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Mutual funds with social, environmental goals proliferate

It’s easier than ever to invest with the goal of helping the environment or society. But easy doesn’t mean simple.

The investment industry is unveiling ever-more options that steer money toward companies that are leaders in cutting pollution, pushing for better labor conditions or protecting shareholders’ interests. The mainstreaming of this environmental, social and governance approach, or ESG, helps investors who want their money to do good and do well, but it also creates a dizzying array of choices.

“You need to do the same due diligence you would be doing if you weren’t interested in ESG,” says Lisa Woll, chief executive of US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, an advocacy and industry group.

Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What do I want my money to do?

Sustainable investing is a broad term, and it covers a gamut of interests. Some funds invest according to religious principles. The Global X S&P 500 Catholic Values ETF began trading just this past week, for example, and excludes companies in the index that make money from nuclear weapons or contraceptives.

Other funds aim to invest in companies that have bigger proportions of women in their boardrooms and management. Yet more funds are generalists that aim to deliver similar returns as a total-market stock fund, but with an eye toward environmental, social and governance issues.

  • How does the fund invest?

Don’t assume a fund invests how you want just because it says it’s “sustainable.”

Someone who wants to own zero fossil-fuel companies, for example, should probably avoid the TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity fund, one of the largest sustainable funds by assets. It owns companies in every sector, including energy, but it looks to own only those that rate highest on its ESG measures.

  • What kinds of investments am I considering?

Stock funds get most of the attention in sustainable investing, but more bond funds are entering the market.

They come with the selling point of helping to pay for specific projects, which some investors appreciate. The Columbia U.S. Social Bond fund, for example, bought bonds to help build a wind farm in Washington.

  • How much will this cost?

Remember that keeping costs low is among the best ways to help your investments grow. Investing in a sustainable mutual fund doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor, but make to sure check how big its expense ratio is.

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