In an exclusive interview with Positive Luxury, renowned thought-leader and business strategist John Elkington has urged brands with sustainability at their heart to support governments and other businesses in designing and implementing coronavirus recovery plans which benefit people and planet as well as the economy.
Elkington is the founder of Volans, which works to drive market-based solutions to global challenges, and is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading figures in CSR and sustainable development. He notably sits on Positive Luxury’s Sustainability Council and some further 20 key boards and advisory panels.
Speaking exclusively to Positive Luxury, Elkington reiterated his belief that the coronavirus pandemic – while tragic in terms of loss of life and livelihood – does ultimately present a longer-term opportunity for a break from the policy frameworks and business models which have put the Earth on track for a 3C temperature rise by 2050, cause continued and accelerating exploitation of natural resources and contribute to social inequality.
“The global economic agenda which has been built over the past 25 to 30 years is unravelling,” Elkington said, alluding to impacts felt in sectors such as oil and aviation.
“I think we need a meltdown of this sort to take away an unsustainable economic order… Business is seen to be central to whatever comes out of this, but business is very confused itself and many businesses have been knocked sideways. The question which remains to be answered is whether they can drag their prior models back into the spotlight and hope they will run, or whether they will have to fundamentally transform things.”
This belief has been voiced by a great many leaders within and beyond the sustainability sphere. What started out as a string of thought leadership blogs from the likes of Paul Polman, and Maria Mendiluce has become a global movement. The ‘Build Back Better’ initiative, spearheaded by We Mean Business and The Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group has attracted the support of more than 200 businesses and investors. The World Economic Forum is calling for a ‘Great Reset’ for capitalism and will convene a summit to further this agenda in January 2021.
Elkington pointed out, however, that the aims of those campaigning for transformative change are not guaranteed to be achieved, despite strong support across the board. Some governments are using the current crisis as a backdrop to roll back existing environmental standards; some businesses are framing sustainability as an optional add-on they simply cannot afford amid the biggest global economic contraction since The Great Depression; and Elkington is not alone in fearing that even incumbent world and business leaders to have voiced their support for the green economy will not take action in a way which matches the urgency of current climate, nature and social crises.
He said: “If the simple question is whether I believe current leaders will do what needs to be done in a timely, effective and efficient way, I really don’t. This is no great blame to them; they were raised, educated and incentivised in an old order. So, in these circumstances, a new cohort of leaders will come through.”
These sentiments echo those voiced by IMAGINE co-founders Valerie Keller and Paul Polman during Positive Luxury’s recent webinar on the power of good leadership. The pair outlined the need for future leaders to be agile, community-minded, collaborative, and willing to think systematically, questioning previous learnings.
“The next ten to 15 years are going to be off-the-scale challenging but off-the-scale exciting in terms of how much impact we can have if we do this properly,”
The position of businesses which had successfully embedded holistic models of sustainability before the pandemic is not to be underestimated in the development of plans to ‘build back better’, in terms of producing this new leadership and otherwise, Elkington explained.
For one, these brands will likely have already adopted the models which will withstand calls for bailouts with environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. Moreover, they will have already proven the economic case for long-term considerations to do with people and planet, as well as profit – an area where, Elkington argues, case studies are sparse. Additionally, such brands are likely to have already begun investing in the technologies which will benefit the most from both the Fourth Industrial Revolution and government recovery plans, including artificial intelligence (AI) and renewable energy technologies.
All of these factors will help these brands to help not only their counterparts who are less advanced in their journey towards an embedded and holistic approach to sustainability, but Governments keen to support businesses with “practical advice on how to make a commercial success” of the low-carbon transition. The EU, for example, is seeking business input around the implementation of its landmark €150bn green recovery plan.
In order to forge these collaborations and reap their rewards, Elkington said, sustainable businesses will need to develop more concrete case studies and transferrable resources. He said: “Despite all the work that has been done on business models and market design, I don’t think the sustainability sphere is ready to step in and say ‘here is the drop-in blueprint for achieving what we need to achieve’.”
Elkington also urged additional work addressing the unintended negative consequences of actions widely regarded as green, from plastic phase-outs to renewable energy sourcing.
“A world [full of] autonomous vehicles, synthetic chemistry, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence is going to be automatically better. Even a world that is, eventually, predominantly fuelled by renewable energy is going to be automatically better… we are going to have more unintended consequences,” Elklington said, alluding to recycling issues around wind turbines and electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and instances of human rights violations in the renewable energy sector.
Emerging technologies should be a particular focus area for this work, Elkington argued, as less information regarding their unintended consequences is known. Some technologies intended to create good progress can also yield negative results in the wrong hands. Carbon capture research has received much backing from fossil fuel companies who approach the technology as a potential ‘free pass’ on emissions, for example, and oil majors are attempting to secure AI contracts so they can maximise non-conventional extraction.
While business has much work to do and no guarantee that the efforts of the community will be sufficient to combat environmental rollbacks from key governments, Elkington remains optimistic and is urging all others in this space to view impending challenges as opportunities. His most recent book, ‘Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism’, predicts that both “business-as-usual” and “change-as-usual” will be altered dramatically as major global shifts in markets, policy and public sentiment play out, creating exponential progress towards a better world.
“The next ten to 15 years are going to be off-the-scale challenging but off-the-scale exciting in terms of how much impact we can have if we do this properly,” Elkington concluded. “I don’t think I am glibly positive. My sense of how our economies and societies work is that only when there is an absolute existential crisis do we properly rethink and re-prioritise.”
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Written by - Sarah George