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Ethical investment, social enterprise and The Blue Economy

In Business and Environment, Ethical Investing and Social Enterprise by Anne-Maree McInerney1 Comment

It may seem crazy that a sustainability educator and advisor is critical of the green economy – but bear with me – it’s because something better (yet relatively unknown) exists. It’s called the blue cconomy.


Most enlightened consumers and business owners have no doubt sung the praises of the green economy for a long time now. They live it, breathe and encourage others to follow suit. But what if I were to tell you that although green is good – it often comes with linear thinking, unintended consequences and technology that sometimes only addresses one issue rather than providing a multitude of benefits. It’s also often expensive, subsidised – rather than competitive, generates waste, and does not always consider the system or community in which it operates.

It may seem crazy that a sustainability educator and advisor is critical of the green economy – but bear with me – it’s because something better (yet relatively unknown) exists. It’s called The Blue Economy.

In 2014 I packed my bags and headed to Hungary to study a body of work that was presented to the Club of Rome called “The Blue Economy”. Now I’m not talking about reef management or income from our oceans – although The Blue Economy can dramatically improve the economy of our oceans and renew ecosystems – I’m talking about a 21st century approach to sustainability led by physics and systems thinking that’s creating jobs, eliminating waste and generating a wealth of new opportunities for social enterprise entrepreneurs and potential investment projects for switched-on ethical investors. The Blue Economy as presented by Gunter Pauli does that and much more.

Twentieth century approaches to environmental concerns are often limited to increased recycling and efficiency. However, the research and development done by economists, scientists and environmentalists over the past 30+ years has also yielded:

  • a wealth of new business models for delivering products and services differently.
  • a wealth of new applications for existing technologies to generate wealth and wellbeing.
  • a wealth of new technologies that deliver major business results as well as major environmental benefits.

What’s special about the blue economy?

  1. It’s a wealth creating, job creating approach to doing well by doing good, with the goal of using 100 innovations to create 100 million jobs in 10 years.
  2. It doesn’t start with a technology – it starts by scanning a specific location and community to determine how to meet local needs using local resources. It is concerned with meeting community, health, social and economic needs using what could be considered waste or a liability in that community.
  3. It comes with a suite of 100+ innovations, carefully selected by a panel of experts for their potential for:
    • practical implementation
    • social and health returns
    • economic return potential; and
    • radical resource productivity potential.
  4. It shifts away from the concept of a core business/competence that force companies to focus on one industry, and towards considering local economic development as a priority, ensuring that local purchasing power increases and more money circulates regionally.
  5. It focuses on Global Progress Indicators (GPI) rather than GDP. GPI is a more accurate measure of economic activity whereas GDP makes no attempt to factor in the depletion of natural resources, natural disasters or degradation of the environment.

Social Enterprise Projects

There’s hundreds of great examples of successful social enterprise projects the world over. One of my favourites is that of Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, an Ethiopian entrepreneur who founded SoleRebels, a thriving eco-sensitive footwear brand that now hails as Africa’s answer to brands such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas.

Bethlehem was born and raised in Zenebework, a small, impoverished rural community in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. As a child, she discovered that people of her community were living in abject squalor because there were very few jobs available.

While most of the locals were unemployed, Bethlehem discovered that several of them possessed remarkable artisan skills which remained largely unexploited. This observation drove her to brainstorm on ways through which she could transform the skills of her community members into a sustainable enterprise that could generate livelihoods for them, and create wealth over the long term.

Today she creates jobs and promotes entrepreneurship over charity and aid. SoleRebels is now the world’s fastest growing African footwear brand and the world’s first and only World Fair Trade Federation Fair Trade certified footwear company. SoleRebels is on track to be the first global branded retail chain from a developing nation to open 100 stores and achieve over $100 million USD in revenues.
Other initiatives for example can take waste and turn it into revenues. One such blue economy innovation takes waste in the form of fine dust particles from mines and quarries and turns it into paper. Stone Paper as it’s known uses no trees or water to make its paper, and the paper is recyclable forever. Best of all a facility is about 40% less to build than a traditional paper pulp mill and creates employment for around 1000 workers per 1m tonne production. The only production facilities are currently in China and Taiwan. This is the sort of project that is well suited to Ethical Investors in Australia – with benefits such as improved health and wellbeing and job creation on top of a healthy ROI.

Another is turning thistles – yes thistles, a noxious weed that we spend millions trying to kill with expensive toxic chemicals – into valuable oils. Novamont’s Sardinia Refinery which was built on the site of an old oil refinery, saw $600 million in revenues from 8 different types of oil from processing thistles in its first year. Farmers who were forced off their land because of the increasing dry hash conditions are now growing thistles gaining higher income than many traditional crops. The local goat cheese industry also got a boost as they discovered that the fine dust on the end of the thistle flower could be used to make goats cheese. In recent years this enzyme had been made artificially – but now it’s readily available in a natural form and is revitalising the industry.

There are hundreds of examples today of turning what some consider waste into a new product or service – turning used nappies into roof tiles, old chewing gum into rubbish bins, cigarettes into house frames or plastic into house bricks.

However, if we are making or buying products like scarves and jumpers from renewable sources, such as cashmere – even if that organic sweater carries an organic label, we need to consider that the absence of chemicals does not automatically imply that apparel made from goat’s hair is in fact sustainable.

An ever-rising demand of cashmere, for example, has put excessive pressure on production. Whenever the number of grazing goats increases in a fragile savanna bordering dry lands, the desert expands. Thus, the question to ask is: is the best response is planting trees to stem the expanding desert as dozens of NGOs attempt to do, or should we instead focus on designing an economic system that improves the livelihood of the herders – especially when PayPal often earns as much on the sale of this sweater for securing the payment as the herder does. This is where Blue Economy principles really come into their own.

Ethical Investing has its rewards – and blue is best.

Ethical investing, in itself is good, and can provide benefits to investors, while doing good things for people. One of the benefits of ethical investing is its broad ability to provide investment opportunities to match each investor’s needs. Ethical investing can also do much more with the same funds if it engages closely with or at the community level, through providing benefits to people, their health, education and welfare, which is why we are now seeing Blue Funds established.

Are you looking for social enterprise or ethical investing opportunities?

If so, perhaps it’s time to turn your approach on its head.

Instead of looking for a particular problem to solve, look for a location where you can make a difference. Get out and scan the environment for opportunities and needs, then explore for ways to deliver sustainable livelihoods through jobs, prosperity, health and wellbeing. Better still, get help from Blue Economy specialists to identify the opportunities in your local community as it can be hard to do it alone.
Gone are the days that we want green innovation – we want, no, we need blue economy innovations and investments that have multiple benefits to create the jobs of the future.

Australia is at a critical juncture right now. Many of our politicians are still promoting and focusing on traditional jobs and fossil fuels. If they are not up to the job, then perhaps it’s time for you to stand up and be counted.

Is blue the new green? I think so.


Anne-Maree McInerney is the Founder & CEO of Models of Success and Sustainability (MOSS) www.moss.org.au an NFP industry body for corporate responsibility & sustainability – supporting business government and community organisations through education, training, networking & advice to drive sustainability & competitive business success. See the MOSS website for more information on Blue Economy Innovations

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