Elkington: Tech isn't enough to solve sustainability challenges

Technology has an important role to play in addressing the world's sustainability challenges, but it can't solve them on its own, said John Elkington, executive chairman of Volans and co-founder of SustainAbility, at VERGE London this week.

"I worry that people think technology by itself will solve issues," he said. "Investing in technology will pay off over time, but cultural change is an important factor that is under estimated. How you incentivize behavioral change is important."

Elkington, a green business guru and an authority on corporate social responsibility, sat down with GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower at the end of a packed day Thursday to discuss barriers to sustainability -- and change agents.

First, the barriers. Many people still aren't sure what "sustainability" really means -- and even if they are -- they're often not thinking ahead to when we have several billion more people on Earth, Elkington said.

The world lags behind significantly on the kind of culture change that's needed to ramp up sustainable progress, he said, adding that he thinks that change will happen once the environmental challenges are clear to the general public.

This happened in the 1980s, when companies removed phosphates, mercury, lead and chlorine from products because of their negative effects, but after a while consumer pressure faded, he recalled.

"Today, the issues are creeping up on us again," he said. "Some of the big players are beginning to wake up to that fact and I think that's where VERGE is very useful."

Next page: Change agents