Impact Investing: PR Ploy or Public Benefit?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Socially responsible investing is gaining traction among investors, yet the wealthiest households remain skeptical. A Spectrem Group study of investors with a net worth of between $1 million and $5 million, not including their primary residence, revealed that nearly one-third (31%) of investors consider the social responsibility of potential investments. But of the respondents shunning such investments, nearly half (49%) said they feel most companies claiming "social responsibility" are simply putting forth public relations ploys.

Now investors considering such "impact investments" can look for an objective certification call B Corps. Companies vetted by the nonprofit B Lab are said to meet "rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency," according to the group's website.

The B Corporation is a nonprofit organization created in 2007 and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Deloitte LLP, the Prudential Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development, among others. The group claims more than 800 companies from 27 countries and representing 60 industries have been certified by B Corps -- and the roster includes Ben & Jerry's, Etsy, Dansko Footwear, Patagonia, the New Belgium Brewing Co., and Seventh Generation.

Investment companies can gain certification as socially responsible entities as well, and that list currently includes Green Retirement Plans, Inc., Clean Yield Asset Management, and Breckinridge Capital Advisors, among others.

Companies are required to complete a survey of their socially responsible practices and certification fees range from $500 to $25,000, depending on the size of the company.

The B Corporation is also an enthusiastic supporter of the non-related benefit corporation movement, also confusingly referred to as B Corps. Benefit corporations have been established in 20 states, most recently in Delaware, which defines benefit corporations as having a corporate purpose "to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner."

"The overarching language helps ensure that a public benefit corporation serves the best long term interests of society while it creates value for its stockholders," says Delaware Governor Jack Markell. "The requirement to identify a specific public benefit purpose gives managers, directors, stockholders, and the courts, important guidance to ensure accountability, while preserving flexibility for business leaders and their investors to choose the specific public benefit purpose they feel will drive the greatest total value creation."

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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