The Singapore-based impact investing firm Circulate Capital launched a US$65 million initiative on Tuesday to reduce plastic pollution in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The strategy builds on Circulate Capital’s efforts in South Asia and Southeast Asia to spur the so-called circular economy by investing in companies that turn waste into usable products. Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, which had its first close in 2019, today has US$112 million in assets.
Backing the Latin America and Caribbean initiative are major global corporations, some of which also invested in its previous financing. Among these investors are Paris-based Danone, Michigan-based Dow, and London-based Unilever, companies that depend on sourcing recycled plastic material to meet their own sustainability commitments.
The Inter-American Development Bank Group’s IDB Lab also invested, and, in fact, encouraged Circulate Capital to take its approach to Latin America and the Caribbean, says Rob Kaplan, the firm’s founder.
Wealthy individuals and family offices also have taken an interest in financing the circular-economy approach to the ocean, including Builders Vision, a philanthropic and impact investing platform founded by Lukas Walton—grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Builders Vision has been a longtime supporter of Circulate Capital, which was created in 2018 by Kaplan, a former director of sustainability at Walmart.
After initially learning of Circulate Capital’s approach for reducing plastic waste, Builders Vision realised it needed to back its effort aggressively, says James Lindsay, principal at Builders Vision. Their goal is to make investing in the ocean as popular for investors as investing in clean-tech solutions for the energy transition from fossil fuels.
Ocean health is one of three areas of investing today for Builders Vision, in addition to climate and energy, and food and agriculture, given the critical role oceans play in climate change and the global food supply.
“It’s a major focus and we want everyone to go look at the ocean sector like it’s completely investable, with market rates of return, just like we would with clean tech or sustainable real assets,” Lindsay says. An endowment or foundation may easily be able to include a clean-tech fund in its portfolio, but with “oceans there’s still a lot of hesitancy.”
There are good reasons for that, Lindsay says. One is that there are few companies that have been sold or gone public and thus been able to return money to investors. That’s started to change in the last two years, and Circulate Capital’s investments are part of that story, he says.
Penta recently spoke with Lindsay and Kaplan about Circulate Capital’s latest initiative, and the investing opportunities emerging for cleaning up the ocean.
A ‘Chicken-and-Egg’ Problem
The waste-per-capita ratio in Latin America is one of the highest in the world, and Kaplan says, expectations are that it will increase by at least 25% in the next 30 years. One reason is that more than 40 million people lack access to basic waste collection.
Cleaning up that waste, however, is a “chicken-and-egg problem,” because the waste needs to be collected before it can be recycled, but “why would you collect it if no one’s going to recycle it?” Kaplan says.
Policy developments in Chile and Colombia, however, have begun to create economic opportunities for local recyclers to start up and scale up, he says. Governments in Brazil and Mexico are beginning to consider similar actions. “That is creating a level playing field for these companies to grow much more rapidly,” Kaplan says.
These developments are similar to what Circulate Capital has seen in India, where it has invested in companies such as Mumbai-based Lucro Plastecycle, which recycles flexible plastics into new materials, and Srichakra Polyplast, in Hyderabad, India, which converts old plastic bottles into food-grade quality resins for new plastic bottles.
An Ocean Portfolio
Builders Vision has made 45 investments so far to support oceans, about half with fund managers and accelerators (which fund new entrepreneurs), and another half in direct investments, Lindsay says.
In addition to plastics, Builders invests in aquaculture through, for example, the Yield Lab, an accelerator for entrepreneurs developing sustainable agriculture systems. It also invests in “monitoring, reporting, and verification” technologies that evaluate efforts such as planting mangroves or seagrass to improve the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon, in addition to technologies that filter microplastics and integrate the material into manufacturing processes.
Most of Builders’ ocean investments are in Europe, where there are more ocean-oriented venture funds. That’s because of a European Union initiative to invest in start-up vehicles so they reach a viable size, Lindsay says. Builders’ goal, however, is to invest more with firms such as Circulate Capital that are based closer to the problems they are trying to solve.
“Navigating country risk without having a sense of the landscape is incredibly challenging,” he says. “You’re going to end up deploying some capital pretty poorly.”
Spurring Economic Development
For Circulate Capital, investing in and growing companies that can rethink supply chains for recycling—“from collecting and sorting to processing and manufacturing”—has ancillary benefits.
Not only do these companies contribute to the fight against climate change, they also create jobs and help local economies.
“Across Latin America and the Caribbean there are millions and millions of people whose livelihoods depend on collecting and trading plastic waste,” Kaplan says. “As we develop the supply chains, and help them scale, that creates more economic opportunity for those vulnerable populations—if it’s done in a responsible way, which is a big part of how we invest.”
In Kaplan’s view, the problem of plastic waste and ocean health will only be solved when “we stop thinking about it just as an environmental issue and start thinking about it as an economic development opportunity.”
Companies such as Lucro and Srichakra are beginning to scale, but Kaplan says the plastics problem in South Asia and Southeast Asia alone will still require “many, many billions” of dollars of investment to solve. Part of Circulate Capital’s role is to catalyse capital by proving these investments can work.
