Elkington: Tech isn't enough to solve sustainability challenges

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."

As an example, Elkington singled out Greenpeace's Detox Campaign, which links some of the world's leading sportswear brands to toxic pollution in China's rivers. In July 2011, Greenpeace challenged sports brands to champion a toxic-free future, targeting the brands it thought had the power to drive real change.

By August of last year, Nike, Puma and Adidas had committed to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from their entire supply chain and from their entire product lifecycles by 2020.

"They tried to divide and rule, to get sportswear brands that are immensely competitive, to compete against each other in driving toxic emissions in china to zero by 2020," Elkington said. "There's two things here: one is that NGOs continue to drive change, and two, the 'zero' angle is working, with Nike, Adidas and Puma coming together and stretching their thinking."

Change agents come from many different walks of life, as Elkington highlights in the latest in his line of 17 books, "The Zeronauts: Breaking Sustainability Barriers." The book, released this month, highlights 50 of a new breed of innovators who are reinventing capitalism by pushing toward zero in areas like population growth, poverty and pollution.

"Just like you can't train any one to be a social entrepreneur, you can't train people to become change agents. People are born this way, you can't train them. But there are exceptions, like Ray Anderson," said Elkington, referring to the late founder of modular carpet manufacturer Interface, who became a leader in industrial sustainability.

Image of businessman with virtual green business by nokhoog_buchachon via Shutterstock.