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Investors are increasingly considering ESG factors — environmental, social and governance principles — when they choose investments. And the number of ESG-focused options, including ESG mutual funds and ESG ETFs, is growing.
What is an ESG fund?
ESG funds are investments that are graded using ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles. ESG funds invest in companies that aim to have a sustainable and societal impact in the world, such as those with a small carbon footprint or diverse leadership boards.
ESG funds are not individual stocks. They are a collection of multiple stocks grouped together. Buying a fund rather than an individual stock can decrease risk since a fund holds shares of many companies rather than just one.
Best-performing ESG funds
Here are some of the best-performing ESG mutual funds. To learn more about how we selected these funds read our methodology below.
5-year return (%)
Vanguard Mega Cap Growth Index Instl
Baron Durable Advantage Institutional
Vanguard Growth Index Institutional
Vanguard Growth Index Admiral
Amana Growth Institutional
Vanguard Growth Index Investor
Neuberger Berman Large Cap Growth Inst
Source: Morningstar. Data is current as of December 1, 2023, and is for informational purposes only.
» Some brokers are better than others. Read our roundup of top-rated brokerages for mutual funds
ESG ETFs: The cheapest ESG funds
Sustainable funds used to get a bad rap for being expensive, and it's true that the funds above may carry higher expense ratios than their traditional peers. Impact investors are often willing to pay a bit more to ensure they're investing in a way that aligns with their values, but if you're also concerned with costs — and all investors should be — ESG ETFs offer some of the lowest-cost ESG funds available.
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ETFs, or exchange-traded funds, are similar to index funds and other passively managed funds. The main difference is that ETFs can be traded throughout the day similar to stocks. Just as there are ESG mutual funds and ESG index funds, there are also ESG ETFs. These ETFs will follow the same tenets of environmental, social and governance that other types of ESG funds do.
» How much does a fund cost? Estimate a fund’s expenses with a mutual fund calculator
Gabelli Love Our Planet & People ETF
SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 ETF
Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF
iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF
Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF
iShares Core S&P 500 ETF
Schwab U.S. Broad Market ETF
Source: VettaFi. Data is current as of December 1, 2023, and is for informational purposes only.
» What's a small-cap ETF?
“Putting our investment dollars to work in ESG influences the behavior of the largest and most powerful multinational corporations in the world for the greater good of society," says Kenneth Chavis, a certified financial planner and Senior Wealth Manager at LourdMurray in Los Angeles. “To me, this illuminates the breadth of power the everyday investor has, and is an excellent way to make a large-scale, meaningful difference,”
But if influencing powerful companies to make meaningful change isn't a good enough reason to invest with ESG principles, there are two more: the potential for increased performance and reduced risk.
Studies from JUST Capital, Arabesque Partners and others have shown that ESG funds can not only match traditional funds in terms of performance, but that they often outperform them. As for risk, a 2019 white paper from the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing details a study comparing sustainable funds and traditional funds from 2004 to 2018.
The research showed that overall, sustainable funds have consistently shown a lower downside risk than traditional funds. And while some ESG funds are relatively new (particularly many passive ones), they’ve been able to show solid performance and resiliency in both good markets and bad.
» Need more information? Learn how to get started with socially responsible investing
How to choose the best ESG funds for you
Deciding you want to invest in ESG funds adds some extra considerations you may not have when picking more conventional funds.
1. Understand the difference between active and passive funds
Active and passive funds have different pros and cons. Make sure you know their differences before you dive in.
Strategy. Actively managed funds try to beat stock market performance. This strategy may sound good in theory, but overall, actively managed funds often underperform their passive counterparts. According to the S&P Dow Jones Indices year-end scorecard, 70% of domestic equity funds underperformed the S&P Composite 1500® in 2019. Passively managed funds are also known as index funds because they are invested to reflect a specific market index, such as the S&P 500. These funds mirror the performance of the index they track.
Cost. Keep in mind, higher fees can also negate higher returns. Many of the funds listed as "best overall" above are actively managed, whereas the funds on the low-cost list are passive. Actively managed ESG funds tend to be more expensive than passively managed funds, so if you’re looking to add sustainable investments to your portfolio with a smaller price tag, passively managed funds or ESG ETFs may be a better option.
Availability. There are far more actively managed ESG funds than passively managed ESG funds, but passive funds are becoming more common. And while passive ESG funds have been growing in popularity you’ll have more choice if you’re looking at active funds.
When choosing between active and passive funds, Chavis emphasizes that the decision depends on considerations such as your investment goals, your investing experience and your tax situation. He also recommends consulting an investment professional during this process
2. Decide where you want to have an impact
In addition to checking expense ratios, make sure an ESG fund’s mission speaks to you. “An investor should look for an ESG fund that is in alignment with their goals. Let’s say social impact is of the utmost importance to you, specifically regarding diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. You should seek a fund that rewards, in investment dollars, companies for high diversity, equity and inclusion scores on their boards, executive teams and with their employment practices,” says Chavis.
» Is sustainability just a label? Learn about greenwashing
Think about whether there are particular missions you’d like to support with your investment dollars, such as clean water, renewable energy or women in leadership. If there’s an impact area that’s really important to you, that may outweigh a slightly higher expense ratio.
3. Consider your existing investments
Before adding any new investments to your portfolio, think about how an ESG fund would fit in. Be sure you're not overinvesting in a particular industry or asset class.
If you’d like to invest in ESG funds but don’t want to choose your investments yourself, there are several robo-advisors that offer ESG portfolios for no extra charge.
» View our list: The best EV stocks
4. Understand your ESG fund’s impact
Maybe you’ve added a few ESG funds to your portfolio. So how do you know if those investment dollars actually made a difference?
“What I would look for, and what investors should insist upon, is an impact report,” says Jon Hale, Global Head of Sustainability Research at Morningstar. “That will give you a way to assess the impact of a fund as an investment. Impact reports talk about things like shareholder engagement, or the portfolio’s carbon footprint or gender diversity on the Boards of the companies held. That’s a good way to gain a sense of what impact you’re having as an investor.”
ESG funds may periodically release an impact report, or you can probably request one from the fund managers.
What's the easiest way to invest responsibly?
Using a robo-advisor that offers a socially responsible portfolio (which are typically built from ESG-graded exchange-traded funds) is the easiest way to get started with sustainable investing. Of the robo-advisors with socially responsible portfolios that NerdWallet reviews, the following currently offer socially responsible portfolios or access to ESG investments and earn a star rating of 4 or higher.
Socially responsible portfolio offerings
Provides three impact portfolios to choose from: Broad Impact, Climate Impact and Social Impact.
Ellevest Impact Portfolios are invested in up to 53% ESG and impact funds.
Offers investments in themed areas such as clean energy and companies with a greater representation of women in senior leadership roles.
Offers a Socially Responsible Managed Portfolio option.
* These robo-advisors are NerdWallet advertising partners.
To determine the best ESG funds, we screened for U.S. equity funds with expense ratios equal to or less than 1% (an expense ratio is an annual fee charged to investors; if you invest $10,000 in a fund with a 1% expense ratio, you’ll pay $100 a year) and a high Morningstar sustainability rating.
To determine the cheapest ESG ETFs we looked at high-scoring ESG funds and filtered by expense ratio.