A circular economy looks different within each industry, but its broad vision of healing the harm from the industrial economy’s extractive, polluting original sins is appealing more to a variety of businesses. A small number of influential large companies are creating internal funds to support sustainability goals specific to circular economy initiatives, such as designing out waste and recovering materials from products used internally or sold in the market. The eyes of traditional investors are widening to the landscape as well.
It's an early-stage, sometimes loosely defined space, where many solutions remain unproven, but the long-term payoffs in terms of sustainability and cost reductions could be enormous. That's the hope of several early movers in circular economy investing, who shared their insights at the GreenBiz 21 virtual event in early February.
Nestlé and Microsoft are among the noteworthy corporations putting considerable investments behind circular programs involving products and services, in service of their sustainability targets and with an eye to spark broader change across their industries.
"I would almost challenge people to not think of it as, ‘I have to set up a fund separate from,’ but it's more of, ‘How do I set up our business to operate differently going forward?’" said Anna Marciano, head of U.S. legal sustainability at Nestlé USA. "If we're going to make sure that we're using more recycled content, if we're going to ensure that we're going to reduce carbon emissions, then we need to be tracking that. So then our procurement team needs to be monitoring that and they need to be held accountable for all of our ESG commitments."
If you're going to use more recycled content, you're going to use alternative materials for packaging, you have to be ready to make the capital investment needed in your infrastructure in your factories.
One goal of Closed Loop Partners (CLP), entering its ninth year, is to bring together institutional investors with strategic corporate investors who seek to build a circular economy for their supply chains while helping their sustainability goals. (CLP's private-equity Closed Loop Leadership Fund, launched in 2018, counts Nestlé, Microsoft and Nuveen among its investors.)
"I have heard more in the last few years, probably than ever before, companies talking about investing off their balance sheets to achieve some of these goals, which I think is new vernacular for a lot of companies," said Bridget Croke, managing director at CLP.
Nestlé's circular recipe
Also about one year ago, Nestlé launched its $2 billion sustainability fund, to support companies developing innovative packaging and recycling technologies through 2025. (The company's first investment was in the Closed Loop Leadership Fund.) The producer of coffee, candy and cocoa also created a nearly $260 million venture fund in support of planet-friendly packaging technologies. Its broader sustainability targets include getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Nestlé’s circular plans include, by 2025, reducing virgin plastics in packaging by one-third and making all of its packaging reusable and recyclable. But goals aren’t enough without something to back them up, Marciano said.
"If you're going to use more recycled content, you're going to use alternative materials for packaging, you have to be ready to make the capital investment needed in your infrastructure in your factories," Marciano said. "And so it becomes really critical for this to be a mindset shift to say, yes, this is absolutely what we need to achieve."
Nestlé knew it had to invest in designing packaging for the future to meet its packaging commitments, so it established its Institute for Packaging Science in 2019 in Switzerland. One pocket-size result is new recyclable paper packaging for Smarties candies, popular in the U.K.
"That's really where the strong collaboration, the collective action of financial investments come into play,” Marciano added. ”So we're really targeting investments to help transform the recycling infrastructure, so we could advance the circular economy at the end of the day."
Microsoft's circular formula
Similarly, as a corporate citizen, Microsoft aimed to look beyond the four walls of its own operations toward suppliers and customers, and other industries it touches, to enable circular markets to grow, said Brandon Middaugh, director of Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund.
Like Nestlé, Microsoft also looks at translating its goals into circular economy action in terms of designing out waste, reusing and recycling materials and products, and replenishing natural resources that it uses — three pillars reflected by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The investment strategy includes identifying and prioritizing the major areas of waste that apply to Microsoft's own supply chains and operations, including its devices, cloud infrastructure and campus operations, Middaugh said. One new initiative is to build Microsoft Circular Centers to further the reuse of computer servers and other hardware from the company's data centers.
"We really recognized that it was not enough to set the operational goal and to do that work internally. We needed to be partnering externally and reaching outside into the market to try to be an advance team for the innovation in the industry," she said.
Microsoft is one year into its $1 billion, four-year Climate Innovation Fund. Carbon, water, waste and ecosystems are the core focus areas for the software juggernaut, which is aiming to carbon negative by 2030, removing all the carbon it has historically emitted by 2050.
If you are not going to invest, what's the cost of not investing?
The fund, a joint finance-sustainability initiative, is one of three balance-sheet ESG funds at Microsoft, in addition to others around affordable housing and racial equity.
Middaugh said it’s useful to have a unified playbook toward a single goal, which may lean on products, operational investments, employee engagement and even advocacy, using partnerships in civil society. For Microsoft, the main points are about being carbon negative, water positive, zero waste — and building a "planetary computer" that harnesses artificial intelligence (AI) to recommend resource protection measures, tree by tree.
Tangible examples of these include reducing electronic waste and packaging hardware without waste. "Then it's also about giving the tools for traceability and transparency that we, our customers, need to be able to track circular economy themes," Middaugh said. Those areas of strategic importance cascade to the investment strategy as well.
