John Elkington, the 'Breakthrough Challenge' and tomorrow's bottom line

John Elkington holds a special place in the world of sustainability. He has been on the vanguard of sustainable business since the concept was born — and may in fact have been present at the creation. In 1987, Elkington founded SustainAbility, a sustainable business think tank and consultancy. Seven years later, in 1994, he coined the term “triple bottom line,” the notion of integrating social, environmental and financial dimensions into corporate accounting. He’s been a prolific author — nearly 20 books and counting — and advises companies, NGOs, government bodies and others. Elkington now heads Volans, a think tank, advisory firm and innovation lab he founded that is home for his many projects, passions and relationships.

Elkington also holds a special place in my career. Although I’d been writing about some of these topics since the late 1970s, my full-time focus on sustainable business began in 1989, when I was recruited to write the U.S. edition of Elkington’s 1988 U.K. bestseller, "The Green Consumer Guide." That book led to my interest in how companies were thinking about and integrating environmental and social issues into their strategy and operations.

The rest, as they say, is history.

So, I always sit up and take notice when a new Elkington book hits my desk. The latest, "The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits with Tomorrow’s Bottom Line," was co-authored with Jochen Zeitz, formerly chairman and CEO of Puma, where he pioneered the idea of an “environmental profit & loss” statement. Zeitz now serves as director and chairman of the board’s sustainable development committee of Kering, Puma’s parent company.

On the occasion of the book’s publication, I spoke with Elkington via Skype about the book, but also about his overall take on sustainable business. (A video snippet from the interview is embedded below.) The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Your book starts with the premise that we need a fundamental shift in the nature of commerce. What needs to shift?

John Elkington: As you know, Joel, this isn't a new idea. People like Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, Ray Anderson, yourself have been talking about this for a very long time. But every so often, you just get the sense that what has been an NGO agenda is starting to come into the mainstream. You know that business is taking things seriously when, instead of just toying with ideas or playing with stakeholders, they start to crunch the numbers.

As you know, from your work on VERGE, a growing number of companies are really starting to think about the market opportunity spaces. I think there's something going on that is worth playing into. And with many of these things, it's as much timing as it is whether you're saying the right thing or not.

Makower: Why is the timing potentially good now? What do you see happening that makes a breakthrough possible?

Elkington: Well, I don't know whether a breakthrough on a broad front is possible in a meaningful time scale, but I do think in the next 10 years that the pace of change is going to surprise us all. I'm a genuine believer in Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts. I also believe that, as he argued, these shifts take 70 to 80 years.

I think the current one that we're in the midst of started in the early 1960s. It was what Jim Lovelock was doing around electron capture detector. It was what was going on around DDT and, later on, around CFCs. And this stuff gradually tightened the screws on the chemical industry, the oil industry, the heavy footprint industries.

But what we're starting to see now is not just about risk. For business, this moves beyond citizenship, CSR and sustainability. When companies can see real opportunity out there — and I think it started with people you've tracked like General Electric and Siemens — there's something building out there.

Makower: Did you think we'd be further along by now?

Elkington: Yes, of course. I mean if I go back to reports I wrote in the, say, 1980s, or projects that we collaborated on, like "The Green Consumer Guide," I thought then that things would go very much faster. But one of the things that getting a little bit older and having a little bit more experience teaches you is that very little in human affairs goes in a straight line — that there are cycles; there are waves.

I mean, when you and I went to talk to companies 20 years ago, you were really struggling to get in through front door or the front gate. Now you're actually not only welcomed, you're invited, and if you don't see director-level people pretty quickly, you wonder what's going on.

And it's no longer just companies wanting to engage NGOs. It's peer-to-peer now. They're really, genuinely, becoming interested in not just what's going on in their competitors' organization but in parallel sectors. Again, the work that you're doing on VERGE, I think, plays into that very neatly.

Makower: In your book, you have the 10 steps to breakthrough. They look like the right steps. But it's kind of overwhelming looking at it through the eyes of a corporate reader. How could we help them think about this? Are there things you take on first? Or can they be done all at once?

