Lorraine Cushnie | August 07th, 2020

At New Narrative we’re increasingly being asked to write about sustainability as businesses improve their efforts in the area and recognise the importance of sharing best practices. But even though the concept has been around for some time, the ideas and objectives are constantly evolving as governments, NGOs, companies and consumers become better educated on the issues and demand more action. We take an in-depth look at some of the newer ideas that are at the forefront of conversations.

Circular economy

It’s well known that many of the manufacturing processes we rely on today create a lot of waste, generate high carbon emissions and are dependent on resources that will one day run out. This traditional approach to manufacturing – ‘make, use, dispose’ – is what is now coined the linear economy. In contrast, the circular economy is an attempt to cut waste, reduce carbon footprint and better manage the resources linked to manufacturing.

The idea of the circular economy goes much further than recycling products at the end of their life. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization says the circular economy “works by extending product lifespan through improved design and servicing, and relocating waste from the end of the supply chain to the beginning—in effect, using resources more efficiently by using them over and over, not only once.”

It’s worth noting that the language around the circular economy does not tend to focus on less consumption. It recognises that modern innovations have given people access to goods at affordable prices and that it will be difficult to ask consumers to give up innovations that improve lives. Instead, the circular economy is about getting companies to rethink the way products are designed and created so that any waste can re-enter the value chain and be used as a raw material for the next product cycle.

As well as the environmental benefits of reducing waste and reusing materials, the new system is expected to support economic growth and help governments tackle many of the social and health issues they are facing. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates the circular economy will produce a 48% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030 and deliver a 47% reduction in traffic congestion in Chinese cities, among other benefits. And with the world facing a shortage of resources, companies that rely heavily on raw materials will eventually need to look for alternatives whether they subscribe to the idea of the circular economy or not.

Diagram on the key stages in the sustainable circular economy

Blue economy

The blue economy is about using oceans in a more sustainable way that supports economic growth and social development, and also protects their delicate ecosystem. The health of the ocean is closely related to efforts to stop climate change given that the ocean supplies around 50% of the planet’s oxygen and absorbs about 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide. At the same time, the ocean also plays a key role in the world’s economic growth: it is a source of transport for 80% of global trade, and by 2030 the ocean economy is expected to employ around 40 million people and add some US$3 trillion in value to the global economy.

Part of the reason the health of the ocean has come into sharp focus recently is because of the BBC documentary Blue Planet II which showed the impact that plastic is having on oceans and marine life. According to some estimates, each year at least eight tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean — equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute — with Asia responsible for 80% of that leakage. The so-called ‘Blue Planet Effect’ has seen a number of countries and corporations commit to taking action. For example, in January 2020, China announced a major plan to reduce the use of single-use plastics including bags and straws, and in April 2019 the 28-country European Union voted to ban plastic consumer items by 2021.

Picture of how the blue economy supports trade, employment and helps prevent climate change

Science-based targets

The Paris Agreement was seen as a landmark event in the effort to tackle the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Some 195 countries, including China, the European Union and the United States (though the US has since withdrawn) agreed to limit the rise in average global temperatures this century to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.” However, despite the intentions, scientific evidence from the United Nations makes clear that countries are not yet doing enough to reach that goal.

Science-based targets are an attempt to close that ‘emissions gap’. Focusing on the corporate sector rather than governments under the scheme companies set targets that can be shown to be in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increase below the 2°C threshold based on the latest climate science.

The Science Based Targets Initiative is a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). According to the Initiative’s latest statistics, more than 500 companies have committed to or implemented science-based targets. The arguments in favour of companies adopting science-based targets include increased regulatory resistance as governments increasingly look to regulate for climate change policies, strengthened investor confidence, and improved competitiveness and profitability.

The world with a thermometer showing the 2 degrees Celsius target for global warming

Impact investing

Although the term was coined in 2007 (and this method of putting capital to work has been around for much longer), it’s only in the last few years that the concept of impact investing has come to wider prominence. Put simply, impact investing is providing capital to businesses that have a measurable social or environmental impact.

In its early stages impact investing was largely the preserve of private equity funds given that it requires direct investment and the ability to accurately assess companies and measure their outcomes. But in the last few years it has started to attract the attention of a broader set of investors such as hedge funds and asset managers. In part this broader interest has been driven by the launch in 2016 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals which clearly set out 17 areas of focus to end poverty and protect the planet.

In addition, investors are recognising that impact investing does not necessarily mean sacrificing returns. Indeed, many funds are ‘return-first’ – they are driven by generating a competitive financial return by investing in companies that create an impact. In contrast ‘impact-first’ funds will accept below-market returns.

The volume of impact investing assets under management, which the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) estimates was USD715 billion at the end of 2019, has also led to an effort to create a commonly accepted definition. Efforts in this area include the International Finance Corporation’s set of principles for impact investing which were published at the end of 2018. These were followed in April 2019 by GIIN’s Core Characteristics of Impact Investing.

The spectrum of ESG, sustainability and impact investing

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