Through the explosive rise of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing in recent years, the “E” in ESG has been almost entirely defined by efforts to address climate and terrestrial problems. Investors wanting to leverage their capital to improve the health of the world’s oceans haven’t had an abundance of options.
But that is finally beginning to change. Some public investments such as new so-called blue bonds—the blue referring to oceans and waterways—and stocks of companies with innovative ocean-protective policies are liquid entry points for investors. Meanwhile, direct private investment options have been opening up for wealthy folks who can tolerate investment lockup periods and high minimum investments.
“ESG and impact investments directly addressing oceans are taking time to develop,” says Justina Lai, chief impact officer at Wetherby Asset Management, a San Francisco wealth management firm specializing in ESG. “But it’s an area that has garnered more interest in the past two or three years as awareness grows.”
Among the newest options are blue bonds, whose proceeds are used to fund ocean-related projects aimed at preserving and protecting the environment.
The first issuance was in 2018 by the Republic of the Seychelles to fund sustainable fisheries. More recently, Morgan Stanley underwrote the World Bank’s $10 million issuance of 30-year blue bonds.
“Our goal is to connect capital with solutions, to drive impact around issues of plastic waste,” says Matthew Slovik, head of global sustainable finance for Morgan Stanley, which in 2019 resolved to reduce and prevent 50 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.
Critical to the acceleration of change is making impact and ESG investments accessible to average investors. Morgan Stanley is doing its part by offering low minimum investment—$10,000—ESG portfolios that include ocean-supportive investments, Slovik says.
Opportunities are broadest in the private investing arena, where pioneering venture, private equity, and debt funds are channeling capital into companies with innovative ideas for addressing marine challenges.
Among them is Closed Loop Partners, a New York investment firm committed to helping build a circular economy in which products are reused and waste is eliminated before it can reach the oceans. For example, its Closed Loop Venture Fund invests in a Chilean start-up called Algramo, which creates refill stations for household products such as detergent, condiments, rice, and other staples.
Circulate Capital, a Singapore-based private investment company, similarly focuses on plastic reduction in nations including India, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever are among investors in the Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, among whose underlying investments are Ricron Panels, a Gujarat, India-based recycler of plastic waste into materials for furniture and building construction, and Tridi Oasis, an Indonesian converter of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles into flakes used in packaging.
There’s great potential for growth for innovators in the blue economy, says Mark Huang, co-founder and managing director of SeaAhead, which provides a start-up platform for blue innovators and last year launched the Blue Angel Investment Group to connect investors with promising start-ups. The Paris- based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates the blue economy will double to $3 trillion by 2030.
Blue Angel’s debut was met with the challenging circumstances created by Covid-19, but by February this year had already doubled its entire 2020 capital. Among its investments: Beta Hatch, a young Seattle firm that creates feed for poultry out of mealworms, replacing the typical feed made from ground fish—a product leading to overfishing in the oceans, Huang says.