The value of culture – intrinsic as well as financial

by Else Christensen-Redzepovic

Culture is a driver of positive change, alongside social and environmental factors. The sustainable finance and culture project is based on the premise that culture contributes greatly to social cohesion and harmony among people and societies, and therefore to sustainability. This is why culture must be at the centre not just of sustainable development but in particular at the centre of the present pandemic crisis and post pandemic recovery.

Culture is the glue that brings people together and gives us a sense of belonging. Culture helps us feel valued and gives us self-esteem. Culture, therefore, is fundamentally necessary to build and strengthen peaceful, creative, and inclusive societies.

In order to address our global sustainability challenges, we need to rethink how to we tackle that democracy is being questioned, that solidarity seems to be pushed to the side and that civilisations drift apart – become polarized. Culture has strong potential to promote eye level dialogue, mutual respect, and social cohesion. 

Financial impact of culture:

The cultural industries and media sector themselves are also powerful in terms of revenues, employment, and influence.

Historical reflection on how the idea of sustainability came into being and how culture became a part of that narrative: 

Climate crisis is of course not a new invention. I even remember myself when I was a young teenager at school and learning about the great pollutions in cities – in particular the great smog of London in 1952 and about how pollution was endangering the world´s ecosystems overall. This was back in the early 70´ies!

1987 the so-called Brundtland report came out, named after the first female prime minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland. In this report we learn about the principles of sustainabiliy. It says: I quote, « aims to promote harmony among human beings and between humanity and nature ». Sustainable definition: economic, social, environmental – but at that time culture was not mentioned as playing a role.

To be promoted loud and clear, the credo is fuelled by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030 and based on the three pillars of sustainability : social, environmental and economic. They were adapted in September 2015 by the heads of states and governments at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in the “Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030”  

The goals « aim to transform our world and to improve people’s lives and prosperity on a healthy planet. It applies to all countries through partnerships and peace. Countries, regions, cities, the business sector and civil society are actively engaged in implementing the Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. »

This great and noble ambition has to be shared by the international community called upon to act responsibly.

The UN SDGs focus on five priorities (P) : planet, people, prosperity, peace and partnership. 

More and more investors use these SDGs to align their practices according to their commitment to a more responsible finance system.

The former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan understood very well the need to « plant the seeds for modern corporate and financial sustainability ». He played a critical role to bring governments, companies, and investor industry together to help address many of the world’s challenges.

Kofi Annan turned to investors saying that « the owners of those companies and the custodians of savers’ financial futures might explore the role they could play in building a more sustainable future for the benefit of those they serve.

The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) were launched in April 2006 at the New York Stock Exchange. These Principles developed by investors for investors reflect the integration of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues to their investment practices.

The cultural dimension of sustainability, however, is rarely part of the investment menu.

The topics of Sustainable Finance (SF) and Sustainable Investment (SI) primarily refer to the integration of Environmental, Social and Governance criteria (ESG) in investment decisions. 

It is not until the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions that we hear about the role of culture in this endeavour. In this convention is states that cultural diversity is a mainspring for sustainable development for communities, peoples, and nations.

Culture does fit into the sustainability picture

If we consider the conclusion of the 1987 Brundtland Report we cannot ignore the fundamental role culture can play to promote harmony between human beings or to fuel the UN 2030 Agenda five P´s: planet, people, prosperity, peace and partnership. 

So what is culture? In its Mexico City Declaration in 1982 UNESCO defined culture as « the whole complex distinctive spiritual, ritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs ». 

It claimed : « Culture is the essential condition for genuine development ». The cultural impulse is both individualistic (encouraging self-esteem) and collective (promoting social cohesion), which illustrates the huge scope of culture’s benefit to build and strengthen peaceful, creative and inclusive societies.

Considering this high ambition displayed through these international instruments, cultural and creative industries (CCIs) which are part of the international community mentioned above, have a fundamental and specific social responsibility. By creating, producing and distributing content, they contribute to promote critical thinking, mutual understanding and people’s willingness to live together. CCIs and media companies including television, radio, newspapers, books, advertising, music, movie, performing arts, or video games have a responsibility for the impact their content has on people. It concerns what we listen, read or watch. The media exerts a strong influence on the decisions we make, the products we buy, the questions we ask to make our everyday lives .

The CCIs and media sector is also powerful in terms of revenues and of employment (more than the car industry in Europe, the US and Japan combined). According to UNESCO, the CCIs are among the fastest growing sectors in the world. In 2013, they accounted for more than 3 % of the global economy: they generated annual revenues of US$ 2,250 billion and nearly 30 million jobs worldwide, employing more people aged 15 to 29 than any other sector. The same EY study specifies the CCIs sales worldwide exceed those of telecom services (US$ 1,770b globally) and surpass India’s GDP (US$ 1,900b).

Considering the contribution of the CCIs to economic growth and social cohesion, the poor appetite of investors for investing in culture can be surprising.

So why is this?

Among the reasons for the lack of interest of investors, that of the heterogeneity of the CCIs and media sector can be put forward. The complexity of the business model is another: What is the sector’s value creation process ? How to assess governance? What are the diverse products and services delivered? Who are the competitors?  Finally, the sector is often considered as an assisted activity dependent on public funding (taxes), the goodwill of individuals (crowdfunding) or company subsidies (charity). Cultural impact is neglected and often considered as a secondary impact in comparison with social and environmental impacts. This is a misguided analysis. The sector is an economic driver and fully contributes to strengthening the social fabric, the collective will and the self-esteem of individuals. At a time when the impact of investing is growing, as we have seen above, and mainly dedicated « to combating climate change or addressing environmental or social challenges in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals », investors could further explore the potential of these arts and culture-related industries.

