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John Elkington’s Required Reading

Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management





Tracing John Elkington’s career is akin to taking a journey through the evolution of corporate social and environmental responsibility over the past five decades. In 1978, he cofounded Environmental Data Services to provide companies with news and analysis of environmental law and policy. In 1987, he cofounded SustainAbility, a think tank and consultancy that promoted sustainable development at the corporate level. And in 2008, he cofounded Volans, a “change agency” that is focused the challenge of creating a sustainable global economy.

Along the way, Elkington introduced a number of concepts that have defined the leading edge of CSR. The most notable of them is the triple bottom line. First posited in his book, Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (Capstone, 1997), the idea that companies measure their financial, social, and environmental results, has recently become the focus of the B corporation movement.

A prolific writer, Elkington has written 18 other books. The most recent include The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits with Tomorrow’s Bottom Line (with Jochen Zeitz, Jossey-Bass, 2014), The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier (Routledge, 2012), and The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World (with Pamela Hartigan, Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

In addition, Elkington is a visiting professor at the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, as well as at Imperial College and University College London. In 2013, he was inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. In 2015, he received the Ethical Corporation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Elkington is a voracious reader and serves as a walking, talking annotated bibliography to the literature of corporate social and environmental responsibility. When I asked him to recommend some of the books he has found most influential and aspirational, he called out the following titles. Beyond tracking the evolution of his thinking, they catalog the development of the sustainability movement itself.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf (Knopf, 2015). “I grew up with the environmental movement. In 1961, at age 11, I was raising money for the embryonic World Wildlife Fund. Later, I met and worked with pioneers of nature conservation, including WWF cofounders Max Nicholson and Peter Scott. Yet, I was stunned by Andrea Wulf’s eye-opening account of the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt. Yes, I know about the Humboldt Current and I have lectured at Berlin’s Humboldt University, but I didn’t know that their namesake warned of the risks of climate change 200 years ago! Nor did know I about Humboldt’s influence on people ranging from Charles Darwin to another key influencer of my thinking, James Lovelock, the champion of Gaia Theory.”

The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler (William Morrow, 1980). “No single book had a bigger impact on me than Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s dated now, but it introduced me to the notion of paradigm shifts and it prepared me for Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. Toffler’s message: We had entered the Information Age and that was changing everything.

Toffler, who is best known for his 1970 bestseller on the acceleration of change, Future Shock, renewed my interest in the work of two economists who were often overlooked (and disparaged) in those days, Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter. Both men saw economic evolution as a series of long waves of investment and disinvestment. (Witness the past investment and, now, the inexorable disinvestment in an economy driven by fossil fuels.) This line of thought spurred my thinking on the societal pressure waves affecting business since 1960. But my biggest debt to Toffler only became clear to me late in 2015, when I reread The Third Wave and stumbled across his reference to ‘multiple bottom lines,’ which no doubt played a part in my conception of the ‘triple bottom line.’”

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance (Ecco Books, 2015). “During the counterculture era, I was enthralled by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog series and by R. Buckminster Fuller, with his focus on dematerialization. Fuller’s Dymaxion car never took off and neither did most ‘sustainable’ forms of transportation that I later worked on with automakers including Volvo, Ford, and Toyota. But Elon Musk, whose ventures I’ve been tracking since he was more or less unknown, is actually commercializing ideas like these. Ashlee Vance’s extraordinary book explores what he dubs ‘the unified field theory of Musk.’ It makes clear that if there is one person who symbolizes Toffler’s Third Wave or what the World Economic Forum is now dubbing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s Elon Musk.

Exponential Organizations: Why New Organizations Are Ten Times Better, Faster, and Cheaper Than Yours (And What to Do about It), by Salim Ismail, with Michael S. Malone and Yuri van Geest (Diversion Books, 2014). “If a business leader is looking for a summation of the nature and scale of the challenges that capitalism now faces, I’d recommend Salim Ismail’s Exponential Organizations because its targets are exponential in nature. (Andrew Winston’s The Big Pivot would be another.) Exponential dynamics can drive us toward breakdown, as in runaway climate change, but over the past decade, I have become convinced that they also will be needed to address the negative effects of capitalism. Incremental solutions aren’t enough. To achieve exponential results, Ismail challenges leaders to disrupt and reboot their companies. Those of us in the sustainability industry need to do the same thing.” 


John Elkington’s Required Reading