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Roar Interviews Environmentalist and Author John Elkington

Author and campaigner John Elkington discusses green capitalism, civil disobedience and an agenda for change.

John Elkington has been described as “a world authority” on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and green business. In 2008, he was listed as one of the top 1,000 most influential people in London. In 2009, he was ranked as the fourth most important CSR leader – behind only Al Gore, Barack Obama and Anita Roddick.

He was a faculty member for the World Economic Forum (WEF) from 2002-2008 and has served on over 70 corporate boards. Breaking through with his landmark work ‘Cannibals with Forks’ (1997), he has authored and co-authored 20 books. His most recent work, ‘Green Swans’ (2020), stresses the importance of achieving exponential positive change. His upcoming book ‘Running Up the Down Escalator’ is subtitled ‘How We Failed to Save the World – But Still Could’.

When not travelling, writing or blogging, John primarily works at Volans, a company he co-founded, to consult with corporations and projects on their sustainability practices. Volans is based in Somerset House, adjacent to King’s College London’s (KCL’s) Strand campus. On Tuesday November 16, he invited Roar to sit down with him for an interview.

Having worked in sustainability for over half a century, what achievement are you proudest of?

Well firstly I haven’t worked on sustainability for 50 years because the concept dates back to the 1980s. I’ve worked on environment for now 50 years.

What am I proudest of? I think we’ve managed to get people talking and thinking about sustainability, but it’s taken a hell of a lot longer than I imagined back in the 80s and 90s. Now it’s endemic – everyone thinks that they should have a sustainability set of commitments, goals, targets if they’re in business. If part of our goal had been to get people to speak the language of sustainability, I think that we can put a tick in that box.

Literally most of them thought that anyone coming from the environmental side was a communist – and that was a good reason for them to not even let you through the front gate, let alone the front door. It was cultural, there was a whole generation of people who saw the environmental agenda as really uncomfortable. They tended to see it as anti-capitalist, anti-business, anti-growth. I think that was one of the early challenges which was bridging between generations, but I’m excited that we’ve got business into the game in a way that they weren’t originally.

Could you explain your idea of people, planet and profit, or the triple bottom line?

For 50 years now you’ve had Milton Friedman’s thesis that the only purpose of business is to make a profit and, although I didn’t particularly think of it that way, the work that I’ve done has been very much counter-posed to all of that. If I’m disappointed, it’s that we have not yet successfully overturned the economic ideologies that take a very narrow definition of value.

I spent 2 years trying to think through how it should be best articulated and I just woke up one morning with the triple bottom line in my brain. The triple bottom line was about economic, social and environmental value created and destroyed. It was a provocation, both to business but also to the academic world.

What is a ‘Chief Pollinator’? What does one of those do?

I’ve always struggled to fit in within a job description. Since the first five years of my working life, I’ve worked for companies that I’ve co-founded, but you still need some kind of title that makes sense to the outer world. The Chief Pollinator term, younger colleagues in the team suggested ‘that’s what you are, that’s what you should call yourself’.

Although the team’s working on a lot of projects, a lot of the stuff I do is not easily stuck into a spreadsheet, but it’s weird how often the stuff I do then pulls in future clients. I want us in 18 months to be doing stuff that we haven’t even thought of yet. It’s all driven by an ambition to really wake people up and help them step up.

On Volans’ website you’re quoted as saying “If our unsustainability hasn’t profoundly shocked you, then you haven’t fully understood it yet.” Many people are still devotedly climate change-sceptic. What is the best way to convince people of how ‘shocking’ our impact really is and that we need to do something about it?

I wonder at some level if it’s even possible with many people. I think that as a country and as a culture we have chosen to slump into scientific illiteracy. If people don’t understand science, then it is really unlikely that anything will persuade them that climate change is not only real, but on an accelerative curve.

I did my first report on climate change in 1978 and over the subsequent decades there has been this awakening and we are beginning to move, but it’s all incremental. On the plus side, average people are herd animals. So when the rest of the herd starts to move, they move too.

Are there signs of this movement?

