Riding the Waves of the Blue Economy: Implications for Impact Investors


Jens Christiansen, MsC; PhD student,
Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK

Marleen Schutter, MsC; PhD student, Lancaster Environment Centre,
Lancaster University, UK

Ocean ecosystems around the world are increasingly impacted by coral bleaching, pollution, and declining fish stocks (Allison and Bassett 2015; Hughes et al. 2017). Simultaneously, oceans are seen as development frontiers, offering opportunities for growth and attracting the attention of businesses and governments alike (The World Bank and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2017). For some, the Blue Economy articulates this potential by proposing to save oceans while harnessing their economic potential (Winder and Le Heron 2017). Others fear that the growth of a Blue Economy that is not explicitly pursued as sustainable may lead to “irreversible damage” (GEF 2018). Although it is not always clear what the Blue Economy means, definitions generally include social, economic, and environmental improvements. A successful Blue Economy should be capable of balancing social, economic, and environmental benefits, resulting in sustainably managed oceans.

But finding a way to sustainably finance and manage our oceans is a task that is as important as it can be difficult. In this commentary piece, we aim to contribute to the ongoing discussion on how to best finance sustainable and socially inclusive marine investments. We do so by elaborating specifically on risks and social inclusion for investments in the Blue Economy, two issues that are critical and currently challenging to grasp (Accenture 2017). We first describe how the concept of the Blue Economy is currently applied and comment on the risks associated with using this often-ambiguous concept. Second, we expand on the notion of social inclusion in the Blue Economy. Drawing on fishery research, we argue that an expanded notion of social inclusion could not only improve fleet resiliency, but also decrease investor risks. We finish by posing some questions for investors who are interested in pursuing a Blue Economy that is balanced across its varied interests and stakeholders.

Conceptualizing Blue Investments

While the concept of the Blue Economy has thus far attracted mass attention from a wide spectrum of stakeholders, including investors, what the Blue Economy and its investments should look like is not always clear, and at times claims about the Blue Economy contradict one another. For example, some claim that the Blue Economy is about maintaining natural capital at an environmentally sustainable level, while others claim the Blue Economy is compatible with oil exploration and deep-sea mining (Silver et al. 2015; Voyer et al. 2018). Furthermore, despite the frequent reference to society within the Blue Economy discourse, a report by Accenture (2017) concluded that few definitions of the Blue Economy promoted social inclusion. Despite these findings, the promise of a Blue Economy that can simultaneously pursue growth, social inclusion, and sustainability (World Bank and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2017; WWF et al. 2018) has most likely been critical to making marine investments compatible with impact investment.

As a concept, the Blue Economy is ambitious, promising, and difficult to disagree with: The promise of win-win-win situations means that many stakeholders can rally behind it because something resonates with them (Winder and Le Heron 2017). Thus, the Blue Economy can be seen as a boundary object-an idea flexible enough for divergent stakeholders to subscribe to, but one that can also take on a structured state when applied in a specific situation (Star 1989). Boundary objects are useful because they allow a large variety of stakeholders to find common ground and open up conversations about multifaceted issues. The Blue Economy is a good example of a boundary object because, in its very definition, it includes social, environmental, and economic interests. However, a risk that has been identified with boundary objects in general, and the Blue Economy in particular, is that they can come to mean anything, and that seemingly incompatible uses of the ocean (for example the simultaneous concern for sea-level rise combined with the effects of extractive industries such as oil and gas exploration) are not recognized, discussed, or addressed. The lack of consensus about what the Blue Economy is, or should be, and the lack of recognition of these differences (Silver et al. 2015; Voyer et al. 2018), exacerbates this issue.

For investors confronted with this abundance of meaning, the Blue Economy represents both an opportunity and a risk (Voyer and van Leeuwen 2019, 111–112). On the one hand, ambitious impact investors can use their investments to show that environmental sustainability and social inclusion are necessary conditions for any investments in the Blue Economy. In other words, investors can set high standards and be able to push blue investments in a sustainable and socially inclusive direction. In fact, there are already some investors who are encouraging companies to view this site and improve its fleet management processes. Not only will this save companies money as they’re streamlining processes and making them more efficient, but they’re also reducing the amount of wasted resources that are often built up which in turn, is helping the ocean. The Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles by WWF et al. (n.d.) can be seen as a decisive move in this direction. However, the ambiguity of the Blue Economy concept also presents a communicative challenge for investors, since many people on the ground may not see the Blue Economy as representing social inclusion and environmental sustainability (Schutter and Hicks, in press), regardless of what the intentions of blue investments might be. Insofar as other investors (as well as policymakers) are unable or unwilling to make or enable investments that will have an impact, investments that claim to be part of the Blue Economy may not be seen as legitimate. Earlier discussions by those in the green economy have shown that a critique of greenwashing can quickly emerge, even if such a thing is in fact not widely spread (Pope and Wæraas 2016). As long as Blue Economy investments are not explicit about the “blueness” of their investments, similar critiques might emerge over what products or investments are truly blue.

