So what's an investor to do?
"People need to ask themselves if all they're interested in is making money. They should ask themselves whether that's their bottom-line priority," advises Christopher Hormel, who manages several trusts invested exclusively according to SRI screens. "If they feel like ethics, morality, sustainability and caring for people that don't have the power and money to be able to dictate their own fate, if those people's interests are included in the equation ... then they have to act according to that."
Hormel, whose grandfather invented Spam, acknowledges that he has missed out on some top-performing stocks.
"If we were just investing in oil companies, we would have probably made a lot more money over the last few years," says Hormel. But "for me and a lot of people doing socially responsible investing ... maybe our own personal financial bottom line isn't as important as the welfare of all of us together."
Just how effective SRI is at causing change is another widely debated question. Lisa Leff, a vice president and portfolio manager with Trillium Asset Management, notes that social screens merely provide a baseline for addressing issues of importance to clients, which range from animal rights to sexual orientation.
"We are much more interested in the work we can do engaging in corporations on behalf of our clients who are their shareholders," says Leff, whose firm manages portfolios for institutions and high-net-worth individuals. Last fall, for instance, Trillium filed 21 resolutions to press companies to do more on a broad range of social and environmental issues.
Other firms with SRI funds also take an activist approach.
Minding the Gaps
Smaller investors interested in SRI investing would be well advised to pay close attention to expenses and manager experience, advises Greg Carlson, an analyst with Morningstar who covers SRI funds.
One fund Carlson likes is the
, because it has an
, Daniel W. Boone III, and a focus on quality growth stocks. "It's not an aggressive growth strategy, so it held up quite well during the bear market," Carlson says.
|Performance of Calvert Social Invest Equity Fund
(Growth of $10,000 -- 03-31-06)
Another recommendation from Carlson -- the
-- often flies under the radar screen. It's been around since the 1970s, and its manager, Christopher Brown, has been running the fund for eight years, after taking it over from his father, a company founder.
Brown boasts that his fund has a lower expense ratio -- 0.95% -- than many peers; one of the lowest minimum contributions, at $250; and low turnover, at 22% a year, with a three- to five-year time horizon. Equally important, the fund is in the top 9th percentile of about 550 SRI and non-SRI balance funds, on the basis of 10-year return, and also fared well for three- and five-year time frames, according to Brown.
|Performance of Pax World Balanced Fund
(Growth of $10,000 -- 03-31-06)
When picking stocks, the fund manager first looks at companies' financials and then runs them through social screens, avoiding the sin stocks, examining fair-employment practices and environmental policies and looking for products and services that enhance the quality of life. Those screens meant, for instance, reluctantly divesting 375,000 shares of
(SBUX - Get Report)
because of the company's deal with whiskey maker Jim Beam.
Brown notes, however, that he replaced Starbucks with another strong-performing beverage company,
(PEP - Get Report)
"Our funds demonstrate you don't have to sacrifice performance," Brown says. "We've proven that not only in the short term but in the long term."
Which suggests that for the discerning investor, the SRI glass can be even more than half full.