Trade Certified companies or those promoting opportunities in underprivileged communities or developing nations. Banks offering microloans is one example of social impact in ethical investing. 

Factor #3: Financial Performance of Ethical Investments

Ethical investing requires analyses of the financial returns of ethical investments. A common misconception of ethical investing is that you must sacrifice returns for impact. In reality, ethical investments, when balanced in a diverse portfolio, have comparable returns to traditional investments.  

Examples of successful ethical investment strategies include investing in diverse funds or portfolios such socially responsible mutual funds or ESG ETFs.

Factor #4: Ethical Investing Strategies and Approaches

Investors can explore various approaches to ethical investing, such as exclusionary screening, ESG integration and impact investing. All ethical investing strategies can produce a positive impact but without due diligence can have a limited impact. Here are ways these investing strategies work to create positive change:

  • Negative screening allows you to remove the worst offenders to ethical principles from your investment portfolio. 
  • Positive screening allows you to actively promote companies working for positive change. 
  • Thematic investing promotes companies with specific goals, such as clean energy, water management, gender equality or healthcare innovation.
  • Impact investing aims to create measurable positive social and environmental impact with financial returns.
  • ESG investing aims to create broad positive changes.
  • Shareholder advocacy works to encourage companies to adopt more sustainable and responsible practices.

Factor #5: Evaluating Ethical Investment Options

Assessing potential investments' ethical credentials and impact requires due diligence and research. Consider third-party reporting frameworks, as well as a company’s ESG report. 

Advantages of Ethical Investing

The significant advantages of ethical investing include:

  • Positive impacts
  • Stable returns
  • Potentially less volatility
  • Flexible, personalized strategies

Disadvantages of Ethical Investing

The disadvantages of ethical investing include:

  • Lack of transparency or clarity on the impact achieved
  • Potentially greenwashed investment opportunities
  • No guarantee of financial performance
  • More limited investment options

Comparison: Ethical Investing vs. Socially Responsible Investing

Ethical investing and SRI are often used interchangeably and share similar principles and objectives. However, there are some subtle differences between the two.

Scope of Consideration

Ethical investing: Focuses on investing in companies and industries that align with an individual's ethical values and principles. It involves evaluating potential investments' ESG factors.

Socially responsible investing: Broadens the scope to include investments that align with ethical values and actively promote positive social change. SRI typically emphasizes social impact and may involve investing in specific causes like renewable energy, education or healthcare.

Return on Investment

Ethical investing: Recognizes that financial performance remains a key consideration. The aim is to achieve a balance between ethical considerations and potential financial returns.

Socially responsible investing: Strives to generate competitive financial returns while driving positive social and environmental outcomes. The belief is that companies operating ethically and responsibly may demonstrate better long-term financial performance.

Approach to Investment Selection

Ethical investing: Primarily uses negative screening where investments are excluded based on specific ethical criteria. Companies involved in activities such as tobacco, weapons or environmental harm may be excluded from the investment portfolio.

Socially responsible investing: Emphasizes positive screening, actively seeking out investments that positively impact society. This approach may involve investing in companies with sustainable business practices, diverse workforces or those contributing to community development.

Building an Ethical Investment Portfolio

The basics of a strong investment portfolio remain, regardless of specific ethical goals. Diversify, invest for the long-term, use dollar-cost averaging, buy and hold and buy indexed funds to mitigate risk. However, investors can also choose to invest a portion of their portfolios to promote specific ethical issues. Investors dedicating even a small percentage of their portfolios to long-term ethical results can collectively have a powerful effect for good. 

Frequently Asked Questions


What kinds of companies are considered ethical investments?


Companies that are considered ethical investments include companies that shun child labor and focus on paying employees a living wage or focus on positive environmental impacts. Ethical investments may also filter for companies that don’t align with the investor’s values, such as tobacco companies or firearms producers. 


Can you earn a good return on investment with ethical investing?


Yes, you can earn a good return on investment with proper financial screening, risk mitigation and a diverse portfolio. 


Are ethical investments less profitable?


Ethical investments can offer comparable returns to other companies and can be profitable. However, any investment carries risk and no returns are guaranteed.