Do-Good Capitalism Has to Act as If the World Depends on It

By Emily Chasan | Bloomberg

Climate change, extreme poverty, and all the world’s other big problems will be expensive to solve.

The United Nations estimates that its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—a list of initiatives ranging from zero hunger to clean energy—will require annual commitments of private capital from $5 trillion to $7 trillion globally over the next decade. This daunting task has inspired a growing number of investors to put their money to work. Impact investing, which aims to overcome environmental and social challenges while making a financial return, is one of Wall Street’s fastest-growing asset classes. Since the term “impact investing” was coined in 2007, $502 billion has been invested globally in assets deemed to be making a difference, according to a first-of-its-kind attempt to measure them done this April by the Global Impact Investing Network. The investing style has garnered a cultlike following among the wealthy elite, who see it as an alternative to philanthropy and government initiatives. Capitalism, they say, can solve some of these problems faster by harnessing the power of the markets.

Well-intentioned as these investors may be, their efforts have yet to make a significant dent in any major problems. Foundations, families, pension funds, and asset managers, largely from the U.S., have focused on investments that address climate change or improve access to affordable housing, health care, and education. The challenge is amplifying those efforts. The planet, impatiently, awaits the results.

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Illustration: Matt Chase for Bloomberg Businessweek

“There have been 10 years of conferences of people debating what ‘impact investing’ is. Meanwhile we’re headed off of a cliff with carbon. This is a full-blown emergency,” says Trevor Neilson, co-founder and chief executive officer of I(x) Investments, a New York- and Los Angeles-based company that says it’s on a mission to bring scale to the idea of “profit with purpose.”

Neilson, who’s worked for Bill Clinton, the Gates Foundation, and most recently J. Todd Morley’s G2 Investment Group, teamed in 2015 with his friend Howard Warren Buffett—Warren Buffett’s grandson—to build what Neilson calls “the Berkshire Hathaway of impact investing.” Instead of raising traditional investment funds, their idea is to create a “permanent capital” structure to which investors commit capital indefinitely. Then I(x) will use that capital to provide seed funding to impact companies and help them grow. The company says it’s recruited more than 40 wealthy families and individuals to the cause, including some of the Gettys and Sweden’s Wallenbergs, as well as Airbnb Inc. co-founder Joe Gebbia. “We want to become a conglomerate for good and eventually IPO the whole thing, so a retired teacher in Milwaukee can put this in their portfolio,” Neilson says.

Buffett, who teaches about social-impact investing at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, developed an “impact rate of return” metric the company uses to measure how its investments are achieving results. Just as value investors look for the return on each dollar invested, this method calculates a unit of social or environmental return for the original investment that’s interchangeable and comparable, whether it’s focused on gender equality or clean energy. Still, almost four years after it was started, I(x) remains tiny. When the company recently closed its Series A round, it was valued at almost $72 million. The company says that so far it’s backed Canada’s Carbon Engineering Ltd. a carbon-capture company that says its technology can turn atmospheric carbon dioxide and hydrogen split from water into gasoline; a clean-energy company Neilson co-founded called WasteFuel, which says it’s developed a system to convert city trash to jet fuel; and Rising Realty Partners, a Los Angeles-based commercial real estate company that Neilson also worked with while at G2 Investment.