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Bringing Environmental Values Front and Center to the Social Capital Markets Conference

The Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conference has traditionally emphasized the social side of impact investing since its inception in 2008. The curriculum has rarely covered the environmental aspects of the triple bottom line – instead, it has focused on financial and social aspects. But this year, attendees will have the opportunity to explore a broader range of environmental topics.

According to its vision statement, “SOCAP started with a small group of investors determined to prove that doing good has two bottom lines: social and financial.” The network consists of “heart-centered investors, entrepreneurs, and social impact leaders who believe in an inclusive and socially responsible economy [that can] address the world’s toughest challenges.”

The upcoming annual flagship event in San Francisco on Oct. 9-15 (SOCAP15) is considered the largest conference for impact investors and social entrepreneurs in the world. The event has drawn over 10,000 people since its inception. That’s a lot of influence to catalyze a resilient economy. But why should this event just emphasize the double bottom line? What about the environmental side of the equation?

In 2013, the first shades of green began to emerge in the SOCAP curricula. Lindsay Smalling, director of programming at SOCAP, spearheaded an Oceans Track. Leading startups and investors highlighted business models in sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, as well as reef restoration, to shed light on opportunities in the “new oceans economy.”

While many impact investors and SOCAP have always acknowledged the environmental side of the resilience economy, there seems to be a continuous intellectual gap regarding awareness that where there is a natural resource issue, there is always a social issue.

“The reality is that when you have a deep social issue, you have an environmental issue – and vice versa. It is difficult to think about societal change when we don’t think strategically and consciously about what we drink, what we walk on, what we eat… this is part of society,” said David Chen, principal and CEO of Equilibrium Capital.

But this paradigm is starting to shift within SOCAP and in the broader-impact investing community. Seven years after the Oceans Track was introduced, I had the honor of participating in the development of a conservation finance track that will be unveiled in a little over a week. This effort was spearheaded by Leigh Whelpton at the Conservation Finance Network (a multi-institutional effort based at Island Press). It also included a team of several conservation finance professionals.

The goal of this effort was to design a more robust curriculum that could introduce the community to broad themes on the natural resource side of the triple bottom line. The conservation finance space is also evolving beyond traditional grant financing into generating replicable and scalable deal types and structures that can accept more private capital.

In addition to considering environmental issues, the impact investing community needs to “think bigger.” To date, the conservation finance community and the broader impact community have tended to focus on smaller, more boutique mechanisms rather than larger, more scalable mechanisms. If we are to tackle the issues we care about on a broader planetary scale, our solutions will have to use larger levers. We have to move away from treating “big” investing as synonymous with “corporate” or “mainstream” investing.

The SOCAP conservation finance curriculum is divided into four main parts:  

  1. Market growth and key stakeholders. There is rapidly growing interest in investment-driven strategies that can accelerate the pace and scale of land and resource conservation. However, the potential of this emerging field remains largely untapped. The scale of the problem continues to outpace the available solutions. This first session of a two-part series will take stock of opportunities and trends from the past year while showcasing the different stakeholders and sources of capital that are coming together to get deals done.
  2. Established and emerging market opportunities. Interest continues to build in investment-driven strategies that can accelerate the pace and scale of land and resource conservation. This session will provide a crash course on established and emerging market opportunities – from sustainable timber and agricultural investments to water quality and green infrastructure – and what it will take to make these deals scalable, repeatable and investable.
  3. Environmental investments generating social outcomes. With the global population projected to reach nine billion by 2050, continued human development will become increasingly reliant on intact natural systems. Investors can no longer choose between social and environmental investing – we must consider both to be successful.  This session will look at how positive social outcomes are being generated from environmental investments and how they are often core to success.
  4. Opportunities to invest in water. Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource.  California is in the midst of an epic drought.  Sao Paulo, Brazil has run out of water.  This session with explore the opportunities to invest in water to ensure there is enough water to irrigate our crops, cool our power plants, supply our manufacturing, and support our cities.

Over 2,500 attendees will gather at SOCAP15, which will be the biggest SOCAP event yet. Adding more natural resource-oriented curricula to the program is helping this influential community recognize the importance of the interplay between sustainable natural resource management and positive social impact – which ultimately gives the impact community a stronger foundation.

For the list of speakers and attendees, check out the full schedule for SOCAP15, now available on the conference app, Pathable. Conference attendees can join the SOCAP Pathable community to schedule meetings, explore the conference schedule, participate in discussions, and continue to build on conversations and collaborations that start at SOCAP15.

This article is the first in a series of three stories covering the conservation finance curriculum at SOCAP. It is part of an online publication produced as a partnership between Yale Center for Business and the Environment and Conservation Finance Network. The new website for this publication is slated to launch in January 2016.