Saints beat sinners for sustainable investing

by Tom Gallagher

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The clever headline over at Bloomberg News naturally grabbed my attention. The bottom line: Firms that adopted environmentally and socially responsible policies significantly outperformed their peers.

With this whole contraception controversy still hanging around, one ancillary question that's been on my mind is this: If a Catholic institution contributes to its employees' 401(k) program or its pension programs (where they still exist) and the employee then buys "sin" stocks, is the Catholic institution directly supporting immoral behavior?

Said differently, do Catholic institutions attach the their "socially responsible investment policies" to the money it contributes to its employees' retirement accounts?

I have not heard of any Catholic institution applying such a restriction on the money it contributes to their employees' retirement accounts. On the other hand, for those so wound up about insurance companies providing "immoral" contraception coverage to its customers, it does not seem far-fetched for Catholic employers to start such a onerous requirement simply to be morally consistent.

According to the Bloomberg story:

For most investors, "sustainability" isn't about doing the right thing. The conversation has evolved. It's about doing the smart thing. This demands an answer to the fundamental question: Does it pay to invest in sustainability?

Early results are in.

This chart, drawn from a Harvard Business School study, tracks the performance of 180 companies over 18 years. The 90 firms that adopted environmentally and socially responsible policies significantly outperformed their peers. Every dollar invested in a portfolio of sustainable companies (blue line) in 1993 would have grown to $22.60 by 2011. That beats the rise to $15.40 for a portfolio of companies less focused on sustainability (purple line).

The Harvard report, first released in November, is the most rigorous attempt yet to identify which companies were transforming themselves in sustainable ways before sustainability was "cool." It's also the first study to follow companies' performance for decades -- the kind of time frame needed to evaluate transformative long-term strategies -- authors Robert Eccles and George Serafeim said in an interview.

"These things take time to pay off," Serafeim said. "If you are short-term oriented, is this a good strategy? No, it won't pay off. But if you are patient, it will."

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