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‘Green swans’ and the ‘exponential decade’: A conversation with John Elkington

John Elkington, Volans

Optimism and excitement.

Despite the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, those two words were at the center of last week’s GreenBiz webcast, which featured an interview between GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower and John Elkington, who in addition to being executive chairman and co-founder of Volans Ventures is a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable capitalism. 

Over the hour-long discussion, the two covered a lot of ground, including Elkington’s newest book, the "exponential decade" and why, in the midst of all of the uncertainties of the present moment, he’s arguably more excited than ever before. Below are some highlights from the Q&A.

Coining green swans 

First, Makower asked Elkington about his 20th book, "Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. The book plays off themes first presented in "Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2007. 

Whereas Taleb presents black swans as unpredictable, rare, high-impact events that have severe consequences, Elkington defined green swans as "the polar opposite" — even though he says they’re often catalyzed by black swan challenges. "[Green swans are] dynamics, trajectories, pathways that take us exponentially toward things that we do want to see," he said. "There has to be intentionality and political will and investment over fairly protracted timescales."

We're going from a world where we talked about responsibility through a time where resilience will be on everyone's lips.

The critical difference between black and green swans, Elkington argued, is that black swan events happen because society wasn’t paying attention, while green swans are more conscious. (You can read an excerpt from "Green Swans" here.) 

This isn’t the first time Elkington has injected a new word into the sustainability community’s collective language. In 1994, he introduced the concept of the triple bottom line (and the following year, "people, planet, profit"). In 2018, 25 years after he first introduced the first idea, he distanced himself from it.

"The reason why I became increasingly agitated," Elkington said, "was I saw people using the triple bottom line as a justification for pretty much, if not business as usual, certainly change as usual — stuff that really didn’t drive the system change agenda the way that I felt that it needed to be driven."

Although he admitted that it’s impossible to withdraw a management concept, Elkington said that his provocation simply was meant to challenge how people had embraced the triple bottom line and to question whether the concept was achieving what it originally was designed and intended to do.

Therefore, despite his enthusiasm about green swans, he’s concerned that some people are already turning the concept into something that it’s not. According to him, he’s already seen people add the term "green swan" to their job titles, and he’s been asked if he wants to turn the concept into an auditing and certification scheme, which he emphatically does not.

"Every time new language comes up," Elkington said, "people want to stick it on everything they do. So they want a green swan product or process or company. But when I think of green swans, I’m thinking about market dynamics within which companies operate and within which products are developed and sold. I’m quite antsy about the idea that everything could be described as a green swan."

To further prove his point, Elkington said that whereas he would define the electric vehicle, smart grid and battery technology sectors as green swan trajectories, he wouldn’t label Tesla or others working in that space as green swans.

"We're going from a world where we talked about responsibility through a time where resilience will be on everyone's lips," Elkington said, referring to his book’s subtitle. "How do we build resilience into our companies, our supply chains, our economies, our societies and communities and the biosphere? In the end, the only way to do that is through regeneration."

Gearing up for the exponential decade

Roughly 18 months ago, Elkington began referring to the 2020s as "the exponential decade." It’s a time, he said, that wicked, systemic problems such as plastics in the ocean, obesity, chronic disease, antibiotic resistance, space debris and the climate emergency will "go exponential." 

"There's something about the operating environment into which we are now moving, which will turn lots of things exponential," Elkington said. "The good stuff, the bad stuff and the ugly stuff."

According to him, the COVID-19 pandemic is the most proximate, powerful expression of our institutions’ struggles to combat these escalating challenges. He said the pandemic has served as an X-ray of the global economy, illuminating myriad dysfunctions, weaknesses and fracture lines and demonstrating that we’ve built our economies, businesses and supply chains in a way that leaves them vulnerable.

There's something about the operating environment into which we are now moving, which will turn lots of things exponential. The good stuff, the bad stuff and the ugly stuff.

"We’ve removed a lot of the redundancies that would have given us the ability to ride out fundamental weaknesses in the way that we put together our economies and operate them," he said. "And if that's true of a pandemic, my God, it's even more true of the climate emergency that is pressing down on us increasingly and in so many different ways."

Going forward, Elkington said that not only will resilience have to be "a design feature," but he said that the social component of environmental, social and governance (ESG) also will play an increasingly important role. "What's starting to happen is the ‘S’ is starting to reconfigure almost as we watch it," he said. "People are starting to be increasingly interested in the inequalities in our societies."

Given how he thinks capitalism will be configured in the future, Elkington believes that companies will have to act in a way that addresses the social needs of a much larger population than just their direct stakeholders. More so, as the government bails out more small and midsize enterprises due to the COVID-induced economic slump, Elkington said that we need to take this opportunity to rethink and redesign these same systems, especially in light of climate change.

"It’s great that there are bailouts happening," he said, "because we need our economy to stay somewhat on its feet, but if taxpayers are going to underwrite private sector businesses, then we’ve got to ensure that there are conditions imposed on that money, which over time incentivizes decarbonization and the other stuff that we absolutely have to do. There’s probably no greater moment of leverage for our governments than this point in time."

In the next three to five years, Elkington believes that the climate emergency will come "screaming back" to the top of people's agendas. Businesses will be seen to be central to delivering the solutions, but he said governments really have to shape the agenda. 

"I think it is the leadership challenge of our generation and of the sustainability industry, if I can call it that, to just help people see what's going on, make the connections and then as fast as we can, get multiple solutions [going] at the same time," he said. "[It’s] immensely exciting, but off the scale challenging."

Staying positive

According to Elkington, he was born an optimist, and despite periods of intense gloom, he remains hopeful for the future.

"There’s is an optimism that comes from doing things," he said, "and one of the great privileges of your job and mine is we're meeting extraordinarily interesting people the whole time who are experimenting with new technologies and business models and regulations. I couldn't have wished to be born in a better time."

The coming years will test us to the limit, Elkington said, but these difficult times are also where we can find the best in ourselves.

If taxpayers are going to underwrite private sector businesses, then we’ve got to ensure that there are conditions imposed on that money, which over time incentivizes decarbonization and the other stuff that we absolutely have to do.

"They're character-forming, but we start to have to link up in very different ways," he said. "We have to break out of our sustainability reality bubble. That's beginning to happen fundamentally in the young people. It really keeps me moving forward. They think differently, and they're pretty optimistic. We can solve some of these problems, and they want to be part of that. It’s part of our role to help them do that."

Elkington foresees that in 30 to 40 years, people will look back at the present moment and remember it as a painful period of time where we came together and rediscovered community. He said that people will try to compare it to The Great Depression and world wars, but doing so wouldn’t accurately capture or describe what we’re going through. 

Instead, Elkington believes that what we’re experiencing in 2020 is something unto itself.

"That’s where we find ourselves," he said. "I think it is an immense challenge, but at the same time, an immense opportunity. I can’t think of when I’ve been quite so excited."

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