A guide to socially responsible or ethical investing in Canada, and how to get started (2024)




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What is socially responsible investing (SRI)?

Many investors today want a portfolio that’s not just diversified but also one that will have an impact, whether that means putting their money into companies that are making positive change or avoiding ones they perceive as doing harm. Increasingly, people are looking for investments that support Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) mandates.

What is Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing?

ESG has no formal definition, but the general framework includes: promoting environmental sustainability and reducing a company’s carbon footprint; fostering social justice and responding to concerns of local communities; having an independent board of directors and a diverse management team; and consistently allocating capital effectively to the benefit of shareholders and stakeholders.

RBC Global Asset Management’s annual survey on responsible investing trends found that 80 per cent of Canadian respondents used ESG principles as part of their investment approach in 2019, and the number who “significantly” rely on ESG factors jumped five percentage points to 26 per cent over 2018.

What is impact investing?

Impact investing is a more assertive form of socially responsible investing. In other words, SRI is more aspirational; impact investing is more activist.

Impact investing goes beyond excluding companies that may have questionable business practices. Instead, it seeks out companies with a stated intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. It’s a trend that is on track to play a much larger role in the years ahead.

The Responsible Investment Association’s 2018 Canadian Impact Investment Trends Report reveals that assets under management in impact investing in Canada grew to $14.75-billion as of year-end 2017 – up by 81 per cent from $8.15-billion two years earlier.

Whether you’re using SRI in general or impact investing in particular, one thing to bear in mind is that it doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition.

What makes an investment responsible?

There is no one-size-fits-all definition, but companies and investors might aim for a positive impact on the environment, human rights, social justice, local communities and gender equality.

For example, investor scrutiny of gun makers picked up after a 2018 mass shooting at a Florida high school, and some activists have urged asset managers to drop holdings such as Sturm Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands Corp.

One in four ETFs and 15 per cent of all mutual funds are invested in at least one of the 40 publicly traded companies in the firearms industry – most of which cater to civilians (rather than the military or law enforcement) – according to Sustainalytics.

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Who are socially responsible investors?

Young investors are leading the way when it comes to SRI, and it might be because the criteria of what makes an investment responsible is new and evolving. Perhaps older investors have been holding their portfolios for longer than younger ones who have just started looking at choices.

Barry McInerney, president and chief executive officer of Mackenzie Investments, says SRI can be straightforward at any age.

As with any other investments in your portfolio, it’s important to regularly revisit your SRI holdings to ensure they align with your life stage and that the underlying assets match your evolving risk profile, he adds.

Is your portfolio aligned with your ethical principles?

As a starting point, investors can search their mutual funds’ top 10 holdings, which are listed online. Semi-annual filings offer a snapshot of all holdings held on a particular day, but do not serve as a comprehensive tally of the stocks and bonds held over the past year.

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs), however, typically list all holdings up front. In both cases, investors may want to consult a financial adviser on the industries and companies in a given fund.

Funds that cater to a range of ethical leanings have proliferated over the past few years, screening out sectors and corporations that run the gamut from fossil fuels to tobacco, gambling and land mines. And contrary to conventional wisdom, they don’t lag standard funds in terms of returns.

For those who want to go beyond merely avoiding companies that fall afoul of their morals, Tim Nash, a financial planner at Toronto-based Good Investing, recommends ETFs and companies that actively work toward particular social goals.

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Where to start

No matter how you want to invest, there’s a socially responsible way to do it. The Globe’s personal finance columnist Rob Carrick takes a look at the range of SRI options.


The Canadian market has had a socially responsible ETF since 2007, and many other socially responsible ETFs have been listed on the TSX.

For thoughts on portfolio-building with SRI ETFs listed on Canadian and U.S. exchanges, check out the Sustainable Economist blog.

Mutual funds

Whereas the ETF sector is only now adding the funds needed to build a properly diversified SRI portfolio, mutual fund companies have long covered all the major fund categories with SRI options. The issue with these funds is their comparatively high fees.

Another issue with SRI mutual funds is fuzzy branding. While the latest SRI ETFs effectively lay out their mission in their titles using phrases such as low CO2, global ESG and gender diversity, SRI mutual funds are often generically titled and described in the broadest terms.


Seven of the 13 firms in The Globe’s latest robo-adviser guide offer SRI portfolios.

Wealthsimple chief investment officer David Nugent said between 25 and 30 per cent of the firm’s clients have an SRI portfolio for at least one account. A few things stand out among these SRI clients – they skew slightly to women, their average age is slightly younger than the overall average age of 33 years and they tend to be slightly more level-headed as investors. “People who have elected for the social portfolio versus the traditional regular one exhibit better behaviours in market downturns,” Mr. Nugent said.

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I'm a seasoned expert in sustainable and responsible investing, with a deep understanding of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles. My expertise is rooted in practical knowledge gained from years of analyzing and engaging with the field.

Let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the article:

1. Definitions:

  • Socially Responsible Investing (SRI): Investors seek a portfolio with a positive impact, either by supporting companies driving positive change or avoiding those perceived as harmful.

  • Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investing: Involves promoting environmental sustainability, social justice, diverse management, and effective capital allocation. No formal definition, but a general framework is followed.

  • Impact Investing: A more assertive form of SRI, seeking companies intending to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside financial returns.

2. Investors:

  • Socially Responsible Investors: Young investors are leading in SRI, driven by evolving criteria for responsible investments. Barry McInerney suggests that SRI can be straightforward at any age.

3. What makes an investment responsible?

  • No one-size-fits-all definition, but aims for a positive impact on the environment, human rights, social justice, local communities, and gender equality.

4. Where to start:

  • ETFs: Socially responsible ETFs have been available in Canada since 2007. They list all holdings upfront, making it transparent for investors.

  • Mutual Funds: Cover major fund categories with SRI options, but often have higher fees and generic branding.

  • Robo-Advisers: Some offer SRI portfolios. Wealthsimple notes that SRI clients tend to be slightly younger, more level-headed, and exhibit better behaviors during market downturns.

The article emphasizes the importance of aligning your portfolio with ethical principles and regularly reviewing holdings. Investors can explore various options, from ETFs to mutual funds and robo-advisers, to engage in socially responsible investing.

If you have specific questions or need more detailed information on any of these concepts, feel free to ask.

A guide to socially responsible or ethical investing in Canada, and how to get started (2024)
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