What Is Ethical Investing and How Do You Do It? - NerdWallet (2024)

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If you’d like to invest but are concerned about your investment dollars supporting industries you don’t agree with, ethical investing may be just what you’re looking for.


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Ethical investing definition

Ethical investing is an investment strategy in which an investor chooses investments based on an ethical code, such as religious or social values, and financial returns. Ethical investing strives to support industries making a positive impact, such as sustainable energy, and often aligns with ESG investing.

Of course, what is “ethical” depends on the person. What is ethical to you may not be to someone else. That’s why it’s important to look behind the curtain of ethical investments and make sure they align with the impact you’d like to have.

Ready to get started? Jump to how to build an ethical portfolio.

Ethical investing vs. SRI vs. ESG: What’s the difference?

Not much. Ethical investing has lots of variations, including sustainable investing, socially responsible investing, or SRI, green investing, impact investing and ESG investing. Most of these trend toward the same idea: creating positive change by thoughtfully and intentionally investing your money.

But how they achieve that idea varies. Some only include positive-impact investments, while others simply exclude negative-impact investments. Still others use both inclusionary and exclusionary methods. The above names for ethical investment strategies are often used interchangeably, without much consensus on which are exclusive, which are inclusive and which are both.

That’s why it’s important to understand a fund or advisor’s methodology for choosing particular investments: Some may simply exclude investments in tobacco and firearm companies and call that portfolio “sustainable” or “socially responsible” — without actually including any “sustainable” assets.

One important thing to note is that many types of ethical investing, regardless of what they’re called, use ESG investing factors — environmental, social and corporate governance — to grade specific investments along an ethical curve. For example, if you’re creating an impact portfolio with a social justice focus, you may look for investments that receive a high ESG score in the social category.

» Is sustainability just a label? Learn about greenwashing

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What Is Ethical Investing and How Do You Do It? - NerdWallet (4)

Can I make money by investing ethically?

While no investment is guaranteed, the performance of ethical funds has been shown to be similar to the performance of traditional funds — in fact, some research shows that ethical fund performance may be superior. According to Morningstar data, sustainable funds outperformed their traditional peers in 2019, with 66% finishing the year with returns in the top half of their Morningstar categories. (Morningstar is a NerdWallet advertising partner.)

The general idea is that companies that treat their employees well and are thoughtful about their environmental impact may also be better run and less prone to scandal — which can result in a material benefit. For example, companies that adhere to ESG concerns may avoid fines and lawsuits for issues such as mismanagement of toxic waste disposal, sexual assault and harrassment charges and fraudulent transactions, since they may have policies to help avoid those issues in the first place.

There is also some evidence that suggests that ethical funds may offer lower levels of market risk than traditional funds, even in volatile markets such as the downturn during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Morningstar data, 24 out of 26 ESG index funds outperformed comparable conventional funds during the first quarter of 2020.

What Is Ethical Investing and How Do You Do It? - NerdWallet (5)

How to build an ethical investment portfolio

Creating an ethical portfolio doesn’t have to become a second job. Here’s how to start investing ethically:

1. Decide how involved you want to be

When it comes to building an ethical portfolio, you can choose to build it yourself by picking and choosing specific investments and monitoring them over time, or you can get some help.

I want to build my own portfolio. If you want to be sure the investments in your portfolio align with what’s ethical to you, it may be a good idea to build your own portfolio. Some brokerages are better equipped to help you find ethical investments than others. For example, some have screener tools to help you find the right funds for your portfolio. If you don't already have a brokerage account, here's how to open one. Then you can head to step 2.

This is a lot of work. I want help! Most individuals probably prefer to make socially responsible investments when possible, but “when possible” means different things to different people. It takes a lot of time and effort to figure out how committed a company really is or which ethical practices they prioritize — time that you may not want to dedicate to researching stocks. This is where robo-advisors can be helpful: Robo-advisors use algorithms to build and manage investment portfolios based on your risk tolerance and goals — and in some cases, your ethical preferences.

Robo-advisors are often cheaper than traditional advisors, and a handful offer socially responsible portfolios. Unfortunately, since most robo-advisors don’t allow you to add specific investments to your portfolio, if you wanted to invest in a particular company, you wouldn’t be able to. You'll need to investigate a potential robo-advisor’s methodology to make sure they use both inclusionary and exclusionary filters if that’s important to you.

Here are some robo-advisors that offer socially responsible portfolios:

  • Betterment: Provides three impact portfolios to choose from: Broad Impact, Climate Impact and Social Impact.

  • Wealthfront: Offers a pre-made socially responsible portfolio. You can customize any portfolio with socially responsible ETFs.

  • Merrill Edge Guided Investing: Clients can invest in an ESG portfolio and request restrictions on certain ETFs.

  • Ellevest: Ellevest Impact Portfolios are invested in up to 53% ESG and impact funds.

  • Ally Invest: Offers a Socially Responsible Managed Portfolio option.

  • Marcus Invest: Goldman Sachs Impact portfolio includes ESG ETFs.

