While he resists being labelled, John is a writer, thought-leader and business strategist, a serial entrepreneur and, at heart, an environmentalist.
- Co-Founder, Chairman & Chief Pollinator, Board member, Volans, a certified B Corporation (2008 to date)
- Co-Founder, Honorary Chairman (for life), former Chairman (1995-2005), Board member (1987-2014), SustainAbility, a certified B Corporation
- Co-Founder, Founding Editor and Managing Director, Environmental Data Services (ENDS, 1978-1983)
Grit in the corporate oyster
At the age of 11, in 1961, John raised money for the newly formed World Wildlife Fund (WWF), where he has for many years served on the Council of Ambassadors. He went on to dedicate his life to helping influence, inspire and stretch the thinking of business leaders through informed story-telling and delivering ‘constructive discomfort,’ all in service of sustainability’s triple bottom line and breakthrough innovation.
Focusing on business from the mid-1970s, John has worked with scores of large corporations, particularly at board and C-suite level, as well as with the financial community, industry bodies, government, the media, NGOs, academia, innovators and entrepreneurs. His favourite description of his role: “grit in the corporate oyster.” As a provocative friend both of the future and of business, his aim is to help identify and create new forms of value.
Whilst much progress has been made, and many hard-fought battles won, John has become increasingly agitated by the incremental nature of the progress – often in the face of exponential problems. Encouraged by the exponential solutions now available to us, as showcased on Project Breakthrough, he is optimistic that the pace of change can accelerate. To help business leaders and changemakers embrace this more ambitious speed of change, John and his colleagues designed The Breakthrough Pitch – an attempt to distil a complex agenda down to its essence.
Project Breakthrough is a partnership with the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) focussing on the market opportunities of solving systemic challenges, as laid out by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, the initiative is exploring the emerging mindsets, business models and technologies making the opportunities possible.
Carbon Productivity aims to reframe the way we think of, and use, carbon. The initiative is calling for a 10X improvement in the value we create for each unit of carbon used. The hypothesis being that if we could achieve this we could tackle the two defining problems of our times; stalling productivity and accelerating climate change
Writing, Speaking & Advocacy
John is the author or co-author of 19 books, and has written chapters or forewords for many others. His most recent book is The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits with Tomorrow’s Bottom Line (January 2014), co-authored with Jochen Zeitz—former Chairman & CEO of PUMA and now co-founder of The B Team alongside Sir Richard Branson. John’s previous books include:
- 1988’s million-selling Green Consumer Guide (co-authored with SustainAbility co-founder Julia Hailes).
- 1997’s Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (the book which brought his triple bottom line concept and agenda to a wider audience).
- 2008’s The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, (Harvard Business School Press), co-authored with Volans co-founder Pamela Hartigan; and
- 2012’s The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, spotlighting a new breed of innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and policy-makers who are pushing towards zero in such areas as population growth, pandemic risk, poverty, pollution and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
John has contributed to an A-to-Z of newspapers and magazines including Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and Huffington Post. He is currently a columnist for such publications as Eco-Business (Singapore), and has his own GreenBiz (USA) feature, The Elkington Report.
As a speaker, he has addressed over 1,000 conferences, from World Economic Forum events through board meetings, industry convenings, future-focused gatherings to student events. See here for a list of upcoming speaking engagements.
Over the years, John has served as an advisor and board member to numerous companies, non-profits and policy initiatives. -Currently, he is a member of the Advisory Board of the Business & Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC), as well as a Board member of the Social Stock Exchange (SSX), where John chairs its Admissions Panel. He is also a member of the Boards of organizations like The Ecological Sequestration Trust (TEST), and a member of Advisory Boards for organizations like 2degrees Network, Aviva’s Stewardship Committee, Ecovadis, The B Team, Nestlé and Zouk Capital.
In addition to the day job, John is a Visiting Professor at the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, as well as at Imperial College London and University College London (UCL).
Recognition & Awards
John was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Essex in recognition of his work in the field of sustainable development. It was symptomatic of his broad interests that he was offered the opportunity to receive the award at the convocation ceremonies of the Economics Department (a subject he gave up after a year in 1968), the Sociology Department (the subject of his first degree), the Business School (given his focus all these years) or the School of Biological Sciences (which hosts the relatively new Sustainability Institute). He opted for Biological Sciences, a subject he gave up at 14, partly because he refused to cut up frogs.
- John has been described as a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development and is credited with coining the ‘triple bottom line’ concept for business. BusinessWeek described him as “a dean of the corporate responsibility movement for three decades.”
- The Evening Standard named him among the ‘1000 Most Influential People’ in London, describing him as “a true green business guru,” and as “an evangelist for corporate social and environmental responsibility long before it was fashionable.”
- In 2009, a CSR International survey of the Top 100 CSR leaders placed John fourth: after Al Gore, Barack Obama and the late Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, and alongside Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank—though he insists that Nobelist Yunus should rank way higher.
- John has received many awards and honours, including from the United Nations (Global 500 Roll of Honour, 1989). In 2005, John landed a “Social Capitalist of the Year” award from Fast Company, and at the end of that year he was awarded a 3-year, $1 million field-building grant from the Skoll Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, at SustainAbility and Volans, 2006-2008.
- In 2011, John was awarded the Spencer Hutchens, Jr. Medal by the American Society for Quality (ASQ), for his “outstanding leadership, as an advocate for social responsibility, and for bringing about positive social change.” In the same year, he was named among the ‘100 Global Sustain Ability Leaders’’ by ABC Carbon and the Sustain Ability Showcase Asia, based on nominations and recommendations received from around the globe.
- John has completed a Fellowship at the Bellagio Centre awarded to him by The Rockefeller Foundation. In May 2013, he was inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame by The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) in honor of his “extraordinary contribution to the field through research, publication, teaching and innovation”.
- And in 2014, he was awarded the Recycla/El Mercurio International Prize and in 2015 the Ethical Corporation Lifetime Achievement Award.
- John’s Who’s Who entry lists his recreations as: “playing with ideas, thinking around corners, conversations with unreasonable people, reading an Alpine range of books (history to science fiction) and business and science magazines, risking life and limb as a London cyclist, catch-it-as-you-can photography, art and design, writing all hours, pre-1944 aircraft, New World wines, 20th century popular music and Johann Strauss II.”
Ask John (born in 1949) if he is ready to retire, and he laughs—insisting that he is only just beginning to get a sense of what he was put on the planet to do—and is hopeful that the next decade will be his most productive yet.