John Elkington – the diplomatic provocateur

John Elkington – the diplomatic provocateur

Last week I attended a most interesting conversation with John Elkington organised by the Global Reporting Initiative Australia focal point.    John is one of the best known sustainability movers and shakers who has been described by Business Week as “a dean of the corporate responsibility movement for three decades.” He originated the term triple bottom line, established the think tank SustainAbility and is currently the Founding Partner & Director of Volans.  In his own introduction he explained his role on the GRI board as a provocateur who would like to create constructive disruption and spends much of his time these days supporting disruptive innovators….

His recently published report  “The Transparent Economy – Six tigers stalk the global recovery—and how to tame them” is intended to provoke.

I am glad I went – it was a stimulating ‘conversation’ . Not least because John says unusual things in a very diplomatic waybut also because his views reinforce my own way of thinking.

His comments were made in response to particular questions but I tried to generalise and sum up the key points:

Climate change is subtle and doesn’t provide humanity with an acute emergency or immediate disruption and therefore our response is lazy.  We are committed to ‘do something’ for a while and then fall back into old habits.  Because the symptoms of climate change develop by and large slowly rather than pooling resources for an emergency response it requires long term commitment. In John’s words (more or less): you need the right crisis to drive the right response, because climate change is subtle, it does NOT provide the right crisis”.

We have become used to the language of sustainability. For example, CEO’s of the largest companies, when asked, name corporate sustainability as very high on their agenda – but this awareness and co-opting of language hasn’t translated into the badly needed action. Mainstreaming of corporate sustainability has led to a lot of lip service being paid instead of real introspection and deep reform/redesign of business models. There are some noteworthy exemptions, among those an example John mentioned as well and very worthwhile checking out is Andrew Witty from GSK,who pledged to make available their patented medicines at low cost to the poor.

We need to stop focussing on the large, known brands in the Western world and start taking notice of new Asian players. These new companies are becoming increasingly influential and we know very little about how they operate.

Sustainability reports are not the way consumers are going to receive information about sustainable products, increasingly software is being developed and delivered via mobile phones and other electronic gadgets which allow us to make  on-the-spot decision about the ‘green’ record of something we buy and the company behind it. In other words, we want real time information about companies and products when and where we need it. Nobody wants to read weighty sustainability reports.

By and large people want to do the “right thing” but there are  a few who deliberately commit acts that violate the environment. It would be interesting to hold these people to account via an international tribunal for crimes against the environment.

John also made some interesting points about the need for Governments to adopt and drive sustainability. I couldn’t agree more. Governments have been laggards and even enablers of corporate violations of the environment,  human rights and the economy and need to  urgently lift their game.


  • Great blog, Ulrike. Shame I missed the talk, sounds like a good one! While I agree with some of John’s points, I don’t think it is a correct observation to say that climate change is subtle and doesn’t provide humanity with an acute emergency or immediate disruption. It’s there, people, open your eyes! A more accurate observation, in my opinion, would be that the general population and business are effectively in denial. And more importantly there isn’t yet the political will to do anything about climate chnage, because action would mean in some cases short-term pain. Corporate sustainability has become a by-word for reputation management, and is not yet core to business and investor behaviour.

  • Ulrike

    Thanks for reading my blog! You are right, the writing has been on the wall for more than 30 years. John responded to a question about what get’s corporations to act and if the recent oil spill in the US would bring the desired change etc. In that context he used the example of climate change as being less visible and immediate.

    BUT I am with you on this one, I think people love to be in denial and there are people who are deliberately abusing the environment, which reminds me, John also suggested we should have an international court for these people and prosecute them for crimes against the environment!!! I liked that idea very much, how could I forget that for my summary!!! must add it now….