Sixteen-year old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit early last week. Plenty of people criticized her dramatic delivery. But nobody should downplay the importance of her message. We’re burning too many fossil fuels, cutting down too many trees and polluting rivers, lakes and oceans.
I’ve given investment talks in more than 25 different countries. People often ask about socially responsible (SRI) funds. Such funds include higher exposure to companies with smaller carbon footprints. They often filter companies that manufacture weapons, cigarettes and alcohol. Most SRI funds don’t include stocks connected to pornography or gambling either. Few Americans, however, ask me about these products. Most of the investors interested in SRI funds are from Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Investment products around the world reflect this demand. While SRI funds do exist in the United States, they are far more common in Europe. And that makes sense. After traveling the world for the past six years, I’ve noticed that Europeans appear far more environmentally conscious. While staying with friends in Germany, I learned that they could get fined if they tossed paper, a plastic bag, a can or a bottle into the household trash.
In fact, according to OECD World Recycling Statistics, Germany recycles or composts a world-leading 65 percent of its municipal waste. The report suggests that nine of the top ten countries for recycling are in Europe. The United States, although it’s improving, isn’t among the top ten.
Plenty of Europeans prefer SRI funds, presumably because they want to help the environment. But SRI funds aren’t the answer to a sustainable planet. After all, when we invest in a publicly traded stock, like Exxon Mobil (either directly or through a mutual fund), we aren’t giving the company money to drill more oil. Instead, we’re becoming passive owners. We might benefit from their enterprise. But unless we’re buying the company’s bonds (or contributing money to a start-up) we’re not fueling its industry. In contrast, we support companies that hurt the environment when we use their products or services.
When we fuel our cars, we’re supporting big oil. When we use disposable bags at the grocery store, we contribute to the plastics industry or deforestation. When we buy big new homes or remodel our homes, we’re contributing to companies with harmful environmental impacts. According to Natural Life Magazine, buildings make up about 40 percent of worldwide energy and material use. That doesn’t mean we need to walk barefoot and move into caves. We just need to be careful about how much we consume.
This brings me back to Socially Responsible Funds. No, investing in such funds doesn’t equate to a smaller carbon footprint. But by investing in such funds, you’re saying, “I don’t want to profit off the backs of certain industries.”
Americans have far less interest in such products, compared to Europeans. But that doesn’t mean the American tide isn’t turning.
Samuel M. Hartzmark and Abigail B. Sussman are associate professors at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In 2018, they published, “Do Investors Value Sustainability? A Natural Experiment Examining Ranking and Fund Flows.” They referenced Morningstar’s sustainability rankings for U.S. mutual funds, which Morningstar started in March 2016. The fund rating’s company ranked more than 20,000 funds, based on their holdings. They gave mutual funds with low global sustainability one “globe” scores. The funds that included stocks which Morningstar figured were better for the environment were given as many as five “globe” scores.
Hartzmark and Sussman wanted to see if Americans added more money to funds that reported higher “globe” rankings. And it appeared that they did. Before the introduction of Morningstar’s sustainability ratings, the funds received similar levels of relative inflows. But 11 months after the funds received their “globe” scores, investors added more money to the funds with the highest sustainability scores. In contrast, they withdrew money from funds with low sustainability scores.
The researchers also conducted experiments with MBA students and MTurk participants. They found that they, too, were more attracted to funds with higher global sustainability scores. Some selected such funds based on environmental concerns. Others selected sustainable funds because they thought they might perform better. But in both cases (the real world case and the experimental case studies) higher sustainability rankings attracted investors.
If you don’t want to profit from companies with high carbon footprints, let me offer a solution. The iShares MSCI Low Carbon ETF (CRBN) has a single focus. It includes global companies with low carbon footprints. iShares publishes sustainability measures for each of its ETFs. For example, the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) had a weighted average carbon intensity score of 185.83, as of September 1, 2019. This represents the estimated greenhouse gas emissions per $1 million in sales across the fund’s holdings. The iShares MSCI World ETF (URTH) is almost as bad. Its carbon intensity score is 175.16.
In contrast, the iShares MSCI Low Carbon ETF (CRBN) has a weighted carbon intensity score of just 61.82. Therefore, if you want a global, sustainable stock market fund, it might be all you need. It costs just 0.20 percent per year. About 55 percent of its holdings are U.S. companies. The remaining 45 percent include international stocks. Over the past three years, its environmentally conscious investors haven’t sacrificed much performance for their ethics.
Over the three-year period ending August 31, 2019, this global low-carbon ETF averaged a compound annual return of 9.25 percent. That compares with the much more traditional iShares MSCI World ETF, which earned a compound annual return of 9.90 percent.
An increasing number of young people, like Greta Thunberg, are protesting against high-carbon emitting firms. Her generation might start voting with their wallets. They might decide to drive fewer miles. They might decide to vote for higher taxes on high-carbon emitting companies. They might buy more used products over new and sidestep businesses with high-carbon footprints.
If that happens, investors won’t need to sacrifice performance for their ethics. They might make far more money with low-carbon ETFs than they would with traditional index funds. Best of all, they might sleep better at night, knowing that their money is aligned with their ethics.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas