Ethical Investment: What it is and how it works (or doesn't)

 Conducting business in line with one's moral convictions is nothing new. In what many regard as the birth of the modern concept of ethical investment, the Quakers Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1758 prohibited its members from participating in the slave trade. In the late 18th century, the founder of the Methodist church John Wesley set out a more detailed set of principles for the 'right use of money'. These included not harming one's neighbour through business practices and avoiding industrial processes involving “arsenic, or other equally hurtful minerals, or…..air tainted with steams of melting lead,” which were said to be harmful to the health of workers.1

During the twentieth century, more churches, charities and individuals began to take account of ethical criteria when making investment decisions. A key moment in the development of ethical investment funds was the establishment of the Pax Fund in 1971 in response to the Vietnam war. The fund was set up by two United Methodist Church ministers, motivated by a realisation that not supporting the war effort meant something more than simply not investing in arms manufacturers. Investors realised that their capital could have been invested in a range of other types of companies implicated in the war, not least the manufacturers of chemicals such as napalm and agent orange.

The global boycott movement against apartheid South Africa also brought issues of ethical investment to the fore, and socially responsible investment (SRI), particularly in the US, played a key role in divestment from South Africa. Friends Provident – which previously had close links to the Quakers and was, indeed, founded by Joseph Rowntree – established the first ethical investment fund in the UK in 1985. The fund excluded tobacco, arms, alcohol and investments related to oppressive regimes from its products. Since the mid 1980s, the sector in the UK has grown exponentially, as shown in the adjacent table.2














Total SRI (£m)

























Total SRI (£m)















There is a great deal of disagreement among investors, companies, NGOs and academics on what exactly constitutes ‘ethical investment’, or ‘socially responsible investment’, as it is more commonly known in the US. The terms are often used interchangeably with, or as an umbrella term for, various types of sustainable or responsible investment. If one key, obvious source for this lack of consensus is disputes over what an ‘ethical’ standard is, another, less obvious source is the propensity of early ethical funds and advisors to differentiate their products from those of others.

As a modern concept, the term 'ethical investment' is usually used to mean the integration of ethical values and social and environmental considerations into investment decisions, rather than basing such decisions solely on financial calculations (expected risks and returns). However, some commentators would argue that ethical decisions are incorporated into the rationale for financial calculations. We will return to this point later in the discussion.

The first problem to confront is that there is no agreement on what these values and considerations are or should be. The result is that many investments regarded as ethical are simply ones that are consistent with some investor's subjective values, be they religious, political, social, environmental or, indeed, any set of values reached via a process of organisational decision-making. These values can be translated into detailed criteria for particular industries and companies that investors might avoid or promote. Then there is the investor's social and political priorities, or agenda, and how they think they can effect it. To address these differences in values, criteria and priorities, many investment advisors now use weighted criteria or some form of ethical scoring matrix.3 In recent years, many have been giving environmental criteria more weight than others, as evidenced by the growing number of environmental and green funds in the UK, for example.4

There are numerous different combinations of these criteria, and different investors may put more or less emphasis on different issues, depending on the industry and the investor's priorities. A quick glance at the databases held by some of the major ethical investment consultants, such as the Ethical Investors5 or EIRIS6, clearly shows this. Of the 90-plus UK-based ethical funds listed by EIRIS, 80 prioritise companies with positive environmental policies, while 63 focus on humanitarian concerns and human rights records. Within this, some prioritise the former, some prioritise the latter, and others prioritise both equally.

The conditions for joining professional ethical investment associations, such as the UK Social Investment Forum (UKSIF) and the Ethical Investment Association, also reflect the range of different understandings of what constitutes ethical criteria for investment. For example, UKSIF aims to promote “transparency, effective governance and management processes” but acknowledges “differing values and financial requirements.”7 Furthermore, such associations do not usually endorse specific ethical screening or investment strategies over others. The UKSIF's members, thus, range from mainstream banks, such as Barclays, to NGOs such as Oxfam.8 The same can be said of the 'ethical accreditation' awarded by the Ethical Company Organisation,9 whose members include controversial multinational corporations alongside small ethical business pioneers.10

Definition matters when it comes to estimating the value and reach of ethical investments. The US-based Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (USSIF, formerly known as the Social Investment Forum, one of the first organisations serving socially responsible investors in the US since 1984) sets out a broad definition of Sustainable and Responsible Investment (SRI) as:

a process of identifying and investing in companies that meet certain baseline standards or criteria of Corporate Social Responsibility.”11

This rather vague definition, which is anchored to the equally slippery concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), means that USSIF's estimation that $3.07 trillion out of $25.2 trillion invested in the US in 2010 was 'sustainable and responsible' investment is substantially higher than estimates made by others using a narrower definition.12

The most significant global initiative to link CSR to investment practices has perhaps been the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative (PRI), which sets out six principles to “put responsible investment into practice.”13 These are based on a framework of three aspects: environment, society and corporate governance (ESG). The PRI invites investors to incorporate these principles into their investment analysis and decisions. As of October 2011, some 915 investment institutions had signed the principles, with total assets of $30 trillion.14 The principles, which were originally devised by a group of the world's largest institutional investors, remain voluntary and not legally binding.

 The principles for Responsible Investment were devised by the world's largest institutional investors and remain voluntary

Friends Provident’s current socially responsible investment product ‘Stewardship’ is based on the following aims:

to exclude companies that … harm society; support those that make a positive contribution to society; and encourage better business practices”.15

This definition is somewhat narrower but remains amenable to a high degree of interpretation and discretion. This definition also emphasises both negative and positive criteria for including and excluding investments, characteristics that, as the next section will show, ensure that principles of interpretation and discretion remain at the heart of ethical investment standards.

'Ethically mixed' funds

One complicating factor in the definition of ethical investment is the common practice among big institutional investors to invest in both ethical and conventional funds. Likewise, many ostensibly ethical investors are investing in unethical companies or funds as well as ethical ones.16 The logic behind such practices, as advocated by conventional portfolio theory, is that a 'diversifed portfolio' would reduce the 'risk of exposure'.17

Furthermore, as ethical funds and businesses become more popular and more financially viable, they may start to attract conventional or non-ethical investors too, which they may be tempted to accept to increase their returns. By seeking non-ethical sources of funding, ethical fund managers can limit the influence of ethical shareholders. Just because a company is financed by ethical sources does not mean it will remain ethical forever. Empirical studies of various ethical investment policies have revealed that, although funds may in theory be opposed to particular activities, they do not necessarily seek to completely avoid all involvement in them.18 Indeed, many ethical or socially responsible funds have been criticised for not being always transparent about which companies are included in their portfolios. This has led many to question how ethical such ethical investments are. As one expert in the field puts it, “Only when the ethical investment movement is [itself] ethically screened can it be deemed ethical.”19

Secondary involvement

A further complicating factor in defining ethical investment is the issue of secondary involvement. A company might manufacture, among other 'good' products, parts that are used in weapons, for example, even though it may not itself be classified as a weapons manufacturer. This is the case with some electronics companies, for example. Or it might sell some products that would normally feature in ethical screening, such as tobacco or alcohol, alongside products that are deemed ethically sound. The Co-operative supermarket chain being is a case in point.

To address this problem, some ethical investors have a maximum threshold, whereby a company is excluded from their investment portfolio if its sales from excluded products exceed a certain percentage, usually 10 percent, of its total revenue. But whatever the percentage, this criteria remains arbitrary as long as it is not uniformly applied by all funds and investors. Such measures are also difficult to apply to all companies given that detailed breakdowns of their sales and revenues may not be publicly available.

A good example of this problem is that of The Body Shop, which markets itself as a 'caring' company that helps protect the environment, indigenous peoples and animal welfare. In 2006, The Body Shop was bought by cosmetics giant L'Oréal for £652 million. Despite its assertions that it has not tested any of its finished products on animals since 1989, L'Oréal is known for its extensive use of animal testing for new cosmetic ingredients.20 This contradicts one of Body Shop's core values, namely its opposition to animal testing21 (leaving aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the accuracy of The Body Shop's claims22). As a result, organisations such as NatureWatch have been calling, since 2006, for a boycott of all L’Oréal's products, including those sold by The Body Shop.23

To complicate things further, Nestlé, the world's largest and most notorious food company, owns 30 percent of L’Oréal's shares. Nestlé is accused of unethical marketing tactics, including the promotion of the idea that its baby formula is better for infants than breast milk, and has been the subject of an international boycott campaign for years.24 This poses a dilemma for ethical investors who want to invest in The Body Shop: Can an acquired ethical company influence its new owners and improve their corporate behaviour, as The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, argued at the time,25 or would such acquisitions inevitably dilute ethical standards and turn them into tools to enhance the reputation of two companies that have been questioned for their ethical standards?

Positive and negative screening

The problems of definition outlined above, namely the mixing of funds and the role of secondary involvement, become even more complex when one analyses how ethical screening mechanisms have developed in recent years. With the development of ethical unit trusts and funds, different ethical screening mechanisms reflecting these various definitions were also developed in order to include or exclude certain types of companies or industries in investment portfolios. The ethical screening process uses social and/or environmental criteria that are added on to the usual financial screens.

Traditionally, negative screens focused on the 'sinful troika' of alcohol, tobacco and gambling. Today they typically also include arms trade, nuclear power, animal testing, repressive regimes, as well as socially and environmentally harmful practices. For example, the negative criteria of the Friends Provident Stewardship includes tobacco production, alcohol production, gambling, production of pornography or violent material, the manufacturing and sale of weapons, unnecessary exploitation of animals, nuclear power generation, poor environmental practices, human rights abuses, poor relations with employees, customers or suppliers.26 Major investment consultant Ethical Investors has a similar list, though it does not include nuclear power.27

Positive screens, on the other hand, attempt to identify companies with proactive practices that are deemed to be beneficial to employees, the local community, society at large and/or the environment. Investment decisions based on positive screening are often said to be the cutting edge of socially responsible investing. Positive screens might include ethical employment practices (equal opportunity and anti-discrimination policies, health and safety, decent wages, unionisation, etc.) and environmental protection measures (pollution control, energy saving, recycling, etc.). Some, such as Stewardship's, also include criteria that relate to companies involved in “new technologies that improve the quality of life”, such as renewable fuel sources.28

Two approaches that have developed in the investment sector emphasise positive screening. First, the ‘best-in-class’ approach seeks to reward companies with relatively better ethical track records compared to other companies in a given industry (including industries regarded as ethically irresponsible). Examples of funds that take this approach include the Swedish Robur Miljofonden Environment Fund.29

The second is the ‘sustainable growth’ approach, first introduced by the Swiss Sustainable Asset Management (SAM). This approach is more 'forward-looking' and assesses how well companies are likely to perform (financially as well as ethically) in light of certain future trends or 'scenarios'.30 Trends can range from changing regulations to changing demographics and natural resources, and industry pioneers are those companies deemed to be best positioned to take advantage of these trends.

The advantage of positive screening for investors is said to be that it enables companies to be 'expansive' and 'creative' in their approach to ethical issues. It focusses on how companies can creatively raise the level of standards, rather than complying to a set of minima. Thus, positive screening can be used to check that businesses are conducting financial planning and employment practices on a stable, long-term basis, rather than focussing upon a narrow set of prohibitions.

The disadvantage is that such proactive practices are often less concrete and more speculative, in the sense that they set out broad goals rather than proscribed minima. Positive screening relies on investment in the creative aspirations of companies, and places an expectation upon companies that they are sufficiently motivated to strive to continually improve performance. Positive screening is, therefore, based on one of two assumptions related to the market compatibility of ethical investment: either that it is possible for companies to prioritise goals beyond financial performance; or that CSR strategies are likely to be profitable in the long-term.


Market compatibility

If there is a consensual view across ethical investment funds and consultants, it is that ethical business practices can be as financially rewarding as other forms of investment – in other words, that there is no fundamental contradiction between making profit and acting ethically.Indeed, an increasingly prevalent idea is that ethical investments can be more profitable than conventional ones in the long term. Investing in industry leaders, it is argued, gives companies a competitive advantage and encourages a general adoption of more ethical practices across a particular industrial sector. However, both best-in-class and sustainable growth approaches overlook the wider, structural problems with corporate behaviour. For example, Ethical Consumer's 2008 guide to ethical investments rates 22 green and ethical funds based on 20-plus criteria similar to those used in its product-specific Buyers Guides.31However, this overlooks the fact that investment decisions are fundamentally different from simple consumer purchase decisions, as discussed below.

Both approaches propose a set of accountability mechanisms that are located in market relationships: that markets will respond rationally to the demand for more ethical business practices. When demand is great enough, then the market will be forced to respond. This is, after all, the basis of liberal market theory. Implied in this approach is an assumption that companies are capable of making rational decisions to follow such strategies. Yet there are two major problems that get in the way of this rationality, or place ‘boundaries’ on the prospects of a truly rational response. The first problem is related to the formal goals of private companies as established in law and practice; the second is that rationality is bounded by the ability of companies to know what is in their long-term interests.

