Q&A: John Elkington

The social capitalist behind the phrase “triple bottom line” talks about why some greenwashing is good.

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Mother Jones: I suspect there are not many Mother Jones readers who haven’t heard of the idea of the “triple bottom line—people, planet, profit,” but can you explain the thinking behind this concept and how you developed it?

John Elkington: It was 1994 that the phrase “triple bottom line” came into my mind. It wasn’t an easy birthing because I’d been thinking for almost 18 months, trying to come up with a term that would capture what to me was the full business agenda under the sustainability heading. At that time, with the best will in the world in many ways, people like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development were talking about ecoefficiency and basically seeing that as the royal road to sustainability. But I was, I think a number of people were, worried that if you just take financial and environmental, or at least resource efficiency (which is basically what they were doing with the ecoefficiency concept), you were missing out on large clubs of wider sustainability agenda. You were missing out on the economic impacts that companies and business generally have. And you were certainly missing out on the social agenda, which is the Mother Jones space to some considerable degree. That wasn’t totally accidental. I think quite a number of multinational corporations, in particular US corporations, were quite spooked by the whole social agenda and actively steering away from it. So “triple bottom line” was very consciously business language, trying to get under the guard of business people. It’s almost a Trojan horse trying to give them a sense that this was something that they wanted to play with and subscribe to. Once they started to use the language and commit to it to some degree, we could then define it in ways that could stretch their imaginations a little. That’s how it went down.

MJ: Are there any examples of projects or companies that demonstrate an appropriate application of the “triple bottom line” concept?

JE: There’s no company or individual that is flawless. I can point to test beds where companies are trying out elements of this, and often it hurts. It’s easier to address a single dimensional agenda than it is one in three dimensions. One of the early companies that we started to work with, which at that time was under great pressure, was Shell, both because of the Brent Spar oil-rig-disposal controversy in Europe, and the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in Nigeria. Almost immediately after those two things happened, Shell came to us. And we said, “Well, do we work with them?” We refused to do so for two years because we felt that it was an intelligent company trying to think its way into the future, and often quiet successfully, but in this particular case, both of those controversies indicated a company that didn’t quite connect with some of the values that were popping up in different parts of the world. I had recently been doing some training work for Shell in the Netherlands, right at the crux of the Brent Spar issue, 30 Shell people in a training session, and right at the end of the exercise, I asked, “Is Shell right or wrong on Brent Spar?” The group completely split down the middle, about 14-to-16. I thought initially that it had all to do with nationality. These people came from as diverse countries as Sweden and the Philippines, very international, about 15 countries. But actually, when we asked people who had voted which way, it had almost nothing to do with nationality and almost everything to do with age. The older people were more likely to think that Greenpeace or whoever were just troublemakers, and that society had gone mad, and given enough time, society would back off. The younger people felt very differently. Typically they would say, “We think that there are new issues coming up. We think that there are values coming up. We don’t think that our top management understands those in any great depth. And we’re worried about that.” That was one of the key reasons why we didn’t work with them for two years.

But when we did go in, one of the conditions that we put on going in—and we were being invited by chairmen-level people in the company, in fact by two successive chairmen—one of the conditions was that we felt that reporting was enormously important. As long ago as 1986, someone at Shell told me, “Shell will never report publicly on social and environmental issues because we’re too big and we’re too complicated.” And we helped take them through a process where they adopted another phrase that I came up with, “people, planet, profit,” as a way of popularizing the “triple bottom line.” That was the title of their first report. It was odd because the 3P (people, planet, profit) infected the Netherlands in the most extraordinary way. If you go to Holland, you’ll find that I’m far better known as the father, or godfather, or grandfather, or whatever, of that than of the “triple bottom line.” Shell tried to get its brain around the “triple bottom line” agenda to use that style of thinking both in developing its strategy and in engaging the wider world of stakeholders. But as a company it’s gone through a number of subsequent crises, controversies. I can’t say that it’s a 100 percent success rate, even with a company of enormous intelligence that has been under pressure for quite some time.

