“Beyond the Worst” – An Interview with John Elkington

John Elkington, Co-Founder & Chief Pollinator at Volans, is one of the founders of the global sustainability movement, an experienced advisor to business, and a highly regarded keynote speaker and contributor, from conferences to advisory boards.

In 2008, The Evening Standard named John among the ‘1000 Most Influential People’ in London, describing him as “a true green business guru”, and as “an evangelist for corporate social and environmental responsibility long before it was fashionable”. In 2009, a CSR International survey of the Top 100 CSR leaders placed John fourth: after Al Gore, Barack Obama and the late Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, and alongside Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank.

John has addressed over 1,000 conferences around the world. He was a faculty member of the World Economic Forum from 2002-2008. He has served on over 70 boards and advisory boards. John has won numerous awards and is the author or co-author of 20 books. The 20th book – Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism (Fast Company Press) – is a practical and inspirational guide to where we go from here.

Larry Fink says he will no longer use the term ESG because of the way it has been weaponized. Your thoughts?

Sensible him. He was bold and courageous to raise the ESG climate agendas and now the deranged state of US politics makes it inevitable that BlackRock would pull back. I was up the Rockies, at a molybdenum mine, back in 1981 when a mining sector VP told me that American politics are like a grandfather clock. Sometimes the pendulum swings so far one way that when it comes back it smashes through the wall of the clock.

And here we are. That said, I think President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is the most serious attempt yet to address some of these challenges—and opportunities.

Where are the Green Swans hiding? Can you tell us what you think now about “regenerative capitalism”?

Green Swan market trends see exponential progress, often kicking off with extended periods of very little seeming to happen. You see that now with renewable energy, battery technology and electric vehicles. You also see it with the benign applications of AI.

But potential Green Swans are to be found almost everywhere you look. The problem is that at the moment they are in Ugly Duckling mode, looking profoundly peculiar to the untutored eye.

You know, the SDGs are off track – a study from Kyoto University show that Oil company majors don’t have an achievable Net Zero by 2050 plan. Every indicator is off. So, what must leaders – government leaders, business leaders, social leaders, community leaders, do now?

I have always felt that the most likely outcome would be the collapse of our industrial civilization. It’s no accident that modern sci-fi is now full of such outcomes. What gives me a degree of hope is that once things get to the point where it is blindingly clear to people that action is needed, politicians can suddenly find their courage.

The challenge now is that we have left it so long that the evidence of climate anomalies from Greenland, the North Atlantic, Antarctica and you name it suggests that we have already overshot critical thresholds. Leaders in all sectors cannot continue to operate as if the current system is redeemable with comfortable, incremental change. The deniers have forced us to progress so slowly that if and when the changes come they will be way more disruptive than they needed to be.

Are we in the “Breakdown” zone? What do you recommend businesses do to build resilience?

In terms of climate and biodiversity, we are beyond it.

The scale of what is happening is beyond the worst scenarios proposed by scientists.

Wicked Problems – you name them: 1) Plastic Oceans, 2) Killer Calories, 3) Antibiotic resistance, 4) The Boiling Planet, and 5) Space Junk. Any more to add to that list?

Nationalist populism.

Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Johnson, Modi, Trump, Xi … and they’re feeding off each other. The climate deniers and their ilk have pushed us into a position where the social repercussions of the coming transitions in energy, food and so on will fuel further populism, like it or not.

People will look to business leaders, like Larry Fink to stand up and protest government failures— but they are neither democratically elected nor expected by critical stakeholders, like shareholders, to save the world when politicians cannot, or will not.

What does Ukraine mean? Is it a blueprint for the descent of civilization into regional conflict?

Ukraine is a stepping-stone to a more generalised war, as the Spanish Civil war was ahead of WWII. Once again, politicians have forgotten not only what war is like but how the slippery slopes ahead of conflict operate. The first time I was in China, a couple of government ministers told me that they had studied the rise of Prussia, resulting in two world wars, and learned the necessary lessons. Would it be unkind to suggest that, if they have learned lessons, they have learned the wrong ones?

What replaces the triple bottom line? You’ve written about the shift from shareholder value to shared value to systems-value. How is that different from the Common Good?

As argued in my 2020 book, Green Swans, the 3Ps of the TBL (People, Planet & Profit, or Prosperity) need to be augmented with a new set of lenses, the 3Rs. Most TBL work to date has been developed in a Responsibility frame, so focusing on things like reporting, stakeholder engagement and supply chain management. All good, all necessary conditions of progress. But the word I have heard on many leaders’ lips in recent years has been Resilience. A key reason is that many of the systems we take for granted—economic, political, social, environmental, and so on—are not wobbling furiously. And the only way I know to ensure longer term resilience is to regenerate (not just repair) our critical systems, and soon. That is what true twenty-first century leadership will be all about.

What gives you hope?

Science and technology are moving at such a pace that the next industrial revolutions may well happen despite the fumblings of politicians and their governments. And young people are increasingly aware of the existential threat to their futures, in a way that most adults are not. Some of that energy will channel into extremism: if you haven’t already done so, read Andreas Malm’s book, How To Blow Up A Pipeline. But it will also feed into forms of innovation and entrepreneurship that we can scarcely begin to imagine. Which is why I read so much modern science fiction. Try Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For The Future, if you’re one of the shrinking number of people who haven’t read it.

Any plans for Mars? 🙂

As long as London’s skies don’t get even soupier at night, I plan to continue enjoying it at a safe distance. I have no plans to visit.

Thanks so much!

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar

SEE ALSO: “Beyond the Triple Bottom Line” – An Interview with John Elkington in The Marketing Journal.