By Pamela Peeters
Meet John Elkington, the founder of SustainAbility, one of the best consulting companies out there. We met in Washington, where he presented his business manifesto and the VOLANS initiative.
PP: You are considered a pioneer in the field of sustainability. You have released books, articles, and research papers and assisted companies in their transition to sustainability. Tell us about your book on social entrepreneurs.
JE: The book, called The Power of Unreasonable People, focuses on social and environmental entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. These are people who attempt the impossible, in areas of market failure where the mainstream would not dare to venture. They just try stuff, and when stuff fails, they keep on trying new stuff.
The book tries to capture the attention to reality that matters: looks where progress comes from, and that does not mean reasonable people, because they simply adapt to the conditions of the present. Progress comes from unreasonable people who don’t adapt – who look at the world and say: that’s completely dysfunctional. They ask how to change it and exert themselves to do just that, even when it seems impossible.
PP: Were you an unreasonable man when you started SustainAbility?
JE: I started SustAinability in 1987 with one other person, Julia Hailes, who was then 22 or so. We didn’t think of ourselves as entrepreneurs back then. There were a couple of reasons why we “accidentally” fell into this space and just started doing stuff. It’s easy to look back and say, we knew exactly what we were doing. Well, we didn’t.
PP: What dominates in your work, knowledge, technology, nature, preservation, altruism, business, profit, or a mix of it all?
JE: All those and a bunch of other things, too. Altruism? Well, I gave my sweets away to my siblings as a child ( the elder-child syndrome ) but it’s not that that drives me. I was brought up in the countryside and had an amazing experience one night. It made me discover this mismatch between the world we humans are building and the natural world in which we ultimately sit.
What drives me is a deep anxiety about the way things are done. SustainAbility is in a way in service for future generations. It sounds really wild, right? That’s really where I come from: the future is not going to work unless we change fundamentally.
PP: For many people like you, their calling comes at a young age. What did you dream of becoming when you were 12?
JE: Business was not a part of it in that stage. We were living in a farm in Northern Ireland, and I must have been 6 or 7 when I walked back home late one night from supper at a neighboring farm. It was completely dark, there was no moon, and on this farm there were these flax ponds where they used to grow a useful agricultural crop. And I suddenly felt at my ankles this extraordinary movement. As I put my hands down, between my fingers were these young eels. I knew about the eel migration, and after a moment of utter terror, I felt this extraordinary sense of connection to a wider world. It was not business but something bigger that came to me.
PP: Can you describe a day in the life of John?
JE: I am a reptile and find it very difficult to get up in the morning, so I avoid that as long as I possibly can. If I am in London (which is a rarity) at that moment and it doesn’t rain, then I go to work by bike through different parks to arrive around 9.00 am.
We are a small group and publish a lot of reports, so at the office I may be writing, or I may sit down with people from major companies or with social entrepreneurs. It’s quite diverse; there isn’t really a standard.
PP: Your biography shows participation in many councils and committees. With which one do you have a particular connection?
JE: There are so many. Can I abuse your question and take two? When I was eleven I raised money for the World Wildlife Fund. This was 1961, the year that WWF was founded, and I asked for my pocket money and got it for two weeks. So I am on the Council of Ambassadors of the WWF, and I like that organization because I think what they do for biodiversity is important.
But if I had to take one organization, then there is an Indian entrepreneur who set up Aflatoun, better known as “child savings international”; I am involved in that. They look at extremely poor young people - particularly in poor countries like India - and try getting them in a habit of saving. It’s all very well to pick people out of the streets, but unless you break the cycle of poverty, you will not really materially improve their lives. What’s interesting is that banks now are getting interested, because you are creating financial literate people – and, in the longer term, clients.
PP: Did you have a mentor or a particular source of inspiration?
JE: Many. When I made a bio for the VOLANS organization we launched some years ago, I looked back at every person who influenced me along the way. If it had to be one, then it would be Max Nicholson, one of the founders of WWF and IUCN, who died when he was about 98. He and I set up a company in 1978, called Environmental Data Services, which still exist. He had a huge impact on how I view the world and gave me the confidence to do things I otherwise would not have done.
PP: Wind energy is getting more and more momentum. Do you think that relying on wind and other renewable energy will change our relationship with planet Earth?
JE: The answer in the longer term is probably yes. But there is also a problem in that these renewable energy technologies/products are not entirely clean or innocent. When you mention wind energy, think of bird migration and how wind mills might affect bird populations. Or think of biofuels and the impact on food prices around the world.
Yes, I think it is great that we are moving toward a renewable energy economy, but I don’t think it is going to be painless or free of trade-offs. I think governments have an important role to play in ensuring that the transition, as it builds, minimizes the inevitable social and environmental repercussions of these new technologies.
PP : What could we do better if we listened to the language of nature or imitated nature more?
JE: I think if I go back to the sixties and the seventies when I started being interested in the environment professionally and working in that space, there were designers like Buckminster Fuller, who had a profound impact on me. In today’s world, I think of Janine Benuys, with her book on biomimicry, and about using natural, biological models to shape the technologies of the future. There is a huge unexploited potential there, and it’s a hugely interesting area. I wish I knew more about it.
PP: What is your wish for the future of our planet?
JE: James Lovelock of the Gaia hypotheses had it right: ”I hope that the world as we have inherited it finds room for us. Because it isn’t guaranteed.”
More information: www.johnelkington.com