Given the growing importance of responsible investing, it could be surprising that there is still no consensus of what the SRI term means to the investors (Sparkes & Cowton, 2004). The roots of the SRI notion can be traced back to various religious movements. Back in 1758, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) prohibited members from participating in the slave trade. At the time, one of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley outlined his basic tenets of social investing. He preached about responsible business practices and to avoid certain industries that could harm the health and safety of workers. Hence, the best-known applications of socially responsible investing were initially motivated by religion (Sparkes, 2003). This may well reflect the fact that the first investors to set ethical parameters on investment portfolios were church investors in the U.K., U.S., and Australia (Sparkes & Cowton, 2004). The churches also played a prominent role in the development of ‘ethical’ investment products (Benijts, 2010; McCann, Solomon & Solomon, 2003; Lydenberg, 2002). Sparkes (2001) defined the ethical investments as the exercise of ethical and social criteria in the selection and management of investment portfolios, generally consisting of company shares. However, he argued that ethical investing could have been more appropriate to describe non-profitmaking bodies such as churches, charities, and environmental groups (rather than companies). The author went on to suggest that value-based organisations applied internal ethical principles to their investment strategies.
Very often the ‘ethical investment’ has been considered as perfectly synonymous with the ‘socially responsible investment’ term including in the dedicated academic journals where one might expect that the concepts are clearly defined (Capelle‐Blancard & Monjon, 2012). Schueth (2003: 189) also noted that ‘the terms social investing, socially responsible investing, ethical investing, socially aware investing, socially conscious investing, green investing, value-based investing, and mission-based or mission-related investing all refer to the same general process and are often used interchangeably’. Likewise, Hellsten & Mallin (2006: 393) have used the terms “ethical investments” and “socially responsible investments” interchangeably. However, it may appear that there seems to be a progressive decline in the use of the term ‘ethics’ within the SRI debate. In part, this may reflect the fact that many people felt uncomfortable about using the word ‘ethical’ to describe investment matters. “Any individual or group who truly care about ethical, moral, religious or political principles should in theory, at least want to invest their money in accordance with their principles” (Miller, 1992, p. 248). The original ‘ethical investors’ were church investment bodies. It is only in the past decades that such a perspective has been explicitly reflected in dedicated SRI retail funds (Sparkes & Cowton, 2004). Since their inception in the U.S. (1971) and in the U.K. (1984) the basic model that was used by SRI retail funds has been to base their ‘ethics’ upon an avoidance approach; whereby, responsible investors avoided having shares in unethical companies (Schepers & Sethi, 2003).
SRI has evolved during the political climate of the 1960s as socially concerned investors were increasingly addressing equality for women and minority groups (Schueth, 2003). This time was characterised by activism through boycotts and direct action that has targeted specific corporations (Rojas, M’zali, Turcotte & Merrigan, 2009; Carroll, 1999). Yet, there were also interesting developments, particularly when trade unions introduced their multi-employer pension fund monies to targeted investments. During the 70s, a series of themes ranging from the anti-Vietnam war movement to civil rights, to issues related to equality rights for women, have served to escalate the sensitivity to some issues of social responsibility and accountability. These movements broadened to include management, labour relations and anti-nuclear sentiment. Trade unions also sought to leverage pension stocks for shareholder activism on proxy fights and shareholder resolutions (Guay et al, 2004; Gillan & Starks, 2000; Smith, 1996).
In 1971, Reverend Leon Sullivan (at the time he was board member for General Motors) had drafted a code of conduct for the practicing business in South Africa; which became known as the Sullivan Principles (Wright & Ferris, 1997; Arnold & Hammond, 1994; Sullivan, 1983). However, relevant reports that documented the application of the Sullivan Principles revealed that the US companies did not lessen their discrimination toward the native South African people. Thus, there were US investors as well as large corporations who have decided to divest from these ‘irresponsible’ companies. In 1976, the United Nations has also imposed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa (Nayar, 1978). The ranks of the socially concerned investors had grown dramatically through the 1980s as millions of people, churches, universities, cities and states were increasingly focusing their pressures on the white minority government (of South Africa) to dismantle the racist system. The subsequent negative flow of investment eventually forced a group of businesses, representing 75% of South African employers, to draft a charter calling for an end to the apartheid. While the SRI efforts alone did not bring an end to discrimination, it has mounted persuasive international pressure on the South African business community.
Advances in the SRI agenda were being made in other contexts. By 1980 presidential candidates; Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown advocated some type of social orientation toward investments in pension funds (Gray, 1983; Barber, 1982). Afterwards in the mid to late 1990s there were health awareness campaigns that effected the tobacco stocks in the US (Krumsiek, 1997). For instance, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) removed more than $237 million in tobacco holdings from its investment portfolio after 6 months of financial analysis and deliberations (Reynolds, Goldberg & Hurley, 2004). Arguably, such a divestment strategy may have satisfied the ethical principal of non-harming, but did not necessarily create a positive social impact (Lane, 2015).
During the late 1990s, SRI had also focused on the sustainable development of the environment (Richardson, 2008; Brundtland, 1989). Many investors started to consider their environmental responsibility following the Bhopal, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez incidents. The international media began to raise awareness on the global warming and on the ozone depletion (Pienitz & Vincent, 2000). It may appear that the environmental protection and climate change issues were becoming important issues for many responsible investors. However, it may appear that businesses have failed to become more sustainable in their ecological dimension as the human ecological footprint exceeds the Earth’s capacity to sustain life by 60% (Global Footprint Network, 2016). At the same time, global resource consumption and land degradation is constantly impacting on the natural environment; as arable land continues to disappear. Evidently, the world’s growing populations and their increased wealth is inevitably leading to greater demands for limited and scarce resources. These are some of the issues that have become somewhat important rallying points for many institutional investors.