Sustainability a ‘Change or Die’Pursuit, Paper Says

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By Andrea Vittorio

Sept. 26 — “Change or die.”That advice comes from John Elkington, a writer, business strategist and thought-leader who coined the terms “green growth” and “triple bottom line.” And it is directed at the world’s businesses as they try to set themselves up for sustainability during a time of rapid change in climate, population demographics and technology.

“Tomorrow’s business leaders understand that truly sustainable development is becoming a mainstream priority for a growing number of markets and, in the process, for an ever-extending list of major companies,” Elkington wrote in a paper he co-authored for a global commission on business and sustainable development set up at the start of this year.

The paper, being released Sept. 27 at the Sustainable Brands conference in Copenhagen, looks at how business models would need to change to meet the United Nation’s ambitious set of sustainable development goals(SDGs) for 2030.

“In a way, a lot of people are looking at the SDGs as a sort of tick-box exercise,” Elkington, who co-founded Volans Ventures in 2008, said in an interview.

Exponential Thinking

But tackling poverty and hunger while avoiding climate chaos are part of what the paper calls “a more radical agenda than most business leaders yet realize.”

“They imply a shift from incremental to exponential mindsets and ambitions; from our current focus on the negative impacts of economic activity to the deliberate generation of positive impacts; and from the business case for action to a reconsideration of business models that ensures industries are fit for tomorrow’s very different market and geopolitical realities,” the paper says.

It offers lessons in exponential thinking from “insurgents” like Tesla’s Elon Musk and “incumbents” like Unilever’s Paul Polman, who sits on the commission.

Elkington said one of the things that surprised him in writing the paper was how few chief sustainability officers at incumbents properly understood or could explain the business model of their company or organization. “I think that’s going to change,” he said.

“It’s not that complicated: Business leaders who commit to the Sustainable Development Goals are pursuing the greatest opportunities of our time,” Jeremy Oppenheim, a former World Bank economist and McKinsey & Co. senior partner who now leads the commission’s research, said in a statement. “This commitment means creating business models that more explicitly link profit to social and environmental performance.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

For More Information

The paper is available at

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