Elkington: The simple answer is, no, you can't do them all at once, and I think if you try to, it'll be a bit like being on LSD. It just is immensely complex. So you've got to have a starting point. You might take two or three of the themes here and try and identify partners.

One of the areas that I'm most excited about at the moment — you know it well, but for me it is one of the furthest-out themes — is learning from nature's model. I'm on Janine Benyus' Biomimicry Institute board, and I find what she and people like her are doing immensely exciting. We hear about sharkskin models for Boeing fuselages or whatever, but I think cities may turn out to be a more accepting, welcoming environment for biomimicry in the next 10 years than the corporate world. But it's absolutely fundamental that companies acknowledge the importance of that area and engage with it where they can.

The first chapter of "The Breakthrough Challenge" is about adopting the right aspirations. It's about being ambitious, aiming high. Very often, people outside of business think of ambition as a bad thing, and certainly ambition in the wrong hands can take us all off the road. But I think what people like Paul Polman have signaled very clearly is that although leaders don't always know how they're going to achieve the stretch targets some of them are beginning to set, as long as you don't set them too high so that they're outlandish, it's a considerable motivating force.

As you know, I work with Nestlé on their Creating Shared Value advisory board. And at Nestlé they looked at Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan targets with some horror, basically thinking, "How could you possibly declare those sorts of stretch targets without a clue, in some cases, of how you're going to meet them?" Nestlé is much more conservative and basically says, "We'll tell you when we've done a particular thing, but we're not going to put out the targets in quite that way." So different leaders, different companies, different corporate cultures respond in different ways. My hope is that the notion of “tomorrow's bottom line” that sits at the heart of the book will be a discussion point.

Makower: Some of your 10 steps aren't things that business can do alone, like leveling the playing field or creating new corporate structures.  Obviously, there's a huge need for partnerships. Have you seen any models that really work?

Elkington: The global C-suite, the top leaders around the world, are becoming agitated. They have heard issues like climate change talked about for a very long time. And suddenly, it's beginning to become real.

Take the water issue, for example. It's no accident that [WBCSD President] Peter Bakker has invested a great deal of effort through the World Economic Forum and elsewhere because these big companies, whether you like them or not, are increasingly being squeezed on the natural resource front. So to your point, I think it's absolutely essential that business gets out there. And not just individual voices, but as a collective talk about these and gradually build understanding and momentum.

There's a group in Denmark you may know — Sustainia, that Erik Rasmussen runs. They're thinking about different layers in this space coming together over a 12-month period to build a portfolio, if you like — a viable, scalable solution. It's actually already out there in practice in different places.

I'm always nervous about these sort of coalitions because I think you can spend a lot of time, and they don't necessarily go anywhere very fast. But I've seen Erik do things like this previously, and I think now is the time. There's something in the zeitgeist at the moment, which I think we really do need to see. I think what you've been doing with VERGE for now a number of years is going into absolutely into the spirit of what comes next.

Makower: So, in the spectrum between highly optimistic and highly pessimistic, where are you these days about the ability of the private sector to move things along at the scale, speed and scope that's required?

Elkington: It's genuinely a great question. I was born an optimist. Like you, you can't do this work if you don't have that sort of element in your psychological makeup. But by God, I go through cycles. And there are times when I feel deeply despondent about the pace of progress and the sort of parroting of the new language but without anything actually happening properly behind the scenes.

At the moment, I'm feeling the next five to 10 years could be the most exciting yet. And when young people come in and say they wish they had been around for the "glory days" or the "golden age" of environmentalism or sustainability, I say we haven't had it yet. We're moving towards it, and it's for all of us to create. So that's the spirit in which I'm coming at this.

So, you could call me optimistic and hopeful and probably just a little bit naïve, but I’m coming from the space that the best way to predict the future is to get out there and just do it yourself.

Top photo of Elkington by JP Renaut. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.