Sustainability: The end of the beginning

Sustainability: The end of the beginning

In advance of our inaugural 'In conversation' event with John Elkington and Lucy Parker, here, the 'Godfather of Sustainability' looks back over 50 years - and forward 15.

"I am also delighted to now serve as an Ambassador for the Churchill Fellowship—a key launchpad for inquisitive people determined to improve the state of the wider world."

It was a memorable moment.

I vividly remember the judging session for my 1981 Churchill Fellowship - with the panel including one of my long-time heroes, Sir Peter Scott. Son of the ill-fated explorer, Scott of Antarctica, Peter had appeared on my radar screen as early as 1961, the year he co-founded the World Wildlife Fund.

Out of the blue, or so it seemed to me then, I had found myself raising money for the newly fledged WWF while away at school, aged 11. Today, I serve as a member of WWF-UK’s Council of Ambassadors—but it’s stunning to recall how much has happened over the six-decades-and-counting years since I first switched on to nature and the environment.

In retrospect, my Churchill Fellowship opened a series of doors for me, particularly in the United States, ushering in one of my periodic metamorphosis moments—where I broke out of a professional chrysalis and launched in new directions.

I am also delighted to now serve as an Ambassador for the Churchill Fellowship—a key launchpad for inquisitive people determined to improve the state of the wider world. And I very much look forward to the first “In Conversation With ...” session on Wednesday 6th March, alongside another Churchill Fellow, Lucy Parker—a partner at the Brunswick Group and author of Everybody’s Business.

The conversation will evolve naturally, but I hope to look back to 1974 (which saw the aftermath of the first “Oil Crisis” and was the year when I formally started work) and forward to 2039 (which might see me reach 80 and will mark 100 years since the start of WW2, when Winston Churchill really got into his stride).

With my 75th birthday due in June, I hope to discuss the impending publication of my 21st book in May: Tickling Sharks: How We Sold Business on Sustainability (Fast Company Press). In the spirit of the book, and fully half a century since I began working in the environmental and sustainability space—I suspect that I will try to steer some of the exchange towards a discussion of how the sustainability agenda has developed over the past 50 years—and of how it might evolve over the next 15.

Back in 1974, I joined the UK’s first environmental change agency, John Roberts’ pioneering TEST, based in London. Some years later, in 1978, I left to co-found a new business, Environmental Data Services (ENDS), designed to track and report on what “industry” (as it was then called) was doing on issues like safety, health and environment.

ENDS was a global pioneer—helping to open up the business world to the emerging environmental and (later) sustainability agendas. As the founder-Editor of The ENDS Report, I led the charge—and produced my first book, The Ecology of Tomorrow’s World (Associated Business Press) in 1980. That same year, I think, I applied for a Churchill Fellowship, which I then took up in 1981.

The Fellowship took me to America, where I met amazing people—from the leaders of the Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C., just being disbanded by the incoming Reagan Administration, through to Denis Hayes (founder of Earth Day back in 1970, whose international board I would join in 1990). At the time he was running the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in Golden, Colorado—though he, too, fell victim to the Reagan cull.

I visited molybdenum miners in the Rockies and, in Seattle, leading anti-Vietnam War activists and author Victor B. Scheffer, who had written some of my favourite wildlife books (The Year of the Whale, The Year of the Seal).

The Fellowship resulted in my second book, Sun Traps: The Renewable Energy Forecast (Pelican Books, 1984)—and laid foundations for my third, The Poisoned Womb: Human Reproduction in a Polluted World (Pelican Books, 1985).

It also enabled me to progressively hand over ENDS to new leadership as I began to engage business more actively—first through my own consultancy (John Elkington Associates, founded in 1983), then via SustainAbility (1987) and now through Volans (2008).

Now Tickling Sharks reviews progress to date—and looks forward to how we can truly shift the prevailing economic paradigm. Much of this might have happened without that Churchill Fellowship, but in retrospect it marked a critical moment between two distinct phases of my life, the first involving reporting on what business was doing, the second actively catalysing change with leading businesses, through markets.

We are now at an inflection point in the transition between very different geopolitical and macroeconomic orders. A paradigm shift that has been building since the late 1950s is driving us exponentially, and simultaneously, towards breakdown and breakthrough. The next 10-15 years will be, quite literally, make or break. There is no shortage of challenges and opportunities for Churchill Fellows—past, present, and future.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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