Should 2012 be the start of a decade of sustainable capitalism?

Transforming capitalism is about more than shifting corporate behaviour. It requires a change in cultures, governance systems and tax regimes and this takes time.

So what will 2012 bring for us all? One thing the New Year is guaranteed to bring is a series of key anniversaries. Indeed, at times it will be hard to move without tripping over one milestone or another. Most obviously, there will be the UN Rio+20 conference, twenty years on from 1992s Earth Summit. But we will also mark the twenty-fifth anniversaries of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, and of SustainAbility – the company I co-founded early in 1987. Less obviously, 2012 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Limits to Growth study and the fiftieth of Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring, first published in 1962. Both books had a huge impact on my thinking.

All of these historic events continue to send ripples through today’s world, not least contributing to the growth of interest in sustainable business, as seen in the evolution of the Guardian Sustainable Business website, with its various Hubs. But I’m wondering whether we oughtn’t to be raising our sights considerably in the coming year?

In searching for New Year’s Resolutions, and ways to boost our collective Future Quotient, I have been thinking back to some of the quotations I saw last week as I was taken around logistics company TNT’s Amsterdam HQ, an extraordinary building billed as Europe’s greenest – designed to be a net energy producer, with LEED Platinum certification and a GreenCalc+ score of 1005 points.

The first quotation I saw engraved on a window inside the building was Mahatma Gandhi’s “You must be the change you want to see the world.” Then I came across Nelson Mandela’s “It always seems impossible until it is done.” And Thomas Edison’s “There is no substitute for hard work.”

Then, turning a corner, I encountered Richard Branson’s “Our generation has inherited an incredibly beautiful world from their parents and they from their parents. It is in our hands whether our children and their children inherit the same world.” A pretty concise framing of the sustainability agenda from the author of Screw Business as Usual.

As I reflected on how we might achieve the impossible by dint of yet more hard work, it struck me that one of our biggest problems next year will be that we will be bombarded with information on how the world is getting better—and how it is getting worse. With the travails of the Eurozone, the risk of a global downturn and the continuing distraction of the U.S. elections, the chances are that 2012 will come and go before we have truly got our act together.

Initially, I thought of the idea of declaring a Year of Sustainable Capitalism, to build on the publication of the Manifesto for Sustainable Capitalism co- authored by David Blood and Al Gore of Generation Investment Management. (We are currently working with the Value Web, on a TEDx event on sustainable capitalism, almost certainly to be held in London in May — which evolved out of the One Planet London initiative we launched at the beginning of 2011.)

But then I thought about the Year idea some more, particularly after listening to Michael Porter’s speech at a major conference on sustainable value chains in Amsterdam. In contrast to events earlier in the year, he is now signaling that his Creating Shared Value approach threatens the extinction of neither CSR nor the wider sustainability agenda.

Instead, he is talking about the need to change capitalism as a whole to fit the social and environmental needs of the new century. The capacity audience at Amsterdam’s RAI conference centre was rapt, though I suspect that most delegates have yet to wake up to the fact that Porter is effectively calling for a decades-long conversion process. And that suggests that no single Year declared will do more than scratch the surface. I also subsequently discovered that the UN has already declared 2012 the Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

So it would seem that sustainability is in the wind. But anyone concerned about the dilution of definitions by the processes of mainstreaming would not have been reassured by one of the working sessions I dropped in on at the value chain event – a session billed as providing answers to the question of how business can go from 5-10% sustainability solutions to 90-95% solutions.

Among the presenters: Ahold, the retail giant. Their CEO recently called for all their ‘own brands’ to be sustainable by 2015, and the speaker noted that they were already producing ‘sustainable pork’. So in an interval I queried, at a time when meat production is thought to account for some 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, whether Ahold has confirmed that their version of sustainable pork would help feed a world headed towards 9 billion people? The answer: no. Instead, I was told, ‘sustainable’ here means that the consumer’s animal welfare concerns have been addressed.

As someone who went largely vegetarian some 35 years ago, and who apparently bit the local butcher in the back of his leg when, aged four, I saw him cutting up a lamb, I’m pleased about the animal welfare improvements – but not persuaded that Ahold will be anything like sustainable, even in its own brand category, by 2020, let alone 2015.

So, while we should welcome stretch targets, it seems that we need to raise our collective sights in ways that ensure we keep track of progress over multiple years. Yes, we should welcome UN Years, but we should also understand that they are declared in a vacuum unless the processes of capitalism engage in timely and effective ways. Changing capitalism requires us to change not just corporate mindsets and behaviours, but the cultures, governance systems and tax regimes within which business operates.

This is part of the context for the proposed Zero Hub we are developing with Deloitte Innovation. Designed to coincide with the launch next May of my new book, The Zeronauts, this has attracted a significant number of companies wanting to get involved – but in a surprising number of cases the ultimate decision has gone up to the company’s Board. Our reading is that too many companies are still thinking of all this in terms of corporate citizenship rather than surviving the growing forces of creative destruction.

So, to raise the stakes, as we put in the hard work towards our TEDx event on sustainable capitalism, I am increasingly inclining towards the notion of declaring a Decade of Sustainable Capitalism, to be launched at the event. But what do you think of the idea?

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel. He is a past Chairman – and current Trustee – of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

This article was originally published on Guardian Sustainable Business and has been reprinted in full with permission.

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