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Elaine Elkington
A view from the boiler-room

elaine elkington 1968.
Elaine in 1973

elaine elkington 2002.
...and in 2002, exiting a tomb at Ugarit, Syria, a source of our alphabet.


John and I first met in 1968, at night in a lay-by, while hitchhiking home from university. We have now been together for 35 years, married for 30 of them. So maybe it's not entirely surprising that when a draft of the website was sent for comment to a small group of friends and colleagues, several suggested it might be interesting to hear how John's 'career' - and SustainAbility itself - looked from my point of view.

Well, with hindsight, both gradually came together through a set of pretty haphazard circumstances, sustained by a consistent vision of what might be, an indomitable pioneering spirit (John's) and a continuing excess of 24/7 nose to the grindstone!

Polite police
The pace of work for much of the time was intense. I remember when we were living in Elizabeth Street, near Eaton Square in the early 1970s that one night John still wasn't home at 03.00 in the morning. So I went around the corner to the police station in my nightdress. They laughed politely, of course - and then moments later John arrived back on his cycle, having been racing to get a report off to the printers, once again.

I'm not sure it was much better when he was later working equally late hours at home, on the many books that have poured out of his small study at the back of the house. John's mind is always enquiring into so many different things. Luckily, perhaps, I am also very curious and love finding things out.

Our house in Barnes, which we bought in 1975, took four years to make habitable, and has since been awash with books, newspaper cuttings and magazines, accumulated by us both in more or less equal measure. So we're somewhat attuned, despite our diverse interests.

When we met, there was a constant fizz in the air. Rock music, bands, new types of films, happenings, psychedelia, fashions almost thrusting up through the pavement as you walked down the King's Road to World's End on a Saturday afternoon, picking up numerous party invitations on the way. You still hear strong echoes of all of that in John's musical selection.

Flush with fish
From 1968 on, when I left university, I worked in publishing, some of the publishing houses being deeply traditional, staid, others much more in tune with the times. At Wildwood House, for example, we took on Nick Saunders' Alternative London. I remember visiting his house: what particularly sticks in my mind is a transparent cistern in the loo, with goldfish rising and falling with the flushing. And a duck pond, complete with ducks, half in and half out of his house,

We were flower-powered in London, flying high to San Francisco, a city we first visited in 1973 on our 'honeymoon'. It was great fun, but it was really an excuse for John to visit a lot of interesting people across the States who were writing science fiction, working on environmental issues and developing alternative lifestyles.

When we visited Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti project in the Arizona desert, for example, the cook had just been bitten by a black-widow spider, there were rattlesnakes everywhere and I was the one who ended up sitting in the middle of the dinner - we were eating outside at long trestle tables - when the skunks, unannounced, started rootling around our legs.

Alternative living was about environmental concerns, idyllic dreams of self-sufficiency and the bucolic delights of country life. Communes were rife - and several friends were insistent that we join them in setting up 'intentional communities'. I did voluntary stints at Friends of the Earth in Poland Street and at times it was touch and go whether we would go off and set up in the country.

One of our friends, Andrew Whitley, was one of those who did launch forth, founding The Village Bakery ( in Melmerby. It has been a tremendous success, though a profound struggle for Andrew at times. He used heat from his wood-fired bread ovens to grow melons in greenhouses and so on. But part of his challenge has been to get excellent alternative baked products into the major supermarkets without being ripped off by the supermarket chains. The morality of the marketplace can be pretty Darwinian.

Looking back, I realise that my character was completely unsuited to communal living and I am amazed (given John's strong tribal streak) that I - we - have survived and are still together.

After working in Fleet Street, I moved to Oxford University Press (OUP), incidentally helping feed John's appetite for books on all sorts of subjects, from oceanography and tree farming to the Crusading era castles of the Middle East. I cooked and cleaned and bottle washed at our flat in Ebury Street for John, his brother Gray and a huge amount of visitors who often stayed, some for extended periods.

In retrospect, I am very grateful that I was born with a tough streak of common sense and pragmatism - because at some point I said definitively 'NO' to communal living.

Milking the Devil
Even so, John did do a short stint on his own at Robin Clarke's BRAD, on the Welsh borders, to sample the possible delights.

I remember his descriptions of a giant boar breaking out of its pen and eating a live cockerel; his milking a square-pupilled goat in a broken-roofed byre, under the glittering stars, with a brown rat washing its whiskers nearby - like milking the Devil himself, John said later; and at the end of all this he came back with a severe, chronic case of sinusitis, cured a couple of years later by a faith healer we found through Olly Caldecott, a director of Wildwood House. But that's another story.

My salary helped fund John during his exploratory years between 1970 and 1972, not that he has really ever stopped exploring. His first real job, when he finished his 2-year M. Phil., was at Transport and Environment Studies (TEST), from 1974 until 1978. Then he was asked by Max Nicholson and David Layton to set up Environmental Data Services (ENDS). And from there he went on to help Nigel Tuersley and Phil Agland, with their foundation, Earthlife.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote continuously, for all sorts of people. In 1975, for example, he started writing for New Scientist, which is how Max knew of him, then in 1983 he took on Biotechnology Bulletin, which he produced for 15 years and which proved to be a welcome bill-payer during the period between his leaving ENDS and SustainAbility really getting into its stride.

