I recently turned 30, which means I have more working years left before retirement than I have lived. Nevertheless, retirement planning is a topic my wife and I often discuss.
Ubiquitous financial planning advertisements suggest that retirement is on the minds of many, and most make it seem simple even if it isn’t always easy.
If all one cared about was formulating a retirement plan, a fairly straightforward equation is all you need.
If you provide your current age, the age at which you hope to retire, the annual “salary” on which you plan to live and the level of investment risk you wish to take, a financial planner can tell you how much money to invest each month.
While it requires discipline to continually set aside income, it is not an overly complicated process. But perhaps it should be a murkier process for us from an ethical perspective.
Following the wisdom of “don’t put all your eggs in the same basket,” most financial portfolios include several investment options – stocks, bonds, CDs, mutual funds, IRAs, ETFs and 401(k)s, to name a few.
While such investing is prudent, how often do we consider the ethical implications of our investment strategy?
In the last presidential campaign, an exchange took place between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney regarding their financial portfolios.
Obama criticized Romney for overseas investments. Romney admitted that some of his wealth was managed by a “blind trust,” which meant he did not know where his money was being invested. But he noted that Obama had foreign investments as well.
Obama did not refute this, revealing that neither man knew exactly where his money was being invested.
The exchange revealed an ethical issue surrounding investments – namely, few of us know all of the companies in which we invest. This means we are, potentially, supporting businesses whose policies and practices do not align with our values.
Many of us investigate the production methods and business practices of companies from whom we purchase products and services because we want to support companies that pay fair wages, treat their employees well and take care of the environment.
How many of us consider this regarding our retirement investments? Is such reflection even possible with certain investment strategies?
For example, when you invest money in mutual funds it is pooled with others’ money and invested in a variety of companies by a fund manager. As CNN Money explains, individuals benefit because this creates a more diverse portfolio for less money than if you invested in individual stocks.
In other words, your investment will likely be more profitable, but you have no control regarding what companies your money supports.
A comparison might help. What if you gave someone money and allowed them to do your grocery shopping? They might obtain more food for less money, but are there not more important factors to consider?
For example, whether the product is local, organic or fair trade; whether it contains lots of sugars or high fructose corn syrup; whether it is gluten free; whether it is canned, frozen or fresh; whether the grocery store recycles, ensures their means of production are eco-friendly and treats their employees well; or whether you like the food.
These are intuitive considerations, but do we ask comparable questions of our investments?
For those who wish to ensure that they invest in businesses whose practices are at least broadly kosher with their values, ethical investment strategies known as socially responsible investing (SRI) can help.
Quaker opposition to investments supporting the slave trade is often referenced as the origin of SRI in the U.S, and John Wesley’s sermon, “The Use of Money,” is frequently cited for its SRI principles.
Championing what Max Weber later called the “Protestant work ethic,” Wesley said that while it is acceptable to acquire wealth, we should not adversely affect our life and health or that of our neighbors in the process.
In “A Theology for the Social Gospel” (1917), Baptist social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch built on these ideas, sharing several stories about individuals becoming unsettled upon learning that companies in which they invested were using child labor and had unsafe working conditions.
“It is increased insight and Christian feeling which created [this feeling],” Rauschenbusch comments. “An unawakened person does not inquire on whose life juices his big dividends are fattening.”
What the Quakers, Wesley and Rauschenbusch suggest is that Christian investment strategies should be guided primarily by ethical concerns rather than by profit potential.
SRI offers a helpful framework for Christians to do this, but it should be noted that while the criteria of screening/research, shareholder advocacy and community investment are common qualifications for an SRI company, definitions and standards vary.
Thus, it is necessary to research and ask questions to clarify the SRI standards and strategies of financial planners to ensure that your beliefs align.
However we obtain our wealth, we must do so in a manner that does not harm our neighbors, our planet or ourselves. Seeking profit must always be guided by morality and ethics.
To paraphrase Rauschenbusch: “We should not invest without realizing on whose life juices our dividends are fattening.”
SRI offers a helpful platform for this reflection and practice, which I believe should be an essential part of our investment strategies.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.