John Elkington highlights “inevitable systemic change”

Posted on October 17, 2012

John Elkington, a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development, addressed a packed audience at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Illovo, Johannesburg at an event hosted by GIBS’s Transnet Programme in Sustainable Development in conjunction with the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.

In an address entitled Breakthrough Capitalism, Elkington, the man who famously coined the phrase “the triple bottom line” in his 1997 book “Cannibals with Forks”, wasn’t shy to highlight the serious business, social, economic and political imperative of applying sustainable solutions to global problems. “The reality is that I can’t lie about the coming systemic crisis; I can only talk about what I see. During my working career of 40 years things have got depressingly worse. However, I think we are very close to people waking up on a very considerable scale to climate change and that a cascade of other environmental issues and sensitivities will come with that. It’s not going to be comfortable, but it’s inevitable.”

Elkington said he was “electrified to be in South Africa, because often the changes happen where the stress is the greatest; that’s where the solutions start arising”. This reference to the ongoing strikes in the platinum mining and transport sectors came on the same day that Moody’s rating agency downgraded South African bonds from A3 to Baa1, citing, among other factors, “increased socio-economic stress (and) relatively high labour costs despite high unemployment”.

“I think we are in a period of our collective history which economist Joseph Schumpeter called a period of creative destruction. We are in the very early phases,” said Elkington.  “People talk in northern Europe, the US and elsewhere of a double-dip recession. I think we’ve got that, but there is something more fundamental going on in our economies. This is driven primarily, at the moment, by environmental issues – it’s not even largely driven by natural restraints. Those things I think will increase.”

By way of illustrating the fundamental shifts taking place across global economies, societies and the environment, Elkington highlighted the recent Rio+20 United Nations (UN) summit in Brazil. “I think it was catastrophic, but extremely useful,” he said. “It signals the end, the waning, the weeping of post-World War Two global governance and the institutions that were built up around that. I think the UN is in the process of slowly coming apart at the seams and I think some of the other institutions are going to go the same way. I think they have to open up to China, India and Brazil, but I am not wildly confident that that’s going to drive things in the right direction.”

• Elkington, whose latest book “The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier” shines the spotlight on a new breed of innovator, entrepreneur, investor and policy-maker who are tackling seismic changes to the current capitalist system, will return to South Africa in February 2013 to speak at a sustainability conference at GIBS.

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