Investing in sustainability – the role of intangibles

“Early in the twenty-first century, a quiet revolution occurred. For the first time, the major developed economies began to invest more in intangible assets, like design, branding, R&D, and software, than in tangible assets, like machinery, buildings, and computers. For all sorts of businesses, from tech firms and pharma companies to coffee shops and gyms, the ability to deploy assets that one can neither see nor touch is increasingly the main source of long-term success[1]”.

Rated as one of the Financial Times Best Books of 2017, Capitalism without Capital is a useful and timely read as we consider sustainability based investment broadly, and sustainable wild capture fisheries specifically. It goes a long way to explaining and addressing one of the many challenges the sustainability community faces when evaluating and considering how to transition “projects” to enterprises.

Wilderness Markets and others have made considerable progress in identifying, developing and deploying appropriate due diligence questions to address investment risk as well as developing appropriate business plans and models, most recently in wild capture fisheries (with the World Bank). However, these criteria either ignore or assume the presence of effective intangible development capacity which is seldom the case with most natural resource “projects” nurtured by NGO’s and many communities. These “projects” often lack both the human and intellectual capital to effectively develop and grow businesses, leading to an over emphasis on tangible assets.

Yet, as is clearly defined in this book, this is where significant value is to be gained. In the abscense of effective design, branding, R&D and software, the likelihood of enterprise success is marginal, seldom providing the risk adjusted returns investors would like to see.

The social implication of this trend are also discussed in the book. It provides good perspective on how inequality is both a result and a cause of this investment trend, resulting in a negative vicious cycle. Applying equally to groups and individuals, in both developed and developing markets, participants are unable to upgrade skills due to economic challenges (or an overreliance on tangibles), thus depriving them of the resources needed to upgrade their skills. We have seen this in fisheries in the United States, Mexico and Asia.

Intangibles also have significant implications regarding the appropriate types of capital to be deployed. Given the nature of intangibles – identified as the 4 S’s (scaleability; sunkenness; spillovers and synergies), these types of investment are more appropriate to equity than to debt, which has implications on the recently launched debt funds in sustainable fisheries and oceans.

As we and others continue to evaluate and explore how best to attract private capital to a range of sustainability markets, this book provides good perspective on an important topic.

[1] Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake, Capitalism without Capital; The Rise of the Intangible Economy, Princeton University Press 2017