Investing in companies or organizations that make a positive change on society can be a bit like indulging in a vice: A lot of people might enjoy it privately, but they’re not comfortable talking about it publicly.
When asked about this strategy, known as impact investing, investors typically give a lukewarm response or sidestep the topic altogether, researchers have found. A common refrain is to raise concerns about an investment’s influence and how any trade-offs with returns are measured. But recent research geared toward individual investors, financial advisers and fund managers has found that impact investing is more broadly popular than advisers believed and that this may be a golden age for measuring the financial and social returns on such investments.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans have moderate to high interest in sustainable investing, according to new research by the financial services firm Morningstar. That interest, the study found, is broad and deep. It also runs contrary to a common belief among advisers that interest in this type of investing is confined to millennials and women.
The study used a technique from experimental economics called revealed preferences, said Ray Sin, a senior behavioral scientist at Morningstar who conducted the study with Ryan O. Murphy, head of decision sciences at the firm. Most surveys that study impact investing rely on stated preferences: You answer the question you’re asked. The Morningstar survey gave people either/or choices between two stocks with varying differences of the financial returns and sustainability ratings of each stock. “You’re inferring their preferences through trade-offs,” Mr. Sin said. “In doing that, we’re able to tell how much they’re willing to trade off, and then we tied it back to the question: Do people care about sustainable investing?”
The answer, overwhelmingly, was yes. That opened up a second line of inquiry: Are the investments having an impact and still generating a solid return?
That is a difficult question to answer in a meaningful way. Many organizations offer metrics for measuring an investment’s impact, but they are generally not all measuring the same thing. The best ones, though, are at least evaluating all the investments using the same criteria. “There’s been a pretty significant proliferation of metrics and data in the last 20 years,” said Lily Trager, director of investing with impact at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. She said that what had started as a way of avoiding risk caused by the actions of companies had evolved into a more complicated assessment of positive performance.