Hard truths from a decade of investing in regional food systems

September 10, 2020 by  
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Hard truths from a decade of investing in regional food systems Meredith Storton Thu, 09/10/2020 – 02:00 The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the inequities and fragility of our industrialized food system and accelerated the movement to create strong regional food systems that support local growers, provide food security, give communities agency over their food supply and yield environmental benefits. These systems will remain out of reach, though, unless we address persistent, decades-old structural issues. Price pressures continue to challenge the viability of decentralized food systems and communities of color continue to be underserved — as farmers, food chain workers, supply chain entrepreneurs and consumers. We need to change both who we fund and how we fund if we want to create equitable, thriving regional food systems. What will it take to achieve such massive shifts? RSF Social Finance has been reflecting on that question as we wind down our Food System Transformation Fund, a pooled loan fund launched in 2010 to help rebuild regional processing, manufacturing and distribution infrastructure that was lost as the food system industrialized. Restoring these supply chain links is essential to creating viable regional food systems, yet community-based infrastructure enterprises have limited access to both startup and growth capital. The Food System Transformation Fund attempted to address that problem with program-related investments from foundations, on the premise that risk-tolerant debt could enable early-stage businesses to grow and eventually access traditional capital from banks and community development financial institutions. As we wind down the fund and move our food system investments into other RSF portfolios, we’re sharing what we’ve learned in hopes of advancing efforts to build a regenerative food system. Investors seeking a better food system need to take the time to understand a company’s impact and its beneficiaries, toss out traditional assumptions about market rate returns and ensure that terms benefit communities. Over the past decade, the fund provided $6.5 million in debt to 27 organizations across 14 states. More than 25 percent of borrowers grew into our senior secured loan portfolio or accessed traditional debt, while nearly 20 percent had to cease operations or substantially change ownership. The enterprises between those two poles continue to need patient, flexible and diverse capital structures. That’s not because they’re failing, but because the finance ecosystem has failed to develop tools fitted to the needs of food system enterprises. This truth informs three fundamental insights from our work in the field of food system transformation. 1. In food systems, high impact and high returns don’t mesh Investing in food systems is very different from investing in a trendy plant-based–meat startup or a consumer packaged goods company that can outsource manufacturing and build a brand for sale to a conglomerate. Food system businesses are capital-intensive — they require substantial investment in processing equipment, trucks and warehouses — and they operate in a highly competitive, low-margin sector. Immense price pressure in the U.S. food system compresses gross margins and makes it challenging for food infrastructure businesses to achieve profitability. Our spending on food doesn’t reflect the true cost of production: Americans spend only 9.5 percent of their income on food, compared with 15 percent in Canada , 13 percent in France and 23 percent in Mexico . Most small farms in the U.S. aren’t profitable ; on average they earn only 17.4 percent of every dollar spent by consumers at stores. Workers throughout the industrialized food system face poor working conditions and low wages. Many food system infrastructure businesses are trying to fix these inequities, and it’s imperative for investors to understand the tradeoffs between returning capital to investors and reinvesting that capital into the business and the community. This issue is most glaring with the venture capital model. When venture-backed companies disrupt local food systems and don’t have the longevity or the relationships to create long-term impact, they actually can harm communities. In the worst-case scenario, these companies launch, rapidly scale, seize market share from existing community-based businesses and then run out of cash, leaving the community with less than it had beforehand. Similarly, pulling out high financial returns for investors undermines the positive changes these companies can achieve and puts more pressure on a strained, inequitable system. Investors seeking a better food system need to take the time to understand a company’s impact and its beneficiaries, toss out traditional assumptions about market rate returns and ensure that terms benefit communities. 