On the 20th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book, Cannibals with Forks, John Elkington answers questions on the state of the sustainability movement and how he maintains optimism.
John Elkington is co-founder of ENDS, SustainAbility, and Volans and author of 19 books. He coined terms such as “green consumer” and “triple bottom line” and has been recognized in several rankings and lists as one of the world’s most influential authorities on sustainable business. John published Cannibals with Forks in 1997. It was a seminal work on strategy, business models, value creation, and mega-trends, and also popularized how sustainability reporting (that is, disclosing data on economic, environmental, and societal impacts) might serve as a fork—a civilizing first step—to start taming the unsustainable excesses of companies. John clarifies that the fork analogy (borrowed from an aphorism by Stanislaw Lec) relates to the fact that companies act like cannibals, gobbling each other up and spitting bits out. The question was whether learning to do this a 3-tined fork, (i.e. triple bottom line—or TBL—reporting), would represent progress.
Here are some big take-aways, distilled from our lengthy conversation on June 23, 2017, in his London office on Bloomsbury Place:
Q: What would you write about now?
A: “It would not be about sustainability reporting! But if I were to write about it…
…it would be that corporate sustainability reporting has become a ghetto for a specialized audience and that companies don’t even read their competitors’ reports. In my work with the GRI and IIRC, I advocated for a reframing: that reporting should break out of silos, that it should be more searchable by anyone, democratizing, widely disseminated, truthfully tracing multiple forms of capital through the supply chain, using immediate data on all impacts at any level, with the granularity of Google Earth. It could use satellite sensing to allow for zooming from a square meter of soil to the planetary scale—Planet Labs, eRevalue, Good Guide, and Arabesque—these are all promising starts on making sustainability reporting understandable.”
On the issue of why reporting standards have become complex and what it would take to make sustainability data user-friendly and actionable, John added: “Now we have access to data that would have been inconceivable 30 years ago thanks to the Carbon Disclosure Project, Bloomberg, CarbonTracker, GRI. But we need a vision. A coherent one. Complexity is just what happens when you go for complexity because of a complex world. So we need a vision of reporting that informs decisions. As Bucky (Buckminster Fuller) said: ‘we did not get a user manual for running the planet.’”
…and in 40-50 years sustainability reporting may be ubiquitous-yet-invisible…
“Originally triple bottom line reporting was meant to be a whack to the head of business leaders. As Ernst Ligteringen clarified, it was to change mindsets. In 40-50 years, we may see the reporting of today as Stone Age—by then, we will be instantly, seamlessly and radically connected to data. Sustainability data could be a part of life without even thinking of it—the closest analogy being weather reports.”
…instead, John would now write about disruptions needed for systemic change, specifically:
(1) “The sustainability industry is perhaps most in need of disruption. There is some ‘putting old wine in new bottles.’ We can no longer talk about 10% improvements as success. Nor even 10x. We need 100x improvements.”
(2) “There are incumbents versus insurgents. We’ve helped incumbent companies see their business cases [for sustainability]. But that is not what the insurgents want—we are at risk of failing them. 30 years ago we were helping get Greenpeace into corporations. 15 years ago we were introducing social entrepreneurship to the corporate world. Now we need to be less incrementalist, more transformative.”
(3) “Increasingly, we should focus on the insurgents and what they want – on how their innovations can be aggregated, engaged, and brought to scale. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robotics, the internet-of-things and synthetic biology are all developing at a furious rate. There are 30-40 technologies easily that are part of this, whereas in a normal industrial revolution, it is just 3, 4, or 5 industry technologies changing. These technologies will hybridize to form different ones. But there will be friction. Uber illustrates the collisions between emerging and current social norms. Uber may be a hyper-successful insurgent, but it has been badly dented because it didn’t understand the issue of social norms.”
(4) On the role of cities in sustainability innovation as a worthy focus: “I was trained as a city planner, and used to see cities as tumors, divorced from their impacts. Now I see them [cities] as incubators, creating markets for new technologies, products and services.”
