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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is an idea that corporations have to consider the interests of customers, employees, shareholders, communities, and ecological considerations in all
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Socially responsible investing (SRI) describes an investment strategy which combines the intentions to maximize both financial return and social good.
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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2006 : Investments

INVESTMENTS

Fighting for Socially Responsible Retirement
A 2005 survey finds almost all EPA employees want SRI options, while a bill adding such a benefit has languished for two years in committee.

by William Baue


Given that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees review corporate environmental impacts in their daily work, it should come as no surprise that almost all of them want a Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) option that addresses these impacts in their retirement plan. Of the 2,816 EPA workers responding to an online survey from July 18 to Aug. 12 last year, 2,360 (or 84 percent) said they would like to have an SRI stock index fund as an option in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), the federal government employees’ retirement plan.

The impetus for the survey dates back to 2004, when EPA Region 9’s Environmental Management System Team, at the behest of regional employees, created a TSP subcommittee to investigate the possibility of adding SRI options to the TSP. This subcommittee contacted the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board to inquire about this possibility.

“The subcommittee members learned that an act of Congress is necessary to change TSP options, and that some representatives and senators look to the board to speak for participants’ interests when considering legislation,” states the executive summary of the survey.
Interestingly, just such an act was on the docket. On April 2, 2004, Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) introduced the Federal Employees Responsible Investment Act to offer an SRI index fund option in the TSP for all federal employees. Since that day, however, the bill has not budged from the House Committee on Government Reform, according to a spokesperson at Rep. Langevin’s office, as well as the Library of Congress THOMAS Web site, which tracks congressional action.

Now, EPA employees wanting to align their retirement investments with their commitment to environmental protection must continue to wait for their representatives, senators and the board to speak for their interests. EPA Assistant Administrator Luis Luna, who sent the survey results to Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board Executive Director Gary Amelio in January urging him to “take a close look at the level of interest,” did not respond to SocialFunds.com’s requests for commentary.

The numbers speak for themselves. Asked if they would invest in an SRI index fund that had equal or better returns than a comparable traditional, unscreened index fund if it were available in TSP, 97 percent indicated interest (76 percent said “yes” and 21 percent said “maybe”). In fact, almost a fifth (19 percent) of respondents prioritize corporate social and environmental responsibility so highly that they invest in SRI funds outside TSP, thus foregoing the benefits of tax deferral.

Similarly, more than a quarter of respondents (29 percent) concentrate a majority of their TSP assets in the Government Securities Fund (or “G Fund”), and of these, 19 percent do so because they “want to invest in companies or sectors that are socially or environmentally responsible.” In other words, these respondents are willing to forego the higher returns typical of stock funds as compared to the G Fund in order to avoid exposure to companies with weak social and environmental performance. Ironically, the G Fund exposes investors to Treasury securities, while many SRI funds specifically avoid so-called T-bills because they finance the Defense Department, and thus support militarism.

These investing decisions prioritizing extra-financial considerations make more sense in light of the ranking of factors the respondents consider important in “choosing what companies you would like your money invested in.” Top rankings went to extra-financial considerations such as “compliance with relevant laws” (72 percent) and “environmentally responsible practices” (68 percent), with “labor and human rights practices” (66 percent) and “corporate governance” (64 percent) coming in fourth and fifth places. Traditional financial considerations such as “profit growth potential” (67 percent), “dividend yield” (44 percent) and “low risk/return profile” (28 percent) came in third, sixth and seventh places, respectively.

So the question arises: Just when will Congress see fit to provide federal employees with options to invest their retirement savings in ways that help protect the environment they retire into?

This article originally appeared on www.SocialFunds.com, the largest personal finance site devoted to socially responsible investing. William Baue works with SRI World Group, Inc., the publisher of www.SocialFunds.com.


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