2. Farmers and communities can’t bear the risk Traditional financing tools are seldom structured in a way that shares risk across the system. When times get tough, capital partners must navigate the delicate balance of principal return to investors versus making farmers and local food systems whole. Traditional collateralized loans place the burden on those least able to bear risk — the community-based enterprise and its stakeholders. The Food System Transformation Fund primarily issued debt backed by collateral — equipment, vehicles and accounts receivable. When portfolio companies had to cease operations, we had to choose between returning capital to investors or letting the company repay farmers and other community partners. Our investors prioritized community well-being, and we were able to forgive debt in these cases, but this is a structural problem that shouldn’t require an 11th-hour solution based on investors’ goodwill. When venture-backed companies disrupt local food systems and don’t have the longevity or the relationships to create long-term impact, they actually can harm communities. One way to distribute risk more equitably is to integrate various forms of capital — financial, social and technical — within the same transaction to support an enterprise. This may mean some combination of unrestricted grants, debt, equity, loan guarantees and forgivable loans. Guarantees can unlock capital that otherwise wouldn’t fund the space and forgivable loans can help businesses prioritize impact, which often takes a back seat to financial return. For example, if the enterprise is meeting its impact objectives but experiencing financial or operational challenges outside its control, the loan can turn into a grant. Funders need to be creative and partner with food system enterprises to find the optimal mix of tools to support the business and its stakeholders. 3. Transforming the system will require philanthropic, public and private capital While there is a lot of interest in food system enterprises, the current funding ecosystem is weak.   The capital needed to build these businesses is hard to come by and even harder to sustain over the long term. The funding is not readily available in many regions where the work is happening, and it is not equitably distributed. As in many sectors, entrepreneurs of color are woefully underfunded. Philanthropic capital, with its flexibility and public benefit purpose, is well-positioned to seed the space and attract other funders. Foundations and donor-advised funds can support this work not only through grant-making but also through investments and leveraging their assets to unlock capital from more-traditional lenders or community development financial institutions (CDFIs). These types of organizations steward deep relationships within their communities and are well-positioned to fund food system enterprises. Federal programs provide critical resources to local food organizations and small farmers, but support for sustainable food systems makes up only a fraction of the public funding allocated for agriculture. Increasing this share would have a multiplier effect. As more philanthropic and government funding flows into the food systems space, more private capital will find its footing there. Many enterprises in our portfolio accessed USDA grants to support early-stage programs and center equity in their work. The field needs all sources of nonextractive capital, which ranks community benefits above investor returns. But we have found that food system enterprises are best served when community-based funders lead. Food systems vary widely across rural, urban and geographic divides. Funders that hold direct relationships with food system entrepreneurs and ecosystem partners more clearly understand the regional food supply chain and are able to make more informed and effective funding decisions. The way forward Over the past decade, much has changed across food and finance systems. Consumers increasingly value sustainable and local production methods , and more funders are entering the space, especially with sustainable food production emerging as one solution to our climate crisis. With COVID-19 thrusting the inequities of our food system into the forefront of the national conversation, we must use this moment to catalyze investment into food systems that care for farmers, food chain workers, eaters and the environment. If we want to decommodify our food system, we must decommodify our food financing system. We need tools with impact-adjusted return expectations; we need investors and donors willing to redistribute risk; and we need local, integrated capital solutions. With those assets in hand, we can realize the vision of a regenerative food system that serves everyone. Pull Quote Investors seeking a better food system need to take the time to understand a company’s impact and its beneficiaries, toss out traditional assumptions about market rate returns and ensure that terms benefit communities. When venture-backed companies disrupt local food systems and don’t have the longevity or the relationships to create long-term impact, they actually can harm communities. Topics Food & Agriculture Finance & Investing COVID-19 Social Justice Investing Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off

