Corporate Cannibals Chew on Sustainability
Air Date: Week of June 11, 1999
A new generation of businesspeople is bringing environmental and social interests into the boardroom. John Elkington, author of Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, talks with host Steve Curwood about some corporations that are beginning to catch on to an emerging ethic of sustainable capitalism.
CURWOOD: Many corporations are saying they'd rather change than fight with environmental advocacy groups. Green interests are now part of the business strategies of Wal-Mart, Intel, Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, BP, Ford Motors, and many other large firms. Writer John Elkington says this is all in response to an emerging business ethic. He calls it sustainable capitalism. And he writes about it in his new book Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.
ELKINGTON: The rather strange title flowed from an observation about 3 or 4 years ago. We mainly work with companies, and we started to see more and more of the companies that we were then working with getting involved in mergers and acquisitions. So either they were taking over other businesses or themselves starting to be taken over. So we started to use the phrase in the office at least, corporate cannibalism. And that was a problem for us, because obviously, when companies are thinking about those sorts of issues, they have relatively little time to think about social or environmental agenda items. And I came across a Polish poet who asked the question in the 60s, "Is it progress if cannibals learn to eat with forks?" And so by extension, we're saying it probably would be progress if these corporate cannibals, these very large corporations, learned to use the triple-pronged fork or the triple bottom line of sustainable development.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about these three bottom lines or this 3-pronged fork, as you call it.
ELKINGTON: Mm hm.
CURWOOD: What should businesses be looking at?
ELKINGTON: Well, the one thing that we're not saying is that the business should abandon the conventional financial bottom line. The triple bottom line has a dimension which has all to do with economic prosperity, another dimension which has to do with environmental quality, and a third dimension, which business is very often less inclined to think about, which has to do with social equity or social justice.
CURWOOD: Social equity in the corporate boardroom? I can see both the folks in the business outfits sort of saying (clears throat), and the activists who have been their antagonists for so many years also pretty uncomfortable with this notion.
ELKINGTON: If you look at just the last few years, you've seen a number of companies that would once have raised their eyebrows in exactly that way, finding that social issues, the social equity issues, have got the power to reach up and bite them. If you think about Shell in Nigeria, or you think about Nike's more recent problems with child labor and countries like Indonesia and China and Vietnam, these issues, whether the companies like it or not, are now on the agenda.
CURWOOD: Can you tell us a story of a major corporation that's actually started to put sustainability principles into practice?
ELKINGTON: Well, I think that it's interesting that some of the companies that are moving, or trying to move, fastest in this area are ones that have been quite severely bruised in the past. And I mentioned Shell. If you look at what they're currently doing, they've got a board-level committee responsible for sustainable development. But perhaps the signal from that company, which has been most interesting to the outside world, is that Mark Moody Stewart, the chairman of their committee of managing directors, recently announced that Shell would invest $500 million in renewable energy. Now, in terms of the total investment by Shell, that's still a relatively small number, although it will sound big to most of us. But I think it is evidence of a real intent to start to move toward much more sustainable forms of energy, technology.
CURWOOD: What are some concrete steps that companies can take to start their process toward sustainability?
ELKINGTON: Well, I think one of the most obvious things that companies can do is to open up to the outside world. Very often they see the activists and campaigners and other pressure groups that have been trying to push some of these agenda onto them as problems. But companies that have opened their doors, allowed these people in, engaged them in meaningful ways, and particularly where they've done it year on year, have found that it's actually been a very powerful learning experience on both sides. Reporting is another part of it. More and more companies in different parts of the world are producing environmental reports on an annual basis. Some of them are even beginning to produce sustainability reports. And a third thing is to identify at least one person at board level who has responsibility for monitoring and, to a degree, ensuring that these issues are properly managed.
CURWOOD: How long do you think it will take before the majority of companies are taking more than token steps toward sustainability?
ELKINGTON: It is at least my hope that over the next 20 or 30 years we will see progress, which has been relatively slow to date, suddenly kicking into a different gear. So, actually I think we're going to see a huge shake-out. I think we're going to see quite a number of companies and quite a number of complete value chains just disappearing, I mean going to the wall, because they don't adapt in time. So I don't think this is going to be an easy transition. At times I think it's going to be quite bloody. But that's the nature of economic progress.
CURWOOD: John Elkington is Chairman of the London-based consulting form SustainAbility, and author of Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Thanks for joining us today.
ELKINGTON: Thanks, Steve.
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