Reimagining Comfort Zones, Carbon and Corporate Responsibility

John Elkington – a world authority on sustainable development – may look mild and unflappable in his clean-cut corporate attire and rimless glasses, but he’s been a troublemaker since way back.

In 1987, when John co-founded a consulting company called SustainAbility, nobody knew the word. Not only was “sustainability” an unfamiliar term, but companies also believed anything associated with environmentalism was out for corporate blood. Within a few years, however, John had shaken up businesses’ mindsets and was being asked to write environmental policies for major companies like BP.

Thirty years, nineteen books, and many sustainable business solutions later, John is now considered to be one of the most progressive thinkers on corporate responsibility. He’s made it his mission to challenge the comfort zones of the mainstream, and he won’t quit. Today, while most of the world sees climate change-causing carbon as a liability, John sees it as a source of immense opportunity.

Together with our team and other global organizations, John works to understand the true value of carbon and develop innovative solutions to increase its productivity. By reframing the discussion around carbon, John opens the door to huge environmental solutions and galvanizes people around the world to tackle the climate change problem.

As part of our interview series “You Can’t Feel Comfortable Leaving Your Comfort Zone. Why not?”, Baratunde Thurston spoke to John to learn about his experience pushing against the comfort zones of business leaders, his recent efforts to expand the comfort zones of the climate change movement, and his belief that corporations must embrace systemic change to create a more comfortable future for us all.

“I think we’re a very innovative species. We’ve got to get people’s brains working in a positive, creative way.”

Reimagining comfort zones

John often argues that progress comes as a result of being backed into a corner, and this theory sounds about right coming from a sustainability change-maker whose success has been defined by navigating uncomfortable situations.

Since the start of his career, John has been pushing C-suite executives outside of their comfort zones in order to redefine the relationship between sustainability and business strategy. It’s the challenge of a lifetime, he agrees, but progress, he says, is always the result of a challenge.

In the first part of our interview, John shares where he’s most comfortable, his experience challenging the comfort zones of others, and why he believes we all must open our minds to solve the environmental issues we face today.

On a personal front, where are you most comfortable?
I think I’m most comfortable when I’m least comfortable, where I’m being forced to find out what the hell I’m meant to be doing on this planet and learning as I go.

One of the terms you’ve used to describe yourself is “agitator.” You go into corporate environments, these C suites, and you make leaders uncomfortable with some of their assumptions and with the impact of their businesses on the environment. Is that fair?
It’s fair. I would say that there are proper agitators. There are activists and campaigners who put their lives or their livelihoods at risk, and I haven’t had to do that. But I do take risks. Somebody once described me as the grit in the corporate oyster. So, I agitate, and if the company can spit me out early on in the process, it will. But if I stay in, sometimes, unusual things happen.

Don’t pearls come out of that process?
They sometimes do. But they can be a bit irregular.

Speaking of uncomfortable situations, our planet is also experiencing a lot of discomfort. What’s your take on where we are?
Well, I believe progress often comes from being backed into a corner, and we’ve backed ourselves into the mother of all corners. There’s so much evidence coming in on the loss of species, on ocean acidification, on global warming… You name it, it’s going in the wrong direction, and it’s going far faster than anyone imagined it might.

Part of how we’ve gotten into this precarious situation is prioritizing our own comfort at all costs.
I think the idea of comfort zones is very powerful. I think most of us occupy comfort zones without really thinking about them very much. And we all need them. We all need somewhere to go back and recharge and be ourselves. But the wider world is now intruding into our comfort zones. There are some very powerful signals being sent to us that say, whatever you’re doing, stop it.

You’ve described our species as being backed into a corner, the mother of all corners with respect to climate change. How do we get out?
Part of it is just waking up and learning how to think about a world wider than the one we occupy in our comfort zones. I think we’re a very innovative species. We’ve got to get people’s brains working in a positive, creative way. It’s an immensely exciting time for change.

“The fact that we’re actually starting to do this – capture carbon and use it commercially – is tremendously exciting.”

Reimagining carbon

As global warming causes our planet to become increasingly uncomfortable, John believes we are at a central point in history where we have to rethink climate change solutions. To date, the climate change movement has told a largely devastating story about our fossil fuel dependency, and climate action has primarily been centered on “reducing,” “mitigating,” or “stabilizing” our emissions. But reducing our carbon footprint, John argues, is only half the job.