The company in the US where I think the “triple bottom line” approach could most usefully be applied at this particular point in time would be Wal-Mart, because in some ways I think they are doing phenomenally. I mean, I hate them as a company, I think their business model stinks, but the work that they’re doing on supply-chain management, cascading the grief that they’re feeling, the pain that they’re feeling, out to their suppliers, and saying, “You give us sustainable fish, or you drop incandescent lightbulbs and you give us compact florescents” or whatever it happens to be, is all very well. But when you stand back from all of that, it’s largely in the environmental space, and it’s largely in the cost-saving space. It’s actually taking us back to the years of ecoefficiency. If you were to probe, or Mother Jones or anyone were to probe Wal-Mart, as I’m sure you constantly do, on their social agenda or their human rights agenda, it’s a different story. There are many companies where they don’t speak of the “triple bottom line” but they do it. So I don’t think that, say, Interface, or Ben & Jerry’s, might have used it, but in a sense they’re lost now in the world inside Unilever. A number of those pioneering social enterprises were doing what I would like to see business doing more generally because it was a part of their values.

MJ: Do you have any concerns about greenwashing?

JE: Several things on that. I think that greenwashing is inevitable. And I think some of it is just overenthusiasm. We did a book called the Green Consumer Guide 20 years ago; it really caught consumer attention. The pressure came onto retailers and manufacturers in the most astonishing way. I remember one example at that stage, and you will still find these kinds of idiocies, where an advertising agency did a major advertising campaign for a car manufacturer claiming that the combination of catalytic converters and the use of unleaded gasoline was going to save the ozone layer. It was just scientific illiteracy. I don’t think they set out to mislead, but by god they did. The overclaiming that happens in these peak periods of enthusiasm for social and environmental issues tends to spur after lag-time advertising people, branding people, corporate-representation people, and so on climb on the bandwagon. I think that’s dangerous for a number of reasons. I think it undermines confidence in the business; it undermines confidence in individual companies. I also think it undermines the confidence of the average citizen trying to do the right thing, because even if they do do the right thing they often feel they are being misled or deluded by the companies.

But there is a positive side to greenwashing. It’s very simple. Twenty years ago plus, I did a book called The Green Capitalists and I started to use the green tag, which at that time was really much disliked by the business community in Europe because it was associated with the German green movement. But over two years or so, green became a fashion statement and companies started to mimic that. And once they started to use the language—it was odd—quite a number of times, we saw their thinking change. So what people say often precedes what they think. Some people sometimes say, “I have to hear myself talk before I know what I think.” I think language sometimes, because it opens new channels, it opens new doors, is enormously important.

So yes, I’m worried about greenwashing. I think we should come down on it very, very hard, whether it’s with criminal intent or actively deceptive. But because people are human, because they want to do the right thing, because they want to join in these broad social movements, screw up, they get the wrong end of the stick, they use the wrong terms, they overclaim or whatever, I don’t think we should completely behead them. I think we should get into conversation and redirect them. I think there is often in the activist community a quite natural, and quite legitimate, concern about having the NGO agenda undermined by spurious corporate claims, but I don’t think it’s a totally black-and-white universe.

MJ: With all the rhetoric, do you think that the green-jobs movement is overhyped?

JE: I’m really thrilled that it’s building. I think that it has to be successful. If we’re going to go through these convulsive transformations that our current economies are going to need to go through, we’re going to have to have citizen buy-in. If part of those convulsive changes means that we’re going to have to lose some fairly significant slices of fossil-fuel-based industries, the work forces are going to become aggressive opponents of those changes. So the “hearts and minds” strategy of getting through to the green-collar worker, I think that’s fundamentally important. I don’t think that most of the presidential candidates have yet totally understood the rhetoric, to some degree parroting. If that is to be real, I almost think we have to go like Japan did. For many years Japan strategically shut down industries, particularly the really energy-intensive ones, like shipbuilding and so on. They went offshore, and they went selectively into microelectronics, into things on the very high-value end. And I think the US is going to have to do the same, but this time not simply because of energy pressures, but because of a much broader set of factors.