Like private companies, there are structural reasons why funds would almost always prioritise greater financial returns over ethical considerations. Corporate directors and fund managers are bound by their fiduciary duties to “act in good faith in the best interests” of the company or the fund as a whole. These interests are almost always interpreted as acting to maximise benefits to the shareholder or owner, which is in turn normally interpreted as profit maximisation and the ability to issue ever-greater dividends on investments. 'External factors', such as environmental protection or social benefits, which might be detrimental to profit maximisation, are not supposed to be taken into consideration, except where they are deemed beneficial to the long-term interests of the company or the fund.32

Cowan v Scargill, a case involving investments made by the National Coal Board's pension fund, found that the fund, a non-charitable trust whose purpose is to provide financial benefits for the beneficiaries, must make investment decisions in the beneficiaries' best financial interest, regardless of any ethical principles. In 1992, the case of Harries v Church Commissioners for England ruled that trustees can make investment decisions guided by ethical considerations but only if it can be shown that the trust's overall financial performance would not be harmed and the investment is consistent with the purpose of the trust.33

In July 2000, new legislation was passed in the UK obliging all private-sector pension funds to consider socially responsible investment as part of their overall investment policy in accordance with section 35 of the 1995 Pensions Act, which provides a statutory obligation for all pension funds to have a Statement of Investment Principles covering the types of investment, the balance between investments, risk, return and realisations.34 However, unless all shareholders shared the same moral values and priorities, it is difficult to see how investments can be based on anything other than financial considerations. At best, they are considered CSR exercises that would benefit the investors, financially, in the long run. This is evidenced by the fact that financial screens often precede social or ethical ones, meaning that often only large-cap companies listed on stock exchange markets are chosen by big funds to include in their 'ethical' portfolio, while smaller companies that are not listed on these indexes get overlooked, even though they might be more ethical.35

Indeed, the above-mentioned Principles of Responsible Investment start with the following preamble: “As institutional investors, we have a duty to act in the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries. In this fiduciary role, we believe that environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues can affect the performance of investment portfolios … Therefore, where consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities, we commit to the following [principles]...”36 (emphasis added). Similarly, the UKSIF believes that ethical investment principles “should be achieved by voluntary action rather than compulsion where possible ... so long as accurate information is available, it is the role of customers and market to select preferred responsible finance strategies.”37

The latter part of this statement identifies a major problem in relation to the ability of companies to act rationally and, even if CSR strategies were compatible with financial success, to know the long-term impact of ethical policies. Another fundamental issue is that it is equally difficult for the market, or for investors, to know.

Differences in definition and criteria discussed at the beginning of this article identify the problems with knowing the relevant information that can used by investors to assess and monitor the sectors and companies that they invest in. Moreover, due to the lack of a uniform accounting and reporting method and a standard, legally binding way of reporting the social and environmental impact of business, ethical investors and investment advisors often rely heavily on information provided by the companies themselves – information that is often selective and self-serving. A number of studies have shown that the environmental performance of big multinationals, such as BP, that produce extensive annual reports, can be – and often is – worse than that of smaller companies that are not so good at reporting.38 This is partly because all big companies nowadays have 'investor relations managers' and see this as part of their CSR, or even public relations, operations.

Corporate reporting has improved as a result of some legislative changes, but these have not yet established a standard of reporting that is fit for this purpose. Even with the development of sophisticated screening processes that use questionnaires, interviews and so on, and pull information from various sources, including third-party sources such as media outlets, monitoring groups and NGOs, the reliability of information remains a serious problem for ethical investment decision-makers. The need to collect and produce more specialised data also means higher transaction costs and management fees, both for the investor and the investee. Information produced by companies about their activities may not reveal crucial details about the company's performance or impact on the local community, the environment and so on. Or it may have been manipulated or presented in certain ways so as to spin or render invisible key controversial issues. And this is where the role of specialist product monitoring groups and publications, such as Ethical Consumer and Which?, may be more significant than is often recognised.

To invest or not to invest...

The problems alluded to in this article (definitional problems, the lack of reporting requirements, organisational complexities that result in ethically mixed funds and secondary involvement) all point to one conclusion: the inadequacy of the market, as it is currently constituted, to act as an ethical selection mechanism. This is the overarching problem that we face here.

There are numerous conflicting studies on the economic performance of ethical investments. Some suggest a positive correlation between ethical criteria and greater financial returns, while others argue that the initial, rapid expansion of the ethical investment market was due to investing in certain profitable businesses, such as technology companies, and will soon reach a saturation point. In any case, it can be argued that such studies miss the point of ethical investment – as long as the incentive for investment is financial, and financial calculations precede or override ethical considerations, it is business as usual and ethical investment is but another niche market that will eventually get co-opted.