Ordinary people – by which I mean people who get their news by watching television or by reading the slightly more popular end of the press – even they, with the drought this year, are hearing this through their own families. There’s this backbeat of disconcerting news. Much larger numbers of people now sense that something is awry and want to see someone do something about it.

But there’s always this comfort in believing people who say it’s not a real problem, if it is then it’ll go away, or if it doesn’t then there’s nothing we can do – all of which are unfortunately untrue.

Do we need to consume less, consume better, or both? 

It’s very difficult to say that everyone has to consume less because the consumption patterns across the world are so radically different. You look at what people have come to expect in a country like this one and you compare that to people in Sudan or wherever, it’s very clear that there are many people who need to come up some version of the growth curve.

I’ve got a [British Airways] Gold Card for Life – that’s a criminal record in a tiny piece of plastic. We’re going to have to work out how to fly less until we find out how to fly sustainably.

The degrowth idea, which is an idea which has come up the curve quite rapidly among some younger people, is a little bit delusional. If we simply go for degrowth across the board, we’re going to have political rebellions on our hands.

In 1986 I came up with the idea of green growth. What I meant by that is that we’ve got to destroy certain industries – we’ve got to drive them out. But at the same time you need absolutely ferocious growth in those areas of the economy which can deliver real value, but with a much lower footprint.

You recently said that business leaders in the 1970s thought that every environmentalist was a “communist in disguise”. How have you, and people working alongside you, managed to convince corporations to allow you on board?

I didn’t view them as the enemy, I had quite a lot of respect for the Second World War generation. It was almost like having uncles or grandparents disagreeing with what you were saying. It was a more intimate conversation, and I thought it was important that they understand.

Now I think it’s less of a problem because the younger generations, particularly in business, the people who we are dealing with now at board and C-suite level are just radically different from the people we were dealing with back in the 70s and 80s. What people are effectively moving from is the question of ‘Why should I do this?’ to ‘How should I do this?’ and that shift is accelerating still.

You’ve suggested that we don’t need to keep convincing people any more but some activist movements tend to disagree. Young people are often characterised as more radical, particularly in the environmentalist movement, thinking of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion (XR). Do you think that their work has detracted from the environmentalist movement?

No, I don’t. In fact, I think they’ve been a huge help.

I did a letter for The Times with 20 CEOs saying that you may disapprove of some of the tactics, but this is a new generation emerging. I think that the facts are now so scary that, to some extent, we’re all climate deniers now. Why is somebody like me not going and chaining myself to the front fence of Number 10? Why do I still think that logic and rationality and facts will shift the needle? I think that we still have to have those if we’re going to have anything other than political chaos. But I think the pressure from younger people is absolutely crucial.

It’s inevitable that there will be terrible things happening as a result of this, but I do think over time it will have an impact, in the same way that the Suffragettes did. They were loathed by many people at the time, but afterwards we learnt to celebrate them as people who drove changes which at the time would have been seen as impossible.

Greta [Thunberg] I think is a stunning gift. One of those very, very rare individuals who come along every so often. In the past we’d tend to run them out of town, burn them at the stake or elect them queen. I think that in speaking truth to power she’s done something that many people struggle to do. I’m starting to hear people in business tell me that they’re being beaten up at the breakfast table by their own children.

It’s interesting that it’s the Suffragettes who are remembered, rather than the non-violent Suffragists. What would you say to people who are genuinely radical in their ends? How do you convince people who believe that capitalism cannot co-exist with genuine climate action that green growth is possible?

I got into great trouble in Brazil recently when I spoke to a major newspaper there. They asked me a question to which I answered that I did not think that capitalism could deliver what we need. What I meant by that was the kind of capitalism that people like Milton Friedman have called for – what they call ‘free market capitalism’, by which they mean deregulated.

Capitalism is a bit like the core of a nuclear reactor. It produces immense energy, but it’s deadly dangerous if it’s not controlled. I think that capitalism has to be consciously and coherently regulated. We tend to see efforts to regulate capitalism as ‘killing the goose that lays the golden eggs’. I don’t see it that way at all – I think an effective, sustained balance between the interests of a country and of capitalism is absolutely crucial.

You’ve called the next few decades the “most politically dangerous” of your working life. What should the UK government do tomorrow to combat climate change?

