Investing My Retirement Funds In Line With My Values

Before you launch into reading this blog, you should know a couple things: 

  1. I’m definitely not a financial advisor. I’m just a sustainability staff member here at U-M who heard that there were new more environmentally-focused funds I could invest my retirement money in, so I wanted to learn more. And, if I’m being completely honest, I’d categorize myself as an investment novice.
  2. I’m not promoting Fidelity over TIAA as a better investment company or anything like that. I just happen to use Fidelity myself, and can only speak to my own experience there. For those of you invested with TIAA, I will share with you towards the end of this post what I learned about their various fund options.

So with that understanding of my background, or lack thereof, with investing, I wanted to share with you my recent experience of talking with a financial planning specialist. Like I stated above, I had heard there were some new, more sustainability-focused funds that I wanted to learn more about, so I went to the Fidelity website and started to poke around for them.  

To-Do list including the task "figure out what my retirement funds are invested in."

The extent of my knowledge before this was, a few years ago, I learned about a more environmentally-focused fund from some of the students in the PCCN Campus Culture and Communications Internal Analysis Team (shout out to them for making me aware of this!). It’s the Fidelity Environment and Alternative Energy Fund (FSLEX). I saw that one on the list due to the nice little check mark that alerted me to the fact that I had some investments in that fund already. But there were 188 other options all with somewhat cryptic names and abbreviations. It was not quickly apparent to me looking at the list which ones might be the new ones I was looking for.

At this point, I realized that this was going to be a lot easier if I could just talk to someone rather than looking into the details of the 188 other options. So, I used the online scheduler (both TIAA and Fidelity let you schedule an appointment online) and picked a time for a virtual consultation a few days later. I was very happy that these could be done virtually now because that is just a lot more convenient these days, and also I was very happy the offering was free!

A few minutes before my scheduled zoom consultation, I jotted down what I wanted to get help with: “I’m interested in learning about Fidelity’s options for social impact and environmental funds for my retirement accounts. What’s available? How do I learn more about what companies they are invested in? How have these performed lately? And to what extent should I be invested in a variety of different funds?” I often have the role of explaining sustainability basics and best practices to others through my Planet Blue Ambassador training, but this time the tables were turned, and it was my chance to listen and learn a little, so I was excited!

After a little introductory chit chat about upcoming family visits we were both having, the advisor asked me what I was looking to learn from our conversation. And much to my relief, after I relayed my questions, she said, “You know I’ve been having more and more people recently ask me about intentional investing. Not a monumental amount, but definitely more.” I breathed a sigh of relief because I was glad to hear I wasn’t alone, and because I just learned a new term for this thing I wanted to do: intentional investing.

She showed me two other funds beyond the Environment and Alternative Energy Fund that Fidelity offers for our U-M retirement accounts. Both of these became new options just this past year. Those are the Fidelity Women’s Leadership Fund (FWOMX) and the Fidelity U.S. Sustainability Index Fund (FITLX). She shared her screen and showed me how to see their recent performance, the asset composition of the funds (aka whether they are invested more in stocks or bonds), and the top 10 companies the funds are invested in. I was actually surprised to see a mix of companies like Tesla, Vestas Wind, and NextEra Energy, with Salesforce, Microsoft, and Home Depot. 

After identifying these three funds, she went on to show me some additional offerings that were not a part of our 188 options at U-M, but that we could use a Fidelity BrokerageLink account to access. All of these were listed on a simple sustainable investing page. She noted that it would take a little more time investment to set these up as opposed to the options included in our U-M list, but that I should read into them more and see if they might be good additional options.

Then, after sharing with me what Fidelity had to offer, the specialist gave me a link to gofossilfree.org, which has additional educational information about sustainable investing. After a little independent research, I found that this educational information includes a sustainability report card that you can use to compare the different funds.

After the ~40 minute conversation, I felt more knowledgeable about the mix of funds and assets I wanted to invest in and the variety of options Fidelity had to do so. I also felt like I did a good thing by reaching out and asking because the more they hear about everyday people wanting to invest sustainably, the more these “specialty” options will become the norm. As with most things, once I learned a little, I realized how much I still have to learn about sustainable investing, intentional investing, or ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) investing—whatever you’d like to call it. While ESG investing has been popular for years now, the standards still aren’t universal. Some funds that brand themselves as sustainable may be, in reality, less sustainable than others. It’s important to prioritize what you care about and consult with independent advisers or financial resources to suss out what’s impactful and what’s marketing.

For those of you who have invested with TIAA, I did learn a little from our University of Michigan Benefits Office that I’d like to share with you all. TIAA has their own webpage about responsible investing that I’d encourage you to check out. If you click on “Explore ESG-Focused Investment Options” on that page, you’ll be able to see all of the TIAA ESG choices, and the following are the ones that are a part of the official U-M lineup:

  • CREF Social Choice R3 (QCSCIX)
  • TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity Fund (TISCX)
  • TIAA-CREF Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund (TNWCX)

Are your retirement funds invested in alignment with your own values? I don’t blame you if you don’t know yet because this stuff can be time consuming and intimidating. But, I encourage you to make an appointment with a financial advisor at TIAA, Fidelity, or wherever else you have investment accounts, and raise the question. In less than an hour you can take a pretty big step forward in learning what investments are the ones you might really want to be making.

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