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The Guardian: Rising to the challenge?

EXTRACT: Globalisation helped drive things along, with controversies surrounding companies such as Shell, Nike and Monsanto.


For more than three decades, John Elkington has watched and been involved in the growth of the environment movement. He looks at how the business and political landscapes have changed in response

Wednesday March 28, 2007

Pinch yourself. Al Gore has walked off with an Oscar; Gordon Brown is said to be green; German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Jacques Chirac vie to put Europe on a low carbon diet; President Hu Jintao of China declares global warming is not just an environmental issue but make-or-break for the country’s future; Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s governor, morphs from Terminator to Germinator on the strength of his muscular support for green technology; and even Wal-Mart is trying to sell sustainability. Who’d have thought it?

But listening to Brown expound his list of when-I’m-prime-minister pledges at a recent Green Alliance event, today’s political bridgeheads seemed precarious. Profound change is coming – but I believe that change will be less because of what politicians feel impelled to promise than because of the way powerful demographic, planetary and market forces are converging to drive real action.

They rarely come more powerful than Hurricane Katrina. Wal-Mart’s chief executive, Lee Scott, explained his own change of heart as driven by the wake of destruction that cut through his company’s economic heartland. He says he woke up to the fact that the eco-issues campaigners had been pushing him to tackle were, in effect, “Katrina in slow motion”. The fact that Wal-Mart is now committed to running 100% on renewable energy and to stocking sustainable fish – when it can find it – is beyond industry-standard greenwash. And it plans to push its new priorities through its global supply chain of 61,000 companies.

Katrina was the latest in a long series of ecodisasters. Brown, though, repeatedly stressed how much the current political debate owes to the efforts of environmentalists going back “30 years”. True, but 50-plus years would be more like it. In 1949, the year I was born, Jim Lovelock stumbled across the incredible sensitivity – both to tobacco smoke and to chemicals such as CFCs – of his electron capture detector. In the process, he lit a fuse that later detonated a string of public opinion bombs under the chemical industry.

Pressure waves

A series of gigantic societal pressure waves have impacted on politicians, regulators, businesses and, increasingly, the financial markets. The first wave built from the early 1960s, in the wake of Rachel Carson’s epoch-making book, Silent Spring. Groups such as WWF, founded in 1961 by Max Nicholson and Peter Scott, pushed nature conservation up the agenda. Then came Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. In the UK, this was the campaigning heyday of people such as Tom Burke and Richard Sandbrook, of Friends of the Earth, Pete Wilkinson, of Greenpeace, and Charles Medawar, of Social Audit.

That first wave peak roared through from 1969 and culminated in the first UN environmental conference in 1972. Through the subsequent downwave, a raft of environment ministries surfaced worldwide, followed by a secondary wave of regulation. Industry, on the defensive, was forced to comply with a floodtide of new laws. And that is where many companies remain.

The second wave, peaking between 1988 and 1991, was very different. The Brundtland Commission published Our Common Future in 1987, introducing the concept of sustainable development. Having founded SustainAbility, advising on that and corporate responsibility, a month earlier with Julia Hailes, we launched the Green Consumer Guide in 1988. It caught the zeitgeist, selling a million copies.

Spooked by issues such as ozone depletion, growing numbers of ordinary citizens voted for change with their purses or wallets. New faces appeared in the green spotlight, among them Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin. Political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, George Bush Snr and Mikhail Gorbachev made their first green speeches – as green parties surged in Germany and even, briefly around the 1989 EU elections, the UK.

Industry, again, was off balance, the challenges even tougher. Previously, companies could lobby to slow down or gut new laws. Then retailers became market gatekeepers, changing their product specifications almost overnight – often leaving manufacturers and growers months or just weeks to change their product formulations. Lead went from petrol, mercury from batteries, phosphates from detergents, chlorine from paper. Companies scrambled to audit suppliers and, for a time, the game became competitive.

But then things changed again. Through the 1990s, companies reverted to corporate citizenship. Globalisation helped drive things along, with controversies surrounding companies such as Shell, Nike and Monsanto. One unfortunate result was that the green agenda was left with corporate social responsibility departments rather than boards.

From 1999, the rules of the game morphed further as the third wave peak kicked off in the streets of Seattle with the protests against the World Trade Organisation. This time, though, unless their jobs were being offshored, the issues seemed more remote to most people. The 9/11 attacks in the US savagely chopped back that third wave. Emerging concerns around environmental security were sluiced away in the race to win the “war against terrorism”.

But a new wave is now building, with climate change a key driver of political responses. London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, and Tory leader David Cameron are local examples, with the mayors of Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago among their US counterparts – while Schwarzenegger’s market-shaping initiatives in California are the shape of things to come.

In this new phase, people such as Jules Peck and Clare Kerr have moved from WWF to work for Cameron’s Quality of Life Commission. Politics, they sense, is increasingly the name of the game.

Venture philanthropists

For business, the emerging fourth wave agenda is less about compliance and citizenship than about creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial solutions and market incentives. A report we will publish soon focuses on “out of the box” social and environmental entrepreneurs. Jeff Skoll, who co-founded eBay, is one of the new breed of venture philanthropists. Among other things, he funded Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Most politicians are still playing catch-up. In his recent address to the Green Alliance, Brown recalled that his first environmental speech had been in a church hall. He said he had turned down last year’s invitation, which then went to Cameron – with well-known results.

Business, meanwhile, is still where much of the action is. Companies and non-governmental organisations are combining forces in groundbreaking alliances such as the Climate Leaders Group – lobbying politicians for action. And there was an interesting cameo earlier this month when the chief executives of America’s biggest car companies withstood pressure during a congressional hearing to belittle the significance of manmade carbon emissions.

So where does the environment debate and agenda go next? In terms of breakthrough technology and business models, the growing interest of venture capital outfits such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPBM) in the “cleantech” field – with billions of dollars pouring into biofuels, wind energy and solar photovoltaics – is encouraging. But even the KPBM people admit that if the Greenland ice cap melts, the ensuing sea-level rises will drown many of the world’s most populous cities.

· John Elkington is founder of and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. Read his blog at

· Email your comments to [email protected]. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly “for publication”,,2044046,00.html

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