MJ: What else can government do to help stimulate the process to the sustainable economy? Does anyone in the government understand its importance?

JE: Yeah, I’m sure they do. I’m sure they’re embedded away in all sorts of agencies and departments, and even the White House. There are people who do get it, and would like to do more than they are currently able to do. The Al Gore speech in DC awhile back…When I looked at that, something struck me about that speech. It had some of the components of profoundly influential political speeches of the past. It was a towering vision. It was identifying many of the problems we face, for example paying the Gulf oil producers all of this money, and they basically strangle us to feed our addiction. Beyond that there was a set of objectives, particularly the 10-year, 100 percent green electricity. We won’t get that; we’ll get there in 25 to 30 years. But there was the ambition, the “we’re all in this together” theme, which I personally found quiet compelling. If someone like Obama could pick up on that and deliver against it, I think it could be really quite profound. I think it could profoundly shift the way America’s viewed in the world, which I think is in a catastrophic collapse in the last eight years, not to be political about it. But I think a lot of the politicians at the moment are simply playing with the green-jobs language because it’s out there and it’s part of the zeitgeist, not because they, in any sense, appreciate or are committed to the scale of the industrial transformation that I think we would have to go through to achieve that.

MJ: Are we in a green-consumerism bubble? Is buying new stuff inherently unsustainable? And is green consumerism enough?

JE: I don’t know about you, but I’m part of the consumer culture. I was part of the baby boom generation. I have a car when I shouldn’t, a couple of computers; I can’t be anti-consumerist in that sense. But I think that consumerism is intrinsically a pretty flawed social system. I was reading a fascinating article today in the Harvard Business Review about when people are given bonuses by companies. When they spend it on themselves, on consumerism, there is no appreciable change in their level of happiness. I think the range of bonuses they were given were between three and eight thousand dollars. If they even spent on average on a particular day, $5 on somebody else, the net effect was significant and lasting. I think consumerism breeds dissatisfaction, and I think that the advertisers play to that. So I cannot be comfortable with that. On the other hand, the cornucopia of products and innovation—I love Apple, for example. That’s a temple of consumerism in many ways.

Are we in a bubble? Absolutely. Every time we get into a feeding frenzy around a particular issue, there’s a period in which it builds, and there’s a period in which it collapses. I think the green trend has typically tended to be a late economic boom phenomenon, so it’s no accident that the one we caught with the Green Consumer Guide in ’88, ’89, ’90 was the end of an economic cycle at that stage. Having said all of which, I think, like politicians who used to watch their mail bag, their post bag, now they watch their email inboxes. Companies watch what consumers are doing like a hawk. Just as one letter to a politician can signal an insipient problem, for companies, a trend where people are beginning to switch away from one of their key products to a rival offering on the basis of either claims or real improvements on performance, that’s significant. I think people often underestimate the power of consumers. But I equally say that consumers are like shock troops: You can’t keep them agitated and motivated and committed and active forever. There are pulses where they switch on to a particular issue, and just inevitably they switch off. The biggest weakness of the green-consumer movement, always, is that we tend to pick the easy-to-do things because that’s where we can most readily engage people. It doesn’t cost them very much to switch products or whatever it happens to be. We should really be looking at really significant changes that people can make in terms of the buildings in which they live, or the vehicles that they drive, rather than the detergent that they use, or the batteries that they put into their cell phones.

MJ: Do our actions here in the US or in Europe matter if countries like China or India don’t move in the same direction?