(5) John noted that “2017 is also the 30th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission Report, with its emphasis on intergenerational equity. If I were a young person I would be absolutely incensed [at the previous generation], and I would be thinking ‘you screwed us!’” Noting the [typically] superior resources and networks of seniors and the ideas and drive of youth, he went on: “there is a need for intergenerational work – bridge-building – getting older and younger generations to work together more.” He offered Encore as an early indication of what will be needed.
Q: In your book, The Breakthrough Challenge, you describe the need for businesses to disrupt their ecosystems to bring about systemic change. Elsewhere you have noted the value of memes. Mel Edwards and Ed Freeman (the father of stakeholder theory) and I just had an article accepted for publication about stakeholder shaking—it’s a meme we came up with to describe the phenomenon of companies shaking stakeholders and networks of stakeholders out of complacency—do any great examples of this come to mind?
A: “Decades ago, our struggle was getting NGOs into the midst of business leaders, but it was business leaders who challenged and sometimes coopted NGOs. Novo Nordisk is an example of what you describe: seeing that the cost of diabetes could collapse healthcare systems, they saw the need to address a different set of stakeholders, and started educating health care authorities and city administrations on the need for dietary and exercise solutions to slow the spread of diabetes. This has the added benefit of building trust. Covestro is another example. Its CEO, Patrick Thomas, describes it as an 82-year-old, 16,000 employee, $12 billion start-up. In this case, they are trying to help others see carbon as an asset and ask: ‘how do we assist in coming up with breakthrough solutions?’”
Q: What would you like to tell educators – what’s your message for academia?
A: “Sustainability right now is still seen as just one more option, or elective. But in 15-20 years, it will fundamentally inform everything that is taught in business schools. I realize that rankings can prevent schools from taking risks, but learning journeys—as illustrated by Leaders’ Quest—are extremely valuable and powerful, especially when they involve contexts outside of students’ comfort zones.”
Q: Who else has succeeded as much as Interface in terms of setting and meeting ambitious goals along the way to achieving net zero harms?
A: “From memory, Ray Anderson, the founder and CEO, still owned something like 60% of the shares, so he could more or less do what he wanted—which is a very different situation from most other companies. That said, other positive examples include Unilever, Tesla, Solar City, Novo Nordisk, and major car companies Ford, Nissan and Volvo, to some extent.”
Q: In previous interviews you’ve said you’re an optimist. How do you maintain your optimism? Is it because of trends that you see, or despite them?
A: “I do go though periods of gloom. I stay inspired by constant conversations with people and encountering new ideas. And there is always just enough progress to stay broadly optimistic. Our species tends to do its best work when backed into a corner—and, as the Anthropocene epoch builds around us, now we have backed ourselves into the mother of all corners.
I never thought about my legacy, but now I think, if there was one word to put on my tombstone, it would be ‘environmentalist.’ Nature brought me in. To your point on trends: take, for example, eels [which sparked John’s early awareness of ecology as a child]: I’m aware that they have experienced a collapse of 99.5% in Europe, with similar patterns in N. America, and Asia, and these are a keystone species. As a member of the WWF UK Council of Ambassadors, I am uncomfortably aware of such grim trends, but I guess I probably blank them out much of the time.”
Q: Would you want to write a book—a 20 year retrospective on Cannibals with Forks? Maybe Cannibals with Spoons—to reflect the increasingly fluid context of business, to which you alluded in the Coda (the final chapter) of Cannibals with Forks?
A: “No, when I write a book I do not want to cover ground I have already explored.”
Q: There seems to be a tension between prognoses you recently offered—is the next decade the “detox decade” or a “bottoming-out”?
A: “Both, I think. One problem is that we seem to be in something of a ‘contained depression’, which means that the normal processes of creative destruction are blunted. But, in the end, unsustainable parts of the economy will flame out. The detox decade is another way of viewing the bottom of the economic U-turn we are heading into, where an old order disassembles and a new one struggles to be born.”
Follow the latest updates from John Elkington on Twitter at @VolansJohn.
Adam Sulkowski is on Twitter at @Adam_Sulkowski.