John Elkington: Entrepreneur at Work, Environmentalist at Heart

An interview with the Knowledge review, John  Ellington an environmentalist  has given some insightful answers on his life journey.

A celebrated author, advisor and serial entrepreneur, John Elkington is often known for coining interesting terms including environmental excellence, green growth, green consumer, the triple bottom line and People, Planet & Profit.

  1. Tell us about yourself in brief, your journey since the beginning of your career.

I am 69, I have been an environmentalist since I was 11 (when I raised money for the World Wildlife Fund in its first year, 1961), have founded four companies since 1978 (all still exist), written 19 books (one, The Green Consumer Guide, sold around a million copies), coined terms like green consumer and the triple bottom line, founded the company Sustainability in 1987 when the world was hardly used, have sat on over 70 boards and advisory boards, have spoken at some 1,500 conferences worldwide—and am still trying to work out what I will do when I grow up.

  1. Describe yourself in about one-word or one-sentence.

A work in progress.

  1. Tell us about that one thing that motivates you every morning. What inspired you to join this sector?

Am motivated every morning to stay in bed. I am something of a reptile, having a very low heart rate indeed. Which means that climbing high mountains is a problem. But somehow the interest of the day tends to bring me around.

And I have been driven by the environmental and sustainability agendas from a very early age. I was pitched into the environmental space very early. We travelled a lot when we were children, including stints in Northern Ireland and Cyprus.

While in Northern Ireland, where my father was in the British Royal Air Force (he was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot back in the day, and in the 1950s was flying fallout monitoring missions around atomic bomb bursts in the Pacific), we lived on a farm. And it was very run down, which meant there was a huge amount of wildlife. And one dark night I found myself, alone, in the middle of a field across which tens of thousands of eels were slithering. When I reached down and felt them in the dark, I had a moment of utter shock – and then a moment, aged around 7, of complete connection with Nature.

It really was very strange – and yet very powerful. And from that moment, without really knowing what had happened to me, I became an environmentalist. Some of the relevant stories can be found on my personal website: www.johnelkington.com.

I was fascinated by the environmental campaigning groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, indeed grew up with a fair number of those folk. But over time I became more interested in business and in technology.

To begin with, in the early 1970s, I worked with a small London-based environmental consultancy, on early environmental impact projects in places like Egypt and Singapore, working for clients like the UN and World Bank. But some of that work drove me to write, particularly for New Scientist magazine. And that, in turn, led to my being asked to co-found a new environmental publishing house, Environmental Data Services (ENDS), in 1978. At a time when no-one else was much interested in understanding how business thoughts about the environment, we were.

Later, in 1983, I founded my own consultancy, John Elkington Associates, and that then led to our co-founding SustainAbility in 1987. One of the big projects we did there was the launch of the Green Consumer movement in 1988, with a series of books published around the world. Somewhat to our surprise, rather that businesses turning their back on us they were fascinated to know what we thought about their products and related issues – so the business really took off.

Then, ten years ago in 2008, I stepped back from SustainAbility after 21 years, and co-founded Volans. We have served an A-to-Z of clients, ranging from Aviva Investors through to Zouk Capital. And we are proud both to have been the first UK B Corporation and to have incubated B Lab UK in our offices.

Our first book as Volans—The Power of Unreasonable People—went into the hands of every attendee at the 2008 WEF Annual Summit in Davos. I co-authored it with the late Pamela Hartigan, who had previously run the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and it powerfully shaped the debate about impact.

In 2012, we began work on ‘Breakthrough Innovation’, kicking off with a TED-style Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in London. The Breakthrough Challenge, co-authored by myself and Jochen Zeitz, then Chairman and CEO of PUMA, followed two years later.

Our Breakthrough work evolved into Project Breakthrough in 2015, a joint initiative between Volans and the UN Global Compact. Check out the videos and analysis on www.projectbreakthrough.io

Moving into 2019, and taking the market bull by the horns, we are conducting the first-ever product recall of a management concept, the Triple Bottom Line. This project was launched with an article on the Harvard Business Review website.

We are going wider, deeper, higher and longer to find ways to unlock tomorrow—to help leaders lead and create the necessary types and scale of impact and value.  Exploring tomorrow’s capitalism.

  1. Mention any quote that describes you and your organization.

A Greenpeace Director once described my team as “Greenpeace in the Boardroom”. Someone else once described me as “grit in the corporate oyster”. I have also been labeled either the “father of the Triple Bottom Line or the “godfather of sustainability.”

  1. Being a leader in promoting the idea of environmentalism, express your views on the current environment causes and the possible measures that can be taken to overcome those issues.

Our challenges will take generations to solve, if we ever manage the trick. The reason why I think it is going to be so tough is that with the world population pushing towards 10 billion people and all of these additional global citizens aspiring to high-end western lifestyles, we are actually headed in the wrong direction. Think of the extraordinary extinction of species now sometimes called the Sixth Great Extinction event. This time we are doing it. Think of plastic in the ocean, where it is now forecast that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. And think, if you dare, about where climate change is now taking us.

It doesn’t matter is people deny such problems – they represent the reality that today’s children will grow up in.

  1. Express your views on Sustainability, E-waste management, Rising Urban Population, Increasing Air, Water and Land Pollution, Recycling of biodegradable waste, Management of non-biodegradable waste, and other rising environmental causes.

They’re all interlinked. They’re all absolutely critical. And they’re all badly underappreciated by most political and business leaders. On the upside there are a growing number of platforms that spotlight those championing new ways of doing things, among them Project Drawdown and Sustainia.

  1. How can we bridge “Sustainability” and “Greenpeace”?

They are intimately linked. Greenpeace and activist groups like them spotlight where things are going wrong, and sometimes flag up workable solutions. The sustainability agenda looks at systems, economic, social, environmental and political. They are different aspects of the same thing. You could say Greenpeace was part of Sustainability’s Navy.

  1. What are the most prospering career options in the environmental sciences? Enlighten us on the scopes of entrepreneurship in this sector.

Where to begin? When I started in the 1960s, there were very few jobs or roles in this space, except various forms of conservation officers. Now there are hundreds, even thousands, of different roles. And now there are headhunters specializing in this space. Many of the positions are in the spirit of sustainability, but increasingly don’t mention the fact. The agenda is going from being seen to be impossible to being seen to be inevitable, required.

  1. What would you advise to the students and the budding entrepreneurs?

Make it up for yourself. For over 40 years now, I have worked at the leading edge of the environment and of sustainability. And yet I have never really had a career as such. I have made it up as I go along. In fact it’s only now that I am beginning to get some sense of what it is I’m meant to be doing on this small planet of ours. A bit late in the day, but better late than never?

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