JE: It does and it doesn’t. If we don’t model a more sustainable way forward, there is absolutely no chance of the brick of the Brazils, the Russias, the Indias, the Chinas even beginning to converge on where we are, let alone overtaking. It doesn’t matter to some degree because we insanely exported an industrial model to, for example, China. Somebody recently described China as a carbon copy of the worst of the West in terms of carbon emissions. I think we have built for them, or helped them build, an industrial ecosystem which is fundamentally unstable. A couple of times I’ve been to China, I’ve seen Minster Pan Yue, who’s one of the most active champions of green accounting. He’s basically said publicly that China is headed toward ecological bankruptcy. But at the same time, where you look for real fundamental innovation tends to be the hot spots, the pressure points where these emergent issues are at their most intense. I think we will see in the next 25 to 30 years something Tom Friedman and others have already said, a wave of green innovation in China. I’ve met some of the early environmental entrepreneurs. They’re people like the guy who runs a clean-air, energy-efficient air-conditioning company. I remember having lunch—this isn’t name-dropping, just to show the level which it came from—with Bill Gates in Prague. We basically talked with him about research, and where Microsoft was getting its best research done. This is probably five or six years ago. He said, “We get great research in Redland, we get great research in Cambridge in the UK, but where we’re really excited about what’s happening is in China. These people are coming at this absolutely driven, absolutely compulsively motivated to innovate, not in terms of the individuals involved, but the greater good of China.” I don’t know how long that dynamic will go on for, but I do think it gets back to your question. It’s crucial what we do. It’s like the behavior that we model to our children. It’s a powerful relationship rather like that. But at the same time, we have to be very strategic. And we have to look at the trajectories these countries are on, and at certain points we are going to have to say, if they develop 1,000 more coal-fired power plants, or whatever, that it doesn’t matter what we do here. But they’re going to do that unless we help them do otherwise. And you get very quickly into the area of blackmail, the Chinese or whoever able to hold us for ransom. That’s where politics, that’s where international diplomacy, that’s where technology and business increasingly has to head. That was a very convoluted answer.

MJ: I’m wondering what personal citizens can do to help make these companies go more sustainable. Should people look into sustainable investments, green mutual funds and the like?

JE: I think whatever individuals do, it’s important that they are prepared to stick with what they do, because these little spikes of activity and concern, although they can have an effect on individual products or companies, don’t tend to be powerful drivers of business change or market change, long term. Behavioral change is more important than individual product choices. They both have a role to play. For example, I’m really bad at recycling, but my wife of 40 years has done it. I became a vegetarian 55 years ago, and I think it’s one of the more important behavioral changes I ever took. The more I see of the beef industry and so on, I believe that to be true. So I believe a lot of people will fritter around with pretty marginal choices and avoid the big ones. I do think that the money side of this is critical. That people increasingly have pensions, if they have pensions, they’re pretty often in one way or another in companies. I, again, was very late into the socially responsible investment field in terms of my pensions. For much of my life, I’ve been self-employed. It was much more under my control, but I still didn’t do it. And it was even worse because by the time I switched I’d already been 10 years on the board of some of the early stage, and then some quite mainstream, socially responsible investment funds. I recognize the friction in the system, the difficulties in getting people to switch. One of the reasons I didn’t was laziness; it just didn’t seem terribly exciting to me. I had a sense that if I did it, I’d probably screw the whole thing up. But there was also a sense that this is still an experiment, and I think increasingly the SRI field has gone mainstream. Even if smaller SRI funds haven’t themselves scaled, many of the principles or screening mechanisms or whatever have been stolen or transferred. And the fact that you’ve got companies like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley more interested in these sorts of things now is a reflection of the competitive pressure that some of those early pioneers exerted.

MJ: Is the SRI trend growing fast enough?

JE: No. Of course it isn’t. No it isn’t. You look at the venture capital area, which is where I’m involved and very excited by, and you get a few players terribly excited about this stuff, but that’s just a minute fraction of the flow of venture capital and private equity into companies and business more generally. It’s an exciting time in a sense that a lot more is happening, but I think governments have to weigh in. That’s something the US government in recent years has been very disinclined to do, but governments have to play their role. They have to regulate, they have to incentivize, they have to punish, they have to consciously either run down or build up industries. That’s what JFK did with his massive “moon shot in a decade” speech, which is one of the things that obviously resonates with the recent Gore speech. I hate government. I have real antibodies to government. But I think government activism and strategic action is going to become fundamentally important.

Photo courtesy of SustainAbility


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