This article has shown how limited or simplistic many ethical screens used by ethical investors are. For instance, 'environmentally harmful practices' is often interpreted to mean Ozone depletion and global warming, overlooking wider issues such the loss of biodiversity, long-term impact on natural resources, ecosystems, local environments and so on. Many investors also do not take into account the impact of the industry as a whole when it is not one of those automatically excluded during the negative screening process. The result is that companies involved in fossil fuel extraction, such as British Gas and BP, or supermarket giants such as Tesco and Sainsbury's, appear in many 'ethical' investment portfolios, even green ones, on the basis that they are 'better' than others in the industry, or that they take proactive environmentally friendly measures, such as recycling, pollution control and so on.


Moreover, the majority of established funds and businesses that market themselves as ethical would fail a strict application of some of the ethical screens discussed above, such as the Friends Provident one. For example, The Co-operative Bank, which was voted the UK's 'most ethical' brand in 2008 and claims to have a 'strict' ethical policy that its customers vote on every year,39 does not have a clear policy on the tobacco or gambling industries – except with regard to 'irresponsible marketing'. In fact, the bank, through its asset management arm, invests substantial amounts of money in Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco, both of which have been accused of causing great harm to people's health, irresponsible marketing, smuggling and so on.40 The bank's policy concerning the arms trade is limited to not financing the manufacturing and transfer of indiscriminate weapons, such as cluster bombs and depleted uranium, and the transfer of weapons and torture equipment to oppressive regimes. Similarly, its policy on animal testing is limited to “the exploitation of great apes” and experimentation for non-medical reasons. By using a blend of selected negative and positive screens, the bank has since 1992 withheld over £1 billion of funding from businesses it regarded unethical, mostly on ecological grounds.41 At the same time, it continues to invest in others that many would regard unethical.

Rather than viewing ethical investment as a means of exerting accountability through markets (a goal that is currently unrealistic for even the most powerful and astute investor), ethical investment can be seen at best as a process of engagement that may or may not effect social change. Investors can seek to use their influence on companies to change unethical practices, and encourage ethical ones, through both 'exit' and 'voice' strategies.42 The first revolves around decisions to invest and divest (or threaten to divest), while the second seeks to influence companies' behaviour through shareholder activism and advocacy, demanding more transparency, more detailed information and so on.

However, both of these processes remain dependent on factors that lie outside of markets: the strength of public opposition, the volume of this opposition and the pressure that it brings to bear on political as well as market arenas. Shareholders’ minds are most concentrated when their investment is under threat. Thus, the most effective strategies of investment/divestment are arguably those that are genuinely based upon people power; upon collective action that is not expressed exclusively through market mechanisms but brings public concerns into the public arena.

Indeed, over-emphasising investment processes may divert time and energy from actually doing valuable work, especially for smaller companies and organisations. Put differently, ethical investment should not be seen simply as investing money in profitable businesses that are, more or less, in line with the investor's values. It should, rather, be a strategy to promote social values by pressuring companies in the most effective way possible. Investment strategies alone are not necessarily the most effective way to influence the behaviour of a company or industry.




1. The full text of the sermon, the Use of Money, can be found at

2. Data compiled by EIRIS, The data is based on green and ethical retail funds domiciled in the UK. It does not include money invested outside the UK.

3. See, for example, and













16. See, for example,

17. Bernstein, W. (2001) The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning Portfolio, McGraw-Hill.

18. See, for example, Harte et. al. (1991) 'Ethical Investment and the Corporate Reporting Function', Critical Perspectives in Accounting 2(3), pp. 227-254; Perks et. al. (1992) 'An Exploration of Ethical Investment in the UK', British Accounting Review 24, pp. 43-65.

19. Schwartz (2003) 'The 'Ethics' of Ethical Investing', Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 43(3), p. 212.










29. O’Rourke, A. (2003) 'The message and methods of ethical investment', Journal of Cleaner Production 11, p. 686.



32. For more on this, see Corporate Watch (2004) Corporate Law and Structures: Exposing the roots of the problem, available:

33. Nicholls, Lord (1995) ‘Trustees and their broader community: Where duty, morality and ethics converge’, Trusts Law International 71, vol. 9 (3).


35. O’Rourke, idem., p. 685.



38. See, for example, Gray et al. (1996) Accounting and Accountability, Financial Times/Prentice Hall; and Whyte, D (2010) ‘An Intoxicated Politics of Regulation’, in Quirk, H., Seddon, T. and Smith, G. (eds.) Regulation and Criminal Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


40. See, for example, and


42. Hirschman (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Harvard University Press.