SDGs do not really provide incentives to the investors 

It can be recognized that the UN SDGs do not provide investors with much incentive to consider these issues as they do not directly target the sector. The recent European Council conclusions [7] on the Work Plan for Culture 2019-2022 recalled : « According to the ‘EU Charter of Fundamental Rights’ and the ‘UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression’ artistic freedom is central to democratic societies. Art can help overcome barriers connected to race, religion, gender, age, nationality, culture and identity, by providing a counter-discourse and contesting privileged narratives and perspectives. » The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights recognizes in its article 11 that « The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected. » The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights themselves (Reporting framework with implementation guidance-2015) include in « Relevant Human Rights » the following rights directly related to the CCIs and media sector, namely : rights to freedom of opinion and expression, rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to privacy.

It seems the UN SDGs do not have the same scope as regards « artistic freedom », or « freedom and pluralism of media ». UN SDG 4 Quality of education in its target 7 cautiously shelters « cultural diversity » under the umbrella of sustainable development’s concept [8].  That’s it. Brains reshaping which directly threats individuals’ critical thinking and the vitality of democracies is not really addressed by the UN SDGs which nevertheless define themselves as « the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. »
The largest market capitalizations such as Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Facebook will be relieved, as massive and global content producers and distributors, to align with SDGs which do not challenge them on how they account for their material responsibility issues towards societies.

Nevertheless, a few investors are getting involved in this media and culture-oriented sector. The point here is not to deal with public financial institutions, banks or companies’ foundations, NGOs, who may propose loans or funds to this sector but to spot asset managers who claim culture as part of their investment portfolio, such as the Triodos Bank who´s mission it is to: 


« make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change » and stating that :« Arts and culture play an important role in the personal development of individuals and the cohesion of society as a whole. Creative expression provides new perspectives, inspires and connects people. » 

Except for Triodos and a couple of others however, the CCIs and media sector is the investor industry’s blind spot although it gives rise to both cultural, social and economic value.

It is important to highlight the necessity for investors to stress the urgency of investing not only money but also curiosity, time, energy, engagement in this sector with its specificities, its business risks and opportunities that deserve to be considered through their proper sustainability lens.

Investments in the media and cultural sector, can build bridges between human beings, stimulate individuals’ open minds and contribute to the people’s well-being.  Culture « makes a positive contribution to society », it deserves the full attention of the local, national and international community as a whole (governments, companies, opinion makers, think tanks, NGOs) provided these communities are sincerely determined to build a sustained, peaceful and creative harmony among human beings. This is an imperative challenge to address the fears of us – the people – who feel fragmented by the accelerated process of globalization, climate fears,  uncontrolled migrations not to speak of fears of global crisis – such as COVID-19.

So what is culture?

In the UNESCO Mexico City Declaration from 1982 culture was defined as « the whole complex distinctive spiritual, ritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs ». 

The Declaration claimed that : « Culture is the essential condition for genuine development ». The cultural impulse is both individualistic (encouraging self-esteem) and collective (promoting social cohesion), which illustrates the huge scope of culture’s benefit to build and strengthen peaceful, creative and inclusive societies.

This is important for having a relatively common point of reference to what we are talking about when we talk about culture.

So, we establish that when we talk about culture and sustainable finance we do not just talk about opera, ballet and classical music – but ALSO about that.

And what do we mean when we say Sustainability

  • Brundtland Report from 1987 on the definition of sustainability
  • 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions – highlighting the value of culture
  • 2015 UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals – but with no emphasis on culture
  • EU and the GREEN DEAL – Ursula von der Leyen –  Putting culture at the centre of this endeavour – making the objective tangible for people – This is why she uses BAUHAUS to make the objective clear.  BAUHAUS emerging out of the rubbles of 1WW – rethinking the future. BAUHAUS emerging in the province – not from the big cities. Solutions must come from bottom up with the right top-down framework.
  • Culture in the EU – Council´s Workplan for Culture
  • Voices of Culture – Culture and SDG´s, Working Conditions, Gender Equality – trying to advocate for an 18th SDG and culture in non-urban areas
  • European Capitals of Culture and sustainable finance – 1985 highlighting and celebrating the cultural diversity of Europe Latvian competition
  • Exciting to establish a Testlab for Sustainable Finance

Else Christensen-Redzepovic  is expert and advisor in local and international cultural relations. Else is also project manager of the European Commission project “Voices of Culture” a Structured Dialogue between stakeholders in the cultural and creative sectors in the EU and the European Commission. By appointment of the European Parliament, Else serves on the European Capital of Culture selection and monitoring Expert Panel.

Else has a special interest in empowerment of women and gender equality in the cultural and creative sectors. She led the Voices of Culture Gender Equality topic in 2019 and has been keynote speaker, curator and moderator at conferences and workshops on Gender Equality throughout Europe such as the Creative Europe workshop in Bonn, Germany, City of Women Festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the International Gender Equality Award symposium in Tampere, Finland.

Else holds a Master´s Degree in Political Science from the Catholic University in Leuven and a Bacherlor of Honours Degree in Germanic Studies and Psychology from the University of Melbourne. In addition, she has diplomas in executive management, international project management and public administration. As PhD candidate at University of Twente she did  research into sustainable development in periphery regions and National Parks. 

Photo: Patricio Soto

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