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Hard truths from a decade of investing in regional food systems

How To Finance Your Energy Efficiency Upgrades for Free

September 1, 2020 by  
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As many environmentalists know, the falling price of renewables and … The post How To Finance Your Energy Efficiency Upgrades for Free appeared first on Earth 911.

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How To Finance Your Energy Efficiency Upgrades for Free

A CFO’s take on climate and risk management

July 13, 2020 by  
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A CFO’s take on climate and risk management Vincent Manier Mon, 07/13/2020 – 01:00 Just a couple of months into 2020, the world was amid significant discussion about the core purpose of businesses, led by BlackRock CEO Larry Fink calling for corporate America to take control of its carbon footprint and major companies, including Microsoft and Delta , making ambitious zero-carbon pledges. When COVID-19 arrived, we saw the impact that global crises have overnight, teaching the corporate sphere valuable lessons about risk mitigation. Economic estimates predict that the pandemic will decrease global GDP by 3 percent in 2020, and at our current pace, climate change is estimated to decrease the global GDP by anywhere from 2.5 percent to 7.5 percent by 2050 . While climate risk remains an often overlooked or undervalued factor in risk management programs, there is an urgent need to integrate resiliency into core business strategy if businesses want to continue to thrive — or even remain operational. There is an urgent need to integrate resiliency into core business strategy if businesses want to continue to thrive — or even remain operational. The current COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of prioritizing resilience by exposing the fragility of global supply chains and dysfunctional systems across businesses and forcing them to change the way they plan and operate to factor in large-scale crises. Hospitals, for example, felt the disastrous impact of vulnerable supply chains, and needed to plan for alternative sources of personal protective equipment to keep their medical workers and staff safe. These learnings must be applied to similar risk brought about by climate change — businesses need to prepare for the impact of devastating weather events on supply chains and infrastructure they rely on to remain safe and operational. As key members of the financial team, risk managers need to grasp the implications of sustainability across the organization, from strategic risks posed by new regulations to operational risks posed by extreme weather and financial risks with regards to taxes and insurance. As we continue to fight climate change, understanding the strategic, operational and financial risks — and the tools available to assess and plan for them — will help finance teams take a more forward-facing approach to risk management and avoid repeating past mistakes. Strategic risk factors Four key risk factors are associated with strategic risk and sustainability: economic changes; corporate responsibility; regulatory risk; and reputational risk. From an economic standpoint, there have been major shifts brought about by decarbonization and diversifying portfolios — consider the rapid decline of the coal industry, for example. In addition, companies are being held more accountable for their impact on the environment, with pressure coming from all sides, including customers, investors, competitors and regulators. Increased regulation and legal requirements around resource management and carbon reduction, as well as required carbon reporting, can result in major fines if not complied with. Finally, reputational risk, while hard to quantify, can be enormous, particularly in today’s political climate and as both internal and external stakeholders become more educated on the action against climate change. Operational risk factors Sustainability also can affect how businesses approach operations, such as supply-chain optimization, procurement strategies, data privacy and security. For instance, the finance team can make more informed decisions around power purchase agreements, onsite and offsite renewable energy, decentralization and microgrids, energy independence and cost savings opportunities when factoring climate risk into the overall procurement strategy. There are also more direct operational risks to consider as a result of climate change in the form of extreme weather events, which continue to increase in both frequency and intensity. Businesses must account for the possibility of outages, damages and closures, all of which can threaten the ability to protect employees, assets and data centers (which can pose new risks in terms of data privacy and leaks) and, ultimately, to keep the business operational. Financial risk factors Climate change poses significant financial risks to an organization as sustainability policies and corporate initiatives can affect taxes, insurance, resource management, energy sourcing, investor support and even intangible assets such as goodwill — for instance, the impalpable value that customers and investors place on a company’s ability to reduce its footprint. From changes in insurance premiums and coverage to identifying financial benefits of electrification, there are almost countless financial risks and opportunities for the financial team to assess. Sustainability planning also opens the door to integrating new technologies to save money, such as alternative energy vehicles, which bring financial benefits all their own. Integrating climate risk strategy Integrating climate risk into new or existing risk management programs can seem daunting, but the financial team can leverage strategic assessments to make the process simpler. For instance, vulnerability assessments allow businesses to understand where climate change is most likely to affect them. Scenario assessments can provide a forward-looking view of the potential impact, so finance teams can plan ahead to mitigate future developments. The world’s current state is illuminating the need for resilience to global events we may not be able to foresee or control. With climate change being the next undeniable threat, it’s on the shoulders of the financial team to ensure that companies are adequately prepared for different climate events to improve their resilience and mitigate the associated risks. The strategic planning used now to prepare for these issues may encourage innovation and new methods of operating that not only benefit the bottom line but also prepare a business for when unexpected events do occur. This also offers opportunity to strategically prepare and recover from events in a way that helps reduce climate change and improve the environment on a global scale. Pull Quote There is an urgent need to integrate resiliency into core business strategy if businesses want to continue to thrive — or even remain operational. Topics Risk & Resilience Climate Change Finance & Investing Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off Shutterstock

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A CFO’s take on climate and risk management

BofA, Goldman, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo launch center for climate-aligned finance

