Zeronauts Enabling Continued Growth with Reduced Cost : John Elkington, Co-Founder & Executive Chairman of Volans

INDIACSR News Network

John Elkington is the Co-Founder & Executive Chairman of Volans, also Co-founder of SustainAbility and of Environmental Data Services (ENDS, 1978).  He is recognized as a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development.  In 2004, BusinessWeek described him as “a dean of the corporate responsibility movement for three decades.” In 2008, The Evening Standard named John “a true green business guru,” and “an evangelist for corporate social and environmental responsibility long before it was fashionable.” John has written or co-authored 18 books, most recently The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, published May 2012. John’s expertise lies in futures and sustainability. He currently serves on some 30 boards and advisory boards, where a key part of his role is to channel the future into the present across a wide range of disciplines.   John is also visiting professor at Cranfield University, Imperial College and UCL.  He is a columnist for a number of publications and as a public speaker, he has addressed over 500 conferences all over the world. In 2011 he was awarded the Spencer Hutchens, Jr. Medal by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) primarily for his outstanding leadership, as an advocate for social responsibility, and for bringing about positive social change.

INDIACSR representative Harsha Mukherjee talked to John Elkington. Edited excerpts:

Welcome to INDIACSR, You are a veteran in CSR. How has it been?

I was lucky enough to get into the field early, in the 1970s, and have now visited several hundred companies around the world, working with scores of them. It has been – and continues to be — fascinating!

What motivated you to found SustainAbility in 1987.

To be honest, I had two projects that I had been developing with a foundation that went bankrupt. We set up SustainAbility to carry those projects forward – and used a limited company format to protect us against the financial risks. Very soon, though, SustainAbility became a launch platform for things like green consumerism and the triple bottom line.

What is Zero Impact Growth and the role of Zeronauts?

Zeronauts are innovators, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, investors and policy-makers who aim to drive environmental or social ills towards, to or beyond zero.  These ills span landfilled waste, toxics, pandemic risks, population growth and poverty. But note that the Zeronauts are not pursuing zero economic growth: instead their aim is to enable continued growth, while radically reducing its costs across the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental value added (or destroyed).

What has been your experience with Social Entrepreneurs at Volans and how do they form an integral part of CSR?

Social entrepreneurs take risks that their counterparts inside big companies (social intrapreneurs) find it hard to take, in the process helping to create new market opportunities in such areas as microfinance, demonstrating how social and environmental benefits can be achieved at scale.

Which is the most remarkable Social impact case in your professional life?

It’s hard to pick a single case. Our impact has been celebrated with various awards, including the Fast Company Social Capitalist award, a Skoll Foundation award, a Rockefeller Foundation award and a Gold Medal (the Hutchens Medal) from the the American Society for Quality. If I had to take just one company, it would be Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, which actually rechartered itself around the triple bottom line.

What role do you see youth playing in CSR?

There is no guarantee that young people will be any more switched on than those that went before, but my experience is that many young people today are much more interested in areas like social enterprise and clean technology. I see a key part of our role as being to link young change makers to those in the mainstream who can help them do more, better, faster.

Culture has huge influence on CSR practices. How do you see family business changing imbibing CSR strategy?

Culture is critical. The very nature of family businesses means they can think, plan and invest longer term, but this isn’t remotely guaranteed.  One thing that makes big multinationals more sensitive in this space is their profiles and brands, which isn’t always a lever of change in family businesses.

What is your take on the ongoing Carbon ban by EU.

There is no EU ban on carbon that I know of. There are a variety of mechanisms designed to try and squeeze down carbon emissions. I think these are vitally important, and the EU has sometimes led in this field, but initiatives like the EU Emission Trading System should have been much better designed.

What role do you see Government playing during the transition of casino capitalism to sustainable capitalism?

Governments, too often, are backing away from taking responsibility. You see that in summit meetings like this year’s Rio+20 Summit, which I see as an abject failure, given the scale of the challenges we face. But, on the other hand, we won’t be able to do this without governments. One way forward will be to invent new ways of doing what governments should be doing – and do it without them, at least to start with. That’s partly what social entrepreneurs are doing. Eventually governments will wake up and spot the opportunity.

What steps do you think should be taken for robust sustainable activities?

We need to get much higher levels of companies reporting under the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework, and converging on integrated reporting as championed by the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC). A critical step will be to boost our individual and collective Future Quotient (FQ).  Better pricing of natural capital is also crucial, as argued by the TEEB report (The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity).

In your opinion, what are the most urgent ethical issues in business today?

Corruption is highly damaging in terms of our ability to think longer term – and develop efficient, effective and ultimately sustainable businesses. Recent scandals in my home town of London, involving banks like Barclays and Standard Chartered have shown this is a problem everywhere in the world.

How will you define Corporate Responsibility in contemporary context?

There are fairly basic elements, including obeying the laws and following the best market rules, and operating transparently wherever in the world a business goes.  But to be truly responsible, a business needs to think whether its products, technologies and business model(s) would make sense in a world of 9-10 billion people. Very few companies can say this is true of their current businesses.

What do you think about the Indian perspective of CSR?

There are some great examples of good practice by Indian companies like Tata and Infosys, and the sub-continent has generated some of the most extraordinary social entrepreneurs in the world.  But the recent meltdown of the power system shows that much of the Indian economy has a good way to go before it is fit for purpose.

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