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Business can make change

Publicerad: 18 Oktober 2006, 04:07

”A new generation of entrepreneurs will take the sustainable development movement to a new level in the future.” That is the vision of the number one sustainability guru, John Elkington.

The offices of John Elkington and Sus-tainAbility are situated close to the British Museum in central London. In a red brick building a group of consultants are gathered for a morning meeting. They are among the best known strategy consultants when it comes to CSR and sustainability. Major companies, such as Ford, Nike, Shell and AstraZeneca, are among their customers. The meeting is led by SustainAbility's CEO, Mark Lee, but the dialogue often turns to Elkington, who helped found SustainAbility in 1987 and is a world-renowned author and researcher in the fields of environment, corporate social responsibility and sustainability. He is the man behind the triple bottom line, and a long-standing champion of the integration of environmental, social and economic perspectives into business strategies.

This morning he has interesting news for the SustainAbility team. The company, which has long resisted growth, has decided to grow considerably over the next five years. The previous notion was to stay small, to work closely with a small number of customers, and be the leader in the field.
Now John Elkington is preparing to develop two new platforms, one in an emerging economy and one in the developed world. The exact locations are not yet decided, but India and the US west coast are hot favorites. That will mean offices in five locations for SustainAbility, including their current offices in London, Washington, DC and Zurich. The number of employees will double within three years, from approximately 30 to 60.
"Some will think us crazy," Elkington says. "We are convinced that we are headed for a major international recession, implying that things are going to get much tougher in the field of sustainability. Things will get more competitive as the market is squeezed. But that's a great time to go counter-trend."
He sees two likely developments from a recession. First, some companies will put less money into sustainability issues. Secondly however, having shut down or slimmed down their CSR departments, other companies will be forced to integrate sustainability issues even deeper into their organization and strategies. Competition between consultants will intensify.
"The best time to invest is during a recession. When the recession is over you will have a stronger position", says John Elkington.
He points to the recent $1 million, three-year grant his firm attracted from The Skoll Foundation for its work on social entrepreneurship. Normally SustainAbility doesn't seek money from foundations, and in the long term Elkington would rather attract money from people like the New Economy billionaires who contribute as a socially-oriented investment rather than as philanthropy.

He sees social enterprise as one of the key trends that will drive tomorrow's corporate responsibility and sustainability agendas. A new generation of highly innovative entrepreneurs will invest in new ventures focused on sustainability issues. So far, large corporations have been the main driving force and they will continue to integrate these issues into their business strategies, according to John Elkington. It is becoming something every globally listed company must do to be able to compete.
"At the same time you wonder how much has really changed within these large companies. The perception of the companies has changed, but still many things they do are not sustainable at all", says John Elkington.
To appear to take environmental, social and economic responsibility toward stakeholders is more or less a hygiene factor today among companies, something you have to do to get "a license to operate" from society, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders.

New developments will come from new innovative entrepreneurs and small companies that will develop products, technologies and business ideas that are sustainable from the start. They are not building on old business ideas. A new generation is budding, for which the concept that companies and business ideas are sustainable, comes naturally. If not, they do something else.

John Elkington is pro-capitalism, pro-market liberalism and, most fundamentally, pro-sustainability. He sees how sustainability can be delivered with business, through markets. He thinks governmental regulation might be necessary to some extent, but the case for self regulation is much stronger.
"The problem with old-style regulation is that if something is forced on you, you just do as little as you can to get by, and you do it grudgingly," he says. "If you can get people moving on a voluntary basis, and switch on their competitive instincts, you can go a lot farther, a lot faster."
Elkington is known as a long-standing critic of the lack of environmental and social concern of some companies, but a critic who is happy to help companies turn their thinking and businesses around. In the 1980s his books Green Capitalists and The Green Consumer Guide became world-famous by pointing to companies' responsibilities when it comes to the environment.
"We thought companies would react negatively," Elkington recalls, "but were amazed to find them almost literally fighting on our doorstep for the privilege of working with us. They brought us in at the director level, and indeed a significant proportion of our work is commissioned by and reported to board-level people."
He and SustainAbility have been doing the same integration when it comes to social issues. The book Cannibals with Forks made the case for bringing environmental, social and economic issues into business strategies, something that today is on display in most major companies' annual reports and websites.
"That introduced our notion of the triple bottom line to a much wider audience and helped transform the debate."
Now Elkington is writing another book, about innovation and entrepreneurial solutions for sustainability problems, and specifically on social entrepreneurship. It will be published next spring by Harvard Business School Press. He wrote the book with Pamela Hartigan, managing director of The Schwab Foundation, founded by World Economic Forum founder, Professor Klaus Schwab.

"The new entrepreneurs are some of the most exciting people I have met in over 30 years of working in this field," he says.
Elkington's main message the day I meet him is that a new generation of investors with an interest in sustainability issues will help form a more sustainable world. It is the "enlightened" investors that will bring the finance sector and the financial community closer to the issues of responsibility toward stakeholders.
If this book is as influential as his others, SustainAbility's researchers and consultants will once again have powerful arguments to debate when meeting with investors and companies, whether it is in London, Zurich, Washington or one of the new offices, and whether or not there is a recession.
By Tommy Borglund

(Artikeln publiceras även i Sustainability Sweden, ett nytt magasin om hållbar affärsutveckling som ges ut av Dagens Miljö, IDG.)

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