Social Inclusion in Maritime Investments

In this section, we want to focus on social inclusion within the Blue Economy and how inclusion can go beyond increasing income for fishers. As organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University (2018,10) recognize, economically compensating fishers and other stakeholders that may be negatively affected by altered fisheries governance is a central challenge if fishery reforms are to become feasible. While we do not want to underestimate the importance of economic compensation for fishers, we argue that social aspects of the Blue Economy go beyond improving livelihoods by increasing people’s incomes. Social inclusion also involves political and cultural issues such as consultation and appreciation of cultural and other nonuse values of the environment (which you can get detailed information about online), rather than purely economic concerns. Environmental values are defined here as the societal importance that is ascribed to nature (Kenter 2018), and the extent to which these are addressed and engaged with can affect whether investments can gather stakeholder support.

First, if fishers do not feel that they have been taken into account during the decision-making process, they may very well perceive the outcome as unfair. Even if a given investment does not leave them economically worse off than before, perceived unfairness can still negatively affect collaboration in the future. Instead of focusing on the outcomes for stakeholders, further attention could be paid to procedures that allow local stakeholders’ values and active participation to be recognized in the planning process (Bennett, 2018, 140; 2019, 76). Including local fishers in decision making is not just about securing their fishing rights; securing an inclusive decision-making process can also be seen as a way of integrating social sustainability as part of the decision process. Thus, including stakeholders would ideally go beyond just having stakeholder consultations, which are considered ad hoc, to ensuring that power and responsibility are shared between local stakeholders and governments (Berkes 2009). While free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) is of course a widely acknowledged principle for impact investors, further inclusion of coastal communities in decision making would move beyond FPIC; it would let coastal communities be involved in defining what the Blue Economy should look like. For ambitious investors, this could even be a way to mitigate risks since it could lead to a local feeling of ownership over the project. If people find a mechanism or agreement legitimate, they will also be more likely to comply with its terms. Including people at an early stage can therefore easily lead to mutual benefits.

Despite numerous studies showing that people in coastal communities and elsewhere value (ascribe importance to) marine ecosystems beyond direct use values (e.g. Brander, Van Beukering, and Cesar 2007), these nonuse values are still often measured through methods that translate them into monetary values (Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010). More recent research in ecosystem services has advanced the argument that by measuring these values in monetary terms, we lose out on nuance and understandings about the importance of ecosystems for human well-being (Chan et al. 2012). The research also indicates that different types of values can be incommensurable and therefore cannot be measured along a single scale (O’Neill 2002). Coastal communities and fishers value marine resources and their interactions with the ocean for a variety of reasons that are both monetary and nonmonetary (e.g. identity, aesthetics, natural history, arts, and culture). For example, as we have experienced during previous research and as others have demonstrated as well, fishers often see fishing as an occupation that entails a lot of freedom and the possibility of being one’s own boss, thereby contributing to important values connected to culture and identity (Cohen et al. 2019; Høst and Christiansen 2018; Weearatunge 2014). This view indicates that fishing is more than a way of sustaining an income. Therefore, while translating environmental and social concerns into economically comparable prices might aid inclusion in the policy process in the short run, the long-term consequence could be a prolonged imbalance in the triple bottom line of the Blue Economy, precisely because people benefit from and value oceans in a variety of ways.

Thus, it is important to acknowledge that although ecosystem services expressed in monetary values can sometimes illustrate opportunities for investors or planners, they can also obscure qualitative differences in values. If people on the ground ascribe importance to ecosystems and the services they provide because they contribute to their identity, culture, and political relationships, their appreciation of these benefits will not likely be expressed in money. When assessments only allow for monetary valuation, they can lead to decisions that risk a lack of stakeholder support as well as a lack of recognition and effectiveness in terms of covering the benefits from ecosystems. Therefore, it is paramount that the complexity of the social pillar and the plurality of values be maintained when making decisions about impact investments. While a focus on economic valuations and benefits provides a concept of social inclusion that is easy to implement, more geographically specific assessments, which are not easily reduced to monetary values, need to be included as well.

Furthermore, on a community level, informal ways of governing ocean resources, such as rules for access, sharing, and pricing, can play an important role for food security and social cohesion (Menon et al. 2018). Such local rules for governing, say, of fishing, need to be considered in order to reduce the risk that socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable local practices become disrupted. Even if local ways of governing fisheries are unsustainable, it is equally important to acknowledge that rather than being purely motivated by economic interests, informal ways of governing fisheries may be linked to existing social status and food security issues or local notions of health. For example, if a coastal community has a long history of fishing, transitioning to other forms of employment may not be seen as desirable even if it secures incomes. Moreover, jobs resulting from alternative livelihood projects may not even be feasible or accessible for some stakeholders that are affected. Benefits from alternative livelihoods can be unevenly distributed, thereby failing to reach those who need them (Bennett and Dearden 2014). It is therefore critical to continually consider how the social impact of investments is distributed, ensuring that social benefits outweigh potential social costs. In short, in addition to understanding local modes of governing-whether sustainable or not-it is important to understand who is fishing, how they are fishing, and why they are doing so. These considerations should be part of due diligence and stakeholder consultation and be recognized prior to an investment or a potential change of governance exactly because existing social practices can serve either as a barrier or as part of the solution to achieving sustainability and social inclusion.

