Four years earlier, Che Guevara feels the heat at preparatory session for our 2012 Breakthrough Capitalism Forum
For up-to-date coverage of our work at Volans, please take a look here.
Meanwhile, 2014 marked my fortieth year working professionally in the environmental and sustainability spaces. But I am still not entirely sure how to label what I do. Indeed, I often kick off speeches by saying that when I am asked for my profession by immigration officials, I struggle to find an answer that will be neutral enough not to trigger a cascade of probing questions. ‘Entrepreneur’ or ‘Company Director’ are two that satisfy many officials, but not all. Those descriptions have been true, successively, of such organisations as Environmental Data Services (ENDS), SustainAbility and Volans, all covered in this section.
Other professions I am sometimes tempted to mention are ‘Babelfish’ (as in Douglas Adams’ wonderful living earpiece that would translate all the languages of the galaxy) and ‘Ambassador from the Future,’ in the sense that I try to channel the needs of the voiceless (either because they are powerless or not yet born) into today’s decision-making processes. Another self-description has been “the grit in the corporate oyster,” in the sense that what starts out as an irritant can become the source of longer term value. But going through all of that would be tempting fate with most immigration officials.
In some ways I have been a surfer, detecting rising waves ahead of many and riding them as they built—including the environmental, biotechnology and sustainability waves. And I have been immensely privileged to have visited and worked with literally hundreds of companies around the world, initially as a contributor to magazines like New Scientist, and as founding-Editor of The ENDS Report (launched in 1978) and of Biotechnology Bulletin (launched in 1983 and which I then edited for 15 years).
Over the years, I have coined a fair few terms that have gone into the language, including ‘environmental excellence,’ ‘green consumer’ and the ‘triple bottom line.’ Even the term ‘sustainability’ was little used when we adopted as our new company’s name in 1987. Indeed, as I have often recalled, we spent the first 3-4 years spelling the word for pretty much everyone who we met or who called. In the process, I have delighted in working with a succession of designers to visualize key aspects of the agenda, including (for over 15 years, Rupert Bassett, who also played a key role in the original design of this website).
Engaging Boards and C-Suites: Part of a cartoon Ingram Pinn of the Financial Times did for me in mid-1990s
Whacked By Hurricane Floyd: a 1999 board meeting of Ben & Jerry’s (I’m at the bottom of the boat)
But in terms of the basics elements of my working life, they include:
- I write (articles, blogs, reports and books, with a listing of my 19 books to be found under ‘Publications’).
- I speak at conferences and other events around the world.
- I lead/direct on ideas—though I would be the first to admit that I am not a natural manager of people or projects, relying on others in my team to ensure the success of the projects I get involved in and the organizations I help launch. I am fortunate to have such people around me!
- I advise/consult for clients in the private, public and citizen sectors.
- I sit on boards and advisory boards (see listing of present—and some past—memberships here).
- I teach (for example, with visiting professorships at the Doughty Centre, Cranfield School of Management/University, Imperial College London, and (my old alma mater) University College London (UCL).
Small world: Dave (Packard) and Bill (Hewlett) open the door on the garage where HP was born
Rather than being disparate strands, these different aspects of my working life feed each other. The consulting I do for companies and other organizations feeds into my writing, speaking and teaching, and vice versa. In terms of the confidentiality vs. transparency balance, we sign non-disclosure agreements with pretty much all our clients, but at the same time it is rare that at least some of that work doesn’t provide content for our more public-facing activities. The photo of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, above, was taken during a tour of HP Labs in Palo Alto, HP being a company we have worked with in various ways over the years. I loved the idea of the company’s founders opening the garage doors again to find Earth inside, though multiple meanings could no doubt be extracted.
in terms of the interplay between thought-leadership and advisory roles, a key reason I was involved in the 1999 Ben & Jerry’s board meeting that was to decide whether to sell out to a larger company, for example, was that I was identified with the triple bottom line agenda. But things soon went adrift: just as I arrived on Cumberland Island, off the coast of the US state of Georgia, Hurricane Floyd blew up and we all had to decamp back to the mainland, and take part in a slightly harrowing mass migration inland.
Both at SustainAbility and Volans, I have always felt part of a wider community of business people evolving the corporate responsibility, transparency, accountability and sustainability agendas, and it was a particular delight when both Volans and Sustainability became certified B Corporations in 2013, with Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia among the larger B Corps.
As the agenda has evolved, I have worked with some leaders over many years. Patrick Thomas, on the right in the photo below, was just becoming CEO of ICI Polyurethanes when I first worked with him in the early 1990s. Today we work with him as the CEO of Bayer MaterialScience. (Incidentally, we don’t insist that all our clients wear green ties: that was a Bayer theme for the 2013 K-Fair in Dusseldorf.)
Richard Northcote, Celina Chew and Patrick Thomas of Bayer MaterialScience at K-Fair 2013
Since 2008, I have mainly carried forward these professional activities through Volans. The name comes from the Latin for something that flies, as in the case of Pisces volans, the flying fish. For more personal work, I developed a couple of platforms over the years, John Elkington Associates (founded in 1983 and later largely absorbed into SustainAbility) and CounterCurrent.
We are compulsive collaborators, working with a wide range of other individuals, organisations, initiatives and platforms. For several years, for example, we have worked with The B Team, co-chaired by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz, the latter a former CEO of PUMA and my co-author on the latest book, The Breakthrough Challenge.
Spoof Branson poster at The Economist‘s HQ
Much of our work is built around ongoing conversations, which is why I once responded to a question from a delegate at an Australia conference (he asked in a plenary session what strategic tools we relied on) by saying that our most important strategic tool was our sofa. That’s still the case, though these days it’s sofas.
The door’s open.