James Murdoch Plans Big Bets on Sustainable Businesses
James Murdoch has always seemed an odd fit in the News Corp media empire: the ecologically minded scion of a family whose centerpiece news outlets have minimized the effects of climate change.
He championed sustainability projects at Sky and helped engineer a venture that poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the National Geographic Society’s endowment. And just a few weeks ago, he and his wife criticized his family’s media companies for their climate coverage as wildfires raged in Australia.
Now that his family has sold the bulk of its empire to Walt Disney and he has largely broken away from what remains, Mr. Murdoch is making the environment a top focus of his new career as an investor.
Mr. Murdoch, who personally netted about $2 billion from the sale, plans to announce three climate-focused investments on Wednesday. Two are in start-ups developing nonplastic containers: Cove, which makes a biodegradable water bottle, and Notpla, which helped produce a ballyhooed dissolvable Scotch whisky pod. The third involves a climate-focused partnership that includes the French and German governments and is overseen by BlackRock, the $7 trillion money-management giant.
Together, they are a statement that Mr. Murdoch intends to keep his green credentials a prominent part of his post-Fox identity.
“Any business has to be about more than just capital,” Mr. Murdoch said in an interview.
Yet the investments are also an inevitable reminder that Mr. Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn, are outliers in the Murdoch fold. His father, Rupert, once tweeted that he was “a climate change skeptic not a denier,” and Murdoch-owned outlets around the globe have dismissed concerns about climate change as alarmist.
Last month, James and Kathryn Murdoch pointedly criticized the Murdoch family’s media companies in light of the Australian wildfires. “Kathryn and James’s views on climate are well established, and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known,” a representative told The Daily Beast.
The public declaration was especially notable because Mr. Murdoch, who gave up his role as chief executive of 21st Century Fox in the sale to Disney, remains on the board of News Corp.
In an interview, Mr. Murdoch declined to comment on the disagreement with his family’s business. But he emphasized that he had a long history of thinking about climate change, dating back more than a decade to his time running Sky, the British satellite broadcaster that his family controlled.
In 2006, Mr. Murdoch announced a successful campaign to make Sky carbon neutral, a decision that caught many in the business community off guard. But Mr. Murdoch was serious, announcing initiatives like converting much of its power use to draw from renewable energy and a campaign to help eliminate plastic waste.
“I strongly believe, and I think James does as well, that if business is strongly disconnected from the environment, that’s wrong,” Jeremy Darroch, then Sky’s chief financial officer and now its chief executive, said in an interview.
Nearly a decade later, as the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, Mr. Murdoch helped create a joint venture with the National Geographic Society that covered not just the National Geographic cable channels that the two teamed up on, but also the society’s famous yellow-bordered magazine and digital properties. The deal not only gave Fox a trove of content, it poured $725 million into the society’s endowment — a windfall that enabled it to double its investments in scientific research, according to Gary Knell, who was the society’s president at the time.
Mr. Murdoch says climate investments will be a focus of his new investment firm, Lupa Systems, which has also put money into the digital media company Vice and the comic book publisher Artists, Writers and Artisans.
Two of the deals being announced Wednesday, both in sustainable-packaging start-ups, are among Lupa Systems’ first green investments.
Lupa Systems is helping lead a $4 million fund-raising round for Notpla, whose Ooho edible food pouch is made from seaweed and resembles a laundry detergent pod. Ooho has already made appearances at last year’s London Marathon and, somewhat more memorably, as the delivery system for Glenlivet-based cocktails.
Pierre Paslier, one of Notpla’s founders, said that bringing Mr. Murdoch on board as an investor should allow the company to tap his network and help it enter the American market.
Mr. Murdoch is also investing in Cove, which makes bottles that the company says are fully biodegradable. Its chief executive, Alex Totterman, said the company hoped to sell bottled water using its packaging for $2.29 each. Cove and Lupa declined to comment on the size of the investment.
Environmentally friendly materials, Mr. Murdoch said, represent “a rich theme and a deep one, that we think is a good idea to be involved in.”
The third investment comes out of Mr. Murdoch’s participation in the Climate Finance Partnership, a new venture organized by BlackRock to invest in projects like low-emission transportation and renewable energy equipment in emerging markets.
The $5 million investment — made through Mr. Murdoch and Kathryn Murdoch’s Quadrivium Foundation — joins partners like the French and German governments and the foundations started by Jeremy Grantham, a founder of the asset-management firm GMO, and William Hewlett, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard.
Brian Deese, the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, said Mr. Murdoch and his team “bring a valuable perspective” on what it would take to make the venture succeed.
Mr. Knell, of National Geographic, said he expected Mr. Murdoch to make still more investments in this vein — especially now that he has broken off from the family business.
“He’s got a big bank account now that he can put to use without the constraints that he had,” Mr. Knell said.