The shift to a global economy based on reusing, repairing, and recycling—instead of making things, using them, and then throwing them away—is gaining traction as a sustainable investing theme.
Today, only 8.6% of the global economy is circular as the world consumes 100 billion tons of materials a year, according to Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based global impact group.
Closing the loop on how goods are produced and consumed can address the problems created by depleting the Earth’s resources, in addition to the problems of pollution and climate change. According to the U.K.’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 45% of global greenhouse-gas emissions are generated by the creation and use of products and food, while the rest is generated by the use of energy.
Rising environmental challenges such as drought, fires, and flooding, in addition to changing consumer preferences and government regulation, are driving companies big and small to break away from a reliance on finite resources and to seek other solutions, says Jessica Matthews, head of sustainable investing at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.
That means, “by 2030, the circular economy could yield up to US$4.5 trillion in economic benefits globally,” she says. The benefits? “Saving 92 million tons of textiles in landfills, 1.3 billion tons of food waste, and 45 trillion gallons of water wasted through food production every year,” she says.
This multi-trillion dollar opportunity is leading growth-oriented, as well as sustainability-minded, investors to pay attention to this growing theme, as the push to create a circular economy drives innovation and new business models.
“Companies are innovating to tackle the challenge,” Matthews says. “That’s why it’s a growth story.”
The private bank currently has about US$12.5 billion in client assets invested in sustainable strategies across 100 funds on its platform, Matthews says. The assets are in all kinds of vehicles, from exchange-traded funds to private equity—and represent a range of investing approaches.
Matthews recently spoke with Penta about the potential for investing in the circular economy today.
The Business Case
What makes the circular economy an investing opportunity is that companies stand to profit more by reusing, refurbishing, and repairing products rather than sourcing virgin materials to make them, Matthews says.
Circular practices already are being used by clothing companies as well as technology and manufacturing companies, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said in a September report titled “Financing the Circular Economy.”
In 2019, the resale market for fashion, including companies such as the RealReal, grew 25 times faster than the broader retail sector, while Philips, a Dutch conglomerate, reported 13% of revenues resulting from its circular practices.
In addition to major companies that are reforming how they make things—such as Unilever’s pledge to cut its use of virgin plastics in half by 2025—small companies are sprouting up to facilitate the shift, the report said.
Examples include RePack, based in Helsinki, which makes reusable, returnable packaging for products bought online, and Algramo, a Chilean startup, which allows consumers to refill cleaning products made by companies such as Procter & Gamble and Nestlé.
The move away from plastics for packaging is expected to create a US$700 million demand for corrugated cardboard in Europe and the U.S., the foundation said.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation there are 10 public stock funds globally focused on the circular economy, either in full or in part, including BlackRock’s BGF Circular Economy Fund, the Geneva-based Decalia Asset Management’s Decalia Circular Economy fund, and BNP Paribas’s Easy ECPI Circular Economy Leaders UCITS ETF.
There were also at least 10 corporate bonds issued globally with the assistance of major investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, HSBC, and Morgan Stanley, with proceeds either in full or in part dedicated to circular practices, the foundation said. Issuers include Alphabet’s US$5.75 billion sustainability bond (with a circular economy component), Daiken Corp.’s JPY5 billion (US$46 million) bond, and Owens Corning’s US$450 million bond.
Private market equity, debt, and venture capital funds are also on the rise—there were 30 funds as of the first half of last year, up from three in 2016, the foundation said.
At J.P. Morgan, Matthews is evaluating the available public mutual funds and is looking to bring one on its platform. Since many of the companies involved in the circular economy today are in niche businesses, “you have to be careful about how limiting you are in your universe,” she says.
Public funds focused broadly on companies with the best environmental, social, and governance practices also buy stocks of corporations on the leading edge of the circular economy, even if these companies—such as Unilever, Adidas, and Nike —don’t represent a distinct circular economy story.
J.P. Morgan is also looking at private markets. Similarly, the bank has found more opportunities to invest in the circular economy through funds that look at sustainability broadly, Matthews says. For instance, the bank has invested with a private venture firm focused on sustainability and climate solutions that has invested in a company working to create cold-pack packaging with less Styrofoam.
“Where [the circular economy] becomes more widely adopted and seen is in being favoured in broader sustainability portfolios,” Matthews says, adding that ESG managers doing fundamental research today will find themselves looking at some of the trends around circular, because “they are still underappreciated by the market.”
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Food prices continue to rise at a rapid pace, surprising central banks and pressuring debt-laden governments
LONDON—Fresh out of an energy crisis, Europeans are facing a food-price explosion that is changing diets and forcing consumers across the region to tighten their belts—literally.
