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Meet the Expert: John Elkington

John Elkington is an author, advisor, serial entrepreneur and world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development. He is credited for coining such terms as environmental excellence, green consumer, and the triple bottom line. He is currently Chairman and Chief Pollinator at Volans, a transformation agency working at the intersection of sustainability, entrepreneurship, and innovation. John is also the co-founder of SustainAbility, a consultancy and think tank helping clients integrate sustainability into their business. His latest book is The Breakthrough Challenge, co-authored with former Puma Chairman & CEO Jochen Zeitz. Here John shares his take on innovation, sustainability, B Corps and everything in between.

      30 May 2021

1. How and when did you first become interested in sustainability?


I travelled the world with my parents in the 1950s, acquiring a deep interest in nature along the way. I raised money while at school, aged 11, in the first year of the World Wildlife Fund, 1961 – and have now served for over 15 years on their Council of Ambassadors. Along the way, I have co-founded 4 businesses since 1978, all focused on what we would now call sustainability issues, including SustainAbility (in 1987), before that word was in wide use. I have written 20 books on related issues and served on around 80 boards and advisory boards. But I’m still on a steep learning curve – which makes this space so endlessly interesting.



2. If you could share one message with the world, what would it be?


Listen to Greta Thunberg. She’s not infallible, but she speaks for future generations. They are your future employees, investors, customers and, to use the now popular jargon, stakeholders.



3. What role do B Corps play in achieving a sustainable future?


B Corps are central to the game of getting business properly engaged in sustainability. The last two businesses I founded were, respectively, the first (Volans) and second (SustainAbility) B Corps in the UK. All B Corps subscribe to the idea of the triple bottom line, a concept I coined back in 1995.



4. How much do sustainable materials matter for the climate?


They are make-or-break. Literally, they will be the building blocks of an increasingly responsible, resilient and regenerative economy.



5. What are the big issues where things are not getting done where you wish innovation would come in?


Back in 1991, I had a cartoonist (Ingram Pinn, then and now of The Financial Times) draw me an image of a boardroom table. In addition to the normal place-names (CEO, etc.), I had him insert a fish (representing nature), a woman (social issues) and a robot (symbolizing long-term thinking). Nowadays the robot is more significant, given that boards are increasingly using expert systems and AI to inform their decision-making. We need to design tomorrow’s artificial intelligences to operate in similar ways, increasingly showing artificial wisdom.



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