EarthTalk: On Socially-Responsible 401K Investing.

June 22, 2008

EarthTalk is a weekly installment from E/The Environmental Magazine.

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Dear EarthTalk: I want to offer my employees a 401(k) plan that is socially and environmentally responsible. Are there such plans and, if so, where do I look?

Even though socially responsible investing (SRI) has been around for decades, only recently have some companies begun to offer their employees greener options for 401(k) retirement investment accounts.

According to Rona Fried of SustainableBusiness.com, SRI options for retirement plans are still only offered to about 20 percent of employees, but that’s changing fast. One survey found that more than two-thirds of employees want such choices. And a 2007 survey by the Social Investment Forum found that 60 percent of benefit plan sponsors polled plan to include SRI options for retirement funds by 2010.

Retirement accounts are big business in the U.S.: Some 50 million Americans have invested $2.5 trillion in 401(k) plans to date. With so few SRI options out there now and employees eager to make their savings work for the environment, greener 401(k) plans are sure to take a bigger and bigger slice of the pie moving forward. “It’s a matter of simple supply and demand,” says Paul Hilton of Calvert Funds, which currently offers one SRI retirement fund option but plans to add two more within the next couple of years. “Corporations are responding to the increasing desire of Americans to invest with their values.”

Right now health care and government agencies are those most likely to include an SRI option for employees’ retirement accounts, but a handful of large companies have gotten in on the act as well. For instance, chipmaker Intel began offering its employees an SRI retirement plan option eight years ago.

“In 2000, we were trying to create a culture of corporate social responsibility and it made sense for us to practice what we preach by including this option in our retirement plan,” says Dave Stangis, Intel’s director of corporate responsibility. “In addition, Intel itself is a top holding in many SRI mutual funds and we wanted to reinforce that with our employees. It’s a way for us to be a role model.”

Still, most plans give employees only a limited number of funds to choose from, often from Calvert and another SRI mutual fund leader, Domini. Both firms ply the three main tenets of SRI: (1) rigorous research to assess the social and environmental integrity of companies being considered for inclusion in an investment portfolio; (2) using investors’ positions as stockholders (i.e. owners) of companies invested in to advocate for good corporate citizenship (often through the introduction of corporate resolutions); and (3) channeling affordable credit to needy communities ill-served by traditional lenders to rebuild neighborhoods and create jobs. SRI funds are also increasingly making “early stage” investments in new companies on the cutting edge of environmental progress, such as alternative energy companies.

In order to help diversify the marketplace for SRI retirement plans, consultant Rob Thomas started Social(k) in 2005 to offer companies a full array of SRI options for their 401(k) plans. Social(k) offers 140 different SRI funds from which employees at participating companies can choose. Thomas’s goal is to offer as many funds as possible and become the one-stop shop for retirement investing. Companies can offer either Social(k) alone, or as a secondary option alongside an existing 401(k) plan.

CONTACTS: SustainableBusiness.com, www.sustainablebusiness.com; Calvert Funds, www.calvert.com; Domini Social Investments, www.domini.com; Social(k), www.socialk.com.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 USA; submit it at EarthTalk; or e-mail us. Read past columns at our archives.

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Filed in: Money

About the Author:

After a varied past of being a test driver for automotive television programs, a Hollywood studio lackey, and an online media sales director, David is now the publisher and editor of The Good Human. In his spare time he rides motorcycles, drinks good beer, and builds stuff in the garage. You can follow him on Twitter at @thegoodhuman or G+ at Google
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