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jennifer loviglio
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Trying to save money and the planet

Though I'm sure the math teacher introduced the stock market in sober and responsible terms, this is what my 10-year-old son heard: "You can be rich, rich, RICH!" As part of an online stock game, each student was given a hypothetical $100,000 to invest in a real-time portfolio. And my little Richie Rich was off and running.

I gave him some advice: Be realistic. True, the market climbs in value eventually, but you can lose big on bad investments. Fixated on the computer, my son nodded absently, as he "purchased" boatloads of sexy stocks like Apple and Google.

 Might as well let him learn on his own. My job is to guide him in making socially responsible decisions - both in life and in investing. I know he's got it in him. Recently at Hurd Orchards, impressed by all the labor that went into harvesting the fruit and making the jams on the family-owned farm, my son generously suggested I pay more for the preserves I was buying. 

"I do pay more," I whispered.

"You give them extra money? Good!"

"No," I explained, "the prices here are higher than in the supermarket, but I don't mind paying because I support the farm, too."

It was lovely that my son was so generous with my money, but I hoped he'd continue to be socially aware when it affected his wallet. Come to think of it, outside of buying locally and supporting good causes, I wasn't setting much of an example. I didn't really know about socially responsible investing. Last I had heard, the good intentions were there, but sometimes the profit wasn't.

I've since learned that that is no longer the case. Last year, for example, several funds that take into account the impact of their investments on the environment and social welfare performed in the top ranks of standard mutual funds in the same categories, according to the Los Angeles Times. These include New Alternatives Fund, Parnassus Fixed-Income Fund, and Catholic Equity Fund I. The article also mentions the Domini 400 Social Index - a broad index of socially responsible stocks modeled on Standard & Poor's 500 Index - which, in the past 16 years, has outperformed the S&P 500's Index by almost 6 percent. 

I also learned that even the simple act of saving is socially responsible. After nearly two years of negative personal savings and four years of war (and tax breaks for the rich), America is borrowing way more money than it should from the EU, China, Japan, and others. When a nation doesn't save - at either the government level or at the private-citizen level - it isn't investing in our country. Every dollar we tuck away (in savings, IRAs, mutual funds, or mattresses) gets invested in local and national business as well as in public infrastructure. (Oh, the money in the mattresses? Not so much.) When we don't save, however, that investment money has to come from somewhere.

Enter The Blob that we call our national debt. Oozing under doors and consuming everything in its path, the growing debt could possibly cause <cue scary music> economic collapse. But even before that happens, America loses in small ways. Lending countries could raise interest rates to hedge against their investment in us. And others could drop their peg to US currency - a vote of no confidence in the sliding dollar - as Kuwait just did.

My family will start saving one of these days. When we pay off our education loans. And then pay for the kids' college. And then buy that little cottage we've always wanted.

That's when I'll look into the new "fourth sector" or "for-benefit" investments. The nascent movement involves businesses "driven by both social purposes and financial promise that fall somewhere between traditional companies and charities," a recent New York Times article explained. GE's $12 billion Ecoimagination business, for example, set out to produce a cleaner, quieter airplane that would presumably save money and the planet. Also, a teacher's pension fund cited in the article invests in wind farms and developers of low-income housing. 

To me, the idea of a green GE seems counterintuitive, but maybe I need to give it another look. And take Wal-Mart. We never go there, but I've just learned that it's "one of the most aggressive environmental companies," according to a Christian Science Monitor interview with Andrew Shalit, of the environmentally sensitive Green Century Capital Management. His claim checks out. Wal-Mart plans to double its fleet's fuel economy by 2015 and hopes to eliminate its manufacturing waste by recycling and eliminating non-recyclable materials. Now I wonder: does that make it okay to shop there? 

I'll advise our kids to be socially responsible investors when they're older. For my husband and me, however, I've cooked up a get-rich-quick scheme: vice funds. These recession-proof industries - alcohol, tobacco, gaming, and weapons - are pretty much everything we gave up when we got pregnant. All we've got left are our memories. Can you blame us for living vicariously through our portfolio?