Thought leader John Elkington sat down with The Ethics Centre’s Simon Longstaff AO to chat about the future of business sustainability.

John Elkington believes his admiration for the natural world began when he was six or seven years old. He found himself alone in the middle of a field in Northern Ireland at night, in complete darkness, and to his surprise he looked down and his feet were surrounded by tens of thousands of baby eels.

“I put my hands down in the dark and had these things wriggling through my fingers. And I had one of these sort of absolute panic attacks followed by something really quite profound, which has never left me somehow,” he says. “It was a sense of connection.”

Elkington has dedicated his professional career to corporate responsibility and sustainable development. In the early 1980s, he set up a company called Environmental Data Services, which he says took nine months to get up and running, and within 18 months was helping very major companies write their first environmental policy statements.

“I first got involved in the business world in the mid-seventies, at a time when business really didn’t want to talk to people who were self-described environmentalists or anything like that. And yet I was an environmentalist,” he says.

His idea was that you can make or save money by doing the right thing on resources and environmental protection: “Even if you’re a small or medium-size enterprise you can have a catalytic effect,” he says, “but, by the time you get to the size of an Exxon Mobil or a BP or a Shell then you really are having major economic impacts.”

The business and political agenda must evolve

Elkington says business has been encouraged to be more responsible, accountable and transparent across the last 40 years. It’s an agenda that he says continues to evolve and expand, most recently to include the wealth divide.

“We’ve got public access to public health care issues. We’ve got tax evasion. More and more issues are coming which companies are going to have to deal with,” he says. “But the problem is that the whole corporate responsibility movement of which I’ve been part for so long, has failed in the sense that the systems that we depend on are all wobbling.

“Our economies are coming apart at the seams, our governments, the political systems are doing the same. Our societies are under challenge and the biosphere is wobbling in a way that we haven’t seen for a very long time. So CSR [corporate social responsibility] as much as I love it, isn’t working.

“I think at the moment, business leaders and some finance leaders are proving more interesting than many political leaders. But this is a political challenge and the politicians have to wake up and get involved.”

The problem, he says, is that they are looking to return to what was, rather than regenerate new systems.

“Our generational task now is economic, social, environmental, political and cultural regeneration,” he says. “And the problem is that our current political classes weren’t trained for it. They talk about recovery, but they mean how can we get back on the previous set of rails? And I think the debate now has to be very different.”

“I think we have misread the urgency of the sort of cataclysmic system changes that are coming towards us. It’s like a tsunami. And it’s very difficult to ride a tsunami.”

Elkington says a period of rapid change will challenge old paradigms.

“I think people are increasingly aware that the old order can’t hold, things are coming apart and that’s not going to stop just because we have a new American president,” he says. “[Volans] put on a conference in London in 2020 called the Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum, and the tagline was ‘step up or get out of the way’. Now, if you’re in coal that’s not an idea you’d like to embrace if that’s your business.”

As we face the consequences of the current and previous generations dating back to the industrial revolution, he shares that we have a very short window of time to act.

“I think we have misread the urgency of the sort of cataclysmic system changes that are coming towards us. It’s like a tsunami. And it’s very difficult to ride a tsunami.”

Systemic change and the generational divide

What we need, Elkington argues, is system change and cultural shifts. The problem is that it will be a dislocating experience for older generations.

“One of the things that worries me more than almost anything else is the intergenerational dynamics in all of this. In so many parts of the world you have very rapidly aging populations, and an aging population takes people increasingly to conservatism because they’re only investing for a shorter period of time,” he says. “So, I think there’s a real potential for anger to build up in younger populations. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of it.” There is great change ahead, but he says it’s tremendously exciting: “I’m 71 but oddly, I feel the next 15 years are going to be the most exciting of my life and the most challenging and the most dangerous politically.”

“I’m 71 but oddly, I feel the next 15 years are going to be the most exciting of my life and the most challenging and the most dangerous politically.”

“We’re in a time of immense turbulence and people will suffer. There will be conflicts, tensions and stresses, which at times will be off the scale. But at the same time, I think this is the most exciting period in our collective history, probably for hundreds of years.

“I’m very excited about the potential because I think it is when old systems come apart that the potential to drive systemic change goes off the scale. So, the challenge for leadership I think is immense. And I think in many ways universities and business schools are not yet properly preparing people for that new world.”

* John Elkington is a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development. He is currently Founding Partner and Executive Chairman of Volans, a future-focused business working at the intersection of the sustainability, entrepreneurship and innovation movements.

This article was written with the assistance of the UNSW AGSM program.

Advice from business leaders:

• Get out of your comfort zones and be exposed to different realities • Challenge your sense of who you are and what you should be doing • Question whether the systems you work in are still fit for purpose