Is My 401(k) Environmentally Friendly?

Retirement savings are greening, but the process is slow

Pro-environmental options are more available now for workers who want their 401(k) investments to be more sustainable. However, most plans still don’t have environmentally friendly options. There’s a lot of money that could go into such plans if they were available.

Three-fourths of employees have access to a 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored retirement savings plan, according to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, a private foundation that studies retirement security and financial well-being. The 401(k) market represents significant value, about $6.3 trillion in assets, says the Investment Company Institute, a regulated investment funds association.

If you want to make sure that your retirement investments aren’t juicing the fossil-fuel industry, it may mean talking with the investment manager for your 401(k) or opening a self-directed brokerage account.

Key Takeaways

  • Increasingly, people want their investments to press businesses to act sustainably in addition to delivering good financial returns.
  • However, many 401(k)s are invested in fossil fuels at some level, and not that many offer environmentally friendly options, such as ESG investment, which considers companies’ environmental, social, and governance practices.
  • There are growing calls to pressure companies to offer more carbon-neutral 401(k) options.

401(k)s and Fossil Fuels

If you have a 401(k), it probably isn’t eco-friendly. Very few funds offer green options, and even fewer people are invested in them. Despite big talk from companies about countering climate change, analysis of the retirement plans of some of the major S&P 500 companies has found that they invest heavily in coal, oil, and gas. Only a few offer sustainable options. This means that a lot of people have been investing in fossil fuels, perhaps without knowing it.

Happily, there has been a growing push for divesting 401(k)s from fossil fuels. Big-name divestments in the last couple of years from institutions with financial and cultural heft include the University of California system and Harvard University. The government’s 401(k) equivalent program for federal workers, the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)—which controls more than $827 million in assets under management—is also moving to introduce environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing options.

However, even those who are pushing these institutions to drop fossil fuels have said that they have a hard time making sure their investments are carbon neutral.


You can look up the fossil-fuel investments of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) through Fossil Free Funds, an index run by the nonprofit As You Sow. 

ESG Investing

Outside of advocating for fossil-fuel divestment, the main option for supporting the environment through retirement savings is ESG investing. This type of analysis clarifies companies’ environmental, social, and governance practices. Despite concerns about a possible ESG “bubble” and the notion that they don’t perform as well, ESGs have exploded in the past couple of years. They’re not mandatory, but a lot of companies are making them.


The U.S. Department of Labor announced in November 2022 that it will allow plan fiduciaries to consider ESG factors, like climate change, when picking retirement plan investments.

One reason for the ties between 401(k)s and fossil fuels is that fund managers are obligated to pick investments based on returns. The potential risks of future climate disaster on financial returns have been excluded from consideration.

There has been legislative uncertainty as well. In 2020, the then-Trump administration restricted the ability of managers to use “nonfinancial” considerations in picking which funds to invest 401(k)s in, discouraging fiduciaries from embracing ESG factors. That’s been undone by the Biden administration. Fiduciaries are now allowed to offer sustainable investment options, but the person picking the plan must still stay true to risk-return factors.

There are also concerns about the actual content of ESG funds. For example, an investigation of a leading rating company, MSCI Inc., reflected poorly on its ability to vet stocks effectively, prompting concerns over greenwashing. In response, advisors such as the Carbon Collective are working on indexes.

Surveying the Field

Your company may offer a green investment plan. If it does, picking it is simple. If not, you can talk to the investment manager to figure out your options. It could be that asking repeatedly for green investments can lead to them being introduced. Ultimately, though, it may require some lobbying.

Another possibility is opening a self-directed brokerage account, which gives you greater choice in where your investments go by letting you trade in securities. These accounts give you greater investment flexibility, though not everyone allows them, and there are risks. If you do set up this sort of account, you can use an index, such as the Fossil Free Funds index mentioned above, to figure out where to invest.

What’s a 401(k) ESG?

The U.S. Department of Labor has finalized a rule that clarifies that it allows plan fiduciaries to consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in picking plans.

How do you know if your investment includes fossil fuels?

One way to tell is to look up the fossil-fuel investments of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) through As You Sow’s Fossil Free Funds index.

How will climate change affect retirement?

Retirees may encounter unexpected financial drains, such as a rise in the price of flood and fire insurance or greater temperature extremes leading to higher heating and air-conditioning costs. They may even have to change where they live due to new weather conditions. These are factors worth considering in your retirement planning.

The Bottom Line

Retirement investments represent a lot of capital in the United States. Slowly, activists and investors are working to expand green retirement savings options.

It’s part of the movement for environmentally friendly capitalism, characterized by the claim that being good for the environment and social outcomes does not mean that you have to sacrifice financial returns. However, it’s still in its early days.

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. Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, via Transamerica Institute. “A Compendium of Findings About the Retirement Outlook of U.S. Workers: 21st Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers,” Page 15.

  2. Investment Company Institute. “401(k) Resource Center.”

  3. Fossil Free Funds. “401(k) Plans Are Forcing People to Invest in Fossil Fuels.”

  4. Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database. “The Database of Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Made by Institutions Worldwide.”

  5. UCLA Sustainability. “U.C. Fully Divested from Fossil Fuels.”

  6. Harvard University, Office of the President. “Climate Change: Update on Harvard Action.”

  7. Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. “Thrift Savings Fund: Financial Statements December 31, 2021 and 2020,” Page 4 (Page 6 of PDF).

  8. Congressional Research Service, via “Thrift Savings Plan: Investment Issues,” Page 2.

  9. Harvard Business Review. “ESG Investing Isn’t Designed to Save the Planet.”

  10. Fossil Free Funds. “Search Mutual Funds and ETFs.”

  11. Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. “ESG Investing and the U.S. Oil and Gas Industry: An Analysis of Climate Disclosures,” Page 6 (Page 7 of PDF).

  12. U.S. Department of Labor. “U.S. Department of Labor Announces Final Rule to Remove Barriers to Considering Environmental, Social, Governance Factors in Plan Investments.”

  13. Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. “ESG Investing and the U.S. Oil and Gas Industry: An Analysis of Climate Disclosures,” Page 11 (Page 12 of PDF).

  14. Federal Register. “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments.”

  15. Society for Human Resource Management. “DOL Proposes Rule to Support ESG Funds in Retirement Plans.”

  16. Bloomberg. “The ESG Mirage.”

  17. Carbon Collective. “Carbon Collective Launches Climate-Focused Employer 401(k).”

  18. Society for Human Resource Management. “401(k) ‘Windows’ Reconsidered as Portals for ESG Investments.”

  19. Fossil Free Funds. “Index Funds.”

  20. U.S. Department of Labor. “Final Rule on Prudence and Loyalty in Selecting Plan Investments and Exercising Shareholder Rights.”

  21. Invest Your Values. “Five Steps to a Sustainable Retirement Plan.”

  22. Grand Canyon University. “What Is Conscious Capitalism?

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.