Investors and startups are focusing on green, sustainable businesses

On Earth Day, 22 April, two myths need to be busted. 

The first is the notion that only hippies, bunny-huggers and conspiracy theorists care for the Earth. Organisations, start-ups and investors are putting their money into biotechnology, cleaner energy and new material technologies to ensure environmental sustainability. 

The second myth is that it is predominantly digital and cyber technology companies that deserve attention and are seen as the future of humankind. But, although we are worried about the so-called fourth and fifth industrial revolutions with a focus on digital and cyber dominance, billions of global dollars have streamed into materials and biotechnology companies that aim to improve society and the environment. 

Although the largest companies in the world are still non-renewable energy companies, as well as shopping giants, investors have taken note of the new environmentally conscious startups in energy (from solar, geothermal and algae), bio-fashion, plastic alternatives and alternatives to animal agriculture. There are also startups with a focus on syphoning carbon from the environment and clearing up plastics in the environment, particularly the ocean. 

Although big and established companies are embracing sustainable practices and the circular economy, many of the more environmentally sustainable companies have that embedded in their ethos, as well as operational and business models, from the onset. Green, sustainable and eco-investing has grown considerably in the past decade that provides alternatives to the contemporary investment portfolio with a focus on renewable energy, new environmental-friendly technologies and materials, as well as sustainable goods and services. In the United Kingdom alone 136 investment funds are listed in this category, at an estimated value of £21.8-billion. 

Investment in protein alternatives has grown from $530-million in 2018 to $1.66-billion in 2021. Apart from investment in cultivated meats, which has amounted to $1.34-billion in the past 10 years, with an increase of 42% in 2021, about $750-million has been invested in 2021 into precision fermentation that focuses on dairy alternatives. This lab-grown milk and cheese are indistinguishable from traditionally sourced dairy. 

Vegan stocks have multibillion-dollar valuations, such as Beyond Meat (plant-based meat alternatives valued at $4.3-billion), Oatly (oat milk and other plant-based dairy alternatives valued at $4.6-billion), and Tattooed Chef ( plant-based frozen and ready-to-cook foods valued at $1.2-billion). 

There is also no shortage of South African startups taking up the challenge to move towards a more sustainable future. Mzansi Meat cultivates lab-grown meat from cells, which has been sourced with care from animals in sanctuaries, with a focus on meat formats and cuts which are common to South African and African cuisine. Mogale Meat Company is researching cultivated meat that also includes game, such as springbok. Several companies in South Africa such as ButtaNut and Almond Creamery provide customers with oat and nut milk and butter. Earthly Co provides sustainable and socially responsible alternatives to the contemporary plastic-encased toothpaste with their tablets. 

Numerous South African startups and established companies have invested in vegan and zero waste alternatives to ensure a more sustainable and equitable future for all, which are increasingly available at mainstream outlets and also at bespoke sustainable stores (with online shopping) such as Faithful to Nature, Shop Zero, The Refillery and Nude Foods.

If global investors and startups are moving their focus on investment to sustainable and environmentally more-friendly alternatives, shouldn’t you?

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Lize Barclay
Dr Lize Barclay is a senior lecturer in Futures Studies and Systems Thinking at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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