John Elkington on Leadership and Sustainability

03/01/2011 / Kaj

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Looking ahead towards 2012 with the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission, the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit and the London Olympics at the centre of attention

I’m reading the New York Times. The reason for the cold snap that we are experiencing is a snow-covered Siberia that is reflecting solar radiation, and the direction and behaviour of the winds. For me it feels more like a real winter, the kind I recall from my childhood in Stockholm when the skis and ice skates were put well to use between November and March. But the halcyon days of childhood have nothing in common with today’s global reality, which is considerably more complex. 2010 was an unusually warm year, however strange that may sound. Official figures show that 2010 was probably one of the three warmest years since the recording of temperatures began 160 years ago.

But the greenhouse effect and the rise in the world’s temperature is only one of many challenges that we are facing.

WWF has been most active organisation with regard to communicating the fact that we live as though we already have 1½ planets and that we must be 4½ times more efficient in our natural resource consumption if we are to be sustainable in the long term.

The immediate issue facing us in 2011 is how we can become more resource-efficient and take a greater global responsibility that embraces the needs of nature as well as people. Our growth models are already in the process of change, in both content and approach. Standards, voluntary agreements, new clusters and networks are the driving forces. Our institutions and companies therefore need to be led by people who are representative of the global reality. Politicians and companies that change their leadership through elections and AGMs are thus also facing new tasks. In all probability we will see an increasingly active voters and consumers.

Credibility, honesty and result are words that will gain in importance in both internal and external work, regardless of whether you lead an institution, organisation, political party or company.

I’am an incurable optimist in a problematic global world. My eyes perused green activist Tony Jupiter’s pessimistic lines in The Guardian, where he warned for 2011 being the worst year for the environmentally aware since 1993 (it could however be a reaction to the British Government’s fiscal restraints). I am not sure that I agree seen from a more international and perhaps even a Swedish perspective. My positive outlook is based on the following: I emulate from the fact that the number of people showing commitment are significantly more than in 1993 and that they will not accept developments that threaten their future as an individual or entrepreneur. Many more people are showing environmental commitment and social responsibility than ever before. Environmentally aware people of today are more than likely to be found outside of the traditional organisations, in new types of organisations, on the internet and in companies.

As John Elkington* also mentioned in The Guardian, leadership is perhaps the greatest challenge and the most crucial issue for many business leaders. How are business strategies and leadership developed? According to a study by the UN Global Compact based on interviews with 750 CEOs, 93 per cent claim to understand the significance of sustainability issues for their companies and many have already implemented a sustainability agenda. So GRI, ISO 26000 and ISO 14021 will become more of a norm for the majority of companies and organisations. There is certainly no shortage of challenges, so I can only conclude that leadership style is the most crucial issue. A leadership with the ability to engage its staff in transparent and systematic work towards sustainable development that can be measured and communicated.

The sustainability issue will come even more into the limelight in 2011 regardless of whether we live in Sweden, South Africa, Japan, USA, Brazil, India, China or the UK. Justice will be the hot global issue, particularly in relation between the poor and rich world. Emission rights trading has a role to play but will increasingly focus on issues where developing countries and industrialised nations interact in new types of development cooperation. The hesitancy show by Australia, Japan and the USA towards emission rights trading is sure to slow down developments.

In global cooperation it will be important to uphold a good rate of development in the energy area. The maturity of the market and EU’s large financial investments will guarantee a good development rate. On the other hand, it will be increasingly important to keep one eye on the sustainability perspective in the climate area. Reducing carbon emissions and all that it entails is not the same as developing long-term sustainability. Solar cell and wind power systems must also be recyclable. The IT sector’s materials have to be taken care of. Pharmatheutical industry and Pharmacies have to be more aware of its supply chain. Producer responsibility and life cycle analysis is therefore a vital part of sustainability work in the climate area.

Looking ahead, we will find it increasingly difficult to overview developments and we will suffer from information stress. There are still no comparable measuring methods and methods of, for example, measuring sustainability in GNP figures. The majority of traditional institutions in the service of government bodies have not changed in pace with societal progress and there is still a lack of measuring methods to determine the effects of developments.

Regardless of company, organisation or political party, urban development will be of interest to increasingly more people: near the market, easy to measure and you can see the results with your own eyes. Local politicians and companies will be able to take part in a more global and local process where old borders have been erased and new borders put in place. The markets are no longer just domestic. My eyes now fix on the urban development in Bombay’s slum district and the Rio de Janeiro, Lagos and Kinshasa suburbs. There are real challenges and opportunities here for Swedish green technology to contribute. Perhaps SIDA’s (Swedish International Developing Agency) new approach could be as asset in Swedish foreign trade?

My hope is for visible results leading up to 2012 and the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission’s report Our Common Future and the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. And it would be exciting indeed to experience a trend break with measurable results. Results that provide inspiration to the next generation and which will carry through the many dilemmas that we see today.

When I return to London in 2012 in time for the Olympic Games, I hope that both Tony Jupiter and John Elkington and other sustainability leaders in the UK have a sustainable Olympics on show with district heating, renewable fuels, ecological energy efficient housing and energy efficient waste management, etc.

Putting words (verbosity and formulations that our English friends are so good at) into actions (that we Swedes are so good at) is a noble art in which the Sweden-UK combination could be a formidable leadership team.

Kaj Embrén

* John Elkington is co-founder and Executive Chairman of Volans, co-founder and Non-Executive Director at SustainAbility. He blogs at and tweets @volandia.


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