Work-life unbalance
As Earthlife later was shaken to its foundations by a financial crisis, which John helped uncover, he had to decamp back home, bringing with him several people, notably Julia Hailes (who had joined him to work on Green Pages and then The Green Consumer Guide). Her boundless energy and enthusiasm were just what we needed.

SustainAbility was the exciting name John came up with for the new company, very much helped on its way by the success of The Green Consumer Guide, which was written by the two of them in our house. At the time, our daughters, Gaia and Hania were at primary school. I had given up publishing, ending up as something of a 'Girl Friday' in what passed for an admin department here in one of the bedrooms, running all things domestic alongside.

There were three, then four, then five people in the house all day, plus a builder extending the top floor for about 18 months, plus a constant stream of visitors with varied environmental interests passing through. I made lunch every day and welcomed whoever happened to turn up, on at least one occasion even being filmed by a TV news team in the process.

One of those who turned up at our door was Jonathan Shopley. He worked with John for 4-5 years, then at ADL and now runs Future Forests. Jonathan had driven up on his motorbike from his home in South Africa. It was wonderful to meet such enthusiastic people, from all over the world, full of ideas and energy, some quite eccentric, a few somewhat dire. The latter were (politely) not invited to lunch again, even if John did not share my opinion.

Sometimes I felt our small house was inundated and that family life inevitably suffered. But we had to survive financially and I just accepted that this was the price we had to pay. For better or worse, the phrase 'quality time' hadn't yet been invented.

Who's Garbo?
It was fantastic when The Green Consumer Guide turned out to be such a success, not only from an environmental point of view but also because financially we could now rent office space.

I was beside myself with joy as I waved farewell to the last filing cabinet and thought of how wonderful it would be to have our house to ourselves again after so long. I crossed my fingers that SustainAbility would succeed out there in the jungle - and took myself off to The Royal Academy to study history of art for a year. I was deliriously happy.

Less positively, I'd developed both chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia - and spent some time working out what I could do to alleviate the symptoms.

My father was a GP and I've always been interested in both traditional and alternative medicine as well as in preventative health care, which thankfully is coming up the curve now. Anyway, this gave me a focus - and the routine of exercise and nutrition which I've worked out for myself after a lot of reading and researching has been quite successful.

In the process, and when the SustainAbility team went through the Myers-Briggs process, I learned that while some people build up their reserves of energy by being in the company of like minds, others need time on their own to think and reflect. John and I are opposites - and perhaps you can guess who is the incipient Greta Garbo? Today, I really appreciate the time I get to be on my own.

Stabilising SustainAbility
Standing back from the fray, I am more than ever convinced that environmental concerns are of enormous importance. So, too, are the people who can lead in the right way and be positive, optimistic and encouraging.

We were incredibly fortunate that Geoff Lye joined us when Julia got married and went to live in Somerset. SustainAbility would not be what it is today without his generous inputs and I am continuously grateful to him on many fronts. He helped put stabilisers on SustainAbility. Besides all the good work, financial acumen and perseverance, Geoff has also enabled John to have more time to think creatively and leap ahead, predicting aspects of the future which have often come to pass.

As a company, SustainAbility has managed to keep that special atmosphere we started with. I wonder if that is not only because of the sort of people that have been attracted to it but also because the organisation is an odd hybrid of a 'for profit' company and a campaigning outfit, able to work with committed companies but also allying itself with many of the NGOs that are driving change.

I also very much like the idea John had in 1995 of developing the Council and the Faculty, which bring so many interesting and high-powered brains together in constructive discussion.

In truth, I don't have a mission like him, but I'm quite suited to being a support system to somebody who tries to make things happen, often against the odds. I sometimes wonder, though, whether it mightn't have been more fun to be married to a millionaire playboy? I've decided I need a little more frivolity in my life.

John has been formally working in this field now for 30 years. The website, in which John, Lynne and Rupert have invested so much energy, hopefully speaks for itself. To be honest, to begin with I really wondered whether it would be worth the effort. But as the project gathered steam it has become clearer to me that John has been taking stock, assessing progress and preparing for future ventures.

Fizzing into the future
We remain whole-heartedly committed to SustainAbility, which I hope will continue to have a growing influence in the world. I also hope that it will continue to be a rewarding and extraordinary organisation to be part of. The new offices now opening will represent a big management challenge, but this is moving in directions John and Geoff sketched out many years back.

John often talks of the value of conversations in his work. That's one of the values he lists under the Babelfish section, and I've seen first-hand how it works. Apart from everyday conversations about problems, articles, books or SustainAbility, we often chat for an hour or two on a Saturday morning in bed (one of the delights of having grown-up children!), and walk along the Thames or through Richmond Park at weekends, discussing where things are headed - and what opportunities there might be to drive change. It sometimes seems to me that much of John's life is spent in conversation, at conferences, at meetings of organisations he is involved with like The Environment Foundation, with the SustainAbility Core Team, Council and Faculty. I'm sure it's very much a two-way process, but I'm grateful for all the energy others have invested in the process. John makes it easier, I suspect, because - as long as he's interested - he's a good listener.

I want SustainAbility to keep fizzing like the best champagne, its energy and diplomatic skills carrying it into all sorts of places where the environmental and sustainable development agendas might otherwise not gain an entrée.

That's one reason I'm delighted that John has taken part in the World Economic Forum (WEF) events in recent years. But I also hope that he and I will also find ways to explore other avenues, other horizons. For that way lies sanity, without which sustainability would be an even greater stretch.

London, 19 October 2003