The firm’s second ocean fund, for instance, brought in development finance institutions such as the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corp. and the European Investment Bank in addition to family offices and private investors.
“We’re seeing more investors getting interested in the space. We’re seeing these companies successfully hit their targets and their milestones,” Kaplan says. “Those are all positive directions. But there’s still a lot more work to be done before we can say we’re moving the needle.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Even amid two international conflicts and an upcoming U.S. presidential election, some philanthropic leaders are optimistic about the direction of overall giving through 2024.
Penta spoke with heads of several non-profits and leading philanthropists to gauge whether charitable giving will continue its reported slump from 2023 or rebound alongside renewed interest in various political and economic issues.
“Contrary to what some might expect, philanthropy has had resilience in these times,” says Stacy Huston, executive director of Sixdegrees.org, a youth empowerment non-profit based in Virginia founded by actor Kevin Bacon in 2007.
Huston’s view echoes recent data from the biennial Bank of America Study of Philanthropy published last year, which found that while affluent giving is largely down, the value of the average philanthropic gift is up 19%, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
The notion of what these gifts look like is changing, and is partially responsible for the growth. Philanthropy can be executed through more avenues than ever, whether through celebrity association, tech titans stewarding large endowments, or athletes using their platforms to advocate for and create meaningful change.
“The industry and movement is creating new models, and you want to get it right,” says Scott Curran, CEO of Chicago-based Beyond Advisers. “No one should take their foot off the gas pedal.”
Curran spent a number of years with the Clinton Foundation in its infancy before leaving in 2016 to open his own consultancy, which focuses on philanthropy strategy at the highest levels. Curran and his team work with celebrities, athletes, multi-generational family foundations, and other affluent givers who need guidance in directing their philanthropic efforts. It’s a growing area of interest: Over half of affluent households with a net worth between US$5 million and US$20 million have, or are planning to establish, “some kind of giving vehicle” within the next three years, according to the Bank of America report.
Corporate philanthropy, rather than individual giving, is the cornerstone of Marcus Selig’s work as chief conservation officer at the National Forest Foundation, a Congressionally chartered non-profit based in Montana responsible for protecting millions of acres of public lands.
“Our outlook is business as usual,” he says, advising that giving may slow down, but not enough for the foundation to change course.
Factors such as political polarisation in the U.S. and the wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are pushing nonprofits to consider their niche, and how they might work with other groups, both on the corporate and philanthropic levels, Selig says.
“It leads to a little more sharing on the ground in what needs to be done,” he adds.
Steve Kaufer , founder of Massachusetts-headquartered e-commerce giving platform Give Freely and founder of TripAdvisor, says that the economy has a much bigger role in election years, as he looks to build and grow something that can act as a “counterbalance.”
“There’s a trend towards democratisation, and acting collectively can lead to greater impact,” he says.
Kaufer’s new platform hopes to leverage the everyday philanthropist through online shopping dollars to benefit major charity partners like UNICEF and charity:water, who earn funds as shoppers choose an organisation to benefit through an online clickthrough process.
“Whether a good year or bad year, e-commerce will continue to keep growing,” he says. “Nobody doubts that.”
Whether a legacy foundation, corporation or individual, the political landscape this year is requiring some to exercise caution as they consider what their own charitable actions might be and how it could be viewed more broadly. For the personal philanthropist, every move is now scrutinised more closely. On the nonprofit side, entities are exercising more due diligence to understand if a specific donor aligns with their mission and that there aren’t any underlying issues that could cause greater pushback.
“You have to be able to walk the walk,” Huston says. “For example, we’ve had to turn down very large donor checks from corporations because there’s a Reddit stream calling them out on their human rights practices.”
She adds that even a routine charity activation could now be aligned with a political party, and that adds complexities to how a higher-profile organisation like Six Degrees can activate, especially as the film Footloose turns 40 in 2024 (which Bacon starred in).
“A lot of organisations and states want to align themselves with this feel good moment, and we should be able to stand side by side with everyone, but we have to be aware,” she says.
Another topic attracting donor interest today is mental health, an area that historically has been underfunded and under-resourced by philanthropy, according to Two Bridge partner Harris Schwartzberg, who has been closely linked to the mental health space for more than a decade.
Today, the issue for mental health nonprofits is less about resources and more about societal divisiveness and polarisation around the topic. There’s an “overwhelming demand” for solutions, but the space is in a “perfect storm” for the broader political issues to make things worse, Schwartzberg says.
In Curran’s opinion, the storms brewing are troublesome, but they are also creating new opportunities for corporate and personal giving. The current state of philanthropy is one of “dynamic, expansive, and blurred lines,” meaning a careful blending of targeted giving combined with an understanding of the broader geopolitical landscape could lead to a successful overall philanthropic strategy.
“There are a lot of headlines that distract, but shouldn’t,” he says. “2024 needs more serious philanthropists than ever.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’