Socially responsible investment vehicles are drawing more funds, but retail investors still do not cite social responsibility as a top priority when it comes to where to put their money, according to two separate studies.

Assets invested in socially responsible vehicles have risen 22% to a high of $3.7 trillion since 2009, according to a 2012 study by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. Yet among retail investors, social responsibility falls at the bottom of the list of reasons to select a product below taxation, track record and level of risk, according to another survey from Lake Forest, Ill.-based consulting firm.

“This idea that investing is for investing but not for socially responsibility comes out,” the director of affluent research at Spectrem, Tom Wynn, said. “They don’t look at investing as a good tool for social responsibility.”

Just more than two-thirds of respondents, 67%, reported that one of the main reasons that they did not consider the social responsibility of their investments was because their objectives were purely financial. Another 43% said that they felt companies claiming to be socially responsible were mostly doing it for public relations. An equal portion said they had simply never given the issue much thought.

In the past five years, those opinions had not changed much, according to survey data. “Millionaires are no more interested in the social responsibility of investment as they were five years ago,” Spectrem said.

While retail may not be leading the charge, some of the uptick can be attributed to institutional investors, the US SIF study reported. “With $2.7 trillion in assets involved in [environmental, social and governance] incorporation, in filing shareholder resolutions or in both strategies, institutional investors dominate the [socially responsible investing] universe,” the study noted.

For the remaining portion of assets in socially responsible investments, the growth was driven primarily by younger investors under age 44, according to the Spectrem report. Numbers showed a slight upswing among investors under 44 when comparing how interested that group was in socially responsible investing today versus five years ago. According to Wynn, those numbers reflect a trend of younger investors becoming more actively involved in their portfolios and having greater access to information about their holdings.

“There’s this interest in making sure they are socially responsible,” Wynn said. “The more knowledgeable the investor and the more channels of communication that they now have with the internet [and] with social media, there’s just more a trend for them to find out about socially responsible investing.”

Older investors and the ultra-wealthy were the least likely to prefer value-based investing, according to the survey. The highest rise in interest was among young, mass affluent clients. 

“As net worth goes up your interest [in social responsible investments] goes down,” Wynn explained. “Less wealthy people are using social responsibility as a means to accomplish some of their charitable feelings, while people with more wealth are doing it on their own through the vehicles they want to use.”

Moreover, the message behind socially responsible investing has evolved dramatically since its conception, according to the senior vice president for Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investment Management, Bennett Freeman. Even for investors, the rationale has become less about the activism and more about using those environmental, social and governance factors as a way to identify successful companies.

“Our approach has evolved very substantially over the years to really reflect a basic proposition that investors who take into account environmental, social and governance factors will be better positioned for performance over the long term,” Freeman said.

Apple is one example that he used to illustrate how they filter for social responsibility at Calvert. According to Freeman, the firm downgraded Apple stock following a New York Times report that called into question workplace safety among one of Apple’s largest suppliers in China.

“The point here really has grown up from a values proposition to a valuation proposition,” Freeman said. “Our investment consideration of a company’s investment products is informed very substantially by an analysis of governance. It really allows us to see around corners and over horizons to see certain risks and opportunities that other investors may not see.”

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