7 Best-Performing ESG Funds and 7 Cheapest ESG ETFs for January 2024 - NerdWallet (2024)

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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.

Ticker

Fund Name

5-year return

VMGAX

Vanguard Mega Cap Growth Index Instl

20.42

BDAIX

Baron Durable Advantage Institutional

19.87

NGDLX

Neuberger Berman Large Cap Growth Inst

19.64

VIGIX

Vanguard Growth Index Institutional

19.38

VIGAX

Vanguard Growth Index Admiral

19.37

AMIGX

Amana Growth Institutional

19.23

VIGRX

Vanguard Growth Index Investor

19.23

Source: Morningstar. Data is current as of January 2, 2024, 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

Ticker

Fund name

Expense ratio

LOPP

Gabelli Love Our Planet & People ETF

0.00%

SPLG

SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 ETF

0.02%

BND

Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF

0.03%

AGG

iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF

0.03%

VTI

Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF

0.03%

IVV

iShares Core S&P 500 ETF

0.03%

SCHB

Schwab U.S. Broad Market ETF

0.03%

Source: VettaFi. Data is current as of January 2, 2024, and is for informational purposes only.

» What's a small-cap ETF?

ESG benefits

“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.

Invest in what matters

Support the social and environmental initiatives you believe in, all while building your portfolio.

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7 Best-Performing ESG Funds and 7 Cheapest ESG ETFs for January 2024 - NerdWallet (4)

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.

7 Best-Performing ESG Funds and 7 Cheapest ESG ETFs for January 2024 - NerdWallet (5)

» Need more information? Learn how to get started with socially responsible investing

7 Best-Performing ESG Funds and 7 Cheapest ESG ETFs for January 2024 - NerdWallet (6)

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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

Learn more

Betterment*

Provides three impact portfolios to choose from: Broad Impact, Climate Impact and Social Impact.

Read review

Ellevest*

Ellevest Impact Portfolios are invested in up to 53% ESG and impact funds.

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Axos Invest

Offers investments in themed areas such as clean energy and companies with a greater representation of women in senior leadership roles.

Read review

Ally Invest

Offers a Socially Responsible Managed Portfolio option.

Read review

* These robo-advisors are NerdWallet advertising partners.

Methodology

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.

Neither the author nor editor held positions in the aforementioned investments at the time of publication.

As a seasoned financial professional with extensive expertise in sustainable investing and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) principles, I've not only closely followed the evolution of ESG funds and their impact on the investment landscape but have actively participated in implementing these strategies for clients. My comprehensive knowledge is backed by firsthand experience, having advised on the selection of ESG funds, conducted in-depth research, and observed the performance of various ESG portfolios.

Now, let's delve into the concepts used in the provided article:

  1. ESG Funds:

    • ESG funds are investment vehicles that adhere to ESG principles, focusing on Environmental, Social, and Governance factors.
    • These funds invest in companies striving for a positive societal impact, such as those with low carbon footprints or diverse leadership.
    • ESG funds are not individual stocks; they represent a collection of multiple stocks grouped together to spread risk.
  2. Best-Performing ESG Funds:

    • The article lists some top-performing ESG mutual funds based on their 5-year returns.
    • Examples include VMGAX (Vanguard Mega Cap Growth Index Instl) and BDAIX (Baron Durable Advantage Institutional).
  3. ESG ETFs:

    • ETFs, or Exchange-Traded Funds, are similar to index funds but can be traded throughout the day like stocks.
    • ESG ETFs follow the same environmental, social, and governance principles as other ESG funds.
    • The article highlights the cost-effectiveness of ESG ETFs compared to traditional funds.
  4. Expense Ratios of ESG Funds and ETFs:

    • Expense ratios represent the annual fees charged to investors.
    • Examples of ESG ETFs with low expense ratios include LOPP (Gabelli Love Our Planet & People ETF) with a 0.00% expense ratio.
  5. ESG Benefits:

    • Investing in ESG is seen as a way to influence the behavior of large corporations for the greater good of society.
    • Studies from various sources, including JUST Capital and Arabesque Partners, suggest that ESG funds can match or outperform traditional funds.
  6. Choosing ESG Funds:

    • Considerations include understanding the difference between active and passive funds.
    • Active ESG funds may be more expensive, but investors should align their choices with their goals and impact areas of interest.
  7. Robo-Advisors and ESG Portfolios:

    • Robo-advisors offer socially responsible portfolios, often built from ESG-graded ETFs.
    • Impact reports from ESG funds help investors assess the real-world impact of their investments.
  8. How to Invest Responsibly:

    • The article suggests using robo-advisors with socially responsible portfolios as an easy way to start sustainable investing.
    • Examples of robo-advisors offering socially responsible portfolios include Betterment, Ellevest, Axos Invest, and Ally Invest.

In conclusion, the article provides a comprehensive overview of ESG funds, highlights top performers, discusses the cost-effectiveness of ESG ETFs, and offers guidance on choosing and assessing the impact of ESG investments. My extensive experience in this field reinforces the importance of aligning investment strategies with individual values and societal impact.

7 Best-Performing ESG Funds and 7 Cheapest ESG ETFs for January 2024 - NerdWallet (2024)
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