ESG, SRI, and Impact Investing: What's the Difference?

The value of an investment is no longer just about returns. An increasing number of investors are also calling for their money to make a positive impact on society and the world at large.

In fact, socially responsible investing and one of its subsets, impact investing, accounted for more than $1 out of every $3 under professional management in the U.S., according to the 2020 survey by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. This amounts to over $17 trillion in assets under management yearly, an increase of 42% from 2018.

Accompanying the growing demand is a proliferation of funds and strategies that integrate ethical considerations into the investment process. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG), socially responsible investing (SRI), and impact investing are industry terms often used interchangeably by clients and professionals alike, with the assumption that they all match in meaning and approach. However, distinct differences exist that will affect how client portfolios should be structured and which investments are suitable for meeting social impact goals.

Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of investors want to see their money go toward stocks or funds that are both profitable and reflective of their social values.
  • Three styles of investing fulfill this: Environmental, social, and governance (ESG), socially responsible investing (SRI), and impact investing.
  • ESG looks at the company's environmental, social, and governance practices, alongside more traditional financial measures.
  • Socially responsible investing involves actively removing or choosing investments based on specific ethical guidelines.
  • Impact investing looks to help a business or organization complete a project or develop a program or do something positive to benefit society.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria, Explained


ESG refers to the environmental, social, and governance practices of an investment that may have a material impact on the performance of that investment. The integration of ESG factors is used to enhance traditional financial analysis by identifying potential risks and opportunities beyond technical valuations. While there is an overlay of social consciousness, the main objective of ESG valuation remains financial performance.

The table below lists common ESG factors that are considered. Investments with good ESG scores have the potential to drive returns, while those with poor ESG scores may inhibit returns.




Energy consumption

Human rights

Quality of management


Child and forced labor

Board independence

Climate change

Community engagement

Conflicts of interest

Waste production

Health and safety

Executive compensation

Natural resource preservation

Stakeholder relations

Transparency & disclosure

Animal welfare

Employee relations

Shareholder rights


Socially responsible investing goes one step further than ESG by actively eliminating or selecting investments according to specific ethical guidelines. The underlying motive could be religion, personal values, or political beliefs. Unlike ESG analysis which shapes valuations, SRI uses ESG factors to apply negative or positive screens on the investment universe. For example, an investor may wish to avoid any mutual fund or exchange traded fund (ETF) that invests in companies engaged in firearms production because they hold anti-conflict beliefs. Alternatively, an investor may opt to allocate a fixed portion of their portfolio to companies that contribute to charitable causes.

Other negative SRI screens include:

  • Alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances
  • Gambling
  • Production of weapons and defense tools
  • Terrorism affiliations
  • Human rights and labor violations
  • Environmental damage

For clients engaged in socially responsible investing, making a profit is still important, but must be balanced against principles. The goal is to generate returns without violating one’s social conscience.

Between 2018 and 2020, sustainable, responsible, and impact investing grew at a more than 42% rate, rising from $12 trillion in 2016 to $17.1 trillion in 2020, according to the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

Impact Investing

In impact or thematic investing, positive outcomes are of the utmost importance—meaning the investments need to have a positive impact in some way. So the objective of impact investing is to help a business or organization accomplish specific goals that are beneficial to society or the environment. Investing in a nonprofit dedicated to the research and development of clean energy, regardless of whether success is guaranteed, is an example.

The Bottom Line

About half of investors currently own responsible investments, and about the same number would be willing to convert their entire portfolio to be responsible, according to a recent survey conducted by TIAA. The desire to invest ethically is especially pronounced among millennials, the study showed. Implementing that desire, however, may be no easy task, given the growing complexity of investment concepts and products catering to this sector, which is why advisors must be well prepared to step in and help.