John Elkington: Businesses should ‘think like insurgents’ to spur green recovery efforts

EXCLUSIVE: Many organisations will need to "regenerate" approaches to environmental, societal and economic business models in the wake of the financial damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Volans' chairman and chief pollinator John Elkington, who has called on companies to "think like an insurgent".

In a special episode of edie’s #SustyTalk video interviews, renowned author, CSR advisor, serial entrepreneur John Elkington discussed the role of businesses in assisting national green recoveries from the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to edie just days before it was officially confirmed that the UK had entered into a recession for the first time in 11 years, Elkington noted that any efforts to build back the economy would change markets in the long-run.

“Every so often economies do this,” Elkington said, reflecting on the global economic slump. “They go through a disassembly period and then a new order starts to self-assemble, very often not where the old economy was not most obvious.”


In the 25-minute video interview, Elkington warned that a host of systemic risks were “ferociously connected” and noted that businesses would have to act to help reduce plastics in the oceans, obesity, chronic disease and combat the climate crisis, amongst other issues.

Businesses would also have to shift approaches to corporate sustainability, Elkington added, claiming that traditional CSR was “no longer about making a business case for doing the right thing,” but that many business models “are under challenge”.

In response, Elkington is calling on companies to “think like an insurgent”, whereby corporates look at how their sector could be disrupted by new innovations and business models to respond to the myriad of risks on the horizon.

“One piece of advice is something that [businesses] can’t actually do much about, but it’s don’t be an incumbent,” Elkington added. “There are a lot of businesses that are incumbents and have built very successful market positions and business models around brand proposition. They’re going to find themselves sorely disrupted.

“Try to think like an insurgent. There is a growing appetite to go and see the people who are in the process of disrupting their markets. Whereas once you’d have Oxfam or Greenpeace come in and talk to your top team, now people are doing learning journeys to see people like Tesla and the disrupters to get a real sense of where this might take us all over time. It is a good time to be an insurgent. The likelihood is that we will see a cascade of new business models and propositions. It will be incredibly exciting.”

edie Explains: the green recovery

What is the green recovery? Where does business sustainability fit into its wider context? What is happening at a policy level? And what does the future hold for green recovery efforts? This edie Explains guide answers all of these questions and more.

Businesses are still awaiting certainty that national efforts, spearheaded by governments, to recover from the coronavirus pandemic will strengthen low-carbon and circular markets. In fact, very few corporate bailouts have been tied to environmental standards. With this in mind, the new Explains guide outlines the business implications of the green recovery, and how policy frameworks could shape new green markets.

The guide has been produced with assistance from supporting partners Centrica Business Solutions and explains everything you need to know about the green recovery. 

Read the edie Explains: The Green Recovery guide here.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie