One investing firm is trying to capitalize on the success of the plant-based food craze with a new meatless ETF.
The US Vegan Climate ETF is set to begin trading Tuesday under the ticker symbol “VEGN.” As you might expect, Beyond Meat, up nearly 500% from its initial public offering price, is one of its holdings.
But investors looking at the ETF should be warned. It’s not a fund that focuses on plant-based food.
The ETF is based on the Beyond Investing US Vegan Climate Index — an index with 275 companies. That index, itself, is based on the Solactive US Large Cap Index, which tracks America’s biggest publicly traded firms.
Beyond Investing, which runs the VEGN ETF, says its index “excludes companies engaged in animal exploitation, defense, human rights abuses, fossil fuels extraction and energy production, and other environmentally damaging activities” according to the fund’s prospectus. Beyond Investing’s team decides which stocks to exclude and which new ones to add.
Excluding the ‘nasties’
That doesn’t mean environmentally friendly companies are necessarily the top holdings. It just means the ETF won’t own oil stocks, big food firms or retailers that sell meat-based products — be that beef and poultry or leather and fur.
According to the fund’s website, the US Vegan Climate ETF’s biggest stakes are in megacaps Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, JPMorgan Chase and Cisco. They make up nearly 15% of the fund’s total assets.
Still, Apple is often targeted by workers rights group China Labor Watch due to its business relationship with Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, which makes many Apple products. Few big companies actually hit all the marks when it comes to being socially responsible.
Since the fund is only kicking out companies with questionable stances toward animals and the planet, what’s left are many stocks you’d find in your average S&P 500 index fund.
Claire Smith, CEO of Beyond Investing, said in an interview with CNN Business that by removing these companies — what she dubbed “the nasties” — from a broader index fund, Beyond Investing is eliminating about 43% of the market value in the S&P 500.
That means that energy giants (and Dow Jones Industrial Average components) Exxon Mobil and Chevron are not in the fund.
There’s also no Amazon (which owns Whole Foods), Walmart, McDonald’s or Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which is the top investor in Kraft Heinz. That’s because these companies sell or make meat-based products and Smith said her firm draws a hard line in the sand when it comes to investing in stocks that profit from the sale of any meat.
“The consumer sector is riddled with animal exploitation and we would prefer that’s not the case,” Smith said.
What else does the US Vegan Climate ETF own specifically because it is good for the planet?
Smith said Tesla, which now has leather-free interiors for its Model 3 and plans to do the same for its upcoming Model Y, is also a holding because the electric car company is both environmentally and animal friendly.
Other top picks include Energizer, which makes lithium ion batteries in addition to regular ones and Idacorp, a Boise-based utility that primarily uses hyrdopower to generate electricity.
Slim picking for investors in plant-based sector
But Smith conceded that it’s a bit of a challenge finding companies that are pure play vegan or green stocks. Beyond Meat rival Impossible Foods is not yet public.
“We’re struggling to find plant-based food stocks and we would love to see more,” she said.
Nonetheless, the vegan strategy has been a success in its short history. The Beyond Investing index is up about 23% so far in 2019, compared to a 19% jump for the S&P 500.
Still, there are other ways for investors to profit from the push toward plant-based foods and other socially responsible themes.
Jason Escamilla, CEO of investment firm ImpactAdvisor, has a new portfolio simulation website called Vegemize that helps people pick individual stocks and even bonds from companies that match specific social metrics for things like gender equality and CO₂ emissions.
“We’re looking more at what to include and not necessarily exclude,” Escamilla said about Vegemize, which launched Monday. “We want to build a portfolio from scratch so investors can have their cake and eat it too.”
Presumably, that cake will be flourless and dairy free.