SRI Funds and Your 401(k): What You Need to Know

Socially responsible investing (SRI) has been around for decades, but it has been slower to penetrate the employer-sponsored retirement plan market. This has partially been a result of a Department of Labor (DOL) opinion released in 2008 that indicated that participant investment in the socially responsible sector should be “rare.” This opinion discouraged many plan providers from including these options for their participants. Since then, most SRI investing has been limited to retail accounts and IRAs.

But times are changing. The DOL issued newer guidance in 2015 that allowed fiduciaries to use environmental, societal, and governance (ESG) considerations as "tiebreakers" when comparing otherwise equal investments. And in 2018, the DOL updated its guidance to acknowledge that fiduciaries can proactively apply ESG factors when making investment decisions, provided they focus on economic merit.

Key Takeaways

  • Socially responsible investing (SRI) is an investment approach that seeks out those companies that have a positive social and environmental impact.
  • In the past, however, because SRI was initially a niche space, it was deemed less appropriate for retirement savings, and SRI options found in retirement plans were limited.
  • Today, these restrictions have loosened, and many more 401(k) plan providers are offering more SRI alternatives for those interested.

Wanted: Socially Responsible Alternatives

As retail investors and retirement plan participants have grown more knowledgeable and sophisticated in recent years, the demand for investment options that reflect their values has also grown. A survey conducted by LGT, a banking and asset management group run by the royal family of Liechtenstein, in 2017 showed that 55% of its plan respondents offered socially responsible investment alternatives. And the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment showed that the asset base in this sector has mushroomed in recent years, from $639 billion in 1995; $2.7 trillion in 2007; and $17.1 trillion in 2020. Such funds can screen companies for a variety of criteria, such as empowering women, ethics/sin, the environment, religious concerns, and more.

DOL Approval

The Department of Labor issued a new opinion on SRI in late 2015, in the wake of this growth. In its release, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez outlined that the DOL has nothing against these investments as long as they meet the same fiduciary criteria as any other type of security that is offered in qualified plans. The DOL admitted that its 2008 opinion had “unduly discouraged” plan sponsors from including SRI offerings in their plans.

A survey conducted by Calvert Investments also reveals that the vast majority of retirement plan participants today want socially responsible alternatives inside their retirement plans. The survey covered 1,200 plan participants and 300 eligible non-participants, where 87% of them were interested in investment offerings that matched their personal values, and over 80% said they would invest in such offerings if they were available. Over half of them also said they would be more likely to participate in an employer-sponsored plan if it carried SRI offerings.

These numbers speak to the rapid growth of the SRI industry and its popularity among both retirement plan participants and retail investors. Part of the reason for this growth may be coming from the millennial generation, which has shown a much greater predisposition to invest in offerings that match their philosophies and lifestyles. This generation has shown itself to be much more globally- and environmentally-minded than its predecessors, and funds that concentrate on companies that have clean environmental track records have seen a rise in consumer sentiment in recent years.

Track Record of SRIs

Another reason that socially responsible investing has become more popular is that a greater number of SRI funds have performed well in recent years. The TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity Retail Fund (TICRX) has posted a 10.48% average return over the past five years, and the Calvert Equity Portfolio A (CSIEX) has grown by an average of more than 19% over the past three years (through February 2022). Other fund families such as the Timothy Group, an investment firm that offers funds that invest in companies that embrace Judeo-Christian values, also have funds that have done well in recent years, such as their Large/Mid Cap Value fund (TLVAX), which has averaged 16% annually over the past three years. 

The Bottom Line

Socially responsible investing is rapidly becoming a mainstream sector in the financial marketplace. Qualified plan sponsors that have avoided SRI offerings in their plans would be wise to think again, as the asset base of these funds has grown exponentially in recent years. There are now enough different types of SRIs to facilitate creating entire portfolios of them for clients who wish to absolutely refrain from financially supporting certain types of companies. But clients need to do their homework to make sure that the SRIs they purchase have screening criteria that match their values exactly, so there is no chance they will inadvertently hold shares of a company that deals in activities of which they disapprove.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Institutional Investor. "How Investors Will React to the DoL's New ESG Guidelines."

  2. Forbes. "How to Make Your Retirement Investments Reflect Your Values."

  3. U.S. Department of Labor. "Economically Targeted Investments (ETIs) and Investment Strategies that Consider Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Factors," Page 2.

  4. U.S. Department of Labor. "Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018–01."

  5. LGT. "Sustainability at LGT," Page 5.

  6. US SIF. "Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends,"

  7. Plansponsor. "ESG Investing Enters 'New' Paradigm."

  8. BusinessWire. "Calvert Investments Surveys Retirement Plan Participants on Their Views About Responsible Investing."

  9. Morningstar. "TIAA-CREF Social Choice Eq Retail TICRX."

  10. Morningstar. "Timothy Plan Large/Mid Cap[ Value A TLVAX."

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.