PROFILE Mr SustainAbility – John Elkington peddles his case

Politicians and corporate leaders generally have not grasped that the 21st century will be fundamentally and significantly different from the last century and they don’t seem to appreciate what that difference means.” The observation might not be so disconcerting if it weren’t that it is made by John Elkington, man who spends most of his time talking with leaders and politicians around the world about the sustainability of our present way of economic life.
Elkington is “founder and chief entrepreneur” of SustainAbility, the London-based strategy consultancy and think tank he established in 1987. He and his 25 strong team of consultants and international faculty of 50 experts specialise in briefing enterprise and non-government organisations on corporate responsibility and sustainable development. BusinessWeek magazine has described him as the “dean of corporate responsibility for three decades”.
Elkington first made his mark with his book, The Green Capitalists, published in the same year he established SustainAbility. His lexicon of original terminologies like ‘green consumer’ and ‘triple bottom line’ was created to describe new types of markets and innovative business approaches enterprises need to adopt to succeed in future. “Business must,” he said, “be profitable and socially and environmentally responsible. SustainAbility still believes that social and environmental innovation is the key to new market opportunities.” It is also critical if we want to do something about saving the planet.
He now wonders if perhaps one of the world’s most successful companies, General Electric, might finally have got the point. Last year’s “ecomagination” – play on GE’s “Imagination at Work” slogan – initiative by chief executive Jeff Immelt to commit the company to dramatically decrease pollution from its products and simultaneously double research and development on cleaning technologies is, he thinks, hopeful sign.
“It could be small tipping point,” says Elkington. “GE is an interesting company. Each successive generation of management, seven including [Thomas] Edison who was probably the least competent but an outstanding innovator, has broken the mould and taken the business forward. On the other hand, it might just be Immelt trying to differentiate himself from the Jack Welch era.
“If, however, he sees the next business opportunity in environmental innovation, that could be something else altogether. GE only moves into large scale business activities and Immelt is talking about ‘ecomagination’ products and services being 20 percent of their business in the relatively near future. GE is remarkable enterprise and only goes into global scale areas where it can be number one. Its approach to size means every business in the US takes what it does very seriously.”
GE’s ‘ecomagination’ may be encouraging but, as Elkington also points out, most big companies take ages to turn around. “Market realities powerfully constrain the capacity of most big companies to drive change.”
So how does Elkington view the state of the environment? Is time on our side and has the world, as some commentators on the melting of the polar ice caps suggest, reached an “environmental tipping point”? “We are obviously confronted by enormous environmental issues. And I am not suggesting that what is reported (on issues such as melting ice caps) is wrong or even premature. But I am not yet convinced that we have reached an irretrievable environmental tipping point.
“We are, however, teetering on the edge. The rate of climate change is much faster than we thought and predicted,” says Elkington. “But, the environmental issues are not as pressing as the threat to the business economy of, for instance, world health epidemic like SARS or bird flu. The world health system is ill prepared for this kind of eventuality and our world economy is now based on global transportation.
“Climate change is not primarily an environmental issue, but rather an economic one. We must address fundamental restructuring of the global economy. We are entering an era of economic history now that is drastically different from anything we have experienced in the past 50 to 100 years.” In Elkington’s view that difference needs to be understood, particularly at organisational governance level. Boards, where the strategic direction of every enterprise is set, must comprehend the extent, direction and dynamics of the economic change that is now evolving.
Since the late ’90s Elkington has shifted SustainAbility’s advisory service focus from management to governance and moved from just consulting business to also working with NGOs. “In one of the most hopeful trends of recent years, new breed of social entrepreneurs is emerging. As the focus shifts from awareness building to market solutions, we have also started to pay greater attention to the world of social enterprise,” he explains.
Elkington thinks SustainAbility has survived, thrived and evolved as an influential environmental and social think tank because it has been “adept at picking the issues as they become, or just before they become, [economically] critical. We seem to be able to keep finger on the pulse,” he adds. “The question we sometimes ask is whether by dint of us raising awareness of an issue, it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. We are still small operation but our faculty is now 70 strong and we are constantly researching the issues.”
He also credits SustainAbility with practising what it preaches – discontinuity. “We have constantly changed the organisation to retain validity. We moved, for instance, from auditing and consulting to pushing our influence via the web.” Elkington’s willingness to transform his organisation was illustrated by his decision, announced just after this interview, to step aside as chairman and adopt instead his new title of founder and chief entrepreneur. “Founder,” he says, “is factual. The slippery bit in my mind is ‘chief’. But what I like about it is that it signals that I’m not the only entrepreneur here – and it also gives me the licence to pursue some of the more speculative ideas and projects that I have been tackling mainly in the evenings, at weekends and on long-haul flights.”
Elkington now focuses on issues such as the ability of the “market model” of enterprise to deliver environmental and social solutions to the world’s sustainability issues. “In many respects the market model is not compatible with the new economy and we are trying to find the pressure points,” he says. “It is an innovative process for us. In three to five years we should be sliding away from working on big corporations and concentrating more on the entrepreneurs who are working on coming up with very different future.
“We need to work with the innovators and SustainAbility must emulate what we see needs to be done out there in the marketplace. Organisations and the marketplace need to go through huge discontinuities and accept that change must happen.”
Elkington is “moderately optimistic” in the long term but “somewhat pessimistic” about the short-term ability of enterprise to change and cope, and about the ability of politicians to envisage and create the right legislative framework to encourage and facilitate economic, social and environmental change. “The world has been riding an economic up-wave for the past 20 or so years. But profound shakeout will happen in the next 10 to 20 years. We want both enterprise and economies to be as well prepared as possible for the shakeout.”
The online search engine company Google is, according to Elkington, living example of how radically different businesses must think and operate to be effective in future. “It is about discontinuity,” he repeats. “History is not straight line process. In many respects, Google is our biggest competitor. If they manage the information they process every day in the right way they will impact the way China and the rest of the world operates. Companies li

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