Why we started SustainAbility

24 Apr 2012John Elkington

There are two distinct narratives on how and why we started SustainAbility in 1987. The first is that we knew what we were doing, the second that we didn’t. And neither is quite right.

Julia Hailes had joined me at a pioneering social enterprise, Earthlife, to work on two projects: Green Pages and The Green Consumer Guide. I had raised funding for the first, but then discovered two things: first that there was a financial black hole at the core of the Earthlife Foundation and, second, that the money I had raised had been swallowed by that black hole. Looking back at the period, I think Earthlife was one of the crucial inflection points in my life — and, like a neutron star, it projected new thinking and talent out through a wider universe. SustainAbility emerged phoenix-like from that period.

The question we were left with was what to do next? The easiest thing would have been to wash our hands of the whole business, but we felt that was not an option. Instead, Julia and I — with help from Tom Burke — began to think of ways forward. The possibility of setting up a new organisation was the most attractive. I had already set up two: Environmental Data Services (ENDS) way back in 1978, working with David Layton and Max Nicholson, and my own consultancy in 1983.

So that’s the path we decided to take.

The name came to me on a flight back from Brussels, fully-formed with the capitalised ‘A’ — though we would sometimes almost regret that choice of name, given that we had to routinely spell the word for 3-4 years afterwards. The limited company status was distinctly unusual for a social mission venture at the time, and reflected the fact that ENDS had also been founded as a limited company — plus the uncomfortable reality that Julia and I had no idea whether we could make our projects work without the funding, and were more than a little worried about the potential financial liabilities.

In the longer term, the name proved a stroke of wonderful good fortune — and even in the short term the for-profit status helped pull in a range of major clients, among them Dow Europe, Novo Nordisk and Procter & Gamble. Our mission at the time: ‘to make a difference, to make a profit (to fund our work) and to have fun in the process.’ Our focus: working on sustainability-related change ‘with business, through markets.’

The publication of The Green Consumer Guide, which went into 20 foreign editions and sold in total around a million copies, helped spark a global movement, and proved to be a booster rocket that helped launch us all into orbit.

For the first two-and-a-half years, while we built up to a team of 4-5 (including our first staff member, Fiona Byrne, and then Annie Dimmock), we were housed at the Elkington family home in Barnes. Our daughters, Gaia and Hania, often described SustainAbility as their third sister. Finally, with the place bursting at the seams, with a builder-unexpectedly-in-residence for 18 months while we put a new floor on the building, SustainAbility took wing and landed alongside Brand New Product Development in Notting Hill. After a couple of years there, we moved to The People’s Hall, once the Parliament and National Theatre building for the ‘independent republic’ of Frestonia.

After six years at The People’s Hall, we moved for three years to High Street Kensington, over the Kensington Market, then to Hyde Park Corner, over Pizza Express, and thence to Bedford Row. And through it all we built our triple bottom line and People, Planet & Profit agenda, to considerable effect.

We were a hybrid organisation, combining activism, think-tanking and advisory services way before it became fashionable. We brokered between NGOs and leading edge companies at a time when few others were attempting it, and we were able to do so with the trust and confidence of both sides. We drove the evolution of the corporate reporting agenda, partnering with UNEP to co-evolve reporting models that are now taken for granted. And, through it all, we provoked those tempted to slip into incrementalism, continuously agitating for transformative change. A Greenpeace director even dubbed us “campaigners in pin-stripes.”

As the diversity of our UK team grew rapidly, we also invested in our international platform. Our first overseas office was in New York — and, as a result, I painfully remember the London team, alerted by our American colleagues, particularly Seb Beloe and Virginia Terry, clustering around a computer screen and watching the jets slam into the World Trade Center.

The story of SustainAbility is an extraordinary one, and has been told in many places and many different ways, but my sense is that the organisation is only just beginning to come into its own — under the guidance of people like Rob Cameron, Jeff Erikson and Mark Lee.

There are few things in my life that I am prouder of than having been at the heart of this extraordinary adventure. SustainAbility has helped define and shape the single greatest agenda for the twenty-first century, something it is continuing to do with its Regeneration Roadmap, alongside our longstanding friends at GlobeScan.

Four years ago I once again took flight, this time co-founding Volans with Pamela Hartigan, albeit remaining on SustainAbility’s Board. There were many reasons for the shift, but one is that I find that the older I get the more urgently I want to drive transformative change. Indeed, that theme is central to my latest book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier. And it has been a huge pleasure to see our team working alongside SustainAbility in such areas as Breakthrough Capitalism.

2012, when SustainAbility celebrates its 25th anniversary is an extraordinary year in terms of milestones.

Apart from the obvious ones related to 20 years on from the Rio Earth Summit (which Julia Hailes, Vernon Jennings and Geoff Lye all took part in) and 25 years on from the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future, it also marks 170 year from the time when Marx met Engels, 80 years from the point where Nikolai Kondratiev was sent to prison by Stalin for saying (in the midst of the great depression) that capitalism would rise again, 70 years from the first publication of Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy (which introduced the term ‘creative destruction’), 50 years on from two books that had an even greater impact on me (Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which introduced the concept of ‘paradigm shifts’, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), 40 years on from the Limits to Growth study.

What an immense privilege it has been to be part of the evolution of these great movements focusing on tomorrow’s environmental, social and governance challenges — and opportunities.

We started SustainAbility partly as a lifeboat as Earthlife foundered, but we also started the organisation with an eye to the future.

2012, as few people will now be unaware, has also marked 100 years on from the sinking of The Titanic. Oddly, the disused flax ponds that produced the eels that triggered my childhood epiphany on a moonless night in 1950s Northern Ireland had originally produced the fibre that made the bedclothes and tablecloths that went into ships, like The Titanic and its sister vessels, built at the nearby Harland & Wolff docks.

But a far better symbol of what SustainAbility has been — and I have every confidence will be in the future — is the Cutty Sark, which blazed a trail around the world in an earlier era of globalisation, outrunning all competitors. Our Radar service scanned a wider landscape than was common at the time, helping clients to connect the dots and look around corners. That sort of scanning is even more important these days as our global economy ploughs along very much like The Titanic.

In the coming decade — and the next quarter century — the challenge for the new crew will be not simply to sail the existing vessel faster, but to morph it into a vehicle fit for the next 25 years.

They will rise to the challenge — and I am confident SustainAbility’s best days are ahead of it.

John Elkington is co-founder of SustainAbility.

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