Once an investment has been made, investors will need to develop and apply key performance indicators (KPIs) that can facilitate the investors’ social, economic, and environmental targets. The complexity of marine ecosystems and that of the societies and industries that derive services from them of course calls for too great a variety of related KPIs for us to review them all. One of the central marine investment KPIs for fisheries in general is catch per unit effort (CPUE), which is often used as an index for abundance of a targeted species. For commercial purposes, other KPIs, such as profit per unit effort (PPUE), are sometimes used to further account for incomes and expenses. While a KPI like PPUE is relevant for understanding business operations, it may need to be supplemented by other metrics. This is because a sole focus on profitability can be an incentive to fish for species with the highest sales market price. Furthermore, a focus on PPUE can lead to a restructuring of the fishing capacity. During periods of environmental uncertainty, however, fishers’ resilience can increase by fishing for a variety of species. Maintaining the capacity to fish for diverse species can thereby enable long-term economic and social resilience. Gear and boat types can influence flexibility when fish stocks are changing in size or composition (Cinner et al. 2015; Musinguzi et al. 2016). For example, local circumstances and practices can prove decisive in the outcomes of such events as coral bleaching. Indeed, in Seychelles, the variability of fish catches increased and their composition changed after coral-dominated reefs became algae-dominated as a result of habitat collapse from coral-bleaching events (Robinson et al. 2019). More variability in catches and changing species compositions are but one inter-related example of the changing local conditions that generalized KPIs do not account for.

Moreover, if the Blue Economy is about balancing the triple bottom line, investments should also engage with priorities across the pillars and within them. We addressed the extent to which the power balance is slanted toward the economic pillar by addressing the Blue Economy from an investment perspective. However, imbalances can also be found within pillars as well. While stakeholder consultations can give a voice to local communities, they can also overlook those actors that are unable to make their claims heard because of how planning is designed (Fairbanks et al. 2018). Those stakeholders that have power might be better able to navigate processes like Marine Spatial Planning and ensure that their voices are being heard. Their social pillar is less likely to be compromised through a lesser ability to participate in decision making than the social pillar of less powerful stakeholders. This way, the Blue Economy can contribute to increasing and entrenching power imbalances. Navigating these aspects can be as difficult as they are important to keep track of.

More transparency on the actual trade-offs involved in Blue Economy investments could contribute to a clearer image of who the winners and losers are, and through which values they are affected.


The three pillars of the Blue Economy are sometimes aligned; at other times, they are at risk of conflicting with each other. A balance between the three therefore must be sought continuously. The economic and environmental pillars are often seen as mutually necessary, but the social pillar often finds its way into the equation only when it is translated into economic terms. However, environmental and social concerns are more than just economic indicators. Environmental concerns can find their way into economics-based decision making through the concept of ecosystem services (and only when these services are translated into monetary terms, leading to under-representation of cultural and relational values).

In summary, the different ways in which people express the importance of nature as exchange values can lead to a loss of information, potentially resulting in certain values being underestimated or underrepresented. As a result, we suggest that investments could pay more attention to local conditions when assessing social impact and inclusion. We encourage investors to ask questions about what is hiding between aggregate improvements, notably on the distribution of benefits between and within pillars, and especially regarding the social pillar. Important questions also involve the extent to which these ideals are, and can be, turned into concrete projects and reforms. By considering alternative goals for social impact and inclusion (for example, through participation in decision making or by maintaining local cultural practices), investors are able to steer clear of the oftentimes-blurred line that arises from making social inclusion synonymous with increasing incomes. To accomplish these goals, a central concern will be how to include the currently excluded KPIs as a way to further balance different interests in the Blue Economy. The advantages of such robust processes will naturally have to be considered alongside the organizational burden that comes with monitoring them. We hope, however, that the merits of the former outweigh the demerits of the latter.


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Jens Christiansen is a PhD Student at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK. The aim of his doctorate research is to investigate how policies, investors, and actors in development come together to in order to make ocean assets sustainable investment units. His academic background is in economic history (MSc Global History) and political economy (MSc Global Studies). Professionally, he has worked in consultancy on projects related to fisheries management and regional development. Before that, he worked on sustainable smart-city development at a nongovernment organization.

Marleen Schutter is a PhD student at Lancaster University, where she researches processes of value articulation for ecosystem services and the Blue Economy as forms of environmental governance. Her research interests range from interdisciplinarity in ecosystem services to perspectives on the Blue Economy in different international and national domains, including in Seychelles national policy making. A key question in her research is to ascertain to what extent these different domains interact with values and perceptions of resource users. Originally from the Netherlands, she completed a Bsc in Economics at Radboud University and an Msc in Environment and Resource Management at VU University.

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