Money, that’s what they want

The next decade looks set to be the most challenging, exciting and potentially productive yet. The launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the impending COP21 summit, spurred along by visionary leaders like the Pope, could help the world reboot both corporations and capitalism, says John Elkington.

Volans Op-ed
The Volkswagen scandal offers a golden opportunity to debate and define the post-2015 agenda. The task is not simply to rebuild the wider car industry, but to transform capitalism and its master discipline of economics. Image: Shutterstock

Money (That’s What I Want) was the featured track in the Financial Times series ‘The Life Of A Song’ on 26 September. Originally sung by Barrett Strong, before going stratospheric with the 1963 rendition by The Beatles, the song is now the subject of a legal dispute, with Strong claiming unpaid royalties. No surprise, really, given that money is often at the root of the bad things—and outright evil—that people do.

Think of the corruption scandals sizzling around the Swiss-born Darth Vader of football, Sepp Blatter. He is the first president in FIFA’s 111-year history to be questioned over alleged criminal offences. So does this mean that the football industry was clean until he came along, or simply that no one bothered in the past?

My view is that anyone arguing that the football industry is squeaky clean is either delusional or complicit.

Sadly, the same seems to be true of those, including weak-kneed regulators and a too-easily-persuaded Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes team, who allowed Volkswagen to pass itself off as a “sustainable” car company. (I say that as someone who was part of the DJSI advisory board through its early years.)

As SustainAbility has long argued, we urgently need to clean up the sustainability ratings industry.

However much we believe in—and encourage—the long-term success of ‘clean fish’ companies, their chances fade sharply when they are forced to swim in dirty, polluted market oceans.

But if this suggests that I am downbeat about the prospects for driving real change in business, the exact opposite is true. Indeed, 2015 could be the most powerful springboard to date for novel approaches to boosting the future-fitness of businesses and of markets.

Ever since we launched Volans in 2008, in the teeth of a financial crisis triggered by the venality of financiers and the complicity of politicians and market regulators, we have stressed the need for systemic change.

By the time this column appears, I am due to have debated the question “Is CSR Dead?” with Mark Kramer of FSG and the Shared Value Initiative—and the need for system change would seem to suggest that the answer is yes. The debate was organized by the UK-based bank, Barclays, itself not entirely innocent in the financial crisis— given its criminal manipulation of the crucial Libor rate.

Weirdly, I was positioned in the debate as a champion of corporate social responsibility (CSR), a field I consciously stepped away from years ago. But now we have the likes of former BP CEO Lord John Browne arguing that CSR Is Dead.

And that gets my blood up!

I respect what he did years ago when flagging climate change risks, even writing an appreciation in Time magazine to that effect. But some may now see his put-down of CSR as an attempt to deflect attention from the strategic failings of his own former company and leadership.

When the crunch comes, CEOs and other leaders insist that, “It wasn’t my fault. Everyone was doing it. The system’s to blame.”

Well, on that last point, at least, they have a point. For what seemed to be perfectly good reasons at the time, such people have helped build a system that serves capitalists well, but too often fails when it comes to people, planet and longer-term prosperity.

Such thoughts coursed through my brain as I pondered the Lifetime Achievement Award that Ethical Corporation gave me on 25 September. Sadly, I couldn’t make it to the ceremony, but as it progressed I received a stream of emails and tweets.

“I was at the Ethical Corp Award ceremony tonight,” emailed EcoVadis co-founder Sylvain Guyoton, “and I was surprised to hear that you were the winner of Ethical Corporation lifetime achievement award … You are way too young for this :) … I hope you are not going to retire!” 

Well, no. Having never had a clear career path, making things up as I went along, I have never thought of retiring. I have made useful money along the way, but my main impulse has been change.

And the need for that is greater than ever. Like modern era pontiffs up to Pope Benedict XVI, I have assumed that I would press on until I dropped dead. Now aged 78, Pope Francis gives me a degree of headroom, given that I am a mere 66.

But there’s a more urgent, personal reason for putting my foot on the accelerator, not the brake.

The next decade looks set to be the most challenging, exciting and—potentially—productive yet. The launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (for all their defects) and the impending COP21 summit, spurred along by visionary leaders like the Pope, could help us reboot both corporations and capitalism.

This is why I was so thrilled to be part of the launch of the UK wing of the impact-focused B Corporation movement in London on 24 September. Some 62 founder B Corps took the stage, including two companies I co-founded, Volans and SustainAbility. The rallying cry: let’s not just be the best in the world, but the best for the world!

The VW scandal offers a golden opportunity to debate and define the post-2015 agenda. Our task is not simply to rebuild VW and the wider car industry, but to transform capitalism and its master discipline of Economics.

For those wanting a breakthrough challenge, could there be a bigger one?

If Money (That’s What I Want) is your personal or corporate anthem, know that the coming economic transformation will strand many of today’s “assets” on an historical scale. But totally new forms of wealth will be created, thanks to tomorrow’s Gates, Buffetts and whatever the plural of Jobs might be.

John Elkington is co-founder and Executive Chairman of Volans. He also co-founded SustainAbility (where he is Honorary Chairman) and Environmental Data Services (ENDS). His latest book, The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line, is co-authored with Jochen Zeitz and published by Jossey-Bass. His latest report is The Stretch Agenda, a dramatization of a board meeting, linked to The Breakthrough Forecast, an online market intelligence resource. He tweets as @volansjohn.

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