For many years, the message ringing out at impact investment conferences has been a tub-thumping, field-building call to arms.
Five years ago I interviewed Sir Ronald Cohen, one of the great champions of investing with purpose, onstage at an impact conference. He exhorted the gathered delegates to “get going” on the mission of growing the impact investing movement, and he was met with rapturous applause.
There is still room for a little tub-thumping. This year’s Impact Investor Global Summit kicked off in London with a critical reproach from Trill Impact founder Jan Stahlberg, who described the impact investing industry as “a complete failure” for having not done enough to convince CIOs to commit meaningful amounts of capital. He said the industry needed to “step up”.
In 2023, however, the thrust of the conversation has changed. As is the case in other areas of sustainability, those with an interest in impact investing are now less concerned with the philosophical questions of who should be doing it and why, and much more interested in granular discussions about how to make it happen and where the best opportunities are.
How, for example, does one align financial incentives to positive impact? Linking carried interest to impact KPIs is one emerging way of doing this, and delegates heard first-hand from the likes of L Catterton, Trill Impact and Just Climate about putting it into practice. Equally important is how the allocators themselves are incentivised. Scott Kalb, the former chief investment officer of the Korea Investment Corporation and current founder-director of the Responsible Asset Allocator Initiative, talked with delegates about how the traditional benchmarks by which a CIO’s performance is judged do not take impact into account and can incentivise negative impacts.
Detailed discussions considered investment opportunities in the food system, the water system and natural capital. We learnt where investors can buy tradeable nature-based carbon credit futures and in doing so forward-finance the development of those projects.
These technical conversations are intellectually stimulating and – one hopes – practically useful for both allocators and managers. More exciting for me, however, was the evidence that returns-driven “mainstream” investors are adopting impact investing concepts into their thinking. IMAS Foundation, an investor-linked to IKEA retailer Ingka Group, which does not have a dedicated allocation to impact investing, told delegates that “understanding the [impact] theme and additionality” was an important part of its manager assessment.
Netherlands-based insurer NN Group also described a focus on additionality. NN, which does not have an impact allocation as delegates heard, considers impact a lens through which to view all investment opportunities. These are returns-driven investors, addressing the concept of impact.
At a couple of points during the event, champions of impact investment described a future – a golden age – in which all investing is impact investing. I would argue that age has begun.