July 9, 2020 by  
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BofA, Goldman, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo launch center for climate-aligned finance Jesse Klein Thu, 07/09/2020 – 00:01 The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is banking on banks to get us over the carbon-neutral finish line by 2050.  The nonprofit announced Wednesday that it’s partnering with four of the world’s largest financial institutions — Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America — to launch the Center for Climate-Aligned Finance . The center will serve as a hub for cross-sector collaboration, bringing traditional financial instruments to innovative ideas to decarbonize the planet.  “It’s not the responsibility of any single country or single sector,” said Paul Bodnar, managing director for climate finance at RMI. “But one sector provides the lifeblood that powers all the others and that’s finance.”  A new buzzword, climate-aligned finance, is RMI’s answer to the uneven responsibility put on the financial sector. Its goal is to integrate the financial sector’s attempts at going green, including green business investments, exclusionary policies for certain fossil fuels and the industry’s ESG policies, into one complete strategy.  The Center for Climate-Aligned Finance will focus on four areas using RMI’s knowledge of sustainability in a variety of sectors and its deep understanding of the financial world. First, it will create specific, personalized initiatives for high-emitting sectors such as steel and cement production, utilities and the energy supply. Secondly, it will generate global frameworks on climate-aligned finance to guide other financial institutions around the world.  It’s important that the tools we develop be as practical and commercial as possible. “We really need tools now to take us from theory to practice,” said Marisa Buchanan, head of sustainability at JPMorgan Chase. “It’s important that the tools we develop be as practical and commercial as possible.”  The center also will support individual institutions and shape public discourse in the financial sector as the two other main areas of focus.  According to Bodnar, while the strategy starts with advocating a vision of carbon neutrality for the highest energy-using corporations, it will need to be stewarded by the loans, grants and investments doled out by these large financial partners . Wells Fargo has pledged to lend or invest $200 billion to sustainable businesses and projects by 2030. Goldman Sachs plans to help its clients transition into a climate-resilient model with $750 billion by 2030, and Bank of America is directing $300 billion towards these efforts as well.   “To serve our clients requires really analytical tools,” said John Goldstein, head of the sustainable Finance Group at Goldman Sachs. “Real technical chops required to do this work thoughtfully for analyzing, advising, financing and navigating.” While the banking industry has invested a lot into a green future where it sees an opportunity for job creation, profitable returns on innovative new companies and risk mitigation, it hasn’t seemed ready to walk away from the fossil fuels that built the sector’s wealth.  But pressure is mounting for the banks to overhaul their lending practices holistically. This includes a focus on solutions that will benefit vulnerable communities on the front lines of climate change that often have been overlooked by the environmental movement.  “The communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution from heavy industry, it is pretty well documented that communities of color and low-income communities tend to suffer the most,” Bodnar said. “That is an urgent call for us to accelerate the transition out of the assets that are generating the most pollution.”   Pull Quote It’s important that the tools we develop be as practical and commercial as possible. Topics Finance & Investing Banking Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off

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BofA, Goldman, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo launch center for climate-aligned finance

It’s just numbers: A ROSI view of corporate sustainability

March 24, 2020 by  
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How do you justify a company’s sustainability investments? There’s an app for that.

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It’s just numbers: A ROSI view of corporate sustainability

Paul Polman: How responsible businesses can step forward to fight coronavirus

March 24, 2020 by  
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As the limits on our go-to crisis-management tools become clear, it is increasingly apparent that we need the private sector to join the COVID-19 front line.

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Paul Polman: How responsible businesses can step forward to fight coronavirus

Sustainable business in Asia: 5 trends that will impact a decisive decade

March 24, 2020 by  
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Spoiler: Local teams will become increasingly important.

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Sustainable business in Asia: 5 trends that will impact a decisive decade

EY’s Veli Ivanova on the company’s 2020 carbon neutral commitment

February 26, 2020 by  
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Just before GreenBiz 20 in February 2020, financial services company EY announced that it would become carbon neutral by the end of the year. Veli Ivanova, Americas climate change and sustainability services leader at EY, joined GreenBiz 20 Sidebar cohosts Heather Clancy and Sarah Golden to discuss the announcement. Ivanova noted that EY has been doing similar work with client organizations for about a decade and that it was important for the company to do the same. “Our employees are really the driving force behind that commitment,” she says.

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UN Global Compact’s Marie Morice on where we are with the Sustainable Development Goals

February 26, 2020 by  
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Marie Morice, head of sustainable finance at the U.N. Global Compact, says that there’s strong interests with corporates for the Sustainable Development Goals — often referred to as SDGs — but with many of goals, “we’re not there yet.”

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UN Global Compact’s Marie Morice on where we are with the Sustainable Development Goals

Episode 208: Levi Strauss and corporate philanthropy, how to talk to CFOs

February 14, 2020 by  
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Plus, outtakes from GreenBiz 20 interviews with Dow CEO Jim Fitterling, Ecolab CEO Doug Baker, Cargill CSO Ruth Kimmelshue and youth activist Brian Mecinas.

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Episode 208: Levi Strauss and corporate philanthropy, how to talk to CFOs

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