Older Content: A brief look back through the lens of my/our work with one of the scores of companies I/we have developed partmnerships with over the decades.
Over time, the focus of my work has morphed a number of times—a trend that is perhaps particularly noticeable in the assorted work I have done for (or around) Unilever over the years. In the 1970s, I often wrote about the company in the ENDS Report andBiotechnology Bulletin, both of which I co-founded and edited—for five years in the case of the ENDS Report and for 15 withBiotechnology Bulletin. Then, in the late 1980s, I worked with the Chairman of Lever Switzerland, trying to get the giant laundry products supertanker to wake up to a new set of issues. (I remember being in Rudi Bircher’s office as a large warehouse burned down in full view and asking him about some detergent products stacked in the corner. They were, he said with a wry smile, “My ‘Body Shop’ range,” just in case the market demanded it.)
Then Julia and I wrote The Green Consumer Guide, which had a good deal to say on a number of the product categories Unilever was involved in. But, as a result of the growing competition between companies in these markets, we ended up switching to Procter & Gamble—a relationship that lasted for over a decade. In recent years, I was involved in a Ben & Jerry’s board meeting about the prospect of a sale to Unilever. I was initially written into the draft contract of sale as a guarantor of the Ben & Jerry values, but this was struck out by either the SEC or NYSE as illegal! More recently, I have been part of a SustainAbility team working for Unilever on some of the issues surrounding genetically modified food products. In 2008, SustainAbilityworked with Hindustan Lever, a stepping stone towards setting up our first emerging economies office India later in the year.
So that’s the history. But the element of my work in the Unilever sphere which perhaps most powerfully signals my emerging priorities and interests is my membership of the Advisory Board of Physic Ventures, a venture capital outfit based in San Francisco that is largely funded by Unilever and focuses on health, wellbeing and sustainable lifestyles.
As this brief narrative perhaps indicates, my project work has increasingly shifted to focus on social and environmental entrepreneurs—and those who fund them. Our work in this area has been immeasurably helped forward by a 3-year, $1 million grant from the Skoll Foundation and by my increasingly close working with Pamela Hartigan and her team at the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Hopefully things will now take a big leap forward with the evolution of Volans Ventures.
So how did I get into this line of work? Well, I desperately wanted to get involved in the environmental world from the late 1960s, but not in an NGO (non-governmental organisation). I loved what NGOs were doing, but I wanted to be involved in building a new order, not critiquing the old one.
My M. Phil. degree at UCL was really an excuse to push out and talk to lots of people, aided and abetted by a traveling fellowship. When my 80,000-word thesis, Rooting Among Ruins, was reviewed by the examiners, they were baffled: what, they wondered, had it got to do with town planning? The subject I had chosen to focus on was the way people and communities related to their built environments and the ecological, psychological and sociological syndromes that followed mismanaged urban redevelopment.
Luckily, the thesis was accepted—and only missed being published by Heinemann by a whisker. Then a couple of weeks after the M. Phil course ended, at a time when I still hadn’t got a clue about what I would do next, I found a note in my pigeon-hole from John Roberts. Shortly afterwards, I walked straight into a job with TEST.
When I look back at the work I have done since the early 1970s, it seems to fall into two main periods: during the first, from 1973 to 1978, I mainly focused on what governments could do to tackle environmental problems. From 1975, however, I also wrote a good deal for New Scientist and increasingly focused on business. That led to the five years I spent with Environmental Data Services (ENDS), which I co-founded in 1978. That, in turn, inaugurated what to date has been a 25-year period of focusing mainly on trying to achieve sustainability with business, through markets.
For a number of years in the mid-1980s, John Elkington Associates employed several people and we did some fascinating projects. But almost all the project work I have done since 1987 has been done through SustainAbility, with the book projects tending to straddle between SustainAbility and John Elkington Associates.
To begin with, when I started taking an interest in the positive aspects of what business was doing on environment in the late 1970s this was a pretty thinly occupied piece of territory. There were people like Michael Royston with his book Pollution Prevention Pays, but I was lucky to be in fairly early.
And what did the NGOs think of all of this? Well, it varied. Some, like WWF, were interested in building bridges, although they were massively conflicted internally. Schizophrenic, you might say. Some people wanted to explore ways of working with business, while others were utterly opposed. Some of the more radical groups told me it was fine to experiment, but they felt the only way forward was to pin industry down with an ever-more-constraining set of laws, rules and standards. The image of Gulliver and the Lilliputians sprang readily to mind.
By contrast, I have always been interested in how we can harness people’s better instincts, coupled with basic self-interest and the profit motive, to drive change. That’s what books like The Ecology of Tomorrow’s World (1980), The Green Capitalists (1987), Green Pages (1988), The Green Business Guide (1991), Cannibals with Forks (1997) and The Chrysalis Economy (2001) were all about.
In terms of actual clients, I have probably most enjoyed working with Novo Nordisk since 1989, Shell since 1997 and, more recently, it’s been fascinating developing a new food project with Unilever. But, while most of the work has been with companies, by choice, I have also enormously enjoyed working at different stages with clients like the OECD, USAID and Greenpeace.
People used to talk about our steering a middle path between fiercely opposed interests. It’s not really like that. At least in my experience the middle path rarely exists in areas which are unfolding as fast and extensively as the sustainable agenda. You can’t be wholly pro-business or pro-NGO. You have to take different ideas, proposals and initiatives on their merits. But the fundamental evolutionary principle has to be that we should encourage experiment, celebrating successes – and learning fast from failures.
My consulting work has been carried out for three main types of clients:
1. Government agencies:
Many aspects of government in Australia (Commonwealth, State and local) – The Agency for International Development (USAID) – Commission of the European Communities – Department of the Environment (UK) – Department of Trade and Industry (UK) – European Environment Agency (EEA) – Export Credit Guarantees Department (ECGD) – International Finance Corporation (IFC) – International Labour Organisation (ILO) – Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – The United Nations Global Compact – The World Bank.
2. NGOs: – Amnesty International:
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre – The Environment Council – The Environment Foundation – European Partners for the Environment (EPE) – Friends of the Earth (UK, International) – Greenpeace (UK, International) – The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) – The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) – The Schwab Foundation for Entrepreneurship – The World Resources Institute (WRI) – The World Wildlife Fund and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
I have visited many hundreds of companies around the world over the past 30 years – and have consulted for well over 50. Key relationships have been with such companies as: – Anglian Water Group – Dow Europe – Ford – ICI – ING – Nike – Novo Nordisk – Procter & Gamble – Shell – Tioxide – Toyota – Unilever
In addition, I have worked with a number of socially responsible investment funds and organisations: – The Merlin Ecology Fund – The National Provident Institution (NPI) – Storebrand – ING – Sustainable Asset Management (SAM) – The Dow Jones Sustainability Group Indexes (DJSGI)