Together with our team and other like-minded businesses, John is exploring new business models and technologies that increase carbon’s productivity to address – and reverse – global warming. In the second part of our interview, John discusses the power of positive carbon thinking and explores the sustainable applications for carbon dioxide that already exist today.

You’ve described the 2020s as a necessary breakthrough decade, where we’ve got to get our act together. What do you mean by breakthrough decade?
I do genuinely think that the next 10 years are absolutely critical, and it’s partly because the United Nations have come up with the Sustainable Development Goals to build not just the future we want, but the future we need by 2030.

As we think about the changing climate and the challenges facing our species, we also have to think differently about our resources. I’ve heard you use the expression “carbon productivity.” So, we don’t need to declare war on carbon?
There is something about declaring war on something that can be a little bit of a problem. For many years, we were only saying, “Burn less carbon. Squeeze it down.” What we’re beginning to do now is think, “What else can we do with the carbon we do burn?” Suddenly, people are starting to play with ideas in a way they once would not have done. It’s a very significant step forward.

Can you describe the process of taking a raw material, like carbon dioxide, and making it productive?
In previous years, people had nothing to do with carbon dioxide except pump it through tall chimneys into the atmosphere. Now, people are beginning to realize you can make fuels out of recaptured carbon dioxide. You can make materials. You can do many different things. There are new chemistries evolving all the time. I think that’s one of the real benefits of carbon productivity; it pushes people into thinking creatively.

So, we’re reimagining carbon waste and finding that this waste can contribute to a productive system or product creation.
Once you start to think about carbon not as something you pump up there [into the air], but something you’re really quite pleased to recapture and start to use, there’s a magic that starts to evolve. One of the things Covestro has done is take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into useful products, like mattresses. The fact that we’re actually starting to do this – capture carbon and use it commercially – is tremendously exciting.

“Unless you can get the big players to come in, pick up elements of innovation, and really drive it through to scale, change isn’t going to happen fast enough.”

Reimagining corporate responsibility

In order to create a sustainable climate and a prosperous world, John sees no other option than to reorient our economy towards preserving earth’s systems. No longer is this a matter of businesses making things acceptably “green,” he said recently in the New York Times. Nor will this be a checklist exercise for companies. If we are to create a global economy that works, he believes true systemic change is required.

In the final part of our interview, John explains businesses’ role in preserving our planet and discusses how new concepts, like carbon productivity, can inspire a sense of innovation that transverses industry lines.

You’ve mentioned the sustainability goals established by the United Nations. What is the role of business in achieving these goals?
I think the problem I see is that very often companies look at these 17 goals and say, “We’re doing a bit of that, and we’re doing a bit of that. We’re doing three things. Great, job done!” Well, not really. Business is on some sort of learning journey where it’s realizing this is not just about incremental change. It’s about systemic change. That’s a totally different ballgame.

What would businesses need to do to genuinely embrace a meaningful concept of sustainability?
I think the first thing is to just get out there more. Business leaders have to get into the outside world – not just the bit they’re comfortable with – to see some of the people who drive disruptive change. Unless you can get the big players to come in, pick up elements of innovation, and really drive it through to scale, change isn’t going to happen fast enough.

You’ve worked at this intersection of activism and corporate governance. What role could businesses play in helping us bring ourselves back from the existential brink?
When I first started working, groups like Greenpeace would say, “All we need to do is tie them down with rules and regulations. Job done.” But my view has always been that until we can spark the creative instinct of business, this stuff is not going to go in the right direction or fast enough. Business is crucial because it can deploy the finance. It can develop and deploy the technology. But it can only do that if it understands reality is changing profoundly, and it has to engage much more widely than even many of the best companies are currently doing.

The idea of companies baking sustainability into their operations, especially their financial targets, do you believe that’s even possible?
Everything’s possible. For example, if you talk about productivity and creating new forms of value out of carbon, different parts of the business brain light up. Today, suppliers like Covestro are starting to talk to customer industries, building companies, and automotive manufacturers about how to squeeze more value out of less carbon. We’ve still got a ways to go. But the key thing is that we’re starting to think about it.

Here’s what I’m hearing: We can’t afford for anyone to be on the sidelines, and this idea of carbon productivity can inspire a sense of innovation in business and get us where we need to go faster. Is that fair?
It is. For a long time, most of the people dealing with resources, including carbon, tended to think incrementally. How they could create a 1 percent or 2 percent improvement each year. Now, suddenly, people are beginning to play with ideas of exponential change in a way that’s never been done before. And I think that’s real progress.

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