This is happening even though inflation as a whole is falling thanks to lower energy prices, presenting a new policy challenge for governments that deployed billions in aid last year to keep businesses and households afloat through the worst energy crisis in decades.
New data on Wednesday showed inflation in the U.K. fell sharply in April as energy prices cooled, following a similar pattern around Europe and in the U.S. But food prices were 19.3% higher than a year earlier.
The continued surge in food prices has caught central bankers off guard and pressured governments that are still reeling from the cost of last year’s emergency support to come to the rescue. And it is pressuring household budgets that are also under strain from rising borrowing costs.
In France, households have cut their food purchases by more than 10% since the invasion of Ukraine, while their purchases of energy have fallen by 4.8%.
In Germany, sales of food fell 1.1% in March from the previous month, and were down 10.3% from a year earlier, the largest drop since records began in 1994. According to the Federal Information Centre for Agriculture, meat consumption was lower in 2022 than at any time since records began in 1989, although it said that might partly reflect a continuing shift toward more plant-based diets.
Food retailers’ profit margins have contracted because they can’t pass on the entire price increases from their suppliers to their customers. Markus Mosa, chief executive of the Edeka supermarket chain, told German media that the company had stopped ordering products from several large suppliers because of rocketing prices.
A survey by the U.K.’s statistics agency earlier this month found that almost three-fifths of the poorest 20% of households were cutting back on food purchases.
“This is an access problem,” said Ludovic Subran, chief economist at insurer Allianz, who previously worked at the United Nations World Food Program. “Total food production has not plummeted. This is an entitlement crisis.”
Food accounts for a much larger share of consumer spending than energy, so a smaller rise in prices has a greater impact on budgets. The U.K.’s Resolution Foundation estimates that by the summer, the cumulative rise in food bills since 2020 will have amounted to 28 billion pounds, equivalent to $34.76 billion, outstripping the rise in energy bills, estimated at £25 billion.
“The cost of living crisis isn’t ending, it is just entering a new phase,” Torsten Bell, the research group’s chief executive, wrote in a recent report.
Food isn’t the only driver of inflation. In the U.K., the core rate of inflation—which excludes food and energy—rose to 6.8% in April from 6.2% in March, its highest level since 1992. Core inflation was close to its record high in the eurozone during the same month.
Still, Bank of England Gov. Andrew Bailey told lawmakers Tuesday that food prices now constitute a “fourth shock” to inflation after the bottlenecks that jammed supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in energy prices that accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and surprisingly tight labor markets.
Europe’s governments spent heavily on supporting households as energy prices soared. Now they have less room to borrow given the surge in debt since the pandemic struck in 2020.
Some governments—including those of Italy, Spain and Portugal—have cut sales taxes on food products to ease the burden on consumers. Others are leaning on food retailers to keep their prices in check. In March, the French government negotiated an agreement with leading retailers to refrain from price rises if it is possible to do so.
Retailers have also come under scrutiny in Ireland and a number of other European countries. In the U.K., lawmakers have launched an investigation into the entire food supply chain “from farm to fork.”
“Yesterday I had the food producers into Downing Street, and we’ve also been talking to the supermarkets, to the farmers, looking at every element of the supply chain and what we can do to pass on some of the reduction in costs that are coming through to consumers as fast as possible,” U.K. Treasury Chief Jeremy Hunt said during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London.
The government’s Competition and Markets Authority last week said it would take a closer look at retailers.
“Given ongoing concerns about high prices, we are stepping up our work in the grocery sector to help ensure competition is working well,” said Sarah Cardell, who heads the CMA.
Some economists expect that added scrutiny to yield concrete results, assuming retailers won’t want to tarnish their image and will lean on their suppliers to keep prices down.
“With supermarkets now more heavily under the political spotlight, we think it more likely that price momentum in the food basket slows,” said Sanjay Raja, an economist at Deutsche Bank.
It isn’t entirely clear why food prices have risen so fast for so long. In world commodity markets, which set the prices received by farmers, food prices have been falling since April 2022. But raw commodity costs are just one part of the final price. Consumers are also paying for processing, packaging, transport and distribution, and the size of the gap between the farm and the dining table is unusually wide.
The BOE’s Bailey thinks one reason for the bank having misjudged food prices is that food producers entered into longer-term but relatively expensive contracts with fertilizer, energy and other suppliers around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their eagerness to guarantee availability at a time of uncertainty.
But as the pressures being placed on retailers suggest, some policy makers suspect that an increase in profit margins may also have played a role. Speaking to lawmakers, Bailey was wary of placing any blame on food suppliers.
“It’s a story about rebuilding margins that were squeezed in the early part of last year,” he said.
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