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#28 John Elkington, Chairman & Chief Pollinator of Volans

June 19, 2018

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"We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down." —Kurt Vonnegut

John Elkington is most comfortable when he is least comfortable, most engaged when he is making it up as he goes along. A pioneer in working with businesses toward sustainable development, John has been a proponent of the triple bottom line for 40-plus years, making both his corporate clients and other environmentalists uncomfortable and earning a reputation as the ‘grit in the corporate oyster.’ So, how does John use provocation to push people in the right direction—combining a responsibility to people, planet, and profit to champion systemic change? 

John currently serves as Founding Partner and Chief Pollinator at Volans, a future-focused consulting agency based in London. Volans works with global companies, government actors, and innovators, moving beyond incremental change to address large-scale systemic challenges. Prior to his work with Volans, John co-founded SustainAbility and Environmental Data Services. John is a thought-leader, business strategist, environmentalist, and author, having penned several books on sustainability, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Today, John joins Ross, Christophe and Paul to share his eel-centric environmental origin story and his journey to becoming the ‘grit in the corporate oyster.’ He walks us through the evolution of environmentalism, discussing the competing schools of thought and the value in employing capitalism to address climate change. They discuss social entrepreneurship, the term ‘sustainability,’ and Nori’s role in challenging the current system. Listen in for John’s insight on China and learn why he remains an optimist despite our present trajectory toward inconceivable warming.

Resources

John’s Website

Volans

The Green Capitalists by John Elkington and Tom Burke

The Green Consumer by John Elkington and Julia Hailes

GlobeScan

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

Breakthrough Money

UN Environment Programme

Arabesque

The Bretton Woods Committee

Key Takeaways

[0:43] John’s environmental origin story

  • Extraordinary experience with baby eels as child
  • Became formal environmentalist in late 1960’s 

[5:09] John’s reputation as the ‘grit in the corporate oyster’

  • Most comfortable when least comfortable
  • Engage, tap into innate creativity of business 

[6:39] The evolution of environmentalism

  • Older generation values working with business
  • Economic, social and environmental value add

[12:41] John’s take on the word sustainability

  • New terms sensitive but degrade over time
  • Must be analytical to champion systemic change

[18:36] Why capitalism is crucial in dealing with climate change

  • Includes human, intellectual, social and natural capital
  • Transparency, principles key in not ‘selling soul’

[23:33] Nori’s role in challenging the system 

  • Welcome opportunity to work with ‘bad guys’
  • Business advantage to dealing with externality
  • Build market mechanism to facilitate rapid drawdown
  • Blockchain affords competitive advantage 

[28:53] John’s insight on calling out bad behavior

  • No benefit to purely punitive shaming
  • Provocation necessary to push people in right direction
  • All trapped in unsustainable system doing violence to planet

[32:20] The significance of conversation with the financial sector

  • Economics, finance ‘singularly poor in valuing resources’
  • Need to be shown what’s happening in wider world

[36:16] John’s perspective on China

  • Immensely exciting (right trajectory) AND worrying (impact on geopolitics)
  • West not modeling behavior we want China to emulate

[39:00] John’s view of the next 15 to 20 years

  • Most exciting, challenging and dangerous
  • On trajectory to inconceivable levels of warming

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