John Elkington says even sustainability leaders will have to lift their ambitions by several orders of magnitude to meet the demands of younger generations
In 2015, Ethical Corporation surprised me with a Lifetime Achievement Award – an honour I welcomed, but my comment at the time was that I felt I was only just getting started. Now 72, I often say that the next 10 to 15 years are likely to be the most exciting, challenging and politically dangerous of my entire career.
“Now this is not the end,” Winston Churchill advised his embattled country in 1942. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” I wonder whether, 80 years on, we might also be in a position to say the same of 2022 in relation to the sustainability agenda?
The agenda was already a quarter of century old by the time Ethical Corporation first opened its doors, or pages, in 2001. For example, I had co-founded SustainAbility in 1987, a few months before the Brundtland Commission published its milestone report, Our Common Future, proposing sustainable development as a core objective for governments and markets.
More than 40 years on, mainstreaming has begun in earnest. First we had the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, with many leading businesses now committed to tackling at least some of the goals alongside their broader sustainability, circular economy and net-zero commitments.
This is also underscored by the ways in which the economic mainstream is embracing what was once the edge. In 2001, when Ethical Corporation launched, one foreword was written by Wally Olins, who noted that his firm had been acquired by Omnicom. In the same spirit, Ethical Corporation has been bought by Reuters, while SustainAbility was acquired first by ERM Group, and then by KKR, the erstwhile “barbarians at the gate”.
If someone had told me back in 1987 that this would be the outcome for our small enterprise, I would have been shocked. But my thinking has changed. And this process can only accelerate, broaden and deepen.
So, 20 years in, let’s swivel and think 20 years into the future. What will the business agenda of 2041 look like? Let me take just four of the big themes that surfaced at COP26, as the world struggled to come to grips with the climate emergency.
Though I have worked professionally in this space since the early 70s, and wrote my first report on the climate challenge as long ago as 1978, this was the first time I had been to a COP meeting. I did go, though, to many of the business precursor meetings, where the next generation of climate solutions were discussed way ahead of most policymakers and regulators latching on.
By 2041, I suspect, most major brands today will be unknown
The four themes were the growing importance of business leadership, the sword of Damocles now hanging over the fossil fuels sector, the much greater presence of financial institutions, and the growing engagement, if not yet always influence, of young people.
Let’s take each of these in turn:
1. Business leadership: During the summit, I chaired a “blue zone” panel of four CEOs, from Acciona, DSM, IKEA and Unilever. The discussion focused on what comes after net-zero commitments are delivered. Yes, these are leadership companies, but if we are to make business sense of what is coming we will have to raise our ambitions by several orders of magnitude. Either the incumbent businesses will step up and meet the challenge, or insurgents we have never heard of will appear and disrupt existing markets. By 2041, I suspect, most major brands today will be unknown.
2. The long goodbye to fossil fuels: COP26 was considered a failure, or at least a major disappointment, by many because India and China watered down the draft commitment to “phase out” coal to “phase down”. But the writing is on the wall for Big Coal, and beyond it Big Oil. By 2041, the sustainable energy transition will be rocketing forward in ways that are hard to imagine today, though RethinkX has had a pretty good crack at a forecast.
3. Financial markets: COP26 saw the launch of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), with more than $130 trillion of private capital committed to transforming the economy for net zero. These commitments, from more than 450 firms across 45 countries, could deliver the estimated $100tn of finance needed for net zero over the next three decades. That said, Churchill’s words are particularly appropriate here.
4. Youth: One COP26 session I had to miss featured Barack Obama. His key message: “To all the young people out there – I want you to stay angry. I want you to stay frustrated... [but] “channel that anger. Harness that frustration. Keep pushing harder and harder for more and more. Because that's what’s required to meet that challenge. Gird yourself for a marathon, not a sprint.”
More practically, B Lab UK got together with The Body Shop International to present Boardroom 2030, a new project exploring how youth boards might help business leaders to tap into the very different views, priorities and wisdom of young people.
I very much enjoyed the session, though again this is only the beginning of steep learning curves for us all. The sort of questions that were asked included: Consider who should have a seat at the table. How can you include your employees and the voices of young people? Looking beyond the bottom line and the year ahead, what topics should be discussed? What should all businesses be discussing in boardrooms in 2030?
These are questions I hope The Ethical Corporation will continue to explore in the coming years and decades.
John Elkington has co-founded four companies, including Volans, where he is chairman and chief pollinator. He is the author of books, including his seminal 1997 book Cannibals with Forks, which introduced the concept of the triple bottom line. His latest, just published by Fast Company Press, is Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. He has served as a member of some 80 boards..
This article is part of the Winter 2021, and anniversary issue, of The Ethical Corporation. See also:
sustainability Brundtland Commission COP26 Generation Z climate solutions fossil fuels GHG emissions GFANZ B Lab UK