Author, adviser, thinker, speaker: John Elkington has worn a variety of hats during his 40-year career. Linking them all is a quiet yet irrepressible passion for positive change

Consultants come in many guises. The big shots with their swagger. The technocrats with their spreadsheets. The charlatans with their sweet talk. 

John Elkington, the 66-year-old founder of boutique consultancy firm Volans, is none of those things. In fact, there’s little initially that would suggest this softly spoken urban planning graduate has spent the best part of three decades visiting corporate boardrooms around the world (he previously co-founded and led the advisory firm SustainAbility).

The constant consultant

For one, he’s ready to turn down work. In the mid-1990s, it took the badgering of not one but two chief executives at Shell to persuade him to advise the oil major. Second, “cranking the handle” – his phrase for churning out the same old same old – bores him. Unlike so many consultancies, with their cut-and-paste solutions, he openly admits to having no “black box methodology”.

Shell persuaded Elkington to offer advice

The closest model to his approach, he says jokingly, is James Bond. Not because of the fast cars and women (bird-watching or visiting castles is more Elkington’s idea of a good time). What connects him with Ian Fleming’s super sleuth is his quick thinking and adaptability.

“My theory of change is partly experimental,” Elkington says, admitting that he often finds himself in boardrooms not knowing “which buttons to press”. He’s also determined not to cast himself as a “missionary” consultant. He tells his clients explicitly to listen to other voices in addition to his: campaign groups, educators, activists: whoever out there is driving the agenda. Go speak to them, he says.

Unorthodox though his approach may be, it clearly works. Elkington has been invited to sit on some 30 advisory boards, including the likes of Nestlé and the UN-backed Global Reporting Initiative. His current client list includes corporate giants such as UK retailer Tesco and the Mexican bakery group Bimbo.

There’s two other characteristics to his consultancy work. First, he has an aversion to quick fixes. Many of those on his client list – Novo Nordisk, Allianz, Covestro (formerly Bayer MaterialScience) to name a few – he has worked with for years. He’s not just interested in the big guns either. Yes, he mixes with the likes of Richard Branson, Ratan Tata and Paul Polman (Elkington is an expert adviser to the B Team, a coalition of high-profile business leaders). But he also champions groups such as the Sustainable Eel Group and the non-profit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

Elkington helps Tesco to improve sustainability

Pressing the right buttons

So what makes him in such demand? It’s not just that he has devoted his considerable energies and intelligence to the question of big business and its role in society for 40-plus years – although the accumulated wisdom and experience that this brings certainly helps. It’s not even that he’s written 19 books, including Cannibals with Forks (which has spawned thousands of annual Sustainability Reports thanks to its promotion of the Triple Bottom Line concept) or The Green Consumer’s Guide (co-written with Julia Haines), which sold in its millions – although that helps too.

The reason that so many global business leaders have Elkington’s number in their phones is simple: he has an uncanny knack of cutting through the noise and seeing what’s important, why it matters and what – within reason – progressive businesses can do about it.

The son of a British Second World War fighter pilot, Elkington speaks of “waves of pressure” facing the private sector. In the late 1960s, it was environmental legislation. Next came consumer and investor activism in the late 1980s. Globalisation (and its sidekick, anti-globalisation) followed a decade later. And finally came an era of “sustainability” ushered in by the threats highlighted by the 2007-8 financial crisis.

“Waves of pressure” face the private sector

“One of the things that has spooked me over the decades has been when company people say, ‘We didn’t see ‘X’ coming until you flagged it up for us’.” He calls this gift his “waggle dance”, a reference to how honeybees indicate to the hive where to find food after returning from foraging. Elkington is sustainability’s ace forager.

He’s not about to stop now, despite having every reason to do so. No longer the “nearly communist” agenda it was seen as when he first started out, sustainability is now on every right-thinking business leader’s lips. Today, Elkington’s books are being read on core business courses and are night-time reading for many executives (“The Power of Unreasonable People”, published in 2008, was given to 3,000 delegates at the World Economic Forum’s Davos summit).

Future flux

“Quids in” would be the typical consultant’s response. Not Elkington. In fact, he’s nervous that business leaders are getting ahead of themselves. Many are missing the bigger picture. Just because their company has a GRI compliant report or an ethical code of conduct for suppliers, doesn’t make them sustainable. In other cases, he fears “vested interests” might be co-opting the language of sustainability to either slow change down or derail it entirely.

