The imperative for investors to go deep

This piece builds on my colleague’s recent article arguing for a much-needed review of organisations’ sustainability investment beliefs in light of the unfolding environmental crisis[1]. It is also inspired by some recent innovative research from the University of East Anglia[2].

The aim is to offer root thinking into how investors can navigate today’s challenges with sustainability pathways which will require an examination of their underlying values and beliefs. I will explain why the current times urgently call for investment organisations to examine their values, and their resulting approach to sustainability.

To support my intent, I will draw a simple model connecting the various bits of the problem. Sustainability goals are achieved through a variety of actions and interventions in the system over time. These actions are based on underlying theories and ideologies. Ideas and concepts, in turn, always emerge from a values foundation that shapes the entire chain, impacting goal achievement. As follows:

Values > Theories > Actions > Goals

Goals

Let’s start from the endpoint and work backwards. Allow me to assert that the ultimate goal of our socioeconomic system is to achieve a sustainable future for our civilisation. This is a shared goal worth fighting for.

Actions

Underneath this goal lies the set of interventions, policies and investments whose combinations and activation enable this one-goal success. A non-exhaustive list includes:

  • Technological and economic tools (eg green technology, carbon credit systems, taxes)
  • Nature-based solutions (eg restoration and conservation projects, recycling)
  • Stewardship and engagement
  • Public policies and regulations

In short, any supposedly-effective strategy that can bring us closer to our goal. This is also where most investors allocate their resources, compete, cooperate and lobby. But why do some market-based solutions prevail while more alternative or well-being-focused approaches seem to stay in the background?

Theories

Working backwards, the actions come from a set of theories, concepts, narratives about the changes required to achieve sustainability. We can divide them into different sustainability pathways. To illustrate, I compare a ‘green growth’ pathway to sustainability to a ‘degrowth’ pathway:

  • Green growth: achieving sustainability through the decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation, through technological innovation and market mechanisms
  • Degrowth and post-growth: achieving sustainability through the reduction of consumption and growth to live within planetary boundaries

This area of our simple model is instrumental to envisioning systems change and therefore the pathways are inherently normative as they point to new potential system configurations that we believe we should be living in. They try to address the high-level dilemma of ‘what should be done’.

Relative to ‘actions’ above, this is a deeper, narrower and more contested arena of conflicting, often overlapping, ideas about the world. Along with values, it may be the least active and least travelled space by investors.

Values

The final backward step to complete our abstract model is the very root of everything discussed so far – values and beliefs. To ensure we connect with previous theories, we may need to consider one of the deepest levels we can reach – the different ways nature is valued. ‘How do we value nature?’, ‘How do we value human-nature relations?’ Some recent academic work on nature valuation neatly summarises the options as[3][4]:

  • Nature for society (instrumental values): nature is valued as an asset for the benefits it provides to humans
  • Nature as culture (relational values): nature is valued for the human-nature relationships and connections (eg cultural, spiritual, community)
  • Nature for nature (intrinsic values): nature is valued for its own sake, independent of any benefits to humans

Valuing nature as instrumental for human achievements is clearly the value basis of the green growth pathway presented above. The degrowth and post-growth pathways, instead, integrate the relational and intrinsic nature values.

This is often the most overlooked yet fundamental area influencing potential mindset shifts within the model. It’s the deepest level and where this piece aims to catalyse investors’ attention.

Systems change: from racing up to looking in

Assuming there is a single shared goal in the end, what can investors do to cope with a plethora of competing pathways? I believe there is an ‘as-is’ and a ‘to-be’ answer to that question.

The as-is sees investors (as well as regulators, policymakers, etc.) often trapped in the upper part of the model (actions) taking for granted, or ignoring, what is underneath (theories and values). They are often just looking for the next market-oriented solution, technological innovation, regulatory advancement – in other words, they constantly seek to move on and up. It’s an endless race to the top. It assumes a sustainability pathway where progress, or doing more energy-expensive tasks, is always the correct action. All other alternative pathways are blindly shut down.

The to-be answer requires investors to step backwards and down into values and beliefs, to open up to other worldviews. At the very least, they may find themselves revisiting or perhaps reinforcing their organisational identity amidst a fast-changing environment.

The bottom line is that, in times of crisis, investors should reassess their sustainability beliefs and values. In times of crisis, it is strategically sound to embrace the complexity and diversity of values. This approach aims to inform and unleash parallel pathways of sustainability, leading to better understanding and enhanced investment decision-making. Ultimately this may contribute to a closer achievement of the sustainability goal.


[1] Catching up with reality

[2] Martin, A., Gómez-Baggethun, E., Quaas, M., Rozzi, R., Tauro, A., Faith, D. P., Kumar, R., O’Farrell, P., & Pascual, U. (2024). Plural values of nature help to understand contested pathways to sustainability. One Earth, 7(5), 806-819. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2024.04.003

[3] Pereira, L.M., Davies, K.K., den Belder, E., Ferrier, S., Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen, S., Kim, H., Kuiper, J.J., Okayasu, S., Palomo, M.G., Pereira, H.M., et al. (2020). Developing multiscale and integrative nature–people scenarios using the Nature Futures Framework. People Nat. 2, 1172–1195. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10146

[4] Pascual, U., Balvanere Levy, P., Christie, M., & Baptiste, B. (2022). Summary for policymakers of the methodological assessment of the diverse values and valuation of nature of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). IPBES Secretariat. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6522392