I think the agenda that people like me have championed for so long is becoming mainstream and so dangerous for a set of industries which still have a lot of political power. I think these changes are going to be forcefully contested.

I think that we should be investing in the sort of infrastructures that would radically reduce our carbon and biodiversity footprint, most obviously renewable energy. We should be investing in the insulation of homes – and just the economic case for doing that is huge. Water and sanitation companies need to be picked up by the scruff of the neck and given an incredibly good shaking. I don’t think that they should necessarily go back into nationalised ownership, but I think the regulatory regimes are very lily-livered and weak.

I think that this government has been singularly poor at thinking long-term. What I would love to see would be a coherent government. I think we need a radically different generation of politicians. In war, that’s what happens. In the first two years of any world war you have people who are incompetent because they were trained in a different world. We are not in a war, but we are in something very equivalent and our political classes are absolutely dysfunctional.

Some of the pushback on decarbonisation in the UK tends to be ‘we’re so small’, ‘we don’t emit much’. What do you say to that?

In this country we have a criminal record which is almost singular in the sense that we started the Industrial Revolution. We learned how to break into nature’s carbon deposits, so we taught the world how to destabilise the climate.

With this ‘loss and damage’ push now coming up now at COP 27 (Conference of the Parties), where people are saying that the rich countries have to compensate the smaller ones who are experiencing much of the pain, I absolutely think that’s true. The commitments should be very long-term, should be well-monitored and should be contingent on political processes.

I do think we need something like a Marshall Plan for the world, one that needs to be funded by the wealthier countries. Technology is evolving at such a pace that we’d be idiotic if we didn’t invest in that.

What can international organisations do at COP27 to convince you that they’re still a suitable platform for tackling this issue?

I think that the COP process has been a profound failure, which isn’t to say that good work hasn’t been done. Huge amount of talk, huge amount of commitment and policies, but really not moving the needle at all. So we’re stuck with the COP process for the foreseeable, but I don’t think we can count on it to deliver the results that we need.

There is a delusional sense – and you saw it in many early religions – that you could go down on your knees and pray and things would resolve themselves. This is as delusional as what we’ve seen the sustainability movement do.

The question is, if it’s not going to come from there, where is it going to come from? I think that the anxiety, anger and drive of young people is going to be absolutely essential in driving these issues up the agenda. I think that we are close to young people being so enraged with older generations that it becomes almost an intergenerational war.

So you’ve seen few examples of politicians who can be bridge-headers, you’re pessimistic about the COPs and there’s a possible intergenerational war coming. Where do you actually see hope for these radical, Green Swan changes?

I know I sound like an Old Testament prophet very often, but my favourite subject has always been History. I loved to study the patterns in the evolution of societies, economies and technologies. If there’s one thing that I think I’ve learnt it’s that most civilisations go down in flames, but as a species we do our best work when we’re backed into a corner. Then our innovation goes into overdrive and I think that’s where we are. I think there will be solutions on the table which we find almost impossible to think of at the moment unless you read science fiction.

I am an optimist in that I believe that progress is not inevitable, but progress is much more likely when the scale of what we’ve created is clear to most thinking people – and I don’t think we’re far from that point now.

What green cygnets are being incubated by Volans?

One of the things that we’ve been doing a lot of in the last few years has been working with business schools and universities who are increasingly starting to network to think about how we deal with climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainability. We’ve been doing projects with students and that work with young people is central to what we do – it’s absolutely crucial. If people go out with not just the skills but the ambition and the confidence that this thing can be turned around, then we will have had some impact.

People say ‘we’ve run out of time – it’s over’. I think we’ve got all the time in the world. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have to wrestle with increasingly great problems, but it’s in circumstances like that where you get a renaissance.

You called education the “single most important investment that we make as society and as a species.” Use this as your soapbox: what one thing would you like all of our students and our readers to take away from this interview?

I think that one of the most important things is that conversations are the most important way that people learn to think new thoughts. What I would encourage them to do is to seek out people who not only think like them, but are in contiguous fields. It can’t just be you in a missionary mode, it’s got to be an exchange where both sides give.

Roar would like to thank John Elkington and Hoey Wong for their time.

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