John Elkington: Business case for sustainability must strengthen amidst Brexit and Trump uncertainty

EXCLUSIVE: Major political upheavals caused by Brexit and president-elect Donald Trump have created a "sense of uncertainty" in the climate change battle, which has heightened the need for the private sector to develop a more strengthened business case for sustainability.

That is the view of renowned author, CSR advisor, serial entrepreneur and chairman of market catalyst Volans, John Elkington, who suggested at an event last week that global efforts to deliver the Paris Agreement on climate change would surge ahead despite the recent political shocks.

However, Elkington warned that businesses who don’t recognise the transition to a low-carbon economy quickly could be set for a period of “painful” catch-up.

Speaking to edie on the sidelines of the Xenergy event hosted by The Crowd in London, Elkington said: “Unfortunately with Brexit, and at a larger scale with a Trump Government, we have a hiccup and it may prove to be a bit more than a hiccup. The Paris Agreement has been pretty much ratified by all of the major nations, and there is absolutely no question that a country like China understands the significance to its own environmental and economic health.

“But every time there is uncertainty in the system, some people will use that to tread water or even drift backwards. The business case does have to be stronger in this period. I suspect we’ll see 18 months to three years of real uncertainty and people not moving into this with all guns blazing and full-heartedly. But it is coming, and companies that don’t recognise that will be forced to catch-up in very short order, which could often be quite painful.”

Elkington said that president-elect Donald Trump’s decision to put Myron Ebell – who has no qualifications in climate science – in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should itself come with “a degree of caution” for those fully on-board with the Paris Agreement.

And, while the cascading impacts of climate change will force countries to move ahead with national commitments – with or without the US – Elkington noted that the business sphere may now have to drive a climate movement regardless of green policies and regulations. Businesses should instead turn to disruption, innovation and cross-sector collaboration as a means to funnel the low-carbon agenda down towards SMEs – which may not have the internal leadership and skills to drive holistic change – Elkington said.

“The very context of accelerating disruption in so many areas of business, I think, is making sensible business people more acutely aware of the factors that can come and upend their business models,” he added. “The only way we can get reluctant businesses on-board, short of regulation, is through networking and linking-up in a way that connects internal change agents. In SMEs, there will always be people who are interested in seeing their company do the right thing.”


One of Elkington’s many roles within the sustainability sector – alongside the recently launched Project Breakthrough initiative – is as an advisor of the B Team alongside Sir Richard Branson. The B Team is a global initiative aimed at aligning people and the planet alongside the aims of businesses to drive profit. Alongside advocating the Paris Agreement, the entity has also made prominent calls for businesses to commit to zero-net emissions by 2050.

For Elkington, the recent rise of business-to-business collaborative platforms can actually create a “fragmented” market that competes for the same members, often leaving smaller businesses outside of the spotlight.

However, Elkington stated that these platforms often allow the bigger corporations to trial new innovations, which can then cascade down into the supply chains to encompass SMEs as well. He heralded the role that companies like Philips Lighting have played in these initiatives by reacting to the “early warning signals” of both global megatrends and consumer demands.

One such disruption that Elkington believes will be funnelled down through supply chains is the “immense potential driver of change” from digitalisation. As the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Technology Consortium’s executive chairman, Elkington has previously claimed that digitalisation would bring a “tsunami of data” to corporates that previously needed a “human battering ram” to get sustainability into the boardroom.

Also speaking at last week’s Crowd event was a group of energy experts from telecoms firm BT, retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), property company Land Securities and high-tech polymer producer Covestro. Speaking on a seperate panel, the experts agreed that low-carbon technology has accelerated to the point where energy efficiency projects no longer require long pay-back periods, but that the message about the myriad benefits these projects can bring isn’t being relayed to boardrooms often enough.

Matt Mace

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