The Next Decade: John Elkington on “The Decade of Sustainable Capitalism”

This year marks GreenBlue’s 10th anniversary. At the end of our first decade, what will the next decade bring for the sustainability movement? We’re asking this question of visionaries, thought leaders, business innovators, scientists, and educators. Read other interviews from the Next Decade series about the future of the sustainability, products, and business.

Legendary business thinker John Elkington recently suggested that he might declare the years 2012-2022 “The Decade of Sustainable Capitalism.” Two decades ago, the co-founder of SustainAbility introduced the now-standard concept of the “triple bottom line,” the proposition that business should be judged through not just economic but also social and environmental measures. In Cannibals With Forks (1997), he questioned whether capitalism itself is sustainable, and now Elkington proposes that this could be the central question of the next decade. We asked him to elaborate.

Fifteen years after Cannibals, have you decided whether capitalism can be sustainable, or is it inherently unsustainable?

It’s amazing how much has changed in that time, but also how much hasn’t. Capitalism is both inherently myopic, focusing on some capitals at the expense of others, and at the same time unstable and open to change. We are entering a period of increasingly intense creative destruction. Our key challenge is to ensure that what emerges by way of 21st-Century capitalism—or perhaps capitalisms—offers our rapidly expanding human populations greater resilience and sustainability.

Is business important to advance sustainability, and why?

Business is among the very top necessary conditions for transformative, systemic change.  Too often, incumbent industries with sunk capital lobby furiously to stall change, for fear that they will be left with “stranded assets”.

Define “sustainable capitalism.”

For me, sustainable capitalism is value creation that would work for 9-10 billion people, within the limits of our one planet, and create blended (or shared) value across multiple forms of capital—financial, physical, human, natural, social, and cultural.

You’ve declared this next ten years “The Decade of Sustainable Capitalism.” Why now? What is critical about this point in history and the evolution of sustainability?

On the downside, if we don’t do it now we’re—to use a technical term—screwed. On the upside, many of the building blocks are more or less in place—all we need is the political will to change things. And the shocks that will both create that political will—and risk driving the whole system into darker responses like protectionism and xenophobia—are coming. Declaring this “The Decade of Sustainable Capitalism” signals the sort of extended timescales we need to think and invest across.

What actions and priorities would you point to as most essential in the coming decade?

We need to transform global governance, tax and legal systems, and the incentives for investors, managers and consumers. We need to create the cultural context within which the appropriate behaviors become second nature.

Are there particular barriers that need to be overcome?

This is a subject I dig into in my new book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier. The book looks at a series of risks and opportunities, including the challenge of driving population growth, pandemics, poverty, pollution, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction down to zero. I look at the changes that will need to happen at the level of the citizen, the city, the corporation, the country and, ultimately, our entire civilization.

What are the top goals for this next decade, and how will we recognize success?

A key task is to break away from the incrementalism that has marked the past 25 years and push towards systemic change. While the politics could end up being off the scale, scaling solutions will require us to embrace new politics.  That’s why I say business is only a necessary condition of success. Our decision as to whether or not we want to survive as a species, insofar as it is in our hands, is ultimately political.

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