This interview with London-based John Elkington, among world’s leading sustainability and business thinkers and advisers, is the first of a series of interviews with sustainability change-makers not directly related to tourism.
The series is a response to those rightly complaining about too much ‘silo think’ in tourism, and not enough interaction with the broader sustainability agenda.
- When John Elkington first got in touch with sustainability as topic;
- How his view on the issue has changed since then;
- His key lessons from being involved with the SustainAbility research consultancy;
- How destinations can improve their sustainability performance;
- Why we are facing a Breakthrough Challenge, and how we can overcome it;
- His recommended reading on sustainability;
- What characterizes a leader in sustainability;
- The main challenge for sustainability in the near future;
- What he’d do differently, given the chance to start his career all over again.
John, do you remember the first time you heard or thought about sustainability in connection with business?
It goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Stewart Brand was producing sequential issues of the Whole Earth Catalog—a body of work that had a huge impact on people like Steve Jobs. And on me.
The focus at the time was on smaller scale applications of technology, but when I worked briefly with an ‘alternative technology’-focused community in the early 1970s, and visited several others, I came to the conclusion that we had to push into the business mainstream. Among other things, I started to write on business and environment issues for New Scientist through the 1970s—and then was a co-founder of Environmental Data Services and the first editor of the ENDS Report from 1978.
In the following years I visited several hundred companies around the world, initially focusing on issues around safety, health and environment, then widening out to sustainability in the late 1980s. And that’s when we founded the company SustainAbility, in 1987. For the first years, we had to spell the name, because no-one had heard of sustainability. But by the early 1990s that had changed.
Has your view of sustainability and business changed since then?
I have long felt that science and technology would be central to the challenge of developing solutions for the sustainability agenda. And that markets and business would be key to ensuring that solutions were delivered at the necessary scale and price point. Governments can’t do this on their own, though they certainly have crucial roles to play.
Some people see my work as largely about corporate social responsibility, but at heart I have always been an environmentalist—and driven by a deep sense of the imperfections of modern forms of capitalism. Ever since The Ecology of Tomorrow’s World (published in 1980) and The Green Capitalists (published in 1987), I have argued that system change was necessary, including profound changes in the ways that markets operate and are regulated.
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