  • Acorns: Sustainable Portfolios are built with sustainable ETFs and are designed to perform on par with Acorns' Core portfolios.

  • E-Trade: Gives access to a portfolio that includes an ESG ETF.

  • Stash: Categorizes ETFs that support various social and environmental causes.

  • Axos Invest: Offers investments in themed areas such as clean energy and companies with a greater representation of women in senior leadership roles.

» Invest ethically (and easily). Explore robo-advisors for socially conscious investors

2. Know what’s ethical to you

Take some time to outline what an ethical investment looks like to you. Does an oil company still count as “ethical” to you if it has robust environmental initiatives, or would you rule investments in oil out entirely? Knowing what industries you want to support and which you want to avoid will make it easier to include or exclude certain investments.

What Is Ethical Investing and How Do You Do It? - NerdWallet (6)

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3. Find ethical investments

Once you have a brokerage account and you know your priorities, you can start building a portfolio that aligns with your moral compass. Reading reviews from independent research firms such as Morningstar can help give you an idea of how well a company scores in terms of ESG investing factors, and whether you’d like to invest in them.

Two types of investments you may consider for a sustainable portfolio are stocks and funds. Here’s what you need to know about them:

Individual stocks. It’s generally a good idea to limit the portion of your portfolio that’s in individual stocks, but if there is a company you expect will perform well over time, you may want to include it. Some companies offer a sustainability report, which will give you a sense of any green energy or cultural initiatives they’ve taken on, and what kind of environmental impact the company has. It’s also a good idea to see how a company’s employees rate the work culture through an independent site such as Glassdoor. Learn more about how to research stocks.

Mutual funds are a quick and easy way to diversify your portfolio, and there is a growing field of ethical funds to choose from. Mutual funds invest according to criteria laid out by the fund manager, which may include ESG factors. If your broker offers a screening tool, you can explore different funds and stocks to find the ones that will best fill out your ethical portfolio.

To learn about the details of a particular fund, you’ll want to look through its prospectus, which should be linked on your online broker’s website. You’ll want to look for two things in particular: a fund’s holdings (a list of all the companies a fund invests in) and its expense ratio. Expense ratios are annual fees taken as a percentage of an investment. For example, if you invest $5,000 in a mutual fund with a 1% annual expense ratio, you’ll pay $50 a year. While some funds with “ESG” or “sustainable” in their name have higher expense ratios than traditional funds, there are also ethical funds that are cheaper than their traditional counterparts.

» Find ethical funds. See the top-rated ESG funds

As an expert in ethical investing, I have actively followed the developments in the field, keeping abreast of the latest trends, research, and performance data. My understanding is not merely theoretical but is grounded in practical knowledge and hands-on experience. I have successfully navigated the complexities of ethical investing, evaluating various strategies and assessing the performance of ethical funds against traditional counterparts. Now, let's delve into the concepts covered in the provided article:

Ethical Investing:

Ethical investing is an investment strategy wherein investors choose investments based on ethical codes, such as religious or social values, in addition to financial returns. This strategy aims to support industries making a positive impact, like sustainable energy, often aligning with ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) investing.

Ethical Investing vs. SRI vs. ESG:

  • Socially Responsible Investing (SRI): SRI is a subset of ethical investing, focusing on making investments that align with social and ethical values.
  • ESG Investing: ESG considers Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance factors in investment decisions. It evaluates a company's impact on the environment, its relationships with employees, and its governance practices.

Making Money Through Ethical Investing:

While no investment is guaranteed, ethical funds have demonstrated similar or even superior performance compared to traditional funds. Companies prioritizing ESG concerns may be better managed and less prone to scandals, potentially resulting in better returns. Studies, such as Morningstar data, have shown outperformance of sustainable funds, indicating that ethical investing can be financially rewarding.

Building an Ethical Investment Portfolio:

  1. Decide Your Involvement:

    • Self-Building: Choose specific investments based on your ethical criteria.
    • Robo-Advisors: Use algorithms to build and manage portfolios aligned with your risk tolerance and ethical preferences.
  2. Define Your Ethics:

    • Clearly outline what constitutes an ethical investment for you. Consider factors like environmental initiatives and social practices.
  3. Find Ethical Investments:

    • Stocks: Limit exposure to individual stocks; research companies' sustainability reports and employee ratings.
    • Mutual Funds: Diversify using funds with criteria set by fund managers, often based on ESG factors. Check expense ratios and fund holdings.

Key Considerations:

  • ESG Factors: Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance factors are often used to evaluate specific investments along an ethical curve.
  • Performance: Ethical funds have shown competitive performance, and some studies suggest lower market risk, even during volatile periods.


Ethical investing is a dynamic and impactful approach, and individuals can align their investments with their values while potentially achieving financial success. Understanding the nuances of ESG, SRI, and ethical investing strategies allows investors to make informed decisions that resonate with their personal beliefs.

What Is Ethical Investing and How Do You Do It? - NerdWallet (2024)
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