COMMENT:

Virtually every KiwiSaver scheme will tell you it's responsible/ethical or on a journey towards that goal.

Most providers had to pull their socks up in 2016 after the Herald and other media revealed some of the funds invested in weapons and tobacco.

Since then many New Zealanders have sought out responsible KiwiSaver funds, says Simon O'Connor, chief executive of the Responsible Investment Association of Australasia (RIAA), and providers have moved to exclude so-called "sin stocks".

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Between 2016 and 2018 almost the entire KiwiSaver industry began excluding such investments according to KPMG's just-published New Zealand Responsible Investment Benchmark Report 2018.

So what qualifies as ethical these days? For example, all ANZ's regular KiwiSaver schemes have signed up to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment. Other funds haven't. Some, such as AMP KiwiSaver, are certified by the RIAA. Others aren't. Are all funds meeting the same standard?

That standard, says John Berry of Pathfinder, who researches this area of investing, has risen over the past two years. "If you just take out munitions and tobacco you are no longer, in my opinion, a responsible investment manager," says Berry. "[The public] expects this as a starting point."

As well as banning armaments and tobacco, some providers go further and exclude investments on a range of environmental, social and governance factors. That means considering subsets of a wide range of factors such as pollution, hazardous waste, energy usage, climate change, ethical and human rights issues, health and safety, diversity, social programmes and more. Some providers ratchet up a notch and look actively for investments that do good.

Different providers focus on different things when it comes to responsible investing. For example, Milford KiwiSaver pays more attention to ethical governance. An investor who has an interest in issues related to renewable energy and sustainable water might prefer Mercer.

In order to help investors find KiwiSaver investments they would actively like to invest in, the RIAA has launched a website, ResponsibleReturns.co.nz, which allows investors to select the best KiwiSaver based on a choice of inclusions and exclusions.

You might, for example, want to include renewable energy and sustainable transport in your KiwiSaver and exclude tobacco and nuclear energy, in which case the tool would throw up AMP Capital NZ as the most relevant manager, followed by Medical Assurance Society (MAS), Mercer and Booster Investment Management.

If no specific inclusions and exclusions are selected, MAS comes out top in the search.

It should be pointed out that not all KiwiSaver providers are included in the search yet. They need to become certified by the RIAA before they will be. Until they are, consumers who care about responsible investing need to do some legwork, which isn't easy because it requires a talent for decoding marketing spiel.

There are no rules on what KiwiSaver providers can put in their responsible investing policies and no standardisation, which makes comparisons hard. At times, they use creative language to paint pretty pictures of the truth.

KiwiSaver managers also use buzzwords and acronyms such as SRI (socially responsible investing) and ESG (environmental, social and governance) that the average member of the public won't fully understand.

That language can amount to little more than greenwashing, where managers purport to be green through marketing rather than actually integrating responsible investing.

For example, it's possible to have a responsible investing policy or statement and still invest in sin stocks. When I looked deeper into the government's Disclose website this week I found that, on July 31, ASB's growth fund still had investments in two companies with "tobacco" in the name.

The RIAA believes many financial advisers are discouraging their clients from investing responsibly in a mistaken belief that it means lower returns.

The opposite is true says O'Connor. The idea is that good companies make good investments and sin stocks face risks to their brand names, reputation and other factors that could ultimately depress their share price. There are direct risks of the product falling out of favour with shoppers or regulators. A historical example might be asbestos manufacture and sale, which used to be big business.

Even if the financial advisers were right, and I'm not saying they are, is there a line you draw where you would forgo a small portion of investment growth in return for knowing you're doing less harm to the planet, its flora and fauna and your fellow human beings?