How to prove circular success?
For traditional investors, sustainability with a sound return on investment is key, according to David Haddad, managing director and co-head of impact investing at Nuveen, a subsidiary of TIAA. "We want there to be an economic viability, because our time horizon tends to be relatively shorter than many of these larger companies."
And traditional institutional investors are challenged by the need to make a certain return within a relatively short time frame, maybe five or 10 years, which may not be enough for a market to mature.
Ways to reduce the risk around investments can include investing in research and innovation; proving that new business models are moving in a certain direction and integrating that into the business; and exploring longer-term contracts, according to Croke.
Nestlé’s sustainability fund is already driving results, said Marciano, who is also division general counsel for Nespresso USA and International Premium Waters. "We have access to more recycled plastic already, we're able to integrate it into our Stouffer’s business, into our Coffee mate business, into our water business," she said. "So we see it working already. And it's only been a few months in."
Middaugh noted that Microsoft focuses on metrics around the use of recyclable materials; landfill diversion in terms of solid waste and the construction and demolition waste at its campuses, and an overlapping focus on embodied carbon. "And in terms of how we integrate those with the rest of the decision process. It's really around assessing the impact, assessing the risk and then looking for that impact and risk-adjusted return," she said.
For Nestlé, measuring circular economy success involves improving recycling rates beyond the company itself by spurring improvements in recycling infrastructure more broadly, encouraging consumers to recycle too. But that’s tricky. The question of measuring social impacts, not just the environmental ones most companies have prioritized, is another matter.
Haddad noted that as an impact investor, there’s no cookie-cutter recipe, but Nuveen works closely with each young company to determine relevant metrics, and any failure to be able to report on those alongside financial performance will make it a no-go for funding.
Croke agreed that limited tools for tracking certain metrics related to circular goals are difficult for companies or municipalities, but a bonus to working with large tech companies is being able to identify and address data gaps and useful technologies.
Partnerships and collaborations are essential
How does a sustainability advocate make the business case for investing toward circular, sustainable solutions? What’s the benefit of leveraging the company’s balance sheet or other capital? Early corporate movers may offer useful examples.
Croke noted that some companies may find it hard to identify such investment opportunities and run up against limits to the size of deals they can take on. "And so the ability to invest through other funds helps sometimes open up opportunities to invest in things that might be too early-stage or small that need some de-risking," Croke said.
Partnerships with third-party leaders can help when trying to apply lessons to the rest of the business from initiatives around circular servers, recycling and reuse, Middaugh said. She, Marciano and Croke agreed that no organization should try to go it alone when addressing a systemic challenge as large as growing a circular economy.
For example, it’s upon Nestlé to share its expertise in sustainable packaging, collaborating with other stakeholders to make sure it’s not introducing harmful materials into products. Such relationships can improve the wheel in multiple areas. And policy advocacy is another spoke of the wheel for Nestlé.
Middaugh added that collaborations should involve early-stage innovations and pilots — such as sharing information with other companies exploring advanced materials — as well as later-stage infrastructure buildout. Microsoft is working with suppliers to update its supplier Code of Conduct to reflect its carbon and sustainability goals, also providing the tools to help its partners meet their goals.
The coming transition
CLP draws connections across that ecosystem by backing circular efforts by municipalities, recycling facilities and material recovery facilities (MRFs). It has invested, for example, in Amp Robotics, which offers early-stage AI for recycling facilities, and PureCycle Technologies, whose technology turns polypropylene back into virgin-quality material. CLP started an innovation hub to support pre-competitive ideas.
Croke agreed that data points around diversion of material and greenhouse gas impacts, to name just a couple, are relatively simple to understand. "What I think is sometimes more interesting, and a little bit harder to measure is the catalytic impact that's being had, we're all trying to completely transform a supply chain, the way that the supply chain works from being linear to being circular, and the linear supply chain is quite scaled," she said. "The economics are very efficient today."
However, there’s going to be a lead-up time to building up the scale for new, circular models. In time, costs will expand for existing linear systems, becoming less attractive to newly affordable circular ones.
"But what we're finding is that there are definitely specific investment opportunities today that are profitable, that makes sense for the institutional kind of partners make sense for our corporate partners, and hopefully create the levers that unlock, value and scale for the rest of the system," Croke added.
Haddad advocated for companies to recognize private equity firms as a force multiplier. "We can really bring capital to bear and our experience with boards and governance to scale those things," he said.
Marciano insisted that it’s not necessary to invest millions of dollars to get started. Pick up the phone and talk to people, and take other small steps to explore circular possibilities. "If you are not going to invest, what's the cost of not investing?" she said. "Think of it that way, and really try to inspire others within your organization to take a chance ... What's the worst that could happen? You asked for the money and you're told no or not yet. But at least you've already planted the seed, that you believe that the money is needed and could make a difference."