Whichever the case, few business leaders have fully taken on board the “immense problems” down the line. For that reason alone, he won’t be retiring any time soon. “The notion that their business models might have to fundamentally change … still for these people feels like a long way from becoming their driving reality.” In his own way, the gentle-mannered Elkington will keep shouting until that paradigm shifts.

Another factor that means he won’t be hanging up his boots just yet is the conflux of mega-trends he sees coming down the track. Although he describes himself as a “born optimist”, he firmly believes that the speed of technological change coupled with the enormous pressures being placed on the planet means the world is facing radical change.

“We’re in an economy that most of us have grown up in that’s going to change beyond our experience. That’s exciting for some people, but it’s frightening for many others … The old order is going to go into meltdown and a new order will start to emerge. It is emerging already,” he says.

He draws on a biological analogy. Consider a chrysalis (a metaphor Elkington explores in his 2001 book, The Chrysalis Economy). When a caterpillar enters its metamorphic stage, all its organs break down. In the consequent “slurry” are imaginal cells, which are “almost like floating blueprints” of the butterfly into which the caterpillar will transform.

“It’s an exquisitely dangerous period in our collective history because people get seriously scared when these things happen … and [the result] could be a butterfly or it could be a locust,” he states. Utopia, he adds, “is not guaranteed”.

The optimist in him prefers to concentrate on the opportunity side of this pending flux, which he judges to be “off the scale” for those engaged in the sustainable business debate. The source of his confidence lies in a combination of scientific and technological breakthroughs on the one hand, and innovative social entrepreneurship models on the other.

Work to do

With this in mind, Elkington has big plans for his small team at Volans in the coming years. Engaging with those driving change is top of his list. They won’t be found in corporate boardrooms, he admits (although he’ll continue with C-suite consultancy work). It’s those positioned “to the side of these incumbents” where the action is: the R&D labs of synthetic biology start-ups, the entrepreneurs driving big and little data, the fringe businesses experimenting with cutting-edge digitalisation, and so forth.

The question he’s currently posing to himself and his team is how to distinguish between change “as usual” and change that is “genuinely breakthrough”. To facilitate that thought process, he encourages his colleagues to think of themselves as “ambassadors of the future”. Imagine travelling back to today from 2050, say: what has driven change between now and then, and where therefore can they best invest their energies now to promote that change?

“The process that we’re going through at the moment is to ask ourselves … where are the areas of work where if we go in uncomfortably early even for ourselves we could potentially have a disproportionate impact over time?”

"City futurists” are in Elkington’s sights

In addition to science and technology, Elkington sees cities as one of these pivotal spaces in which the shape of the future will be determined. The world’s urban centres are not only where the majority of the population will live, but it’s where new ideas, lifestyle trends, company headquarters, financial hubs all mix and merge. Municipal administrators, “city futurists” and urban planners: they’re all in Elkington’s sights as potential collaborators.

Last but not least, he thinks it’s time to take a long, hard look at what he terms the “cultural side of change”. As for a focus area, he admits it’s “diffuse” yet he believes that challenging entrenched attitudes and behavioural norms is essential. “Unless you have the feedback loops through people buying certain products or investing in particular pension portfolios or whatever, their everyday choices will put the brakes on things that they say they want to accelerate.”

As a taster of what might be to come, Volans is planning to dramatise its latest report, called the “Stretch Agenda“. Whether it will take the shape of a play or another form of theatre, Elkington isn’t sure yet. Another possible direction for the project is as a framework for business role-playing exercises.

Elkington’s contribution over the past four decades in challenging and shaping the role of business in society cannot be overstated. Nor is his input over by any means. For this remarkable writer, adviser and thinker, the process of change is open-ended. “I don’t think at any point I’ve thought, ‘If we get to ‘X’ in 10 years from now, the problem will be solved’. I’ve always felt that this is something that is massively evolutionary and that where some of the solutions will come from is totally unexpected.”

There are many adjectives to describe Elkington: humble, insightful, dogged, imaginative and principled are just a few. Perhaps the best descriptor of all, however, is “open” – open to ideas, open to the possibility of failure, open to others and, most importantly, open to the unexpected. 

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